Friday, June 19, 2009

In Chinatown I Learned to Smile

It's 8 a.m. on Chrystie Street in Chinatown and I'm sitting on a bench in front of the Golden Age Center a little teary.

The intense stare from a plain clothes cop as his group roused a sleeping man from a park bench collided, I think, with memories of being a whole lot younger and living in my first New York apartment just off Canal Street. I kept walking, but the tears were coming.

I think that's what happened. Maybe that and 7 weeks of bronchitis and pneumonia which left me a tired. And some raw blistered feet. And the beautiful elderly Chinese man moving through a tai chi soft form who shared the toddler's playground with me and my coffee a moment ago.

Tears go like that, I suppose.

What I remembered as I walked, after trying to smile at the cop, hoping he'd feel a little better about a difficult job, was that twenty years ago, the great lesson I learned right here in Chinatown was to smile at people.

Back in those days, New York grated on me like a new asphalt patch: smelly, sticky, and uneven. Chinatown, in particular was fast and dirty. As epiphanies go, this one isn't going to open lilies, but it occurred to me one day that when I was out walking with my boyfriend, the merchants, no, entire sidewalks, it seemed, broadened in smiles. And when I was alone, they closed as quickly.

I resented the difference for a while, until I finally realized that for his many bad habits, he made me laugh, and the people around us smiled back. It was so simple.

I tested and proved my theory: the difference was me. In a city where *how many* languages are spoken, where the person standing next to me in line for green peanuts and bok choy may have left their childhood village in China about, say, a week ago and may be living in their first concrete jungle, a smile is everything.

It's small town and worldly at the same time; practical and the epitome of elegance, I've decided, as I've seen its different forms practiced around the planet.

That Tai Chi. The tough street kids who laughed and watched the Chinese guy's soft form, had no idea that it is the subtle strength and memory practice for a powerful street fight martial art that uses an aggressor's attack as its only weapon.

My own tai chi teacher answered the question once "So what's the difference between tai chi and yoga?" His answer "What are you going to do if someone knocks you off your yoga mat?"

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