My world changed that day.
It was 1986 and the plane was on its final descent. I looked outside the window and all I could see were rice patties.
We were landing in Shanghai, China. And all I could think was, "what have we just done?".
We had left behind everything we knew. And all those that we loved. Sold everything. And now, here we were, landing in a strange land without knowing a single word of Chinese and having no idea what we were doing.
But it was here we had set off to build a new life. We did not know for how long, but it was to be our new reality.
It was a cosmic slap.
We were soon tossed into a place that we profoundly did not understand. My wife was setting out to be one of the first western photographers living in China and I was to open a sales office for foreign manufacturers seeking to enter the newly opened Chinese market. We were both totally in over our heads.
When we arrived, Shanghai, the economic powerhouse of China, had been frozen in time for the last forty years. It felt like a time machine had brought us back to 1949. But in less than ten years, the entire city, the entire country would be transformed. And would soon come to dominate the global economy. Changing everything, everywhere.
And there we were, at the dawn of this new era. Bearing witness to this transformation.
But it made no sense. My wife and I were partners in a successful design and media company in Cleveland, Ohio. Our life was comfortable, it was good. Yet we left it all.
It had started with a conversation in which we confessed to each other a quiet terror that was residing in each of our hearts. A terror that this was all there was.
For we could see into our future, our future home, our future family, our future in a place that was likely to be comfortable and secure. And it terrified us.
Was this all? Was there more to life?
So we threw it all away and, mustering all of the courage we had, flew to Shanghai. A place that forced us to become profoundly comfortable being uncomfortable.
I had won the challenge. My wife wanted to move to South America. I wanted to move to China. We agreed that we would go to the first place where one of us was able to land a job. I scored first.
China had always fascinated me, particularly after I had taken a course on Buddhism in college. It was in that class that I first had to face the limits of my ability to understand.
As I studied Chan Buddhism (which would become Zen Buddhism as it traveled to Japan), I realized that my intellectual toolsets, those that I had depended on to make sense of the world up to that point, were largely useless. To understand, truly understand, the deep wisdom of Buddhism and Taoism that had been woven together in China to form this new school of Buddhism, I would need to go beyond the thinking I knew.
In a broad brush, my Western Mind could not parse the meaning of what we might call the Eastern Mind.
At its most fundamental level, while one mind held the self as the source of understanding the other mind held the self as the barrier to understanding. A seemingly irreconcilable conflict. But two minds, together, that might hold a deeper understanding of the human experience. Or so I believed.
Going to China, for me, then, was not just an exploration of culture, but an exploration of the self. Of who we are and who we could become.
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