Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Small. Unexpected. Happening

Mr Chen's Sketch

"Some things and some people just kind of happen by. You've got to be ready for this. In smallness these things and people will present themselves. The presentation will beg you to notice. If you're asleep you'll miss it. But if you're awake, well then, your noticing will illuminate the magnificent. This can create a transformation." -Papi Conpello

August 11, 2011. Pujian Road, Pudong New District, Shanghai. The only restaurant I can find within walking distance is a McDonalds. Strange? Yes, but unfortunately true. One of the things I like most about being in China is getting to eat real Chinese food - the kind that is hard to come by inside the US. Not today. At least, not here on Pujian Road. And what is served at McDonalds in Shanghai is adjusted to this marketplace, but just as fat-filled as back at home. Sad? Um hmm. Much of what China now exports to the US fills our stores. Much of what we export to China fills their arteries and lungs. Oh well.

I buy my burger, sit at a counter and open "Winterdance" - Gary Paulsen's delightfully true story of the little events that changed his life during his first (1983) preparation for and running of the Iditarod. I love this story. I must. This is my second time through the book. Today is my day off. So with no one to talk to I will sit and be alone (surrounded by twenty-three million people) and read in silence (surrounded by the noise of Shanghai bustling around Mickey-D's). But some things present themselves and beg you to notice.

Moments after my first bite of burger a little man plops down beside me. He touches my shoulder and begins to talk. I look up, tap my mouth and ears, and shake my head - my best way of saying, "Hey, I don't understand because I can't speak Chinese." He (little chin whiskers, grinning face, half his teeth gone, arthritic but animated fingers wagging away) just keeps talking. I realize it is his accent I am attending to, not his words, because coming out of his mouth is near perfect English. He wants to know all about me. Where I'm from. What I'm doing here. Who is my family? What is my work? I start to answer. We begin to communicate.

What he then does is most uncommon. For more than eight years I have been traveling to China and Taiwan - to places like Taipei, Qu Fu, Xio Lan, Hong Kong, Jinan, Wenzhou, Hangzhou, YiLan County, Guangzhou, and a bunch of other cities and towns. Until today I have yet to meet someone who, without prompting, freely discloses himself. But today, that person appears. He is a civil engineer. He is well past his eightieth year. He is a father. His daughter lives in the US. He is a dedicated former revolutionary. He has full control of his memories. His politic and mine don't see eye-to-eye. But I still listen. He is alive. He is fun. He is almost cartoon-like. He is someone to spend time with and search with for common ground. When human beings do that (search for common ground) they generate respect. And every human being probably in some way wants to be respected.

I explain that I originally come from rural central Arizona, but for the past thirty-seven years have lived in northern California. I served as a soldier in an infantry battalion, then became involved with the world of human potential movement. Because of this I've been influenced by and found understanding from diverse perspectives. He gets it. How do I know? His head nods and he smiles. He starts rattling off the names of all of the fifty states of the USA, where each state is geographically located within the US and begins to rattle off the names of various capital cities. He accurately describes the general tendencies between the peoples of the regions throughout the US.

Then he proceeds to recall who the US presidents have been during his lifetime, and for some he names their vice-presidents. Now I begin to smile. While he is talking I find myself imagining Jay Leno (Tonight Show) doing his person on the street interview sketch. In my mind's eye Leno pokes a microphone in the face of some recent US college grad and asks, "Who was LBJ?" And the response he gets is, "Oh that's easy, LeBron James!" Leno shakes his head and retorts, "Actually, I was thinking Lyndon Baines Johnson." My imagined interviewee pops back with, "Oh yah, yah, him. He was in charge of something important." Leno rolls his eyes, then he stares into the camera, grins and offers, "Um hmmmm. OK, well, yes. Actually, he was a politician. So, I have another question for you. Who's buried in Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?" His subject chuckles, "OK, you're trying to trick me. It's that guy!" Leno: "Who?" Interviewee: "You know that guy!" Leno: "LBJ?" Interviewee: "You got it! Am I right?" Leno shakes head and walks off camera.

Back to McDonalds. He: "Who was your favorite president?" Me: "During my lifetime?" He: "Yes." Me: "I would have to say Harry Truman. But I was a small boy when he was in office." He: "Want to know who I think the best US president of all time was?" Me: "Sure!" He: "Lincoln. He understood the importance of people." And then Mr. Chen Kwang Yu begins to recite the Gettysburg Address. He knows that to go through the entire thing is too much, so he skips to Lincoln's ending words and emphatically says, "Here's what's important: 'that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'" Me: (I'm listening and say nothing.). He: "You know what makes those words so powerful? Lincoln didn't say 'will not perish'. He said 'SHALL not perish'. And by using 'SHALL' rather than 'will' Lincoln put his personal determination and life into it."

