Monday, November 17, 2008

Meeting Dr. Ding

Ni hao!

(in Chinese) Is this Dr. Ding?
I am a friend of your wife's brother, Paul Chow. He is best friends with my parents in Los Angeles. I am called Alice. 
Yes, that's right. Are you in your laboratory now? Paul Chow said that you go to your laboratory every day.
(in English) I am blind! I cannot see anything. I am in my office. I come to my office everyday. In the morning. Every day.
I'm in Shanghai teaching English and would like to meet you and your wife. 

And I do. Meet Dr. Ding. But not his wife, Paul Chow's sister. Not this time. Paul Chow is my godfather. He is the one who sent me to China in my most disaffected state in the 80's, beefing up the asian side of my assigned chinese-american identity. He is my inspirator for a bubbly outgoing spirited life living in constant curiosity. Paul Chow was the first one to read 'Yeh Yeh,' on the radio (KPFK in LA) in a play based on my own nonagenerian grandfather that became Last of the Suns. 

And here now, Dr. Ding, all of 87 years, reminding me of Yeh Yeh, in his modest office at the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, a desk, a phone, two chairs, a huge bookshelf, a gold medal on the wall, a butterfly behind him, an electric teapot, an easy chair and a UC San Diego baseball cap hanging on the door that one of his numerous friends brought back for him. The air is crisp. The desk is next to the window. The light is friendly.

As soon as I arrive to his office, shake hands. We sit at his desk. He hands me the phone. You want to speak with Zhou Chuang Qing? He doesn't call her 'my wife,' he calls her by her full name. I do. He feels out the two buttons for speed dial, and within 3 rings, Paul Chow's sister is speaking, with a similar voice as Paul Chow, even more fiery and more spirited, if that is possible.

She gets all my info right off the bat. So does Dr. Ding, as he writes with pen and paper. My Chinese is feeling limited as I try to remember how to say Shanghai Lida Polytechnic Insititue in Chinese and try to explain that we are in Songjiang but not in Songjiang City where a whole slew of Universities reside in the new Campus district. She apologizes that she can't hangout today because she has to wait for the prepared food that is delivered to her house, a service for people over 70 years of age. She's a raconteur, just like Paul Chow, how tragic the subway collapse is, how there's nothing to really see in Shanghai (I came here to live not to sightsee), how she had to learn Cantonese in 3 weeks when they were evacuating from the Japanese and she had to move south. She herself is 84 and her mind is as sharp and constantly turning. I look up at Dr. Ding after 15 minutes on the phone:
At one point he gives me the time's up signal with his hands. After a while: enough. He's heard her speak for 57 years. I help to wrap up by making plans to visit this coming Friday, when I'll be in the city again. I get three more 'time's up' signals. (In Chinese) Yes, yes, yes, looking forward, looking forward.

Dr. Ding himself is pharamacologist and an anesthesiologist.  MD and PhD, trained at the University of Chicago in the late 1940's. He is as his picture suggests: serene, centered, completely present. He cannot see anything, though when I raise my arms and wave at him, he stops and says something just moved. It must be shadows. 'I cannot see anything, but I can hear very well.' And he can. He listens very attentively, though his countenance had changed during my phonecall with his wife.

He orders up dumplings and a shrimp dish and some sauteed spinach for lunch. I want to take a picture, he reaches for his glasses. 'Do they help you to see?' I ask. 'I look smarter,' he chuckles.
Walking with Dr. Ding next door to the Cafe/diner seals my memory of old Yeh Yeh (which means paternal grandfather). Very slow steps, his cane in his right hand, his left arm cuffed around mind. It is truly zen to slow down to a completely unhurried pace, even slower than a breeze. It also reminds me of when I walk with the playwright Lynn Manning, who is also unsighted, though he's a Judo champion, and although the paces are cautious, we can move at regular speed.
Yes China indeed reveres its elderly. All the non-existent customer service suddenly blooms into attentive respect. All ages that come into our path know Dr. Ding and greet him and help him. He is beloved as the usual Professor Emeritus, but there is a warmth and simple unfussiness that eminates. A true cheer. If I may be so audacious as to hope to be in such a position when I am 87. To go to a modest office with a phone and a desk and keep in contact with all of my cohorts, colleagues, friends, relative's friends, all with open arms and  curiosity and wondering, and continue to meet with students who will progress the continuum. If I may be so audacious.

