As I return home, following the opportunity of a lifetime, I figured now, in the air above the mighty oceans below, would be an appropriate time to reflect upon perhaps the most unique experience of my life. I am flying over what feels like half the globe today, as I return home from Beijing, China, where I spent the past five days in front of more cameras than I could count, as a keynote speaker at China’s premiere fitness expo, ChinaFit. I’ll be going back in time today, literally, nearly a full day, en route to my home in Phoenix, Arizona, and I have many more hours seated in a chair in the sky between now and when I will see my family. This is a great time to think, reminisce, ponder, reflect, and to write. Thank you for joining me, as we take a look back at China through my lenses.
On one hand, it is hard to describe the feelings I experienced over the past few days, and on the other hand, simple words such as “amazing” and “unforgettable” are on the tip of my tongue. Though I have an insatiable thirst for travel, I never really imagined that one day I would be visiting China, or that I would be there to promote and represent the vegan fitness lifestyle at an event that attracted 35,000 people. So how did I, once a skinny farm kid from western Oregon, turned champion vegan bodybuilder, end up being one of the faces of the largest fitness conventions and expositions in mainland China? I don’t know if that is an easy answer either, one I am tempted to say was decades in the making, honoring the body of work that has encapsulated my career, but the easy answer is that I was invited and it fit in my schedule. It was with great honor and pride that I accepted the invitation, but with just as much anxiety, uncertainty, and unpredictability. The mental wrestling match I have endured internally, questioning whether I am the right person, or the best person, or even an adequate person to assume the role of a vegan fitness representative from the West was something I quarreled with for months. Having been retired from the competitive bodybuilding lifestyle for years, and admittedly feeling less relevant, perhaps less effective as a public representative of the vegan bodybuilding or even vegan fitness lifestyle, I wondered if my acceptance of this invitation was a step backwards for the movement. I shared some of my concerns with my fiancée, Karen, and with my best friend, training partner, and co-author, Vanessa Espinoza. They both assured me that I am worthy, that I am qualified as much as anyone in the movement, and that I have been doing this for a long time, and that I would be fine. I also gave myself some pep talks, those face-to-face in the mirror, incredibly honest and exposed internal dialogues of critiques and reassurance all at the same time. It was with some palpable remaining trepidation that I pulled my bootstraps up and assumed the role of a global vegan bodybuilding ambassador, ready for a massive opportunity.
While I continued to rehabilitate torn discs in my lower back from sports injuries, yet carefully trained in the gym to make forward progress, I wondered if I would be enough by the time the plane touched down in China. All the while, I had been on tour for seven consecutive weekends, now eight, and have been putting the finishing touches on my latest book, Plant-Based Muscle, due out in a matter of weeks. It was a little too much to take in at times, but I persisted and enjoyed the trip of a lifetime.
I just looked up at the top of my computer screen, and though I have been traveling for the past eight hours since I left my hotel room, and have far more than eight hours still to go, it is currently 4:21AM back at home, as my laptop just informed me. Perhaps I should take a nap and ease into a new schedule, as others seem to be doing around me – now as the lights are off on the plane and movies are being played by nearly every individual I can see from my vantage point. I’m a little more than cramped, as the woman in front of me has her seat fully reclined, and I am typing in such a manner that would make a mother T-Rex proud of her typewriter-literate child if she had one. I’m also already in my third shirt of the day due to profuse sweating from the humidity of the Chinese summer. Alas, my mind is going astray, and I have more experiences to share.
Grateful is the word I have used most often when discussing my experiences in China with my new friends while using China’s most famous app, WeChat. Honored is the next most frequently used word, and an overall feeling of appreciation sums up how I feel emotionally.
Arriving in China
When I arrived in China, I was enthusiastically greeted by my hosts, and we immediately went out to one of Beijing’s many all vegan restaurants – in this case, Veg Tiger, which is a chain of seven locations around the city. I was exhausted from my 25-hour trip, which started in Phoenix with a stop in Seattle before landing in Beijing, and I struggled to be my usual enthusiastic self. After a massive meal of all sorts of traditional Chinese dishes, and some foods I had never seen or heard of before, we headed to my hotel so I could get settled in for the night. The plan was to visit the Great Wall the next day, but that would mean I needed to be ready by 6AM, and that clearly wasn’t happening. Since I was there to work, and made that my absolute priority, I sadly canceled the plans to go to the Great Wall when we finished dinner at 9PM local time, in order to be as well rested and prepared for my presentations as I could be. As it turned out, the next morning I accidentally woke up shortly after 6AM, and perhaps could have still had a day at The Wall, but I opted to slowly wake myself up, hit the gym at 8AM with my hosts, and take a tour of the city. The tour included a stop at the Summer Palace, which was stunning, a stop by another vegan restaurant, and a trip to Tiananmen Square before heading to a group dinner at a vegan restaurant called Vegan Hut, owned by Dr. Yu, a man I had met multiple times in the US over the years. I gave a mini presentation and enjoyed a whole-food, plant-based dinner with about 20 others. After another long day and late night, still adjusting from the jet lag, it was time to head back to the hotel and prepare for a full day of presentations.
