Friday, May 29, 2009

Dong

The more I thought about this trip to China in the weeks before undertaking it, the more convinced I became that I had to find a way to see Dong, my original Chinese teacher, whom many of you will remember dropped out, left Beijing and went to Huashan, a holy mountain near Xi’an, to become a Taoist monk.

I felt a great need to see him to achieve some sort of closure in our relationship – that word I hate again proving indispensible! But also I wanted to see him because I have been thinking more and more about writing a book about my China venture and the more I thought about the more convinced I became that Dong had to be prominent in the book. I needed to see him and see how he was doing for all of these reasons.

Last summer, while at Huashan, I thought Dong looked terrible and he told me that he was really struggling and as thinking about leaving the mountain. I wanted to find out what happened. I needed to find out what happened. I sent him a message and waited to hear back.

Not surprisingly, it takes a monk on a holy mountain a while to respond. Finally, I was sitting at the Dead concert at the Meadowlands – literally sitting there thinking about Dong and wondering how I was going to find him and if it made sense to leave time blocked out to see him if I had not – when an email popped onto my Iphone: “I am returning to Nanjing to start my life. Like to see you. Dong”

Ultimately, he had instead returned to his hometown of Wuxi, in between Nanjing and Shanghai, and I squeezed in a 24-hour visit there on my way from Beijing to Shenzhen in Southern China, where we were playing two shows. He said he would fetch me at the airport.

I walked out of baggage claim and there he was, looking much healthier and less gaunt than a year before His long hair was pulled back in a ponytail and he was dressed in a black polo-style shirt and long khaki shorts. He was with an attractive young woman, whom he introduced as his cousin Karen.

“She will be our driver today,” he explained.

She told me she had taken a day off of work at an American company to ferry us about Wuxi in her Audi, which was surprise number one. She had recently married a “rich boy,” Dong told me, explaining the car.

We got in and drove to the large Lake on which Wuxi sits. It felt easy and comfortable to talk to Dong. We went to a teahouse and sat sipping and chatting. Dong had appeared to me in Beijing as a lone wolf, with no connections to anything or anyone beyond his mother, whom he often referred to. I never heard him once mention his father, whom I presumed to be dead. So I was shocked when he told me that he had come back from the mountain a month ago for his father’s 60th birthday.

I told him I had never heard him mention him and he told me that they had a falling out years earlier and that his baba had crossed some lines that could not be forgiven. He was vague, but said that he respected him, but could never be truly close to him. He said the behavior was “like the mafia, you know.”

Seeing Dong through the eyes of his cousin, a decade younger and clearly full of love and admiration for him was fascinating. Dong was the oldest of four cousins, she explained, and they all very much looked up to him. Days earlier, they had learned that he had spent two years on the mountain – everyone thought he was in Beijing the entire time, and his parents still believe that. The cousins were shocked by the news but not entirely surprised.

“He always had his own ideas,” she said.

I was learning more and more of my friend’s back story. He had appeared to me as if fallen from the sky, with no past, but of course this was not true. He was an important figure for quite a few people.

When I met Dong he had just returned from five years in London. It was there, apparently, that he changed a lot. Before going abroad and after finishing college at Nanjing Normal University, he had taught Chinese at a Wuxi middle school. He was a very popular teacher. Despite never working his students too hard – “I thought they had enough stress,” he said – they received the best marks on all exams. I was not surprised by this. He is a great teacher.

Also, Karen told me, Dong was a “real fashion guy. He cared very much about what he wear.”

He would generally not wear any clothes purchased in Wuxi; he traveled to Shanghai to do all his shopping. Also, at the time, he had died blond hair, which caused a major sensation amongst his fellow teachers. His excuse? He was going prematurely gray so decided to die his hair but bought bad die, which turned his hair blond. It made no sense and Karen said everyone laughed and was amazed at his ability to sell such a far fetched tale.

So he was an excellent, beloved teacher who was a little cheeky – interesting but not surprising exactly.

Dong asked me if I minded if a couple of friends from University joined us for dinner. Of course I did not mind. The story behind them was, in fact, fascinating. There were two women from Wuxi – both now back in their hometown working as bank managers – and they had been very close with Dong at University but had completely lost touch with him. They had not seen him in 15 years and were talking about him one day and became a bit obsessed with finding their old friend.

