Writer Cheryl Chow - Hypoglycemia for Dummies & life after Japan
Author Cheryl Chow spent many years living in Japan. Cheryl talks about her books on hypoglycemia and liver disorders, Tai Chi, living in Boulder, New York, and Taipei. Plus some insights on what it is like to leave Japan!
Q. How did it feel to move back to the US after living in Japan for 10 years? Did you experience any culture shock?
I really didn’t experience any culture shock, personally, I find it more difficult to live in Asia than the US. Also, it depends really on what part of the US you’re talking about. Boulder, Colorado is very different than the rest of The States. The very first day in Boulder, I walked around downtown in a daze. I couldn’t believe how few people there were on the streets! The place really looked like a ghost town! But after I’d been living there for a while, I started noticing there were quite a few people actually. And, people in Boulder were always complaining about how it’s getting very crowded! Compared to Tokyo though, it’s nothing! And, there are hardly any traffic jams.
Q. So how did you like living in Boulder?
Like every place, it has its pluses and minuses. It’s an incredibly beautiful place to live in. You get to enjoy many of the benefits of city living, but you’re surrounded by natural beauty. I lived in a townhouse that was right up against the foothills. I could literally go out my backyard and onto one of the most gorgeous trails. I used to look down at this absolutely breathtaking view, thinking how in Tokyo people would travel for hours to look at scenery that, frankly, wasn’t even as pretty as the view from my living room window — or the park that was a minute’s walk from my house. Besides, you don’t have to put up with the crowds that you do in Tokyo. If you wanted to, you could lose yourself in nature within five minutes. It’s so easy to enjoy solitude.
Cheryl’s townhouse in Boulder Colorado
In Boulder, you can also enjoy wild animals like raccoons and deer. Deer used to regularly stomp around on my back deck. I’d see does with their fawns quite often. Once, I even got to touch the nose of a doe. I was absolutely thrilled. I also saw a mountain lion from my living room window. One of my neighbors saw one sitting on his back patio when he opened the door! Several cats living in the neighborhood were eaten by mountain lions that quickly learned that pet dogs and cats were easy targets.
This was quite a new experience for me, as I’ve always lived in a big city like Tokyo. It changed my relationship to the environment, to other people, and to myself. And it added a new dimension to my practice of tai chi.
Q. Can you tell us anything more about what it was like to practice Tai Chi in Boulder?
In Japan, I had my tai chi teacher and my classmates, but in Boulder Ihad to practice alone. That meant that there was no one to correct any mistakes I made, and no one I could practice push hands with. A lot of people in Boulder are interested in tai chi, but unfortunately, their understanding of tai chi is quite superficial. Also, there aren’t that many people who are at the level to practice push hands. I met Ken Cohen, a well-known scholar and chi kung teacher, taught tai chi classes as well as push hands, but not the same way as Dan Harrington, my tai chi teacher in Japan. It also didn’t work out in terms of my schedule. So I was sort of stranded.
Practicing on my own, however, enabled me to concentrate instead of getting distracted by other people around me. And that helped me to really slow down. It takes about 20 minutes to do the entire tai chi form, but I was able to stretch it to 45 minutes. That takes tremendous focus, discipline and strength. Interestingly enough, now that I’m in Taipei, I go through the form in about 15 minutes - sometimes 10! For the life of me, I can’t slow down. I think it has something to do with the pace of life - it’s slower in Boulder - and the beauty and the serenity of the environment.
Rockclimbing in Boulder Colorado
Being in Boulder also helped me become more physically fit. Despite practicing tai chi in Tokyo, I wasn’t as healthy as I could be because worked long hours, and in general led an unbalanced life. People in Boulder tend to be very health-conscious, and very much into fitness. Everyday you see cyclists on mountain bikes barreling up the canyon! Gray-haired elderly men can run faster than me! Seeing that motivated me to overhaul my lifestyle. I started taking classes at the rec center near my house - sports conditioning, yoga, NIA dance, weight lifting, and so forth. I also took occasional classes in Ba Guha Zhang - another internal form of martial arts - and tried out Brazilian jujitsu. That was a lot of fun. I got to throw men twice my size and learned how to strangle them while lying flat on the mat. Something to try out when I get a chance.
