A Lifelong Autodidact
He surrounds himself with art, books, plants and manuscripts. In a refuge of white, black and green scattered with hints of pink in foods or blossoms. Such meticulousness: texts stacked in a corner, slippers single file by the door, surfaces tenderly left to breathe.
Great care has been taken, yet when we enter the room he gives no instruction on how an outsider should help maintain the space in which he fosters his existence. As I remove my shoes, he lightly gestures to tell me I can leave my dirty soles wherever I’d like.
His family affectionately calls him da er—he’s the second oldest (大二, da er, ‘big two’) of five brothers. He’s carved out his home in Lingquan, a small southern Yunnan town with the oft-seen look of having been built overnight at some official’s bidding. Under a blue sky, the buildings glow white and wide streets are consistently lined with green palms gifted from China’s neighbors to the south. He lives alone, but has family three hours away to the north and south.
After 85 long years of work, surviving the Cultural Revolution and rebuilding heart and home, he’s found solo time and space.
I slowly move around his apartment, recovering from the seven flights of stairs that seemed to not affect him at all. He’s pulling out a brown package wrapped with string. He carefully reveals a stack of oversized papers; traditional Chinese paintings adding perspective to brocade silk borders. He selects one from the bottom of the stack, and another from the top. The first is simple: one still blossom on a straight branch. The second is stunning: multiple winding branches of blossoms that look almost alive with movement. He never tells me directly that he painted them. It subtly comes out in the conversation as he shares how he learned to paint from books, examples, and trial and error. I inspect the dates; the first came four years before the second.
He leaves me to thumb through the stack and puts on a pot of hot water. He coaxes green tea leaves out of a box with a small spoon, enlisting gravity with the box held sideways. Once the leaves are safely divided in two cups, he takes this time to hang his brown twill overcoat on a hook by the door and remove his beige cap with both hands. He still has a full head of natural, dark hair.
The door quietly opens and his niece steps into the space. She greets him with a hug and pat on the back.
‘You know, he’s teaching himself English!’ she says in Mandarin.
‘Really? Do you want to speak English with me?’ I ask him. He looks at me with a small smile.
‘He’s too shy!’ she answers for him. ‘But he can understand perfectly.’
I ask a few questions, and soon he’s excitedly showing me his learning process. He listens to podcasts and reads English books, looking up anything he doesn’t recognize word-by-word in his thick, hardcover dictionary. Four fingertips have left round, faded depressions in the front cover. He’s never had a teacher or attended a class. From the beginning seven years ago, he simply picked up an English text and figured it out along the way.
He shuttles into the other room, pen in hand. When he rejoins us a minute later, he nervously hands me a stack of 13 handwritten pages. The first page is a freshly written note in flawless English.
Please let me know what you think of this essay. I have been writing for fun. Thank you and it is such a pleasure to meet you.
‘Would you take it with you and let me know what you think over email?’ he says in Mandarin. His voice has a grainy quality, the only real sign of his age.
I give the first page a quick scan:
His essay, prefacing a handwritten copy of an academic article by Virginia University professor John Israel, ends:
I think the article will help you understand Mengzi (esp. its past) so I present you with a duplicate specially. I hope it is interesting to you. Best wishes.
I stare at the ‘esp.’.
It’s getting late and time to leave. He wakes up at five in the morning everyday to go for an hour-long swim in the community pool. He gives me a warm smile, takes the pages and wraps them in brown paper. His wrinkled but strong hands tie the string with a method tried and tested over his years.
He silently presents the package to me on open palms, and time stops as our eyes acknowledge the meeting of elder wisdom and youthful wonder.