Friday, April 17, 2009

Ding: You Tell Me

'I am blind,' says Dr. Ding.

And yet, when Rod of Paris (France) and Mike of Venice (California) and I visit his office on a crisp Sunday morning, he is with cheer and diligence, especially the part where he welcomes his visitors by having them spell out their name, which he then carefully writes out and then permanently has in his mind.  
Even when I spoke with him on the phone a couple of days ago, long after Rod and Mike have left Shanghai, Dr. Ding asks, 'How is Rod Ackermann?  And how is...Fairbanks?'
We sit and chat and sip tea.  Dr. Ding just loves it when visitors come to his office.   His English is superb, slow yet even, with pronunciation as fresh as the morning.  He asks questions about his guests, his 89-year-old mind curious like a child, but sly with wry remarks.  He will talk about the past, at one point referring to the 'so-called Cultural Revolution.'  Wait a sec Dr, Ding...why do you say 'so-called'?  His jolly disposition turns emphatic:  'Because it was a cultural disaster!'

After a good hour of chat, he asks us to sit in a row opposite him.  Mike and I squeeze in next to Rod--no matter what our education, we are three obedient students eager to have class begin. Dr. Ding opens his top drawer and takes out a deck of cards.  Aha, a card trick.  He shuffles with them a bit; in hindsight, there is some under-the-desk legerdemain happening--it could just be that one card that was face up half way through the deck.  

He mentions 'Le Rouge et Le Noir.'  He asks Rod of Paris for the correct pronunciation in French and practices it a couple of times.  Then, because his French is not as crisp as his English (I guess that would be appropriate for l'accent francaise) he says something muttery, and upon franco-deciphering, it is 'Proust,' who, of course, wrote Le Rouge et Le Noir, which Ding read a long time ago.

With the deck of cards firmly in his left hand, he flips over the top card and asks:  What color is this?  It is red.  He puts it to one side.  He flips over a second card:  What color is this?  It is black.  He puts it to the other side.  Dr. Ding then asks the magic question:  'What are the chances for a card to be black or red?'  I beat out the boys and reply:  50-50.  The answer hangs in the air.

Dr. Ding then systematically asks us to guess if a card is red or black.  Ding calls his first student. 'Rod'; he guesses black, Ding keeps the card face down and places it with the black card.  'Mike'; he guesses red, it's placed face down with the red card.  'Alice'; I guess red, it's placed with red.  'Rod,' guess, place; 'Mike.' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place; 'Rod,' guess, place; 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place; 'Rod,' guess, place; 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place...and so on. I always say red.  

We continue, starting to feel the pace of an 89-year-old man's card trick.  Perhaps this is a way to cultivate those good Chinese virtues of patience and obedience.  He dutifully and correctly places each guess with its assigned pile, red with red, black with black, slowly, assuredly, nothing up his sleeves. This repeated task is hypnotic, but we can see with our own eyes that it is nothing more than this. And so halfway through the deck, a card is face up.  Mike tells: Dr. Ding, there's a card face up. 'O, what color is it?' Ding asks.  It's black.
With this new upturned card, he makes a new black pile.  He flips over the next card: 'What color is this?'  It's red, and that is a new pile too.  'Rod,' guess, place; 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place; 'Rod,' guess, place' 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place...Rod, though he lives in France, shows his good Swiss colors and sees that the red pile is getting unruly, and counters with some guesses of black...'Rod,' black, place; 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place; 'Rod,' black, place; 'Mike,' guess, place; 'Alice,' red, place; 'Rod'...until the deck has been completely distributed.

'Now,' Ding says, 'you say that the chance is 50-50.  Let's see.'

Ding flips over all of the cards in the first red pile: they are all red.  He flips over all of the cards in the second red pile:  they are all red.  He flips over all of the cards in the first black pile:  they are all black.  He flips over all of the cards in the second black pile: they are all black.

We are silent.

'What color are they?' he asks.  'I am blind, I cannot see.'

'Wait a second...' I'm all vocal.  'How did you do that?'

'You tell me.  How did you do it?  You told me the red or black.  I am blind, I cannot see.'

I can feel not only the top of my head missing, but Rod and Mike are feeling equally breezy around the cranium.
Journalist Rod, who has a pretty good answer for mostly everything, is checking to see if maybe Ding can see.
He checks out the cards: yup, regular deck.
'Marco?'                           'POLO!'
Dr. Ding calls over to the restaurant to let them know we are coming over.
Um, how did you do that Dr. Ding?  'You tell me.'
But seriously, how did you do that?  'You tell me.  I am blind.'
No, but really, how did you do that?  'You tell me.  You all three did it.'

At one point, just to get some bearings I ask Dr. Ding: if you are blind why do you wear glasses?'O that is just for decoration.'
It might be because after a full meal of gorgeous steamed fish, light and crisply battered steak slices, garlic greens and a delicious tofu situation that we all look disturbed because we then each got our own honking bowl of dumplings with the freshest broth tinged with white pepper. But no seriously, we were all left a lil' disturbed, in that amazed way, in that I-can't-quite-wrap-my-head-around-that a blind guy.

I wonder what card master Ricky Jay will do when he's blind and 89.  It's so great how Dr. Ding can make 'seeing' such a literal act.  That is what was in the room--the essence of seeing beyond, at least crafting a performance that causes the sighted not to be able to see.
After lunch, we return to Dr. Ding's office, back to the scene of the chime. We ask him for a recommendation for a hotel in the French Concession cuz the Einstein Room at the Astor House Hotel was booked that last night that Rod was in town.  Dr. Ding of course had a couple of recommendations--he knows all of Shanghai like the back of his deck of cards.  And so he insisted on getting the number for the hotels and calling to find out availability and price.  And so he takes out his address book...
...which is just a big ol' stack of these handwritten numbers.  'O I can't read Chinese too well, Dr. Ding,' I tell him.  'Maybe we should just call information.'

Speaking of information, Dr. Ding...

'You tell me.'

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