Sunday, November 26, 2006

On The Lam

Last night while I’m watching TV, I hear a helicopter pass over my house. It’s very loud and close. A minute later, it returns and sounds like it’s directly over my roof. I look through the window and see lights overhead. Either it’s a local TV news crew or the United Nations has deployed their black helicopters to begin their world government tonight.

I step onto my back porch and look up. I see a helicopter circling around with a searchlight. I have a bad feeling about this. The last time I was in this situation was when I lived in Sacramento, CA six years ago. At that time, three police officers were in my front yard, crouching with guns drawn. They were searching for an escaped convict.

I reach for my cell phone and call 911. The operator asks me, “Is this an emergency?”
“Not really…I see a helicopter overhead with a searchlight. What does that mean?” I respond.

“There was a robbery at 3500 Fairfax Ave. tonight, so we’re searching for the suspects.”

Fairfax is 2 blocks over from my house.

“I suppose I should stay inside and keep my doors locked, right?” I inquire.

“Yes, that would be a good idea.” She confirms. With that, I call my neighbor Patricio and point out the helicopter to him as well. I look up the location of the robbery and find that it’s just down the street.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Down and Out in Dupont


On Friday night, my friend Sophal is visiting DC from New York. After we meet for a few hours, his friend offers to drive me home. We walk to Dupont Circle, where he is parked. I wait for him while he is using the bathroom. It is a cold and windy night.

A homeless black man with a slice of pizza drooping in his right hand approaches me.

He asks me, “Can I ask you a question?”

I reply sarcastically, “You just did.”

“Can I ask you another question?” he continues.

“Yes,” I say. With the pizza in his hand, I am fairly certain that he will not ask me for food.

“I’m trying to get an ID. It’s $20 at the DMV. I only have $6 in my pocket, so if you can spare a dollar, that would be very much appreciated.” He gives me the exact address of the DMV.

In his 40s, Kevin is disheveled and wears a big mustache reaching around the corners of his mouth. He has on a blue jacket, dark pants and black shoes. He is exceedingly polite.

“One time, I was on the street begging and a group of men passed by. One said, ‘Fuck you nigger!’ I thought that was uncalled for.”

Kevin describes his life since finding sobriety: “I have been sober since October 22, 2002. I’m trying to clean up my life.” He tells us that he works part time at the DC Convention Center for $10.69 an hour, but “it’s not enough, so I’m still on the streets.” He still attends his AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings.

“Change if you must, die if you will!” he says authoritatively.

I ask him if he has family in DC.

“My brother was shot. My mother died of cancer. My father passed. That leaves just me.” He quickly explains. Kevin grew up in Northeast DC, which is considered the ghetto above H street.

“Where are you staying tonight?” I inquire.

“Out here on the streets,” he replies.

“It’s cold. Isn’t there a shelter?” I probe further.

“The CCNV is close by, but it’s past the hour at which I can get in, so…” he explains.

“It’s also dangerous because they can steal your shit, right?” I add.

“Yeah – I got my blanket and bag stolen there. So, everything I own is on my back.” He tells us.

Kevin sometimes attends the First Praise Church in Forestville, MD if he can catch the church van that picks up the homeless at the nearby shelter. He gives me enough details about the church service to make me believe him. He quotes a passage from “The Good Book.”

“Change if you must, die if you will!” he repeats.

“Once, a man wanted to take me inside to buy me a hamburger, but I hadn’t showered in a long time. I was ashamed to go inside,” he recounts.

Kevin impresses me with his clear mind and very detailed references. I find him to be persuasive and sympathetic. My friend agrees that Kevin’s overall beggar presentation is very logical. I normally don’t give money to the homeless, but I was prepared to give him at least $5. In the end, with my friend giving him $5, I give him $1.

In the car on my way home, my friend tells me that he has worked in the same homeless shelter that Kevin referred to in our talk.

While Kevin may have missed the chance to find save haven in the shelter tonight, he can use his time productively to beg for a few more dollars. To most people, that’s a terrible situation to be in; however, to Kevin and many others like him, it’s just a part of life on the streets.

Friday, September 22, 2006

True Father Loves You: mixing and mingling with the Moonies

Sunday 9/10/2006

Moonies. To the uninitiated, the word sounds like a cookie or fattening dessert. Perhaps, both are attractive on the surface, but contain questionable ingredients that may warp your body or mind.

For some time now, I’ve wanted to visit the Moonie Church in Mount Pleasant. As a part of my ongoing spiritual exploration, I discovered the place when I lived briefly in the neighborhood in December 2005. They go by a few different names. They’re known as the Unification Church, but they’ve recently changed their name to Washington Family Church. However, when I arrived, the name on the building read “Peace King Church.” The program cover read, “Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.” And, according to this webpage, their really, truly, official name is The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. For the purposes of this column, I will refer to them simply as “Moonies.”

Most people have a negative image of the Moonies as a cult. After all, why shouldn’t they? This is the group that Reverend Sun Myung Moon of Korea founded in his youth. According to Church Doctrine, when Moon was 16 years old, Jesus Christ came to him in a dream and asked him to complete the second coming.

In his youth, he practiced blood separation. Originally, "Blood cleansing" as defined by Moon was accomplished for any male by having sexual relations with a woman that had been "cleansed" by Moon (i.e., had sexual relations with Moon). Let me stop here for a brief editorial comment: any guy who starts a religion and says all the women have to sleep with him – and the women comply – is a genius. Ok back to the story…

My housemate used to be a Moonie in Siberia. While he is no longer a Moonie, he is still very fond of them. Why? You may ask. Well, the Moonies were the ones who taught him English and invited him to their weekend training camps. It was there that he lost his virginity. Now, try to tell him that the Moonies are a weird group! As radical feminist author Catharine Mackinnon once said, you can’t argue with an orgasm.

Morning Service
While I told my housemate that I would like him to accompany me on my initial visit, he has been much too busy. Recently, I met John, a GW student with a similar interest in the occult. He visited the Church in the Spring and survived, so as a precaution, I thought it would be a good idea to visit together. (There have been reports of the Moonies kidnapping people and holding them against their will for some time.) So, one Sunday morning I meet John outside the Church for the 10am service. The 16th street gates are closed. We enter on the side where there’s a little café with a menu written on a large wooden tablet.

We go up some steps. A video camera in the corner records our entry. The room has six rows of 10 seats each. The piano lady is playing a familiar tune: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic?" A black lady sits in the back behind a table. A few people are already in their seats. Surprisingly, the congregation consists mostly of black members. One gentleman wears an African dashiki, a colorful flowing robe with bright oranges and reds. A few kids sit in the aisles. One Korean woman sits in the very back.

Although today is 9-10-2006, the date on the wall reads 8-27-2006. Two white banners hang on either side of the stage:

The left banner: “God’s ideal family.” In the middle of the banner reads the title “Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace.” Below it is an image of the world with two doves with olive branches in their beaks.

The right banner: “The model for world peace.”

It’s still a few minutes before 10am, so I look around for someone to talk to. As I step outside the hall, Joseph, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, Israel asks me, “Excuse me, where is the exit?” I point him in the right direction. Joseph is also visiting for the first time. I catch him as he sneaks out for a cigarette break. An amiable gentleman, he speaks with a heavy accent. He’s in his mid 40s and has been in the DC area almost two years. He’s nearly bald, with a round face. He has the hands of a wrestler. His thumb is about three times the size of my thumb. Joseph is in the construction business, but is currently unemployed.

“It is hard to find a job in the US,” he says with a sigh. “You don’t even know your neighbors.”

He complains, “no one speaks the same language here. You walk in this neighborhood and everyone speaks Spanish.” He has tried to find a construction job at a site, but the Spanish-speaking managers tell him to return the next day, with no luck.

The service begins about 10:10am. Moonie time.

The pastor stands behind the podium with a laptop, and a tissue box on the side. The stained glass window behind him consists of three tablets that contain a globe and some flowers below.

Pastor Gam, in his suit and tie, announces that Family Pledge #1, 2, 6 and 8 are changing. “From now on, please start using this version,” referring to the new one in his hand. He is from Zambia and has been in the DC area three years and four months.

A ginormous portrait of Moon hangs on the back wall, occupying one half of the stage: He and his wife are adorned in white robes with vertical gold lines, white crowns like the Burger King crown, and a big smile.

The service continues with praise songs: “In my heart of hearts, Father, I pledge my life to you.” Father, in this case, refers to Rev. Moon, not the God of Abraham.

The members read the Family Pledge, first in phonetic Korean and then in English.

After a number of songs, the service leads to a very Catholic ritual: the shaking of one’s neighbor’s hands. However, there is no accompanying phrase like the Catholic Mass, “May the Lord be with you.” So, I improvise, “May the True Father be with you!” No one repeats my phrase.

A pregnant pause.

Minister Gam, with a heavy African accent, (which is 80% incomprehensible) introduces himself to John and me. He is a friendly soul with glasses and could just as easily be a Catholic Priest in another time and place.

Another speaker makes some announcements about upcoming workshops and moving sales.

The announcement in the back of the program reads,

“Pledge Service To Be Held Every Eight Days on Ahn Shi II—On April 19th, 2004, on True Parents’ Day Father proclaimed that the time of the Sabbath as one day has been fulfilled and we are now in the era when every day should be the Sabbath. From April 19th Father proclaimed that every eight days will be the day in which we conduct the Cheon II Guk Pledge. (Sunday will no longer be the pledge.) April 27th Father held the first such pledge service. On May 5th Father held the second Pledge Service and on that eight day, Wednesday, May 5th Father conducted the commencement of the Ahn Shi II…”

Let’s fill this room!
Rev. John Dickson delivers the sermon with a constant smile. He is upbeat, wears a khaki sports jacket sans tie. In his mid to late 40s, he speaks with a gentle cadence. By now, the room grows to about 30 people.