People pass by the window in front of our counter. They are on their way into the supermarket, wide-eyed and staring at this little jabbering fellow, and me sitting and jabbering back. [Yes, supermarkets exist throughout China. As do superhighways filled with Mercedes, Toyotas, Fiats, Buicks, Jaguas, Chevrolets. On thousands of corners you can find KFC, Starbucks, L'Oreal, Louis Vuitton. Along side them are billboards with Marlboro ads complete with coiled ropes and cowboy hats. These are not brand name knock-offs. They are the real deal. As are stock market worries, and economic concerns, and the fact that people in increasing numbers are in over their heads when it comes to mortgage vs. current home values. Home-ownership and mortgages in China? Sure! Didn't you know?]

A lady sitting three seats down from us catches the energy of what is going on between Mr. Little-guy (he) and Mr. Big-guy (me), and though she cannot speak or understand English, she is fascinated. How do I know? It's the look on her face, the crook of her smile and the twinkle in her eyes. She scoots one seat closer. Then another. Soon, she is joined by two more women, all wanting to catch some of the energy going on between me (what is that, a Wookie?) and he (who is that, Yoda?) and whatever this is (a Happening?). It's got to be the coolest thing at this location since, well, since Ronald McDonald. Doubtful that any of our eavesdroppers can understand what's being said, but they are attracted to the action and some corresponding potential. [Nothing odd about that phenomena when one considers Shakespeare, Janis Joplin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Einstein, James Joyce, etc. And, please - excuse any possible personal comparison. None intended.]

My new acquaintance begins to voice his opinion about the state of world, then how things in China are today vs. how they were in his day, then the comparative state of things in Europe and in the US and on and on. This is a well-informed human being. Our chat lasts an hour. My camera is back at the hotel so I can't take his picture. I grab my copy of "Winterdance" and ask him to sit still. I want to sketch his face inside the book's back cover. This blows his mind. It also blows the minds of the gals next to us straining their necks (and ears) to see (and hear) more. I tell him, "Look, it's been great to meet you. Yes, I will write (he gives me his address). But now, I have to leave." He says, "Oh, that's OK," and packs up his stuff to walk with me. Out of McDonalds and down Pujian Road we go together. He continues to lament about how things have changed since his beloved revolution. Again I reflect that this is altogether a very up-to-date person and accurate with an understanding as to what is going on - and how much he values personal connection.

Finally, I step off the sidewalk and head for my hotel. He waves. So do I. Goodbye.

August 31, 2011. I'm sitting inside my home office looking out the window at the corner of Prospect and Walnut Streets here in Petaluma. School just let out. The kids are walking home. A motorcycle cop rides by on his Harley-Davidson - blue light flashing. He is pulling over someone for who-knows-what. Most likely the driver will say, "Hello officer." The cop will reply, "Please keep your hands on the steering wheel. Do you know why I pulled you over?" Driver will probably respond, "Nope, haven't a clue." The cop will offer, "Should have been paying attention because it's minor, but in this case and with all these kids around, it's important."

Small stuff makes a difference. With it, each day is distinct, vivid and absolutely worth living.

Three days after I meet Kwang Yu at McDonalds on Pujian Road I walk along The Bund, a magnificent stretch of buildings spread along Puxi of Shanghai's Huangpu River. The place is packed. Easily there are fifty thousand people here enjoying the Sunday evening air. Seven days after standing along The Bund I'm in Hong Kong and catching The Star Ferry for a late afternoon cruise over to Kowloon. Here I hang out and watch the sunset before joining business associates at a fancy restaurant. It's great.

I'll definitely recall magnificent places and times spent with my associates. But as beautiful and as outstanding as these places and people are, it's the small, unexpected happenings that prompt my remembering. These are important. The seemingly insignificant gives rich perspective to life. It makes the whole thing spectacular.

At the least likely of places a frail little man walked over and tapped my shoulder. Why? Maybe he wanted to try out his English one more time before living his last day. Maybe he had a lot of stuff pent up inside and needed to get it out, knowing that only I could understand what he was attempting to communicate, and for that one instant of time he knew that he had this opportunity to freely speak his mind. Does my why to his need really matter? Probably not. But his why does matter. So, he opened his mouth and talked. I opened my ears and listened.

Who knows? Maybe he was bored and needed to talk so that when he arrived at home after riding his bus he could greet his wife and say, "Hello Xiaojing, I'm home! You won't believe what happened today. I met an American guy at McDonalds. We had a great conversation. He's going to write to me. Today was a good day!" Then Kwang Yu and Xiaojing could smile, have supper, hold hands and talk a few hours before drifting off to sleep.

Whatever. We connected for an hour or so. Small as he was, Kwang Yu topped everything.

"I enjoy life because I am endlessly interested in people and their growth. My interest leads me continually to widen my knowledge of people, and this in turn compels me to believe that the normal human heart is born good. This is, it is born sensitive and feeling, eager to be approved and to approve, hungry for simple happiness and the chance to live. It neither wishes to be killed nor to kill. If through circumstances it is overcome by evil, it never becomes entirely evil. There remain in it elements of good, however recessive which continue to hold the possibility of restoration."

- Pearl S. Buck, "Roll Away the Stone" (p. 21-22, This I Believe, 1952)

© Lance Giroux, September 2011

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