China: How the Adventure I Resisted Most Turned Out to Be the Most Profound

China was never on my mind as a fun travel destination. I never imagined myself there, nor did I have a desire to go. The impressions I had of Chinese culture were unfriendly, serious and aggressive. I had seen video and photos of beautiful places in China, but I had also heard of air pollution and crowds of people. Even though I had had wonderful interactions with a few Chinese nationals, I couldn’t seem to get over the negative impressions of China that had somehow made their way into my brain.

So… when I received an invitation to teach SUP instructor certification and SUP yoga courses at the number three university in China I was very resistant… and very intrigued at the same time. How interesting, I thought, that life would put this opportunity in front of me.

As my curiosity grew, so did my ability to gather evidence as to why teaching in China would be a bad idea. For instance, I’d be away from home, by myself  living in a hotel in a strange place for a over a month. This wasn’t a river/wilderness adventure, it would be paddling and teaching in an urban environment. The language barrier could lead to feeling isolated and lonely.  There was no work contract – I would have to take a leap of faith and trust that they would pay me and reimburse my expenses per verbal agreement. My brain is very good at focusing on what could go wrong!

Luckily, my very supportive husband reminded me often that I would regret it if I didn’t take the opportunity. I was also grateful that Ivan Barth and John Browning, both ACA Instructor Trainers who had taught in China the previous two years, were willing to share their experiences with me. All of this, plus the friendliness of Ge Wu, a fellow instructor and my main contact in China, helped my adventurous spirit prevail.

Even so, I remained anxious about the trip for months… until I was greeted by three lovely, smiling and exceptionally hospitable students/staff at the airport in Hangzhou.  They offered me gifts, friendly conversation, and took me out to a delicious meal. I couldn’t have asked for a more warm and wonderful welcome. I slept well that night after a 30+ hour journey around the world, and woke up to a beautiful view overlooking the lake and campus where I’d be teaching.

Zhejiang University was established in 1897 and their tag lines on flags around campus say “seeking truth and pursuing innovation.” The school has shown a commitment to developing an aquatic sports program by building a beautiful dock on the campus lake and investing in a large fleet of sprint kayaks, SUPs, recreational kayaks and Dragon Boats.

It was dreamy taking a seat under the large willow trees that shade the dock to teach my first few classes. The lake is surrounded both by nature/parks and by campus buildings. There are views of the mountains in the distance and lotus gardens adorn the shoreline in some places. Students loved to paddle over to the gardens, harvest the pods and eat lotus seeds after class. My favorite was a lovely lotus garden that you access by paddling under a traditional style bridge with dragon gargoyles keeping watch (see the first photo above).

As my trip unfolded I found Chinese people to be friendly, warm, funny and generous. The students were very hospitable and wanted to make sure that I always had what I needed. We shared meals together, they accompanied me on sightseeing trips around the city and they loved sharing Chinese history and their favorite places with me. From sunrise hikes overlooking West Lake, to famous Buddhist temples, to delicious restaurants (including the campus cafeterias which were amazing), and chats over milk tea, my time with my students there remains close to my heart.

One of my favorite aspects of Chinese culture is their reverence and respect for teachers. This not only made my job extremely enjoyable, but it also allowed the students to take in knowledge and integrate it with ease. Instead of wasting time judging and finding fault with teachers, they listen and look for the gems they have to offer. I feel like I was able to contribute to these students more than I’ve ever contributed to anyone throughout my entire career, and that was very profound for me.

Perhaps it was in the way that they acknowledged the benefits that they received from class. Comments written on their final exams such as:

“I learned access to present moment, in which I can rest for a while and realize the beauty around me.”

“In a society featuring high pace and overwhelming pressure, it’s of sheer bliss to do SUP yoga. Such beneficial exercise enable me to calm down and gain relief from daily routines.”

“As many students, I always concentrate on phone or computer indoor on holiday (summer). This course give me a time walk out and see and feel even the beautiful life.”

“The breath control and meditation give me unique experience of relaxation, cool down and make me focus on present moment. No thinking of the past, no thinking of the threats of the future. Just focus on present time and enjoy the peaceful moment.”

“I beat my fearness of water. After this SUP yoga class I think I have more courage to try things that I have never try. I’m not a sports girl, but I think I’ll try more sports to strengthen my body after this wonderful summer.”