His original degree was in architecture at Cornell. He recounted the story of how Cornell built a new wing to a building. “The builders planted grass and waited one year. They built the sidewalk over the areas where the grass did not grow.” He continued with the building metaphor.

“We’ve built the house. The foundation is complete. Now we need carpenters and electricians.”

“Father Moon says, once the marrow has left the bone, it’s done. There are 6.5 billion people who struggle in agony and sin. Your third mission is to ‘bring them home.’ After all, they are our brothers and sisters.”

Referring to the giant portrait of Rev. Moon and his wife behind him, Dickson asks, “Have you ever seen a picture of George Bush this big? Or George Washington? Or Lincoln? For Americans to come into this culture, it’s a difficult thing. We’re all very different.”

Unlike Joseph, the reverend praises the neighborhood’s linguistic diversity. “You almost never hear English in this neighborhood. For example, a German guy was asking an Ethiopian and Hispanic for directions to downtown DC.”

He discussed their goals and how to accomplish them.

“Lenin and Stalin were imitations of the ideal of showing the world ie Satan.” Rev. Dickson was in Romania one week after their dictator Caecescu was shot. “I went into the palace, which is big enough for you to park a 747 airplane. We overthrew the Kings. George Washington gave up power after two terms. That was the biggest revolution.”

Sweet Potato Search
“How many people were born in the US?” he begins. Four hands go up. “Notice I did not ask how many people are American! My wife speaks English, and is from England. Women come from a much more different culture than people from another country.”

Reverend Dickson describes the sweet potato and how its roots are connected to other sweet potatoes underground. “Be careful not to yank it out. Pull it out gently.” Once you do this, then you can reach other sweet potatoes. “That’s what we do wrong now. We yank it out.” In other words, don’t be too forceful when talking to non-Moonies about the movement or you risk offending them.

“Don’t expect Father Moon to be popular. You know my biggest fear when I joined this movement?”

A pregnant pause.

“That it would become popular!”


Dickson dispensed some advice on dealing with powerful people in Washington, DC. “I always get introduced to them.” He gave the example of Frank Carlucci, former Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan, claiming him as a “friend of mine.” Since Carlucci knows many other powerful people, it is much easier for them to accept him if Carlucci makes the introduction.

After the introduction, Dickson can then ask the new person, “Do you know someone who would like to go to the Bahamas to discuss the nature of God?” If they want to go, “they’ll tell you.” He continues, “I invite everyone to everything.” That way, there’s no obligation. For example, I send you to Korea for one week, then you come back and feel like you owe me.

“We only have 7 years and 6.5 billion people. Don’t wait! It’s time now.” We’re building. We’re above ground now.” He encourages the people in the room to recruit new members, “Let’s lift this screen. We almost filled the room today. Invite a friend.” Expressing his admiration for his parishioners, he waxed, “I appreciate all of you. You’re so special! You’re willing to do this even though it’s not your own culture. God bless you!”

He stated that the unification of the spirit world is not complete. He ended by alluding to a popular view of insanity: if you do the same things over and over again, but expect different results. In other words, it’s time to try a new approach to expand membership.

Concluding prayers
“Heavenly Father—thank you for loving us. We offer you our whole family, and our future is to invite those 6.5 Billion people home to know you.”

In the gift shop, I discover the book, The Role of a True Wife, a collection of thoughts by one of Moon’s disciples on the role of a Moonie wife. For example, it teaches that a wife should always be affectionate with her husband; furthermore, she should never sleep in bed with her back to her man. It also expounds on the health benefits of massaging one’s intestines.

One gentleman asks us if we are first or second generation? I reply “second,” thinking he is asking about my immigration background. John explains to me later that in reality, he wants to know if I am a convert or the child of Moonie converts.

He invites us to lunch in the basement dining room. We decline as we head out the door. Maybe next time. Besides, I want to introduce John to Ercilia’s, the best pupuseria restaurant in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood that serves up El Savodorean pancakes. At least I know what ingredients go into making them.

* * *

If you want to become a Moonie or join the True Family, go to:
1610 Columbia Rd NW, Washington, 20009 - (202) 462-5700

They welcome new victims…er, ah recruits. If you join, that’s one down and only 6,499,999,999 more to go.

Here are some websites for more information.

Salon article

Monday, September 11, 2006

Test Drive: DC Chinatown bus trip to Philadelphia

Sunday 8/27/06

As I stood in line to board the Chinatown bus, I asked the fellow in front, “Is this the Philadelphia bus?”

He shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know.”

“You’re late!” the ticket collector bellowed.

“There’s still 10 minutes before you leave,” I replied. “Yes, but you’re supposed to be here 30 minutes before departure,” he reprimanded me as he took my ticket. As we were about to leave, two more passengers knocked on the door. The bus driver told them, “We’re full.”

“I have a ticket,” he responded.

“You’re late! We’re leaving now,” our bus driver barked, a bit upset.

“But my bags are already on the bus. I walked away for a few minutes to get something,” the late passenger tried to explain.

At this point, he and the bus driver raised their voices. Expletives were exchanged. Passengers craned their necks or stood up to see the commotion. It was unclear exactly, but I suspect the bus driver removed the late passenger’s bags. We took off—5 minutes early.

When we arrived at Baltimore, we picked up a few more passengers. Another man relieved our bus driver. I recognized him as the fellow in front of me in line. However, he sat there for a brief moment before the first driver told him--in Chinese--to release the emergency brakes. The first driver stood on the steps by the door for a few minutes, monitoring his replacement’s progress.

“Don’t follow the other car so closely,” he warned his friend. Soon, he sat down to read his newspapers.

The bus proceeded quite smoothly for another hour or so. Shortly before we arrived in Philadelphia, the driver pulled the bus onto the shoulder and exchanged positions again with the first driver. We arrived in Philadelphia at 2:15pm--exactly as scheduled.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Tea Time with Ms. Nien Cheng 8/19/06

Preparing for my Shanghai trip
Prior to my business trip to Shanghai in April 2006, I wanted to read up on the city’s political and social history. I peered through my book shelf and saw a copy of Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng. I had bought the book a few years ago from a library book sale because it looked like an interesting read; however, I had never read the book. So, I thought this was a good opportunity for me to educate myself on a slice of Shanghai ’s past.

Cheng's book recounts in compelling details her persecution and imprisonment at the hands of Mao Zedong's red guards in the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976). Inquisitors accused her of being an “imperial spy,” but she never gave in during her six years of solitary confinement. Her only daughter Meiping was murdered in the first year of her incarceration, but she did not find out until shortly before she was released. The Library Journal wrote, “We read this, not so much for historical analysis, but, like the literature of the Gulag in Russia, for an example of a humane spirit telling terrible truths honestly, without bitterness or cynicism.”

I stayed up all night to read the final 150 pages of the 560 page book. It sounds trite, but I could not put the book down. Parts of her book will make you cry. When I finished the book, I was so moved that I wanted to see if the author was still alive. She was 71 when the book was published in 1986, so she would be 91 now. Instinctively, I googled her. I found a DC address and a phone number. When I called, an elderly woman’s voice was on the outgoing message, “Please leave your name and number.” So, I suspected that she was still alive. I wrote her a little note thanking her for writing the book. I also wrote that if it is possible, it would be my honor to meet her one day. I did not expect a reply.

That Memorial Day weekend, I went hiking in the mountains of Western Maine . When I returned, I found a message in my email account from the author. She wrote that ever since her book was published, she has never refused to see a reader. “I am honored when a reader wants to see me. Generally they are interested in China. Usually they are full of interesting questions.”

Nien’s friends have cautioned her on welcoming so many visitors: “They ask me, ‘why do you let all these visitors come? What if they kill you?’ But, why would they do that? I’ve never done anyone wrong.”

The meeting
After a few months of email exchanges, we finally settled on an afternoon meeting for August 19, 2006 .

When I meet her, I shake her hands. They are pale and slightly gnarled—the result of arthritis compounded by six years of torture at the hands of fanatical red guards. “It is an honor to meet you,” I began.

“It is good to meet you. It is always good to see young Chinese. You know, most of my visitors are American (meaning, non-Chinese).”

At 91, Nien appears to be more energetic than many 70 year olds. She is skinny, upbeat and very lucid. Her hair is now completely white. Glasses sit atop her sharp nose. She speaks in a cheerful tone with a slight British accent.

“Should I take my shoes off?” I ask politely.

There are fresh vacuum tracks on the blue-green carpet. “No, that’s not necessary,” she says as she invites me in to sit down on the couch. She walks to the kitchen to prepare tea.

Her living room walls are decorated with various Chinese scrolls. On one side of the room by the door, books line the shelves. I see a few Chinese end tables here and there.

I take out my two prepared gifts: a small package of baklava from my corner Halal meat store and a package of Taiwan ’s High Mountain green tea. She accepts the baklava, having never eaten it before, but declines the tea. I think she is just being polite. “You must accept the tea,” I insist.

“I cannot. It’s a medical condition—I’ll explain.”

She serves me a huge piece of Black Forest chocolate cake with frosting and two cups of tea. When I begin to drink, she explains that both cups of tea are for me. She cannot drink tea. She had one of her kidneys removed many years ago. Since then, her doctor has advised her to abstain from tea, since the acid will build up in her remaining kidney and eventually damage it, killing her. “From the time my kidney fails to my death, there will be about three days,” she explains in a matter-of-fact way.

As a young woman, she studied at the Yan J ing University in Shandong Province . Her father, who was fond of Britain , sent her to study at one of England ’s finest Universities. People in England , he said, knew their places in society. In other words, he preferred the class distinctions. (Nien observed however, that the US is special because “in one generation, you can do better than your parents.”)