What was it like writing your books, “Hypoglycemia for Dummies,” and “Encyclopedia of Hepatitis and Other Liver Disorders” in Boulder?
Books Cheryl wrote with her brother James H. Chow MD
As I mentioned before, people in Boulder tend to be very health-conscious, so that helped me pay more attention to my own health. And the city is teeming with talented women writers, and that was tremendously inspirational. It also seemed that most people I met were freelancers of one stripe or another. Or else they owned their own small business. I hardly met anyone working regular, 9 to 5 hours. I did have one friend who worked as an accountant for a company in downtown Boulder, but she had flexible hours, so we’d sometimes meet during the workday. Even when she was at her office, she could talk to me on the phone for an hour or two.
So now I have a totally different mindset than I had when I worked in Tokyo. I must say that freelance writing has its downside — like lack of steady income — but I love the freedom of setting my own schedule and not having an ugly boss — and let me tell you, all bosses are ugly — looking over my shoulders.
I was pretty much in seclusion while working on the Hypoglycemia book,
but I wrote the book on liver disorders in three cities: Boulder, New York, and Taipei. It was challenging maintaining a regular writing schedule while moving around so much.
Aside from friends who were always trying to lure me away from my work, each city had its own temptations. I actually found it harder to concentrate in Boulder than in NY, because Boulder has such gorgeous weather — with 360 days of sunshine, it’s sunnier than Florida — it seems like such a sin to stay indoors with your nose on the grindstone. It’s just too tempting to go for a nice, long hike. One of the first freelance writers I met in Boulder told me that I shouldn’t expect to work too much there.
New York has a different assortment of temptations, but after living in Boulder for four years, I found that I couldn’t tolerate crowds much anymore, so it wasn’t that difficult for me to stay home and write. I’d go out at night sometimes and on weekends.
The easiest place for me to work was Taipei. While in Taipei, it rained non-stop for months. Even without the rain, the city is crowded, noisy, polluted, and ugly — and unlike New York, there’s not much going on culturally — so I found it very easy to shut myself indoors and write almost continuously. I don’t think I could’ve completed the book on time if I’d stayed in Boulder or New York. So in that sense, Taipei is a very good place.
Q. Did writing books on health/medicine have any affect on your personal life?
Absolutely! I put myself on the diet recomended in "Hypoglycemia for Dummies", and became healthier and lost the weight I gained while living in Japan. Compared to say, the average American, my diet was always pretty good. I almost never eat fast foods, I don’t like greasy foods or soda pop, and I seem to naturally prefer foods that are healthier than what most people consume.
Working long hours and living in Tokyo, I ended up eating way too much carbohydrate, too much sweet food (even a little bit is too much) and not enough vegetables. I kept putting on weight, and I tried various diets, but nothing worked. I think I gained weight when I went on a macrobiotic diet.
After going on the hypoglycemic diet, to my delight, I quickly and easily lost weight. I mean of course there’s some work involved, and you have to be motivated, but for me, it was much easier and more effective than any other diet that I’d been on. Actually, it’s not a weight loss diet so much as a diet that helps keep your blood sugar steady. You have to continue eating in a healthy way for the rest of your life.
As for my liver disorders book, it didn’t have such a direct bearing on my life because I’ve never had any problems with my liver. And it’s not as if there’s any special diet per se for the liver - whatever’s healthy and good for you is good for the liver.
I do have to say that writing about the liver has made me much more appreciative of this multi-tasking organ. And I’ve become a real busybody telling all my friends, especially women, to avoid alcohol! I know that wine is supposed to be beneficial, but other foods can give you all the antioxidant benefits of wine without its negative effects. Particularly if you can’t limit yourself to a single glass of wine per day.
Q. Can you tell us a bit more about the positive and negative aspects of living in Boulder?
I thought the people were a bit flaky - they weren’t very punctual, and sometimes they wouldn’t show up at all. And although there was a lot of interest in Eastern religions and spiritual practices, it was pretty much on a superficial level. Of course, I’m making sweeping generalizations here.
On the plus side, Boulder gave me new directions in poetry. My first summer there, I got a scholarship to attend the creative writing program at Naropa University, a local quasi-Buddhist school. It’s the home of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldeman. I loved the classes there, they re-kindled my interest in poetry, and my creative juices started flowing once again. I couldn’t write a single line of poetry while living in Tokyo, but Boulder changed all that.
