Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In Death, Birth

Sometimes, in life, you think the gurus who spout aphorisms might be right; or, perhaps, that chaos theory has individual-life applicability. In theory, unexpected and rare events are random, and should only happen once in a while. Yet they don't and, like traffic, they bunch.

This morning, I lost my father-in-law. It feels funny to say it in English, because the title has little meaning. Instead, I write something about him, a man no one, including himself, thought worthy of mention.

He was born in Shandong Province, the same place where Qingdao (TsingTao) beer is brewed. It was the 40's and China was at war, he was born before China was liberated -- in 1944. He had a dozen brothers and sisters. Several, including his parents, died of hunger during the famine of the Great Leap.

He went to Xinjiang, a remote and desolate province, to work under the shangshanxiaxiang ("go up into the mountains, and down into the villages") directive of the cultural revolution era.

There he spent a dozen years, the prime of his youth, raising chickens and working the earth to create a better China.

After Deng's reform of China, he went with his wife, step-daughter, and son back to their hometown, Changzhou, a city in southern Jiangsu Province (near Shanghai).

In 30 years, he never learned the language. When I met him in 2000, and until he left this earth this morning, he never could speak Changzhou-ese. He understood every word. And, even today, he was the only in-law I could completely understand.

He ethos was conservation. If you turned on the light at dusk, he would shut it off when you went to the bathroom. He brusquely turned down any invites for public showers or karoke. He took pride that his household consumed the lowest number of watts every month. A cost-benefit analysis of glasses versus electricity was moot.

That conservation and saving can be born of need is a fact too often lost to modern environmentalists and free-market Greenspanians.

It was me, a foriegner, who brought this man to the Great Wall for the first time in Beijing. I take pride in that.

A saver, a conservationist, and yet a man who would rather you eat and smoke until you are painfully sick than that you abstain out of courtesy.

Yes, a rare man, an unknown man. Not a model of life, or of death, but a model nonetheless.

You will be missed, Ren Yongshan -- the mountain of eternity.

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