Her tutor at the London School of Economics could not pronounce her name Yao Nien Yuan, so suggested that she adopt “Nancy” or “Nina.” She refused. She asked her tutor to simply call her Nien. In time, she would take her husband’s surname Cheng to form Nien Cheng. However, to her American friends now, she is known simply as Nien.

While at School in London , she met a young Mr. Cheng, whom she would eventually marry. He invited her to movies and dinners and would go to the country with her on a green bus only after lunch because of his morning church service. A religious man, he began to invite Nien to his Presbyterian Church service. Despite a Buddhist mother and a non-religious father, she would eventually adopt Christianity. She is now Methodist.

A Return Visit to England
In the mid 1980s, She made a visit to some friends and former coworkers from Shell Oil, her old company. While staying at their home, the daughter of her hosts was also visiting from school. She invited along her friend, who was in the book publishing business. When Nien recounted her story and her completed manuscript, the daughter’s friend wanted to read it. Nien promised to send her a copy.

After she returned to DC, she went to the post office to post a copy of the manuscript to London . “At the time, I did not have much money,” recounted Ms. Cheng. The package would cost her about $20. She asked for a lower rate. The clerk explained that the lowest rate was surface or about $6.00, which sounded like a much more reasonable figure to the cash-strapped author. She understood that at the surface rate, the package could easily take a month or more to make its way to London on a ship.

Later, she received a phone call from London . It was the book publisher. “Nien—have you had a chance to post the manuscript yet?”

Nien explained that she had indeed, about a week earlier.

“But, I have not yet received it,” she replied.

“I sent it by surface,” Nien explained.

Her book publishing friend was stupefied.

After the manuscript arrived safely and the book publishing friend read it, she offered Nien £30,000 (In today’s currency, accounting for inflation, this amount is roughly $100,000). Having never published or sold a manuscript before, Nien consulted some friends in New York City . Both of them advised her to accept right away for some key reasons: first, since she was an unknown author, many publishers would not take a chance on her. Second, £30,000 wasn’t a bad amount for a first book. Once the book came out, it became a bestseller. Soon, publishers in the US and Australia wanted to buy the rights to her manuscript.

Lecture circuit
The speaking invitations arrived shortly after the book was published. First, it was the Universities. So, Nien traveled across the country speaking to young people about her story. Then, corporations and businesses came calling, asking her to speak to their conventions. She traveled to Japan and many other places for a few years. In Japan , she delivered five speeches at $10,000 each.

One year, President Ronald Reagan invited her to a state dinner. She sat to one side and another guest from Central America sat to his other side. However, the other guest spoke no English, so required a translator. So, President Reagan was more comfortable speaking with Nien the entire night.

She served on a special government commission to sponsor a radio program that would be broadcast to the Chinese. Similar to the Voice of America, the program would teach democracy to the Chinese audience. Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) sponsored the legislation creating the program. To dedicate herself fully to this government appointment, she cancelled her speaking engagements for the year.

Nien believes her book has been more successful than other accounts of the Cultural Revolution for two reasons. First, her book contains historic background besides an account of her personal suffering. Understandably, her book is used in high school classrooms and universities to study the Cultural Revolution. Second, she did not use too many Chinese names, which can be very confusing for Western readers. For example, she would introduce her cook as Lao Zhao, but thereafter refer to him simply as “the cook.” Nien recently bought three copies of the new book Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chung. She kept one for herself, but gave away two to friends. One friend says she cannot finish the book because “there are too many names for her to keep track of.”

I’ve found that forgiveness is a strong theme in Christianity. In 1981, Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt. Two years later, he forgave his would-be assassin and even met with him in prison, saying “I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust." What feelings does Nien hold for her red guard tormentors? Surprisingly, Nien says she has forgiven them, saying simply, “They were doing their jobs.” However, “I cannot forgive my daughter’s murderer.”

I pull out my copy of her book and ask for her autograph. She takes the book to her living room table.

“What is today’s date?” Nien asks me as she begins to pen her note and autograph to me.

“August 19.” I reply.

“Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday,” she says softly.

I do a quick calculation in my head. Her daughter Meiping would be about 60 had she lived.

“Please come back in a few months, maybe late September or October and tell me how your law school plans go. I’ve given up driving, so if you come with a car, we can go to dinner at a Chinese restaurant.”

I thank her and shake her hand a final time. These are the hands that typed up her manuscript five times on a manual typewriter.

I look at my watch -- 8:20pm . Four hours have passed.

I leave feeling that I’ve been blessed by meeting a graceful lady, whose best revenge of all may be that she has outlived her tormentors. I detect not a hint of anger or bitterness at those who caused her so much pain.

She has already suffered enough for many lifetimes. She lost her home, her liberty, her daughter and nearly lost her life. Despite all these setbacks, Nien maintains a remarkably optimistic Life Philosophy: everyday is a new day. Naturally, on the front cover of the book, she is smiling in her picture. I now know why.

Shanghai Sojourn: April 2006

In mid April, I had the pleasure to travel to Shanghai, China for a week to speak to the Shanghai Institute for International Strategic Studies on US-China relations and American Democracy Export. The institute was particularly interested in my work for the International Republican Institute, which promotes democracy worldwide.

The day before I departed for Shanghai, I met with a state department friend who advised me to cancel the trip. He believed this was a classic case of a foreign government making me an asset or gathering information from me in the guise of an academic trip.

He cautioned me, "they know a LOT about our political party system and we know next to nothing about theirs, so why give away the playbook?" I responded that I would only tell them what can be found through a google search.

However, if I do go, then I should

*Not accept the reimbursement for my travel costs, which is usually in cash.
*I should also not accept the offer of a car or driver/minder to travel with me for sightseeing.
*I should not make any phone calls from my government hotel as it is most likely bugged

He also warned me that every few hours, I may receive phone calls in my room asking me if I want a massage. Some visitors fall for this tactic, which is used to obtain sensitive information. After our talk, I became a bit paranoid. If my hosts had such devious motives, then perhaps I really should cancel. However, after some more thought, I decided to go after all. It was a rare opportunity for cultural exchange.

My official talk would be the Monday after my arrival. After that, I was free and on my own, but being kind Chinese hosts, they wanted to send one of their staff to "take care of me" by accompanying me to the neighboring cities Suzhou and Hangzhou, even though that part is personal sight seeing. They also would book the hotels in those cities, too.

Day 1: Sunday, 4-16-06
Arrival at Pudong Airport
Johnson Hu, the research institute's assistant, waits for me with a piece of paper with my name. He is in a quiet area apart from where the general public has to wait for arrivals. Johnson is dressed in a dark suit and tie. He is 35, but his glasses give him a younger, engineer look. He leads me to the parking garage where a car and driver pick us up.

Johnson is from Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province. He's resided in Shanghai for the last 10 years. He wears a short haircut and speaks fairly fluent, but methodical English. He tells me that he's visited the US for two weeks in 2002: DC, Boston, New York, Las Vegas. (Somehow, most Chinese delegations to the US must include a stopover in sin city.) When he was in DC, he got a view of the US Congress and the White House only from the outside. I told him, "For your next visit, please call me and I'll take you inside the Capitol."

Johnson asks me if I speak Chinese. I respond modestly, "mama huhu," or not very well. We continue our conversation in English.

As we leave the airport for the heart of Shanghai , Johnson explains that the current airport is only 1/3 complete. It will be some time before it is completely built. However, in China "some time" can mean a short time. As we cross the Huangpu river I see cranes dotting the landscape. Johnson delivers me to the Equatorial Hotel and says he will pick me up in the morning.

Dinner with Tony Chen

Tony used to be the Asian American outreach liaison at the Republican National Committee (RNC) under the first Bush Administration. When I was doing Asian American outreach for the RNC in 2002, I would always hear the name Tony Chen when I traveled the country to meet key Asian American leaders. I finally met Tony a few years ago when he returned to DC for a short visit. We've stayed in touch ever since. Tony is the one who recommended me as a speaker to the institute. In his mid 40s, Tony speaks with a soft, but clear voice. He's been in Shanghai for the last decade working for a few companies, including Yum Foods, which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Tony came to the Equatorial Hotel after 7pm to see me. The Shanghai Foreign Affairs office runs the four star hotel. In its day, it used to be the best Shanghai had to offer Foreigners, but it is now eclipsed by the Hilton Hotel behind it. For a government hotel, the Equatorial feels like a five star facility. One night's stay runs about 800RMB or about $100.

We walk on the people bridge, past the park and toward the mall. Tony's advice to me when I'm walking on the people bridge: avoid the street vendors from Xin Jiang province (next to Tibet). They're usually Hui Minorities and are "very aggressive." A few Chinese men push business cards toward any foreigners who walk by, usually to sell airplane tickets or watches.

The first place we go to has shut down. And the second place is not open until two days later. So, we go to the closest Shanghai restaurant on the block. At dinner, Tony gives me a quick lesson on Chinese lecture etiquette. During my talk, I should not be surprised if a cell phone or two goes off and they speak in the room. Or, if participants fall asleep during my talk. Apparently, this is quite common in Chinese symposiums. Tony alerted me that the institute had one objection to one slide in my PowerPoint presentation: a cartoon depicting President Hu Jintao as an angry dragon when meeting with President Bush. I agreed to remove it for the good of US-China relations.

When Tony first arrived in shanghai many years ago, he had a horrific experience at a Karaoke club. The manager tried to bully him to pay 10,000RMB (about $1250) for a few drinks. He closed the door and had couple of his goons show up to scare Tony. Fortunately, for Tony, he was a smooth talker. He pulled out his US passport and told the manager that he was a US Government Official. "If you don't let me out right now, then this place will be closed down tomorrow!" They released him immediately.