Another former classmate was a policeman and he helped do some legwork and eventually somehow located Dong’s cell phone number and they called him. “Were you happy that they had made so much effort to find you?” I wondered.

“No,” he said, shaking his head, with a serious look. “I was angry. I did not want to be found. They told me they were coming to see me in Beijing so I had to tell them the truth about where I was.”

His friends were shocked.

Later that night, over an elegant dinner of abalone and shark fin’s soup – which I avoided eating for my entire stay in China – they all seemed to share an easy familiarity and friendship. One friend had her husband there, another a friend from work. The six of them all bantered endlessly in Wuxi-hua, a dialect that sounds exactly nothing like Mandarin, but quite a bit like Japanese.

Karen and Dong translated for me at times, but I enjoyed just listening to the banter and noting the easy friendship they all had, even after all those years of never seeing each other. I asked the ladies what they thought Dong would be during their time in college. With no hesitation, they answered in unison, "Laoshi.” (teacher)

“He was so smart and funny and insightful,” one said. “We all knew he would be a great laoshi.”

None of them approved of him becoming a monk; they all considered it a great waste of an educated, maybe even brilliant man. This is a very common perception amongst Chinese – virtually everyone that I have told Dong’s story to has had the same opinion. But Dong still did not see it that way.

Earlier, before dinner, while sitting at a Starbucks sipping coffee, Dong told me in great detail about his experiences at the mountain. Though he looked much, much better and happier now than he did when I saw him at HuaShan a year ago, he insisted that his time there was time well spent. He was a bit disillusioned because his romantic vision of a community of egalitarian, non-material, meditating communion had proven to be naïve. But he was as dedicated as ever to his calling.

He had returned home, he said, because his “master” at Beiyingguan, the Taoist temple in Beijing, suggested it might be a good thing to do. He was not giving up on monkhood, though he had no clear vision of what he would do now. “He told me I could maybe become an immortal,” he said.

He explained a bit about what that means, and said that people could even fly, a proposition that caused Karen to giggle into her hands and look a bit shocked and embarrassed.

“Really,” Dong said, growing a bit embarrassed himself and clearly weighing the wisdom of discussing such matters at all.

Later, after dinner, as we all filed out, the friends talked a bit before saying good bye. Dong turned to me. “They want to go to KTV and sing karaoke,” he said. “You don’t want to go do that, do you?”

Actually, I was very interested. I had amazingly spent three and a half years in this karaoke-crazed nation and never entered one. Dong seemed a bit shocked, and not too interested in going, but he honored my request. We got into the karaoke room and a round of refreshments was ordered up – fruit platters, popcorn and a dozen warm Budweisers, with a bucket of ice. Dong’s reticence soon vanished and he took the mic, singing duets with his friends in a beautiful, clearly enunciated tenor voice.

He took over the computer controls, dimming the main lights, adding flashing lights, lasers and strobes and seeking English language songs for me to sing – everyone was concerned about me being bored but needn’t have worried. “Copacabana” was the best I could find and I was a little disappointed that no one understood how funny it was. But I was just astounded at Dong. He was having a ball and I was happy to see it.

He took a seat at the front of the room on a raised platform and sang another song. “I think he’s still the same guy,” Karen whispered to me. “He’s still a fashion guy inside.”

I was yawning by now. It had been a long day; I woke up at 530 in Beijing to catch my plane to Wuxi and I was starting to lose it. Dong told me he would take me back to the hotel at 10 pm -- in 20 minutes. But when the time came he was fully engrossed. He and Karen huddled and then asked if I minded if she drove me back to the hotel alone. He wanted to keep singing. Far from caring, I was happy for him.

He walked me out to the lobby to say good bye, thanked me for coming and gave me a hug. I told him to stay in touch.

I woke up early the next morning and flew off to Shenzhen to meet up with the rest of the band. I was still amazed at having left Dong in a karaoke bar. Then I got a text message from him. I expected it to thank me for coming down. Instead, it read, “I am always a monk, although I am not stay temple or mountain.”

I wrote him back: “I know that. It is inside you. You can live in both worlds. Don’t feel guilty for enjoying it. Your cousin and friends are very nice and they really care about you. It was great seeing you.”

I have not heard back.