The ChinaFit Expo:
True to form, I hit the gym in the morning with my new friends and hosts of my China trip, Robin and Peter, and then headed over to the ChinaFit Expo.
When I arrived at the National Convention Center in Olympic Park, home of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, I was taken aback when I saw banners of myself throughout the building and when I realized my image took up the entire page on the cover of the official event program. My stomach reacted with even higher levels of anxiety and expectation. In a weird way it was like fulfilling a bodybuilding dream while in the land of humility and honor, and I wasn’t even sure how to feel, but I took lots of photos to soak it all in nonetheless. Though I planned to be a keynote speaker, I didn’t necessarily anticipate the scale and magnitude of the event. I was invited on stage during the Opening Ceremony and then immediately taken to another main stage to join industry leaders in front of TV cameras and take part in a panel for an hour with help from my translator, Robin, who was also the person who had invited me to ChinaFit from the onset. Then I was back to another stage to give my first keynote presentation. I think lunch followed, but I don’t really recall. Even lunch was a blur. Then I thought I was doing a fitness demonstration on stage, guiding people through a sample workout, but it turns out I was guest posing during a bodybuilding competition. Gulp. I didn’t even have time to warm-up or pump up, and I was wearing a tank top and shorts, prepared to teach a short course. I kept the tank top on as I hit a number of poses after introducing myself to the large audience of hundreds of people viewing and photographing the bodybuilding competition. That was awkward since I was perhaps the least ripped person on the stage, but I carried more muscle mass and size than most, due to my height and weight in relation to the competitors, and I flexed as hard as I could. Hopefully, people seeing the display after hearing that I have not consumed any animal products for more than 20 years will think of vegans a bit differently, but I’m not sure. I smiled a lot and was gracious and genuine while being thrust into a performance that was more than slightly different from what I was expecting. I gave it what I had, and I hope it was enough. So now I had a little down time before the charity dinner, so I made the short 10-minute walk back to the hotel, sat down for an hour, showered and got dressed for what was another long, but enjoyable evening. The ChinaFit organization hosted a dinner for about 500 attendees, with 100% vegan catering, and even hosted a live auction of fitness equipment, art, and other items to raise money for compassionate causes, from supporting animals to helping children in need and elderly citizens, spreading out the $500,000.00 raised among a number of noble charities. That was empowering to see, and a stark contrast from many of the mainstream fitness organizations I am used to from the West. China’s largest fitness exposition organization was directly raising money for vegan outreach, and it was amazing.
Day two of the ChinaFit Expo brought just as much excitement and energy as the first day. Following another morning workout at the hotel gym, I had an interview with a mainstream Chinese fitness magazine, one probably equivalent to Muscle & Fitness in the US. Once the interview was completed, the camera crew kept following me around. I then realized I was going back on stage for another guest posing routine on an even bigger stage with a larger audience; something I had anticipated, but thought it was in the afternoon, not early in the morning. So I pumped up with an elastic band handed to me by Robin, while we took escalators up to the fourth floor of the five-floor fitness expo. It still felt awkward and I still felt a bit inadequate, based on my current shape and what message I was hoping to convey about the vegan fitness lifestyle, but at least I knew what to expect. I knew I would say a few words about my vegan athlete background, talk about my 20-year vegan athlete career as a former champion bodybuilder and current author and speaker, share how honored I am to be at ChinaFit, and to flex as hard as I could while smiling as wide as I could. I hope it made a difference with such a large and attentive audience. The camera crew continued to follow me around to exercise equipment to take photographs of me lifting weights, so I realized the photo shoot for the interview was still going on. I was kind of ushered from one location to the next, so I didn’t always know quite what was going on, but I worked hard and flexed hard at every turn. Then it was lunchtime, and I did another interview, this time for a vegan magazine based out of Hong Kong, during the lunch hour. After that is was time for another keynote presentation. It went well and I thought I was finished for the day, but I had another interview, this one on camera, perhaps for web TV, but I’m not sure, and then I continued to pose for photos, as I had done all weekend with my trademark smiling thumbs up. After that last interview, the expo was winding down and I hung out in what was sort of a meeting room near the stage in the vegan area of the expo, and I chatted with some others before it was time to say farewell to the expo. After some tea from a local Taiwanese wellness center, I left the expo with Robin, Peter, and new friends Joyce and Kimberly, and then it was time for dinner. Amazingly, to my complete surprise, after eating rice and vegetables with chopsticks all week, we went to an all vegan pizza place in Beijing. I didn’t know such a thing existed, and it was everything I hoped it would be, and more. It was beautiful, delicious, outstanding, and bashedeban as they would say in the western Chinese province where Peter is from (a different dialect than used in the political, cultural, and economic hub of Beijing). The inherent mental and emotional stress from being a keynote presenter at ChinaFit could finally subside for the first time since I had arrived on the other side of the world, and I could reflect on how the weekend went. I looked through photos, gave updates to Karen back at home, and had a good night’s rest.