Despite the warnings about safety, Tony reassures me that Shanghai has a great reputation as a fairly safe city. With that, we take a taxi back to the hotel and I prepare for the big day.

Day 2: Monday, 4-17-06
The Lecture

Johnson takes me to the nearby research institute to meet director Xia Liping, an amiable gentleman with a big smile. He is from Fuzhou, Fujian province, right across Taiwan. He is perhaps in his 50s, but like most Chinese, looks 10 years younger than his actual age. Must be the tea and tofu. He has taught at the Defense University in Beijing and travels to the US quite often, at least once a year.

Mr. Xia greets me warmly, "A real pleasure to meet you!"

I respond, "You honor me by inviting me."

He asks me about my background. I explain briefly how my family moved in 1982 from Hunan Province in the People's Republic of China to the People's Republic of Berkeley, California.

Mr. Xia reveals that he lived in the US for one year and conducted research with the Atlantic Office. He presented me with a little bag with some academic journals; one journal was in Chinese.

Mr. Xia asks what I expect from President Hu's visit to Washington, DC later in the week. I explain that it would be about 20% substance and 80% fluff. He quizzed me on American views of China: "Is the US-China relationship competitive or cooperative?" I explained that it is both. The relationship is dynamic and very fluid. It shifts depending on the crisis at hand.

After an hour of pleasantries and chit-chat, I return to the hotel for lunch and prepare for my 2 pm talk.

About 18 academics show up for my talk. They are mostly middle-aged, but a few are in their 30s. To give you an idea of what I spoke about, I include only the beginning part of my speech:

Speech Introduction

Thank you to Mr. Tony Chen for inviting me. And thank you to Mr. Xia Li Ping for hosting me. And thank you to Mr. Johnson Hu for picking me up at the airport. I know that it is not an easy job. I used to do the same job when I was at DiCon Fiberoptics, my first office in Berkeley, picking up French interns at SFO.

I am very honored to be able to talk to you today. There is an English proverb, "experts come from out of town." So, perhaps that is why you think I know something about the topics of which I am about to discuss today.

President Hu Jintao is on his way to the US, starting in Seattle on 4/18 and arriving in DC 4/20 to see his old friend President Bush. So, it is appropriate that we are discussing US-China relations.

When Wen Jia Bao visited 12/2003, I had the pleasure to see him at the White House. While I cannot be present this time to welcome President Hu Jintao in DC, you and I can wish him and President Bush well in their visit.

The last time I visited Shanghai was 1/99 when I came for a week with friends. It was during winter break right before Spring Festival and I stayed at a youth hostel on the Wai Tan (Bund). I shared my room with 7 people: 3 Japanese students and 2 Europeans and my teaching friends. One bathroom. Now, I have my own room at the Shanghai Equatorial Hotel and Mr. Johnson to show me the city. What a difference!

Like old friends, the US and China have many shared interests and a shared future. And like married couples, they also have disagreements and the occasional fights, but we realize that a divorce is not possible, for now. I can say this because I am the product of both countries, both cultures, both peoples.

I was born in Hunan Province, famous for spice and being the home of modern China's most prominent native son--revolutionary leader and Chairman Mao Zhu Xi. Hunan also gave us Mr. Lei Feng (a young soldier who died in the 1960s, but has since been lionized by the Communist Party as the ideal socialist martyr), a very popular comrade and I've been told, may be related to me.

I was raised in Berkeley, CA--birth of the Free Speech Movement and home to more socialists than all of China now. The City is named after the Irishman George Berkeley, who is also considered by some to be the first great American philosopher.

I taught English in Huadu (or flower capital), home of Mr. Hong Xiu Quan, the revolutionary leader of the Taiping Rebellion that challenged the Qing Dynasty in the late 1800s.

I have lived and worked for more than four years in Washington, DC ¨C named after our first President and leader of the American colonies fighting to expel the British Crown during the Revolutionary War.

And now, I've come to Shanghai, the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 and now leading China's economic engine to a brighter future. And home to author Lu Xun, my favorite modern Chinese writer. As you can see, I have a very strong attraction to revolution!

However, today's talk is not about me; rather, this talk is about living in revolutionary times and momentous changes. Recent historians in the West have called the 19th century the European Century, the 20th century the American Century and the 21st century the Asian Century. Let me modify this characterization by saying it will be the CHINESE century and Shanghai is at the heart of that century.

* * *

They nod politely.

An old timer in the back falls asleep about 5 minutes after I begin. Johnson's cell phone rings, but he is polite enough to step outside the room to talk.

The talk concludes about 3:30pm. I answer three questions.

Evening dinner

Mr. Xia and Johnson take me to a restaurant serving Shanghai Cuisine.

Mr. Xia has visited North Korea's Kim Kong region, known for its hot springs. He relates to me his experience of interacting with the North Korean people.

I ask Mr. Xia about corruption in the Chinese government, "How do you control it?"

"We're tried morality, but that is not working well," He stated.

Moving on to lighter subjects, Mr. Xia asks me the typical Chinese question, "do you have a girlfriend?"

"No." I respond.

After a few moments, I ask Mr. Xia the same question. "Do you have a girlfriend?" He laughs, but does not give me an answer.

"Are you marrying Chinese?" He probes further.

"I am an equal opportunity dater. If there is a beautiful woman, Chinese or Western, then I will consider her," I explain.

Day 3: Tuesday, 4-18-06
A stroll on Nanjing Road

I am in Shanghai, the new financial capital of China. Life flows all around me; it wells up from the subway exits, a constant wave, descending from stairs. I see it everywhere: Traffic. Babies. Food. Gucci Ads. Vendors. Traffic. Beggars. Life. Life coming upon me. Each face looks exactly like mine. No one looks at me.

I pass a mother and child sitting on the sidewalk. The little one is maybe two years old. Mom wears a red cap and holds out a paper cup, but her swollen red cheeks face the sidewalk. She has that look. The look of desperation. Pedestrians pass her by. I watch her for a few minutes from the corner. This morning, I gave my dinner leftovers to the old beggar by my hotel. I wished I had some more to give to mom.

An old traveler I met in Beijing once told me that the best part of visiting a city is to peek into the alleyways and see what people are really up to. Following his advice, I enter an alleyway off of the main road. A cobbler has set up shop at the entrance out in the open. He has a shoe stand and some old shoes to the side. A young lady stops by. Inside the alleyway are mundane items you can find in alleyways anywhere in the world: laundry hanging on rope lines. Three old men in shorts and T-shirt playing a game of chess on a table that's too low for them. A bulletin board warns, "maintain fire safety: regular meeting this Friday." An art shop displays Western paintings, oil on canvas.

Pearl Orient tower

Standing at 468 meters tall, the Pearl Orient TV Tower is the highest tower in Asia, but the third highest in the world.

It shoots straight up like a rocket, but most observers have compared it to a futuristic space ship from a science fiction movie. To get in, I paid the basic price of 70RMB (about $9), which allowed me to go the middle ball and to have a panoramic view of the city.

On the windows of the observation deck are etched purple lettering in both Chinese and English:
West: Guangdong, Guangzhou 1260KM

South: Taiwan, Taibei 680KM

East: Dozens of ships and barges dot the Huang pu river, racing toward the ocean. Those ships enter the Huang pu like they're on a never-ending conveyor belt. I see a construction site below and catch the light from a welder's torch.

North: Liaoning Province, Shenyang 1033 KM

Plastic flowers line the deck, evenly spaced every 5 feet or so. Tourists have a camera or camcorder attached to their hands. Each group bears a different accent.

Day 4: Wednesday, 4-19-06
Train ride from Shanghai to Hangzhou

Mr. Yang, the institute driver takes me to the North train station, where I wait along with thousands of other travelers. He is a native of Hebei Province, Central China. In his late 30s, Mr. Yang earns about 3000RMB a month (about $400). "Can you support a family with that?" I inquire. He says that 2000RMB a month is sufficient to support a family, even in Shanghai . He wishes me a good trip and we will meet up in Suzhou on Friday.

A female voice announces the bad news: our train is delayed by 30 minutes. The family of three in front of me is upset: "It can't be! It can't be late." When I ask the woman if she's going to Hangzhou for business or pleasure, she replies that she has some "affairs over there." Chinese are rarely polite or detailed with strangers.

Once the gates open, the crush of people rush through like lemmings.

At the train door, passengers elbow their way pass the conductor and onto the train. The conductor admonishes them: "No pushing. Everyone will be able to board."

We are traveling about 20 miles an hour. The train passes by fields of green (rice fields), brown (warehouses) and white (tiled farm houses which have replaced mud huts). I am sitting in the middle seat of the hard seat section of the train. I see three passengers around me talking on their cell phones. Two people who have no seats are standing in the aisles. The music shifts from a pop song to one without lyrics¡ªa plaintive piano song. A young vendor with an untucked, white shirt patrols the aisles peddling bottled water inside a basket.

The man across from me is perhaps in his early 30s. He wears jeans and is reading a Chinese newspaper. The man on my right is also buried in his newspaper. The young lady to my left, by the window is busy writing numbers on her papers. She must be in her mid 20s and peers intently through her spectacles at her documents, which are covered with clothing design samples: bits of burberry and plaid patterns fill the pages. She has curly, brown hair and glances outside the window occasionally.

Cigarette smoke fills the cabin and the music now switches to Beijing Opera. The TV screen hangs from the ceiling. Knees knock together. The cabin fills with the sound of seeds hitting the floor. Chew chew chew. Crackle. Cough. Cough.

One rider across the aisle discovers he's on the wrong train. He has a ticket for train 739, but we're on train 743. His destination is Nanjing, north of Shanghai. We're heading south. His seatmates laugh at him. He complains to the conductor that "those train clerks told me to get on this train!"