I both liked and disliked the New Age culture of Boulder. Not to say that everyone in Boulder was into the New Age – the city has a hi-tech industry, and there are plenty of scientists there. At the same time, people are very open minded and tolerant of some pretty bizarre beliefs.
For instance, the pet shop I bought cat food from brought in an animal communicator for its customers. I put my cat in my backpack and pedaled
over there for a private session. I assumed that the person was a behavior therapist who’d take a look at my cat – maybe give her a little prodding – and tell me how I could get the cat to shape up a bit. Instead, the communicator turned out to be a “pet psychic” who claimed to talk telepathically to animals. So I found myself asking the psychic why my cat was so hostile to the Siamese who regularly visited our house. And the cat told the psychic that she simply could not understand how I could be so taken by that Siamese – who obviously was not in the same class as she – he was way beneath her.
I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the psychic, but she certainly had me in stitches. And the weird thing was that my cat actually started coming home earlier, after I had the psychic tell her that she shouldn’t be out at night because there were mountain lions prowling at night. (But first my cat maintained that she knew how to handle herself, and not to worry.)
For the longest time I didn’t tell anyone about this experience, because I didn’t want people to think I was looney tunes. But when I finally divulged it, no one batted an eye. In fact, many of them had been to pet psychics themselves!
One of Boulder’s holistic vets started referring his patients to the pet pyschic that I took my cat to see.
Q. And what is it like practicing tai chi while traveling around so much?
The great thing about tai chi is that you can do it anywhere. It’s very portable! You don’t need to go to the gym, have special equipment, or wear a special outfit. All you need is loose, comfortable clothing, a pair of good shoes, and a little bit of space. If need be, you can make adjustments to compensate for cramped space. You can also adjust the practice to fit the physical condition that you’re in. There are so many different ways that you can practice tai chi. It’s very, very flexible in that way. If you can stand, you can do tai chi. My tai chi teacher in Tokyo, Dan Harrington, taught us standing meditation, a basic and integral part of tai chi training.
As a matter of fact, you don’t even need to be able to stand to practice tai chi. Master Wang Yen-nien, whom I studied from in Taiwan, told us that when he was in the trenches fighting the Japanese, he couldn’t very well get up and do a tai chi set, so he’d simply sit and visualize doing the entire form. He also encouraged us to visualize doing the tai chi set as part of our regular practice.
One point to bear in mind is that although tai chi is a form of exercise, it’s more than simple physical exercise. I don’t have time to get into the mystical aspects of tai chi. But one thing I can say is that relaxation is extremely important to tai chi. Actually, the word relaxation isn’t the best word to use. Let me give you an example. One Chinese tai chi master in his 70′s underwent liver transplantation because his liver was damaged from hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is endemic in many parts of Asia, and he had contracted the disease at birth. This was in China, and they normally would not even have given him a new liver because of his advanced age, but as a renowned tai chi master, they made an exception for him. Anyway, while he was hospitalized, he practiced tai chi, not by making any physical moves, but by mentally “sweeping” through his body, inch by inch, feeling for any tension while mentally going over his tai chi set, checking for tense spots, softening and relaxing every part of his body. As a result, he made a quantum leap in the martial arts aspect of tai chi.
Tai chi is such a deep art – and there’s so many ways to practice it! And for me, with my nomadic lifestyle and lack of routine, tai chi has been a real boon. It’s been the one constant in my life, a center that I can return to, anywhere, any time. I don’t know how true this is, but people have told me that Boulder is a place where all one’s spiritual lessons are intensified. Which means that most relationships break down, and couples who move together to Boulder often end up separating. This was what happened to me. My boyfriend and I moved together to Boulder, and then we broke up. That was a blessing in disguise. But then my cat died, and that was not acceptable – not that anyone was asking me! That too was part of the transition and my life’s lesson, I guess.
Through all the upheavals in my life, I was always able to turn to tai chi for support. Tai chi and writing have been the enduring aspects of my life. Well, my cat used to be, too. Now that she’s gone, I’m tying all three elements together – writing, tai chi, and cat – by putting together an “autobiography” of my cat. And why not? After living in Boulder for several years, I’m sure my brain has been permanently scrambled!
Anyway, it’s in the works, as well as several booklets about some health topics.