The Final Day
The next morning I met one of the ChinaFit organizers at 8AM at my hotel, and he joined me in a taxi to get to a meeting place, where we hopped on a tour bus to join nearly 50 others for a vegan restaurant tour of Beijing that would last from 9AM to 7PM. Like the rest of my China experience up that point, it was amazing, and I had a unique opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with people on the bus and at restaurants. Very few people from my encounters spoke English, and I had a translator for the entirety of my trip in China, but the broken English conversations were perhaps the most meaningful and taught me a lot about other forms of nonverbal communication. During our city tour, we stopped at half a dozen vegan restaurants, some just for a visit and tour of the establishment, others for snacks, and one for a fully catered meal. All had some sort of presentation prepared for us, including our final stop at a Taiwanese multi-purpose wellness center where we stayed for two hours, sang songs, watched video presentations, held hands in a circle, sat on meditation pillows, and listened to waterfalls from fountains dripping the length of the wall in a sanctuary-like setting.
The tour ended, even later than planned, and again, I was exhausted from the constant go-go-go of the week, busy from morning until night, and always in front of cameras, constantly being requested to pose in photos, and I was genuinely interested in getting a good night’s rest before my flight the next day. Then the founder of ChinaFit, an organization in its 10th year, operating in 8 cities around China with 8 Fit Expos per year, invited me out for a one-on-one dinner. What an honor. I summoned the energy from within and brought as much enthusiasm as I could for my final event in China. We had a lovely dinner, talked about the growth of the vegan fitness movement around the globe and discussed ways to collaborate, making China a world leader in the vegan fitness movement. I got recognized by some vegans in the restaurant, and they came over to our table to take photos during my private dinner with the ChinaFit founder. And that was my final ego boost in the land of humility, while in the company of the incredibly humble founder of a vast and successful organization, the gracious Mr. Yan.
I was met the next morning by another ChinaFit organizer, a lovely spirited man who goes by Charley, and he escorted me to the airport where I made my final farewell to the incredible nation I never knew I would meet firsthand. It was truly an honor and the experience of a lifetime to be an invited guest in China. I met some of the most lovely, kind, warm, and gracious people I have met in all my years of travels, and I enthusiastically look forward to my next involvement with ChinaFit.
While in Beijing, I made contacts with people in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, and even places like the UK. I learned of other vegan events in and around China, and in places like Nepal. I had scheduled meetings about having my book translated into Mandarin Chinese and possibly other languages, and I can only feel hopeful and optimistic about the future. As I now look at my laptop’s clock, it reads 5:22AM, telling me I have been writing for a full hour, and reminding me that I have many, many more hours to go, as I won’t be arriving back in Phoenix until the evening, perhaps another 12-14 hours remaining. With airport layovers and customs, it is a full 24-hour trip, one I truly hope to make a couple of times a year. I may lose a full day with travel, and possibly lose an entire night’s sleep, but I gain so, so much from my experiences abroad.
Thank you for reading about my trip to China. In general, I believe my trip was very worthwhile, very effective, and I believe I did have a positive influence on the vegan and non-vegan communities in China, and among those attending from other countries. China had a great impact on me as well. I already feel compelled to be more gracious, more appreciative, more kind and nurturing, and live with more gratitude on a daily basis. Though I have a magnet on my refrigerator at home that reminds me to never take anything for granted, I still do. And following the experience of a lifetime, I am compelled more than ever to make my actions reflect my new ambitions for making the most of what life offers. It is a stark reminder that if I want to live my life’s passion, while aiming to make others’ lives better through my actions, I need to keep creating meaningful opportunities for myself and those whom I encounter. I aim to finish my new book as soon as possible, after taking 18 months to refine it. I aim to spend more quality time with friends and family. I aim to make the most of my time in the gym with renewed focus to build the inner and outer strength to help lift others up. My visit to China helped me realign some priorities, and that is the best gift China could have given me, and for that, I am incredibly grateful.
I have no idea if they’ll read this, or if any of you have even made it this far, in my longer-than-usual blog post, but I want to thank Robin, Charley, and Mr. Yan, for the incredibly generous invitation to be a keynote presenter at ChinaFit, and I want to thank Peter, Joyce, Kimberly, Elliot, Shirley, and others who helped out in such fantastic ways from translating for me, to getting me from point A to point B, to taking photos to document my experience, to being there with beautiful smiles to welcome me to the wonderful place they call home.