By Bruce Northam, 6/08/2001
1987. I was backpacking in the newly "opened" China, when Chen entered my life. He was a multilingual restaurateur and the unofficial mayor of Yangzhou. He had a kindly way with backpackers, and one afternoon he invited me to join him on a seventy-mile journey across southeast China's surreal limestone landscape.
En route, we passed a seemingly ancient man and his goat who were walking on the road in the opposite direction. The man plodded barefoot along the hot, rough road, two immense bags of rice suspended on a long pole across his back.
We passed without a word, but returning to Yangzhou several hours later, we found him again still plodding along. I suggested to Chen that we offer him a lift. We pulled over. The old man and Chen had a brief exchange. Then, Chen got back behind the wheel, and we drove off, leaving the man in the road. Puzzled, I asked Chen to translate their chat. He explained that the man wasn't due to arrive in Yangzhou until the following day; if he were to show up in advance, he wouldn't know what to do with the extra time.
"You see, my friend, Chen said, not all of us are in a hurry."
I asked him to turn back. I needed to ask the old man a few things. Chen parked, and I hopped out. The old man stopped, balancing on his walking stick, and grinned. We pondered each other - beings from distant corners of the planet different planets worlds and ways apart.
Chen translated my questions.
"What is the most important thing in your life?" I asked.
The old man looked to his left, made a strange honking call for his goat, but did not reply. Was the goat the most important thing? When the animal arrived at his side, the man looked at Chen and spoke slowly.
Chen translated, "He said that if you can't help people, don't harm them.
I asked, "Why are people hurtful?"
I didn't look at Chen as he spoke, but rather stared into the old man's eyes. He was human art, more serene than a sleeping cat.
"If you decline to accept someone's abuse, then it still belongs to them."
"Why do we quarrel?" I asked.
"The rise of a man's mind from his scrotum to his skull can be a long haul," he said. We all burst into laughter.
The goat bleated. Chen said, "Ready?" The old man and I shook hands, and waved goodbye. Today, I often think about the man's deeply wrinkled face, and I know that the infuriating fixtures of modern life - traffic jams, rude people, the arrogance of ego - are only options. His words retain a permanent, benevolent echo.
I departed Yangzhou a week later. Chen walked with me to the bus stop. After a hearty embrace, I told him how much his friendship meant to me, and that the old man's words were unforgettable. I thanked him for that, too.
"Use those words to start a book," he said.
"Come on, Chen," I replied. "Do you know how old I'll be by the time I get published?"
"The same age you'll be if you don't," he winked.
Twelve years, twenty letters, and three books later, I received a birthday card from Chen. I was in for a shock. He confessed that he hadn't actually translated the old man's words. Everything I'd learned had actually been Chen's sage advice.
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