A young man across from me strikes up a conversation. He is darker than the other Chinese and wears black-rimmed glasses. He has spiky black hair. A fourth year Chemistry student at the University, he is returning to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. He worked in a factory job for two months, but did not like it. "I want a job in sales after graduation," he tells me with a smile.

I tell him that I studied history at the University. He laughs. He's incredulous that people still study such a subject.

"And what do you do with a history major?" he inquires.

"I taught school for a year." I explained.

"Sounds right. That's what they usually do," he added.

More sounds of seeds hitting the floor. Chew chew. Crackle Crackle. Cough. Cough.

Conductor announces: "We'll arrive in about an hour." We now are traveling about 40 miles an hour and pass by more rice fields and some greenhouses in white tents.

Fashion designer girl barks into her cell phone: "I need 5050 model type. I'm on the train now."

Another vendor makes a special presentation to sell cotton socks. He passes the samples around.

We finally arrive in Hangzhou's East Station a little after 1:30pm. Outside the station, I see the Chemistry student again. He introduces himself as Mr. Lu. Before we part ways, he wishes me a safe journey: "Yi lu pin an." I head for the taxi stand.

Lily Shentu: A friend of a friend of a friend
Lily is the student of Timilin, the girlfriend (and now fiancee) of John Koehn, my friend and Oregon Victory campaign colleague. Before I headed out on my trip, I asked Timilin if she could offer me any insights on the Shanghai area.

She kindly provided me the name of her former Ningbo University student Lily, who would be able to show me around Hangzhou. Lily and I spoke by phone when I was still in Shanghai. She was generous enough to reserve a room for me at a local youth hostel. She wanted to meet me at the train station, but also had a job interview that day. She did not yet have a time for the interview, so tried to have a friend of hers meet me. I told her that it was unnecessary and too much trouble to meet me at the train station. It would be much easier to simply meet me at the youth hostel.

After a long taxi ride (50RMB), I finally arrive at Jiang Nan Yi Youth Hostel. As I am checking in at the counter, a young lady in denim shorts and a silk black top from behind greets me. "Hi Andy!" It is Lily. Her face radiates a big smile.

She explains that her interview finished early, so she decided to meet me at the train station after all. She had written my name with a neon green marker on a 8.5 x 11 piece of paper and stood at the train station exit, hoping to meet me. We probably missed each other by a few minutes and a few feet.

I give Lily the package that Timilin had entrusted to me to deliver to her student: some jelly belly beans and some other knick-knacks. After I place my bags in my room, we sit down on the deck for a few minutes. Lily takes out a bright, gold pen to write on her notebook. "Wow. That's the brightest gold pen I've ever seen." I exclaim.

"My father gave it to me." She explains.
"It looks like an executive pen." I remark.
Lily handed the pen to me: "Then, it's yours."
"No, I can not take it from you." I protest.
She insisted. I refused a couple more times before I accept.
"I better be careful about what I say I like about you." I joked.

Lily accompanies me on a leisure walk by West Lake on the South Line, a newly-built path that is dotted with Willow trees and offers a breath-taking view of the lake. President Nixon visited this city and even took a boat ride on the lake in February 1972, when it was still in the middle of winter.

After our walk, Lily and I board the bus to go to her home, where she changes into something warmer. When she came out, She handed me a tea gift bag. We return to the youth hostel for dinner.

Lily is starting a new job as a translator for the Hangzhou World Expo Leisure Fair that will run for the next 6 months. It is an excellent opportunity for her to practice her English skills. Since she graduated last year, she has not had too many chances to speak English.

After dinner, Lily takes me on a leisure walk by West Lake.

Day 5: Thursday, 4-20-06
Exploring Hangzhou

Lily and I meet in the morning in downtown. She takes me to the fairgrounds where the World Expo will take place. We pass various vendors and kiosks. I have not yet had breakfast, so I stop by a dumpling stand where I pick up a few jiaozi and quickly wolf them down. Lily watches me, but has already had her breakfast.

Lily then takes me to the Hu Pao Yuan or the Running Tiger Garden. It reminds me of that scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when the characters played by Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat are resting in a simple open structure in the bamboo forest. It is the essence of serenity. A light breeze blows. A little brook babbles its way past the footpath. The air is fresh and I feel like I am the first person to step here in a hundred years.

About 1:00pm, Lily has to leave for her office, but she suggests we meet up again tonight about 9 or 10pm. She suggests a few places that I can visit for the afternoon. However, I miss my bus stop and wind up in the wrong part of the city. A few more wrong buses and I wind up at Zhejiang University campus. After an hour or so of riding wrong buses, I finally get to the Su Ti garden. In mid afternoon, I return to the Youth Hostel to take a nap.

When I wake up, it's already past 8pm. I go downstairs for dinner and then call Lily again. She asks that I meet her about 10pm at the Italian Restaurant on the South Line.

Just at this time, President Hu Jintao's state visit to the United States is broadcast on Chinese TV. CCTV, the state-controlled TV News Station shows Hu as a great hero, being well-received by the American president. The chatter among Chinese is that President Bush's approval ratings went up in China after the visit. Perhaps, he is more popular in China than the US? As you can see, the Chinese greatly value China-US Relations, much more so than most Americans, I believe.

Day 6: Friday 4/21/06
Touch the people: Hangzhou to Suzhou

Lily and I meet for a final breakfast at a "da pai dang" or little eatery. She orders a special chicken soup for me that was quite sweet. We both have a sizable plate of hand-made noodles or "la-mian." After breakfast, she boards the bus to go to work and I hop into a cab headed for the train station. I tell Lily that I will miss her company when I'm gone.

When I arrive at the station, the ticket seller, in a Greyhound bus driver tone-of-voice, announces that the next train is 12:45pm, arriving in Suzhou about 3pm. Not wanting to wait so long, I knew I had to get a bus. However, to save a few dollars, I go to the public bus stop nearby. Just as I approach the No. 512 bus stop, it pulls out with a full load. So, I wait along with farmers with big plastic bags and split bamboo poles, young men with unkempt hair, ruffians with shifty eyes. Whenever I travel, I usually want to "touch the people" and to see how the common man travels. Well, now that I am among the people again, I realize that they frighten me.

The bus finally pulls up and I board. Luckily, I get a window seat. On the third stop, I get off and buy a ticket at the bus station. The clerk tells me that I better hurry as my bus is pulling out in a few minutes. A short, middle-aged lady asks me to follow her as we race through some tight alley-ways, littered with water and trash. After a few minutes, we arrive at a small van. I get in. I'm relieved that we are now on our way to Suzhou at last. We pull out of the station and drive a few blocks before we pull into another neighborhood with small streets. The driver tells us to get out and transfer onto a bigger bus. Once onboard, we get onto the highway.

An hour into the drive, we stop at a toll booth. Then, we pull to the side of the road for a few minutes for "inspection." A man comes to the side of the bus and asks the driver to open the doors so he can examine the luggage to see that no explosives or dangerous items are onboard. A few minutes pass. We're back on the road. One more hour passes. We should be very close to Suzhou by now. The driver pulls the bus to the side of the road and yells out: "Those of you going to Suzhou¡ªwe're here! Get out now."

A few passengers ask the driver, "Wait a minute! Aren't we going to the main bus terminal in town? This is still the highway outside the city!"

The driver responds, "We're not going to the bus station. Besides, we're right outside the city and the public bus stop is right here. Get on the public bus, which will take you inside the city. Get off now!"

About 10 farmers get off, many of them visibly upset and cursing, "Ta ma de," which translates roughly into "motherfucker." I get off with the farmers. The bus pulls away. For a few moments, everyone looks dazed. We now realize that we've been riding a bus without a permit. Some farmers cross the highway. A few look at a map to figure out exactly where they are. I go to the nearby convenience store to ask for directions. Sure enough, we are right outside Suzhou. I decided to wait for the public bus along with the rest of the group. Fortunately, the public bus comes on a frequent basis. We take the bus into town. I hail a cab, which takes me to the Gloria Hotel, which costs 1000RMB for the night.

I don't yet see Johnson or the driver anywhere, but my room has been paid for already. After resting a bit and sending some emails, I decide to go walking about town. I visit the Humble Administrator's Garden, built in the Ming Dynasty by a retired scholar-official.

I contemplate my visit to these two cities: how wonderful travel is¡ªthe way it shakes you from your normal everyday routine and allows you to examine your life from another perspective. The Chinese have a famous proverb, "Up above there's paradise, down below there's Suzhou and Hangzhou." Now that I've visited both cities, I truly understand this saying.

Day 7: Saturday, 4/22/06
Return to Shanghai

Johnson and the driver Mr. Yang drive me back to Shanghai. Johnson has to take off for Beijing for a business trip, so he cannot accompany me to the airport on Sunday. Instead, Mr. Yang will take me.

Over lunch at a scrumptious dim sum restaurant, I meet up with Junko Toyoda, my Japanese friend who left DC three years ago.

Lu Xun Park
After lunch, I head off to the Shanghai Hong Qiao sports stadium metro stop to meet David Zhang, the friend of my Seattle friend Rich Tao. They met when Rich was studying Chinese in Beijing for the year. David agreed to meet me for dinner. A fresh graduate of Qing Hua University, or the Harvard of China, David works as an engineer for an American company testing instruments. His English is good and fluent.

David shows me the Lu Xun park, named after China's most famous modern writer from the 20 th Century. Lu Xun's body rests in the park.

We approach a large chorus group of maybe 100 senior citizens. They sing a hearty song with a conductor leading them in the front. Next to the chorus is another smaller group of senior citizens, perhaps a dozen strong. They play the "er hu" --the Chinese string instrument with two strings, tambourines and a make-shift drum that's really a large oil canister. One elderly gentleman in his 70s skips about as his cohort is singing a popular folk song, "qian fu de ai," the song I learned while singing Karaoke during my year in China teaching English. All the students used to tell me that it was an old person's song.

