Last June, after he graduated from Peninsula High School, where he’d studied Mandarin Chinese, Morgan Iacolucci decided he needed to see and be part of that far away world.
“Longtime friend, Linden Anise Nolen, proposed an extended trip to China,” Iacolucci said. “We were eager to experience different things.”
Iacolucci said his first night in Quanzhou, China, almost killed him.
“The two of us were riding down a steep, pedestrian overpass on a motorcycle with our Chinese boss, Babak, Linden at the back with me in the middle,” he said. “The brakes locked, and the bike began to skid. As the bike came out from under us, Linden was able to hop off. Babak and I found ourselves pinned between the bike and jagged steps. My finest dress pants were ripped, and Babak said his insides were torn. Linden and I didn’t expect such an entrance to a foreign place.”
Iacolucci said the city held more than he ever expected.
“When it came to teaching, I felt unprepared,” he said. “Sometimes students would get bored and complain. Every time class ended, you would have a new opportunity to perform better for the next set of students. It gave me respect for all my high school teachers.”
Nolen and Iacolucci worked in one of Quanzhou’s many training centers. He said education was set up like a factory. Every hour during the school day, the two would meet students in one of the many small classrooms at the center and make presentations.
“Students often had impeccable English and could often communicate better than people in Gig Harbor,” Iacolucci said.
He described students as typically kind, trying to get a leg up in competitive job markets.
He and Nolen worked at children’s training centers and high schools, both of which were similar to the adult training center but “required more faux enthusiasm when it didn’t come on its own,” he said.
“This could be painful, since I am a teenager and like to avoid losing face, but the job had to be done. We also held social classes at my main school, which was called ‘the Embassy Lounge.’ We would carry out an activity and speak English while we did it. It was the most enjoyable of all our classes.”
All the schools they worked at were located in the greater Quanzhou area, within 15 minutes of their apartment.
“I’d never expected at the beginning of the trip that I’d spend the last month at a Shaolin Temple,” Iacolucci said.
“At the temple, warmup leaders would bang on our doors at 5:45 a.m., and we would be in line downstairs by 6 a.m. for roll call, then run a mile and a half down the side of the mountain into the city and into the local park as warmup. We would free stretch, practice kung fu and work out on our own. All parks had extensive equipment to work out on. Then, back up to the temple for 7 a.m. breakfast.”
Most of the students would wake up at 4:45 a.m. to go to the temple and chant in Buddhist scripture, Iacolucci said.
“I’m not sure what they were chanting, since my Chinese isn’t at scripture level yet,” he said.
Sometimes he stayed up all night and taught the next day, simply because of the experience.
“We ate exotic food, like large intestine,” he said. “I learned more about the anatomy of animals on this trip than any other experience.
“At night, the street was lined with little trolleys lit with red lights to illuminate grotesque organs piled inside. ... All night, a huge vegetable market operated outside our apartment with hundreds of people selling truckloads of stinky vegetables to restaurant owners.”
Iacolucci and Linden ventured into the vegetable pit for a late-night snack one night.
“Food came with some mystery meat atop our soup,” he said. “I bugged the cook until he revealed that the meat was large intestine.”
The Chinese have done things detrimental to the environment. In Quanzhou, a collapsed bridge blockaded a large river and interfered with fish habitat and other natural systems. Things allowed in China made clear that China’s goal is not to protect the environment, it is to grow economically.
“Most Chinese I talked to know global warming is a threat but see it as inevitable,” Iacolucci said. “Their idea of not yielding to environmental protection procedures lets them grow cheaply and timely. Their toxic gas clouds float over the Pacific into our backyards.”
He said he wanted to visit the local Shaolin temple, one of the most famous on earth and held in high regard in the Buddhist and Shaolin Kung Fu communities.
“It wasn’t until the end of my fourth month that I was able to visit it,” he said. “My boss mentioned living there as a student. I took this seriously, returning the next day to inquire about staying there. There was an expensive surcharge be dealt with. I almost gave up. I found a high-ranking monk and struck a deal that would allow me to stay at the temple and experience the monk life while I would teach the students English for an hour and half every day.”
Iacolucci called it an “enlightening life experience.”
“Living in another culture taught me to be more understanding of others and has given me an enlightened look at how we live and how someone can make their existence more meaningful,” he said. “A most encouraging thing I saw there was a woman hauling around a garbage-retrieval trolley. She went about her day, picking up trash, making her way across the street walking in front of traffic, making everyone angry. I expected to see a beaten-down, depressed face, but I saw that she was more content than anyone I’ve ever seen.
“Staying in one spot, living the same life until you die, doesn’t allow you to see amazing things,” he said. “It keeps you in the dark in terms of politics, society and reality. Nothing beats getting out and experiencing the world as it really is.”
So true, Morgan.Hugh McMillan is a longtime freelance writer for The Peninsula Gateway. He can be reached at 253-884-3319 or by email at hmcmnp1000@ centurytel.net.