One Man's Life

He doesn’t feel any pain. He is not hungry and his back is ramrod straight. His hands don’t ache in the damp cold of winter and he will never have to sweat away another day in the sun.

Toward The Light

Toward The Light

Last year I took a lot of photos of this old character.  I met him on the steps of the WuXing Department store, where I saw him nearly every day for months, in all kinds of weather, playing his erhu (2 – stringed fiddle) for spare change. Over the period of that few months, the man and I developed a bit of an odd friendship. I often sat and listened to him for a few minutes before handing him some small bills as I went on to work. I think he liked me to sit with him, because over time he had become invisible. However, many folks would stop to gawk at me and then toss some money his way before moving on.  At first, it was difficult for me to be close to him. He smelled bad and had no teeth.  The resulting bare gums were infected and abscessed and a real mess to look at. One day it struck me that, I wouldn’t be seeing those infected gums if he wasn’t smiling at me. The smile was worth it. The combination of his toothless mouth and my poor Chinese meant I never understood a single word the man said to me, but still, we communicated.

A few months ago, I noticed he wasn’t around anymore. I am embarrassed to say I never thought much about it at the time, I figured somebody from the department store or perhaps even the police had made him move on to another less conspicuous place.

Last week, I met a former student and in the course of our conversation, she told me she had heard the old man died. She couldn’t be certain it was true but she was certain she had heard he became sick and died very quickly. I once read somewhere that if people thought you were dying they would give you their full attention. I think there is a lot of truth to that. I don’t know this man’s story but I wish I had taken more time to find out.  Where was he from?  Did he make his living as a musician? Why did he have to play his erhu for handouts?  Where was his family?

I took the top photo some weeks after taking the two on the bottom.  He was making his way to “work”, crossing the First Bridge in the bike lane with traffic whizzing all around him. He’s carrying his erhu in a bag behind him.  Look closely and you’ll see a hint of recognition and the beginning of a smile as he spots me taking the photograph.  I later helped him up onto the sidewalk and we walked back to the department store together, where he unpacked the instrument and began to play.

The Face Of China II - Rock On My Brotha'

Rock On My Brotha’

The Face Of China VI - The Busker

Counting The Haul

Now understand the guy couldn’t play a lick. I mean he was absolutely terrible. Perhaps he was a very good musician at one point but time had robbed him of the ability to make the beautiful melody of his youth.  I still found him a compelling figure.  He was a proud man, doing what he needed to do to survive in his old age.

On a personal note, I just finished my second week at my new job at Liuzhou Teachers College.  I love it.  The kids are motivated, kind and respectful.  The staff is cordial and helpful and I can see making many close friends.  I’ll try and take some shots of college life over the next week.

Today we are celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival here in China.  I plan to go out later and take some photos.  Mid-Autum Festival is somewhat similar in scope to Thanksgiving in the US.  One of the traditions invloves handing out elaborately boxed pastries called moon cakes to family and friends.  The cakes are vile.  More to come…on the festival and the traditional ways to celebrate and those nasty little pastries.

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3 Responses to “One Man's Life”

  1. Jim Mahler says:

    Great start for your blog, Michael. (By the way, the Great Firewall does indeed extend to tourist hotels in the Shanghai area.)

  2. Nina says:

    Fascinating, I was expecting him to be a great player, perhaps once a child prodigy so I giggled when you said he was terrible…

  3. Amanda (CyanEyes) says:

    Michael, you have a gift for seeing into the depths of people that the rest of the world tends to ignore. Thank you for taking the time to share your honesty and courage with all of us. Our lives are all the richer for it.

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