A beggar woman comes to me. I quickly dig into my pocket and hand over a few bills. David remarks, "You are generous!"

I respond, "She needs it more than me."

After a quick visit to the grave of the literary master Lu Xun, we walk back toward the singing senior citizens.

On the way, we pass by an elderly woman writing poetry on the ground with a large brush dipped in water. A few people stop to stare, but most pass her by. She is fairly non-responsive when I try to get David to ask her the meaning of her poetry.

Outside the park, we see a large group of teenagers waiting eagerly for the evening concert featuring "Zizi" a famous pop star from Singapore. They pose for a group picture. They could be teenagers from Los Angeles or New York City with their dyed hair and tight jeans and sneakers.

Antique shop and Dinner with David
David takes me to a nearby street that's been restored to look like Colonial Shanghai. I spot an antique shop. The shopkeeper, a bespectacled lady in her 50s invites us inside. She is gregarious. She tries to interest me in various items: an Abacus from pre-1949 era or the Qing Dynasty. She's not sure. A wine jar with a spout. Qing Dynasty. After a few minutes, three tiny tea pots come to my attention. The first has three monks carrying water. The second has a double spout. And the third is decorated with lotus flowers and a poem from antiquity.

I tell her that I'm interested in buying the tea pots. She sits us down at the Qing Dynasty table and serves us green tea -- Gao Shan (high mountain) tea from Taiwan. We chat for the next 90 minutes.

17.84 Yuan. That's the monthly wage that she used to make at a medicine factory during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76). "I should've been sent to the countryside, but I didn't change my hukou," the proprietor explains. The hukou is the Chinese identity papers that at one point allowed Chinese to work and move about from city to city. It is a combination driver's license, social security number and ID. While the hukou still exists, it is slowly loosening its grip on the Chinese people. "A bowl of rice or noodles cost only 10 jiao," she continued. A jiao is one tenth of one yuan, which is about 12 cents.

Her husband teaches Japanese language classes on the weekends and also studies a bit of English. Her son is 23 and wants to go to the US to study. She serves us tea in mini cups and says her father-in-law was a Capitalist and Landlord. A shopkeeper, he was arrested and persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Her husband collected many artifacts from the Qing Dynasty and now they're selling them off. Mrs. Zhang has had the shop for about 8 years and rents out space to other tenants, too.

By 8pm, David's stomach is growling. He is not shy about letting the shopkeeper know that we have to get going. She takes out the calculator. After a few minutes of punching in various numbers, we come to an amicable agreement.

Before I go, she offers me a complimentary postcard that she normally sells for 5 Yuan (or about 50 cents). She offers me a second postcard. Both feature cigarette ads from the 1930s era with beautiful Chinese maidens in splendid "qi paos" or traditional evening dresses.

We walk another block or so to a food court. David treats me to a generous dinner of Yunnan Province Across-the-bridge noodles, tofu, congee, pickled vegetables and steamed buns. We talk mostly politics and life in general for the next two hours. When we leave about 10pm, the metro station is closed. The streets are flooded with the teenagers we saw earlier in the night. Apparently, the concert has let out and everyone is rushing for the closest taxicab. David and I walk about 10 blocks before I can get a cab back to the hotel.

Sunday, 4/23/06
Farewell to Shanghai

So, this is the end. My travels are over. Today I'll get on a plane and be back at home in Washington, DC. It was one week, but it felt like a month. I am glad to be back home, but also sad to leave Shanghai, the center of the 21st century. I hope my exile will not be for long.

* * *
See my photos

A Chinatown tour of New York City 3/25/06

I invited my parents to visit me during the Cherry Blossom Festivities in late March. Since my dad has never visited the East Coast, I thought I would arrange a tour for him and my mom through a Chinese tour company to go visit New York City . This was my mom’s third visit to DC and her second visit to New York .

We met the driver in DC’s Chinatown by the Starbucks café. Mr. Peng was a fellow from Mainland China ’s Hunan Province – known for its spicy food and revolutionary leader Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. Mr. Peng had an amiable demeanor. He has a slight build and showed us the white van, where there was one other Chinese gentleman riding shotgun—a young Shanghai man with spectacles. Behind him was a group of International Monetary Fund (IMF) consultants: one gentleman (Benson) from Kenya , one gentleman (Pushpa) from Sri Lanka , a lady from the Philippines , and a lady from Armenia named Miriam.

Our first stop: Baltimore ’s inner harbor. Mr. Peng also served as the tour guide During the drive, it became clear that our driver spoke very poor English. When we drove up to the harbor, he informed everyone that he would return in 30 minutes to pick us up again. So, we quickly strolled the harbor, took a few quick pictures and then promptly returned to the van.

Our second stop was Philadelphia , the city of brotherly love. Upon arrival in downtown Philly about 12:45 pm, Mr. Peng found a small alleyway with a parking space. As we got out, he flashed us a forced smile and used his right index finger to tap his watch, saying, “I return at one and 30 hour.” In other words, we had 45 minutes to get in line for the Liberty Bell. If we were lucky, perhaps we could get inside Independence Hall.

As we walked away from the van, I turned to the IMF group and explained that the line for the Liberty Bell was too long and we would not be able to view it in time. I’ve certainly heard enough foreigners belittle the bell to caution them that they, too, might be a little disappointed as it was a large bell with a crack in it. So, the group followed me and decided to focus on getting into Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. We crossed the street and got into line. It was a bit cold and now a light rain was upon us. The docent informed me that the line was at least 30 minutes long and the tickets for Independence Hall had been passed out for the day. However, we could still view Congress Hall and the other buildings within the complex.

At this point, I turned to Miriam and the Filipino lady, saying, “Remember—the tip for the driver is just a tip, not a tax!” They nodded in agreement.

After heavy security, my parents and I passed through. However, Benson, the Kenyan gentleman had to remove his belt. We quickly viewed the old Supreme Court building that was used from 1791-1800 before the US Capital was moved to Washington , DC . Our second and final site was the Congress Hall, where a docent was in the middle of his lecture:

“So, perhaps the second most important date was the day President-elect John Adams was sworn in on March 4, 1797.” In this very room sat members of Congress, President George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, dignitaries, the cabinet, and Supreme Court Justices. Outside in the courtyard were throngs of people trying to get a look at the ceremony. And people were afraid, “was the Army going to wrest control away from the new President? Would the mob come in and assassinate the new President?” However, none of that happened and a peaceful transition of power took place that day.

When we returned to the van, my parents and I were the only ones there to greet the driver. Mr. Peng chatted with us for a few minutes. He has lived in Maryland for 9 years, but intends to return to Hunan Province to reunite with his family in the provincial capital of Changsha . He worked as a police officer in China and still pays a monthly premium to maintain his retirement account there. Mr. Peng explained that as a police officer, one could get by, but “every now and then, one could do better by accepting bribes.” After a few more minutes, Mr. Peng grew impatient and went to look for the other group.

We were now heading toward New York City . Traffic was pretty light as we passed endless toll booths. Once in the city, we visited our first museum, the battle carrier with the British Concorde that was retired a few years ago. We had about one hour to view the ship and then had to return to the van. This time, the IMF group beat us to the van, but the Shanghai gentleman was missing. Mr. Peng went looking for him. After another 15 or 20 minutes, he finally returned with our missing traveler, who had now been dubbed “ Shanghai boy” by the IMF group. Although he was walking toward the van, he seemed to be in no hurry. In fact, he turned around and started taking pictures of the dock and lit a cigarette. Benson, our resident Kenyan, became visibly upset and yelled, “No. No! We are behind schedule!” He got out of the van and started toward Shanghai boy. “We are late and have no time for this. Please—return to the van at once!”

Our next few stops: Empire state bldg –1.5 hours, Rockefeller plaza—25 min, Time square—15 min.

* * *

We returned to New Jersey for dinner at a buffet restaurant. Mr. Peng got lost and found the restaurant at 10pm. Mr. Peng informed us that if we pay individually, the price would be $16 a plate. However, if we paid as a group, then our bill would only be $12.95 a plate. “So, tonight I will pay the bill and you pay me at the end of the tour, ok?”

However, as we entered the restaurant, I saw the price was $12.95 a plate per person no matter how big the group. I grew increasingly suspicious of our tour leader from that point onward. At dinner, Mr. Peng sat at our table. He and my parents had a friendly exchange about family, children, and making ends meet. Although the hours are long, he works this driving job several days a week because the money is good. He manages to earn about $90 a day. With tips, he does pretty well. He admits that he does not explain much to us about the sites because he would not want to create an appearance of discrimination against the “foreigners” or non-Chinese passengers. So, he says as little as possible to everyone.

We stayed at a Holiday Inn that night. It must have taken us another 45 minutes to get there. To save on money, the tour company changes the hotel each week, depending on the cheapest rooms that Expedia and Travelocity spit out. So, unfortunately for Mr. Peng, he always has to look for a new location each time he leads a new group. Understandably, he got lost again. He missed the exit, so that he stopped the van on the freeway about 300 feet past our intended exit. As he stopped for a few moments, I could see him thinking: “do I back up or do I cross the median of grass and dirt?”

He reversed gears and backed up the car about 300 feet. Ironically, no one in the van protested or yelled at him to stop. Perhaps, they kept silent because everyone came from a developing country where they are accustomed to similar driving habits.