“After learning some paddle strokes and experiencing SUP yoga I get rid of the afraid of water and learned how to balance myself on a board. I’ve tried something that I can’t imagine before!”

I’ve kept all of their final exams and the letters they wrote me so that I can take them out when I’m feeling anxious. Reading them reminds me that not taking on a challenge that feels uncomfortable could mean missing out on the opportunity to contribute something positive to someone’s life.

Because my classes were large compared to the group size I teach here in the US, I would often paddle the lake solo at sunset to decompress. There was an energy there, even in the middle of an urban campus, that felt very good for my soul. Yes, there are a lot of people in China (population in Hangzhou is 8 million), but just like anywhere, when you travel by SUP or kayak, you get to access paths less taken. Contrary to what I had imagined, the sky was blue (unless it was rainy) and the sunsets were beautiful.

When my university courses ended I taught two L2 SUP Instructor Certification Courses in the private sector. The instructor candidates who showed up were well prepared, and some had their own paddling businesses in different parts of China. They expressed and showed a commitment to growing paddlesports in China in a professional and sustainable way. It was very inspiring to play a small part in the growth of paddling in a very large emerging market. It’s my hope that the growth of paddling enthusiasts in China will lead to the opening of waterways and improvement of water quality.

In the end, my brain wasn’t totally wrong to feel some anxiety, I did have moments of stress, miscommunication, overwhelm and loneliness throughout. If adventures were comfortable then they wouldn’t be adventures. Had I given into the anxiety I would have missed out on a lot of insight and growth.

I was profoundly reminded that all over the planet people are people regardless of cultural customs or how different we may look or how the media portrays us or them. Passion for paddling and water exist all over the world. We are more alike than we are different, and we must find the courage to go see and experience this commonality for ourselves. When we do, barriers between people and barriers in our own minds come down. The result for me is a deeper trust in the unfolding of life, especially when we follow our passions. Greater understanding, peace, contentment and joy follow.

~

Want to learn how to follow your adventurous spirit and contribute to the lives of others? If you want more power, freedom and adventure in your life, click on the following links and learn directly with Anna!

SUP Camps for Women (Barbados or Crystal Coast)

SUP Instructor Certification Trainings

SUP Yoga Teacher Trainings

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Sophia

    Hi Anna, I followed your adventure to China on Instagram throughout your trip. The entire time I was a mix of un-containable excitement and extreme jealousy.

    I am a dragon boat paddler in North Carolina and (lazily) aspiring SUP paddler. Paddling is a huge part of my life and something I do on a near weekly basis. At the same time, I am also someone who was born in Hangzhou but left at a young age to join my mother for a life in America. I am very prone to strong bouts of homesickness for a city that I never got to grow up in. Seeing your trip was like a weird cosmic event where my real American life and the Chinese life I didn’t get to have collided and happened at once – paddling a SUP in Hangzhou? CRAZY.

    Your pictures and stories about your experiences with the people there were so beautiful and made me very jealous that I have never been able to experience paddling in Hangzhou or hanging out with other paddlers. This struck especially deep because paddling and hanging out with my dragon boat teammates are two things I absolutely love doing in American and something that gives me peace and a big sense of accomplishment. But I really want to be out there in Hangzhou on a lake with the iconic lotus patches. I want to be under that bridge. And I want to do all of this on a SUP.

    So thank you for working through your anxiety and reservations about going to China so that the sport can grow there and I (and others like me) can have the opportunity to experience paddling in such an amazing place. Also thank you for sharing your fears and anxiety with us so that other people can be inspired to be brave and discover a place (the good and bad) like my beloved hometown.

    • Anna Levesque

      Sophia, thank you so much for your comment and sharing your story! I hope you get to travel back to Hangzhou and enjoy paddling there. When you’re ready I’d be happy to connect you with the paddlers that I met there. In the meantime, keep following your passion for paddling! May it bring you full circle to the land of the lotus flowers. 🙂 And definitely look me up if you ever come to Asheville, NC.

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Anna Levesque is the leading expert on paddling instruction for women and yoga for paddling, including SUP Yoga. Named one of the most inspirational paddlers alive by Canoe and Kayak Magazine, Anna’s twenty-plus years of experience as an accomplished international competitor, instructor, coach and author has landed her in mainstream publications such as TIME, SHAPE and SELF.

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