I was on my way to record audio at EF headquarters, walking along Nanjing Xi Lu and listening to my headphones. Voice acting is fun for me, and today's session would be mostly dedicated to the Rio project. EF is the official English language provider for the 2016 Rio Olympics, and I feel proud to be contributing to that.
As I walked, I noticed a man coming toward me on the sidewalk. His yellowish robes, shaved head, and ready smile seemed very familiar and friendly as we made eye contact. My family and I had visited some monasteries and had met a few Buddhist monks here and there during our time in Qinghai in the late 1980s.
While still about 50 feet away from each other, I noticed he was holding a small pink book in one hand and a little yellow card in the other. I saw a couple of Shanghainese swerve widely around him, as if he had a disease. I wasn't surprised at their reaction, but it still hurt a little. After all, this guy had renounced everything in his life to follow Buddha--couldn't people treat him like a human being?
I smiled at the monk as we passed each other, and he handed me a little card. It was a cheesy holograph of the Guanyin Boddhisattva. I was familiar with her--a being of compassion that figured as prominently in The Journey to the West as Athena did in The Odyssey. A boddhisattva, for those of you who aren't sure, is a being that had achieved enlightenment (like a buddha), but has stayed on Earth to help others do the same. The closest thing in Christian religion? Sort of a guardian angel.
I'd barely taken a quick look at the card before the monk pushed his pink book under my nose. I noticed that others had written their names in the book (in Chinese characters, of course). I think he meant to pray for me? A pen appeared from one of the folds in the monk's robe, and I said, "Oh! Okay, I'll sign your book." We smiled at each other again, and as I was signing, he slipped a bracelet around my left wrist. It was made of brown and tan marbled plastic beads, with a silver buddha on one side and a Chinese character on the other (I later learned this was the Mandarin for buddha).
"Oh!" I said, delighted, "thank you. Xie xie!"
"Bu keqi," he said, and pointed at the next column in the book. I noticed that there were numbers. 200 and above.
Something clicked in my brain. He wanted money. Well, that's how a lot of religions work, I thought. Amazingly, I wasn't getting frustrated about this. I pulled out my little wallet. It was a cross between burlap and canvas. My sister and I had bought them at Yuyuan Gardens--a total tourist trap--for 10 kuai (or $1.50) each. Mine had Chinese characters on it that read: Qian bu shi wenti. Wenti shi mei qian. Money is not problem. Problem is no money.
When I started to pull out 20 kuai (I knew that bracelet couldn't have been worth more than that), the monk waved his hand back and forth: no no no! "One hundred," he said in English. I was pretty sure he'd peeped into my wallet and knew I had the money.
"Oh, God," I mumbled. "Okay, okay." 100 RMB is around $17 USD. I handed him the note. All RMB is stamped with Mao's visage, which I thought was really funny right about now, considering Mao had tried to shut down Buddhism during the Cultural Revolution.
In spite of shelling out more than I'd wanted to, I couldn't stop smiling at this guy, and I continued to feel delighted for the next half hour or so.
Later that same day after work, I was walking to the train. Passing through the tunnels was always interesting around Wujiaochang. A recessed circle--a sort of courtyard--was sunken beneath the freeways overhead, and The Egg--an interesting oblong shape made of woven metal--was all lit up overhead. Blue and green lights chased each other over The Egg's entire 100-foot length. People bustled here and there, holding fancy paper bags with Uncle Tetsu's cheesecake inside, or plastic bags with takeout in them. The ladies wore bright green and yellow dresses with jungle patterns, tiptoeing on their high heels like exotic birds. Men held their girlfriends' pink handbags without the slightest hesitation, and other men looked like dandy gay models in their super-skinny red cropped jeans and tilted fedoras.
There were a few old people I always saw--grandmas trying to sell little things they'd knitted or men trying to sell puffed rice or corn cooked up earlier in the day. One old guy was always shirtless, sitting on some steps and playing a Chinese flute--quite well, I might add. His music sounded like old China--imagine one of those traditional black and white watercolor paintings, the misty mountains and waterfalls of Guilin. I'd given this guy money before, but wasn't passing close enough to him today.
There was another old dude I'd passed before, a guy with tufty white hair and a broad, childlike grin who wove interesting animals out of palm fronds. Dragons, birds, and crickets dangled on the long palm "leashes" he'd somehow woven into their backs. He held these in his hands like balloon strings.
I'd talked to him before going home to the States for 3 weeks. Our conversation, all in Mandarin (I say proudly) consisted of me bartering the price down to 10 kuai each and telling him I couldn't buy them now but would buy three when I went home to visit my family in America.
However, when the time came for me to pack up and leave, I couldn't find the old man.
The same night I met the monk, I ran into the palm animal guy. We smiled big smiles at each other, and I walked right up to him, my eyes on a specific one.
"Shi kuai, shi kuai!" he said, remembering our price, even though it had been nearly two months since I'd seen him. "Qingting," he continued, noticing where my eyes went.
"Qingting," I replied, unnecessarily pointing to the dragonfly. I handed him my 10 RMB with both hands, a sign of respect, and he laughed, one small little laugh. I walked away, delighted, like a child holding her first balloon.