* * *

The next day, we see about 6-8 sites with only 30 minutes for each stop: UN Plaza-15 minutes; Financial district—10 minutes to visit the outside of the Stock Exchange and a snapshot in front of the Bronze Bull statue; Chinatown—a drive through, but no stop as there was no parking; the Fulton Fish Market for lunch. For Central Park , Mr. Peng drove us close to the top part of the park about 100th st. and drove the car south along 5th Ave. for the length of the park. “To our right is central pawk. Sorry, we can not enta pawk because no pawking.” For the Statue of Liberty, we boarded a boat that came close enough to Liberty Island for the passengers to take their snapshots, but it did not land.

By 2 pm or so, we were done with the sites and it was time to go. However, the English version of the tour listed the World Trade Center site as the last stop. There was no such listing on the Chinese version. The IMF group insisted that we make the last stop. Our driver parked a few blocks away from the site. Mr. Peng did not understand their desire, “It’s just a big hole! Can you tell them in English that it’s just a big hole? There’s nothing to see there. There’s a large fence surrounding the site, so you can’t really see anything.” The driver did not understand at all.

I took the lead and walked the group toward the site. There were flowers on the fence, some poems scratched into the plywood scaffolding, and the names of the nearly 3,000 dead printed on a large billboard at the top of the fence. One poem read:

As the soot and dirt and ash rained down,

We became one color.

As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning building

We became one class.

As we lit candles of waiting and hope

We became one generation.

As the firefighters and police officers fought their way into the infernoWe became one gender.

As we fell to our knees in prayer for strength,

We became one faith.

As we whispered or shouted words of encouragement,

We spoke one language.

As we gave our blood in lines a mile long,

We became one body.

As we mourned together the great loss

We became one family.

As we cried tears of grief and loss

We became one soul.

As we retell with pride of the sacrifice of heros

We become one people.

We are

One color

One class

One generation

One gender

One faith

One language

One body

One family

One soul

One people

We are

The Power of One.

We are United.

We are America .

I told our group of foreigners, “If you do not understand what happened here on 9/11/2001, then you do not understand the hearts of New Yorkers. And you will not understand why we are in Afghanistan and Iraq today.” They agreed.

After some minutes of viewing the site and taking the perfunctory photos, we began walking back to the van. The driver greeted us. “Wasn’t I right? It’s just a big hole!” He was right, indeed. The hole was so big that he could not ever grasp its meaning. Although the driver has been living in the US 9 years, he had made little effort in understanding America or its people.

At that point, I felt sorry for this little man, trapped by his self-imposed language barrier and inability to open himself up to the American culture. We proceeded to return to DC. However, once again, the driver became lost. He asked taxi drivers, pedestrians, and other drivers for directions: “How to Lincoln Tunnel?” He seemed like a man drowning in a sea of traffic. He tried to hold on, to tread water, but only had a very tenuous grasp. I felt compelled to intervene, more to get us home faster rather than to help him, so I opened up the New York Transit map. “Get onto Houston up ahead and then make a right up West Ave. You’ll hit the Lincoln Tunnel by 42nd st.” We made it back to DC by 9:30pm or so.

Strangely enough, my parents said they enjoyed the tour because they saw a lot of sites in a very short time period. I would rather not repeat the experience. As for the tip, my parents are much more generous than me and paid him the full $30 tip, plus $1.50 in change. He could understand that--in any language. Mr. Peng smiled as we got out of the van and wished us a good night.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

My grandfather's funeral (1/19/2006)

Part One: The Taxi Ride

Last week I made a quick trip back to CA for my grandfather's funeral. He passed away on the morning of Sunday, 1/15/06 at the age of 91. He had been sick since Thanksgiving week 2005. When I saw him at that holiday, he was recuperating from Pneumonia and a small fall. He was very weak and not as lucid as he used to be. When my mom called me that evening, I suspected bad news. She said, "Your grandfather is gone."

I arrived Wednesday night, a week ago at the Oakland, CA airport. It was 5 minutes past midnight. I rushed to the curb to catch the Air Bart shuttle connection to the neighboring BART railway station. By 12:15am, I grew impatient and worried that it would not come in time for me to catch the last train at 12:25am. I looked for a taxi, which took me to the BART station. Before I bought a ticket, I asked the station manager if there were any more trains heading north. He said I had missed the last train; my only option now would be to wait for the N bus at 12:51am and connect to the 72 bus in downtown Oakland, which would take me to Berkeley.

Outside the station, I saw a few people: a middle-aged black woman talking to herself, a drunk walking back and forth, a teenager with a band-aid over one eye and a big bruise on his right cheek. He is thin, about my height, tussled hair and has his hands in his sweatshirt pockets. The drunk asked the teen: "Does the 82 still run?"

"Yeah, all night," replied the teenager.

Across the street, a guy yelled toward me, "Taxi?" I ignored him.

A few minutes past 12:51am, the N bus finally arrived—to my relief. However, it did not stop even though the drunk was standing right next to the bus stop. I was about 15 feet away on a bench.

I asked the teenager if it's normal for the bus to pass by the stop. He shook his head. He told me his story: "I was beaten up a few days ago around here and tonight I saw two of the same guys a few blocks away."

I'm growing nervous now.

The taxi driver crosses the street and offers cigarettes to the drunk, teenager and me. I politely refuse. I notice that there is no official taxi across the street. Just a few cars and a big van parked on the curb.

"You need taxi? Where you going?" he asks me in a friendly tone. He is about mid 40s, has a salt and pepper beard, is a few inches taller than me, and thin. He has a Middle-Eastern face and wears a cell phone around his neck on a string. A dark ski cap covers his head.

"Berkeley." I responded.

"I take you there. Normally, it's $30 or $40, but I charge you only $20."

"Where are you from?" I inquire.


"Tehran?" I probe further.

"Yes. I'm Persian," he explains.

"She-lama." I offer him the Farsi greeting "hello."

His eyes widen. "You know about my people!"

"Yes, I have Farsi friends."

"So, I take you to Berkeley, yes?" he confirms.

I'm still reluctant. "Let me ask the station manager a question and I'll be back in one minute." I walked over and asked the manager (who had the phone attached to his ear) about this so-called taxi driver. He didn't know him. The driver followed me and said, "the manager knows me. I'm here every night." He gestured to the manager, "you know me, right?!" At that moment, the manager, still with the phone to his ear, gestured "yes" and nodded.

I then asked the driver for some ID. "Do you have a license?"

He removed his wallet and showed me his driver's license:

Ali Malekzadh
Pleasant Hill, CA
DOB: 1960
Height: 5'11"

The picture on the license was indeed his face. Ali explains that he is a construction worker. "I was laid off a month ago, so now I do this to help my family and maybe make some gas money."

After a few minutes and still with some doubt, I followed him, knowing that this was perhaps not the most prudent action to take. As we crossed the street and approached his van, the teenager was on my right side.

Ali asks me politely, "is it ok for him to come with us?"

I thought the teenager was either catching a ride or they were going to drive me to a dark corner of East Oakland to rob me. I instinctively said, "No."

"Ok boss." Ali agreed.

As Ali gets into the driver's seat, I am still outside the van. I knock on his window for a final check. "How are you getting to Berkeley's University area?"

"I take 880 North, University exit. Ok?" Ali explains. I'm now reassured.

Ali has been in the US 25 years since 1979. He's married with two daughters: six and four years old. The older daughter has a Farsi name meaning "butterfly." He earned his BA in Arts and a MS in Engineering from a university in Pennsylvania. And most recently he was laid off from his construction job. The more details he gave me, the more comfortable I felt about the ride.

"Yeah, some ladies -- and gentlemen are suspicious and ask me detailed questions. They don't want to be raped or robbed."

After a few minutes, Ali tells me that we're low on gas. "Tonight, I was at my mother's and she made me dinner. But, I was in such a hurry to get here that I forgot my dinner and money. So is it ok to stop for gas?"

"Ali, if we're low on gas, we have to stop for gas." I replied. Now, my doubts returned.

We turn off the highway for gas. He is lost and meanders a few blocks. "Is that a gas station right there?" he asks me weakly.

"I don't know. Why don't we stay on the main road?" I tell him. I become a little more anxious. After 5 minutes or so, we pull up to a Shell gas station. He has no gas money and asks me politely for a few dollars. I give him $3.

As he fills the tank, I suggest to him that he print some business cards. "Go to Kinko's and print up 100-500 black and white cards. Nothing fancy. Just your name, phone number, and a title like 'Ali's taxi service.'"

"Yes, boss, great idea, but this is temporary. And not Ali—people think I'm a terrorist. Alex's taxi service."

"That way, you look more official and potential passengers will be more willing to trust you," I explained.

We take off again for the freeway. As we approach the Emeryville IKEA, Ali says, "This is the land of opportunity. You can make it here with nothing."

"Or very little," I added.

"You can come with $100 in your pocket and do well. You see that building? An Iranian built it!" Ali beamed with pride.

When we arrive at my destination, I said. "this is my grandfather's house. He passed away a week ago."

"He's now in a better place, by God," said Ali.

I gave Ali $20 and some change for his tip. I shook his hand. They were rough and calloused. The hands of a laborer. I gave him my card and asked for his phone numbers. "Next time I return to Oakland, I'll call you. I hope that I won't be able to find you because by then you should have found your next job!" I encouraged him.

"By God, thank you so much! God bless you."

Grandfather’s Funeral: Part 2—Funeral Day

In the car ride from grandmother’s house to the chapel, I ride with my grandmother’s niece. Grandmother’s sister and I share the back seat. She does not speak to me. Her white hair is combed tightly. She hosted us in Kowloon, Hong Kong for a night in August 1982 when we were transiting from China to San Francisco. She picked us up at the Chinese-Hong Kong border and delivered us to the Kai Tak airport. I remember walking along quiet Hong Kong streets, her apartment, new clothes for a new life in America.