After lunch, we return to his office for the pure enjoyment of conversation. He plugs in his electric pot and shows me coffee, and then opens the green tea tin. I pinch a few leaves and then pour for myself.
'American is a paradise for children, a battlefield for the middle-aged and a grave for the old.' My wife wanted me to move to the U.S. but I did not want to leave my motherland. My friends are here. My colleagues.
'Como esta usted? Bien gracias.' I had a colleague at the University of Chicago from Guadalajara. He taught me some Spanish.'

Some things are to blog. This conversation was a natural play scene. 

I'm lucky enough to be participating in a Great American Play Bakeoff this weekend, where a group of playwrights in Los Angeles like Sujata Bhatt, Ken Narasaki, Jason Fong and Soo Jin Lee all spend 48 hours writing a play with given ingredients. I will join in 16 hours after the given time so the synchronicity will be real. The ingredients for this bakeoff:  A song, mother, a fall, chalk, something impossible to stage. I'm not sure how Dr. Ding will fit into such a baking, but I treasure the chance to get goosed into playwriting again.

As I bid Dr. Ding farewell and promise to call on Thursday night to firm up Friday lunch, he asks if I know the way out. Sure, I'll just back track the way I came, take the No 1 subway to People's Square because I'm going to browse the Foreign Language Bookstore on Fuzhou Rd.
You can take the bus. Bus 49. 
I've not taken the bus in the city before.
Very simple, just go out the other gate, turn right and walk 100 neters.
Bus 49. Like the year New China was born.

He walks me to the door. I can't wait for Friday to meet, as he says, his 'better half.'

At the bus stop, which was indeed 100 meters from the gate, the gate that states that this campus was the former site of the French Consulate, there is a bookseller. He has Clinton, he has Buffet, he has Trump, he has Obama.
Yes, this is what I should look for at the bookstore. I had always wanted to get it on audio, with the voice of the one but I don't drive anymore, and so don't have that solitary listening sphere of my own private moving kingdom. And lately, I have been only craving non-fiction for some reason. Perhaps cleansing the palate of theatrical fiction so as to start afresh, here in Shanghailand. I am halfway through Zinn's People's History of the United States, which is such a trip to read, experiencing the epic historical progression we have recently made.

I'd initially wanted to go to the bookstore to pick up some magazine. Back in LA, I was into the tabloids cuz it was perfect reading on the treadmill, like frozen TV. And it got me to stay for an hour at a time, Elle, Vogue, InTouch, People. The tabloids are like our version of the Greek Gods, perfect, or imagistically so, but also back-stabbing, plastic, symbolic, betraying scandalous, massive. Somehow the slick and shine with Nicole Kidman, or Cameron Diaz, or Carrie Underwood is not interesting anymore. The hometown rag feels shallow, and that life is what is so idolized here, what is so expensive, its context feels foreign. And People has its big Obama issue, the new celebtrity-in-chief, and Time shows him in black and white, in a convertible, spinning 'The New Deal' anew.

The political biographies have piles and piles of Hillary, Bill, Powell, Gates, Buffet, Diana even. A noticeable blank spot, where it's just table, with no books there, the new hotcake spot. I walk away, tour the bookstore, come back, somehow hoping I missed a crevice a slot, really wanting to read Obama now. Should I get it in Chinese? Joan Didion, Arianna Huffington, John Grey, Jeffrey Eugenides, Salmon Rushdie...I try my hand at fiction (OK John Gray is like an extended Oprah article), but I can't commit 100 yuan to anything. I spend more time reading chapters of Ariana, about being fearless, passages of the Magical Thinking, do I want to read Midnight's Children, and return to the Hillary, Bill, Powell, Gates, Trump, Buffet.

There is a british book about the history of Chinese Philosophy. I turn to Zhuangzi, who is still in Wade-Giles and known as Chuang Tse. I read and read about Man and Nature, how ZZ appreciates the natural aspects of living. That a big bird and a small bird have their flights. The big bird can fly 1000 kilometers, the small bird to the next tree. The small bird need not wish to fly 1000 KM and so it is happy to fly just to the next tree. If you try to make the small bird into a crane and elongate its legs, this is unnatural and this will cause misery. If you try to make a crane into a small bird and cut off its legs, this is unnatural and will cause misery.

Who can decide what is right and what is wrong? If I think I am right and your think you are right, and we choose someone who agrees with me, or someone who agrees with you, we can never decide who is right and who is wrong. One who agrees with neither of us cannot help us either.

No mention of butterly. Cool.

I look up.  And there it is.
It turns out someone had paid for it and never picked it up. It was just sitting in the back room and they just put it out. As I was reading the Zhuangzi. The sales girl continues to tell me that so many people had been asking for it and that they had sold out very fast, that they would not be getting anymore any time soon, that foreign books are slow to arrive.

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