Inside the chapel are my parents, sister and brother-in-law. And my cousins—my mother’s older brother’s family. I have not seen them for many years. My uncle is missing a few front teeth. He looks tired. He bears a close resemblance to grandfather. He is wearing a white shirt inside a black windbreaker. His hair is salt and pepper.

I see Eddie Ho, the husband of my grandmother’s niece. He greets me with a big, warm smile. Eddie works as a computer programmer for Safeway. There must be a title for him in Chinese. However, I call him Eddie. He was the first person I met at SFO in 1982 when my grandfather came to pick up my family upon our arrival from China. Eddie shakes my hand and pulls me in for a quick hug. I am surprised. Chinese never hug or are that affectionate in public.

I sit in the pews and talk to Justin, my 14 year old cousin. “What do you remember about grandfather?” I ask him.

“He always wanted a hug. And he always removed the egg yolk.” He said quietly.

“Do you still do this to the egg?”


Chris, my other cousin greets me warmly. I have not seen him for many years. He dropped out of Berkeley High School. He holds his son in his arms. I greet Cindy, Chris’s older sister. She used to work at DiCon, my old fiberoptics company in Berkeley. I was there for only 7 months in the Human Resources division. She spent a few years—on the factory floor covered in a white smock making fiberoptic switches at $8 an hour. She is very thin, has long black hair and wears glasses.

Family members sit on the left side of the aisle in no particular order. Friends sit on the right side.

My grandfather is in repose in his casket. His hands rest on his stomach, the left hand over his right hand. Glasses adorn his face. He is wearing a black graduation gown—the scholar look. How appropriate. As a good Chinese, he always valued education. Whenever he returned from one of his overseas holiday trips, he would invariably give me a pen as a gift. During our occasional dinners, he would always probe my sister and me about English grammar, usage or some Chinese proverb. Every interaction was always a lesson. A new proverb. An old proverb. A test to see how much we had learned in school.

Eddie reads grandfather’s brief biography from the funeral program in Cantonese, then translates into English, “Chan Ming (AKA Duan Hong Xi) was born 1914, August 15 in Hunan Province, Chenzhou city, Duan district. In his youth, he obtained a degree in railroad management. During World War II, he immigrated to Hong Kong, where he continued his studies at Jian Dao Shen Institute. Later, he lived in the US 30 plus years. He was kind to friends, his wife, children, loved them, and treated them warmly. He was a good student. Books never left his side. In 1992, at the advanced age of 78, he received his Associate Arts degree from Laney Community College. His daughter and grandchildren graduated from UC Berkeley and have contributed to society. It is evident that his descendants diligently studied his example.”

The biography is antiseptic and neat. It leaves out all the nuances of grandfather’s life. All the footnotes. It ignores the fact that he had to abandon his family in Hunan Province when the revolution was looking for him—the landlord—the bourgeoisie, who had to be crushed. My mother was one and my uncle was three years old when grandfather left. The next time my mother saw him was August 5, 1982 when we landed at SFO—day one of our new life in America, the land of cheeseburgers and hot dogs.

The biography ignores grandfather’s desperate escape to Hong Kong, where he had to change his name from Duan Hong Xi to Chan Ming. He would eventually meet some missionaries in the New Territories of Hong Kong who offered him a deal: study the Bible with us for 2 years and you’ll get food and lodging. He agreed and soon accepted Jesus Christ into his life.

The ministers read from Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

1 “The words of the teacher, son of David, king in Jersualem:
2 Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is Meaningless.”
3 What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.

The ministers continue their sermon. They proclaim that only people have souls.
“Animals do not. After a dog is run over by a car, no other dogs in the neighborhood remember that dog or have a ceremony to honor the memory of that dog.”


Tammy Chen, god-daughter to grandfather, begins in a solemn voice. “I came to this country 25 years ago from Taiwan. When I first met Mr. Chan Ming, he tried to find a husband for me. I have always felt welcomed by him and his wife and their daughter Grace and her husband Michael. Without Mr. Chan, I would not be the person I am today. I now am married and have three children.”

Zhong Fan, a family friend to grandfather tells a story about the time she had to go to the hospital for a brain scan. Grandfather was concerned for her, so offered to drive her there and back home again. During lunches, “he would ask me about politics. Unfortunately, he spoke the Hunan dialect, which I do not understand. So, my husband had to translate into Cantonese for me. When I responded, he could understand clearly.” These lunches lasted a while.

A stout African American gentleman comes to the podium. He has on a plaid shirt and orange tie. I don’t know if he gave his name. “I knew Mr. Ming when he got his AA (Associate Arts) degree from Laney Community College. I loved Mr. Ming. He was a dear friend. He always encouraged me: ‘you can do it!’”

At the end of the service, guests lined up to pay their last respects. Grandmother, mom and uncle, and my other aunt Grace stand in front of the casket to receive handshakes or hugs from friends. Some bowed three times to grandfather.

Guests and family received two small palm-sized envelopes: a white one with a piece of candy and a quarter; and a red one with one dollar. On our way back home to Sacramento, my mother throws out the white envelope with candy, saying it was bad luck to have that in the house. She kept the red envelope.

The casket floated on the shoulders of friends, my uncle Michael and his 14 year old son , Justin. On the top of the El Cerrito Hill, overlooking the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, the ministers read from the gospels:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in God. In my Father’s house, there are many rooms; If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you…” John 6:1-6

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Homeless veteran and Krispy Kreme Donut

Nov. 7, 2005
by Andy Lei

Last Thursday night, I played racquetball with some coworkers in our basement gym, so I stayed late until about 8:30pm. Outside my office, I waited for the light before walking to the bus stop across the street. I was carrying a Krispy Kreme box with a sandwich and a donut. One black fellow approached and asked me politely, “You gonna finish that box?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Oh… please, sir. Can I rely on your kindness?”

I opened up the box to give him the remaining donut.

“Oh, no… I can’t eat that!” He declared. Perhaps, he was diabetic, like the doorman. (I had given him couple of donuts just a few minutes earlier. He said he probably shouldn’t eat it, but would accept them anyway.)

So, I offered him the chicken sandwich, instead.

“From the 173rd, I salute you!” He raised his right hand to above his right eye, smiled and saluted me. He was wearing a Ford racing cap, brown coat and dark shoes. He had a thin beard and several gaps in his front teeth. I smelled alcohol on his breath.

“You were in the service?” I asked him.

“Still am! I just returned three months ago from Iraq.” He proudly informed me of his service from 1979-1991 and 1994. “I’ve been to Germany, Koh-rea, Japan…”
“My name is Aries Bond. Aries like the Goddess. Bond like James Bond. The ladies love it!”

“I worked in these buildings before and there are some phat ladies. I mean phat with p-h. Not f-a-t. The trick is to get them to smile. I say, ‘girl, let me smell you. How did you get so beautiful?’ And they smile and they say, ‘I got it from my momma.’ And I say, ‘You got it from Jesus (he points above) when you was in the womb.’ But, whether they black or white or Chi-neese, they all the same.

“You know what they want?” He looked cautiously to his left, right and behind. He then leaned in and said, “the Dick! You know how I know? My six sisters taught me. So, my approach is, “Girl…hey, you dropped something.” They look behind them and I say, “Syke! I got you! And they smile.”

At that moment, two white women passed by and Aries tried his tactic on them. They quickly ignored him as they hurriedly walked by.

A few minutes later, a pair of Latina women walked by. He ignored them, saying, “they don’t speak English.”

“I walk up and down these streets and I see some ho’s.”

“You mean, some loose women?” I ask.

“No, I mean ho’s!—prostitutes. I had me a couple of them. I treat them real nice and after a while, they giving me free pussy. One even asked me, ‘can I stay with you?’”

“So, when you see her, that still happens?”

“No, she’s locked up now, but when I do see her she gives me free head.”

He shows me his Driver’s License. It shows his birthday as 1963 and his residence on New York Ave, NE, somewhat close to my neighborhood.

At that moment, my bus passed by us. I would have to wait another 20-30 minutes for the next one.

Aries asked me, “You got change? I’m trying to get home, too.”

“Sorry, I got a smart card, so I don’t carry change.”

“You alright! What’s you name?”

“Andy. I work here in this building. 7th floor.”

“What do you do?”

“We promote democracy around the world.”

“Man…I been working on a carrier. I been to Germany, Koh-rea. Women all the same.” He steps to his left and spits. “You know what they want? Da Dick! I done a few of them in the stairwells. Me and my friend was out once. We said, “we want to eat out, but we don’t really want hamburgers and that girl that was with us said, ‘oh…you want to fuck me?!’” So, she came home with us. He stepped to his left and spits again.

“What time you get off work usually?”

“About 6pm.”

“ok, tomorrow’s pay day for me. If I see you here, I’ll take you out to lunch. We’ll go to McDonald’s down there. My treat!”

“That’s very kind of you.” I replied.

“I may not dress as well as you, but I bet you that I get more pussy than you any day!” He smiled. He stepped to his left and spits again.

Two black women appeared outside the building, smoking.

Aries turned to me and asked, “You got a quarter?”

“No, sorry.”

“Come with me,” he exhorted, as he headed their way.

“It’s ok. I’ll stay here and watch you work your magic on those ladies.”

He spoke to the two women for a few minutes. I thought this would be a good time to leave, but my curiosity got the better of me, so I stayed. As the women walked back to the building, he returned.

“See…I asked if I could get a sip of their soda. The younger one said yes, but the older one said, ‘don’t give it to him!’”

“So, she was a bit more cautious?” I inquired.

“She smiled, so the door opened. Once you get a smile and a phone number, then you can get the pussy, black, white, Chi-neese....they all the same. What’s your name again?” He stepped to his left and spits again.


The next time I see you, I’ll do this. He shook my hand rapper style: with the hooking of the thumbs, and then the quick hug.