Wednesday, October 21, 2009

At Least One Country for Old Men

            I’m sitting on a train on the way down to Kowloon.  Next to me is an old man.  He must be 70, but it’s hard to tell with some Hong Kongers.  His face is broad and square, as is the rest of him:  his shoulders, his arms, his knees—even the backs of his hands, resting on the umbrella he stands between firmly planted feet.  His skin is dark brown and he has barely any eyelashes left as he gazes out over the train, his face calm.  This is a thoroughly romanticized vision, I know, but my guess is he used to be the police chief in a small village, or maybe a high school principal, the kind who wasn’t phased by much, who held students to their best version of themselves.  Or maybe he was a crack dealer.  Who knows.

On his wrist is a bracelet of amber-colored beads.  This should intrigue me, I know, the peculiar detail that doesn’t fit the general image, but it doesn’t really.  Maybe it was a gift from a granddaughter.  Maybe a shop keeper convinced him it was good for arthritis.  Ellen bought a similar one a few weeks back, the lady behind the counter insisting it was good for protection.  I told her she should have bought the tigers-eye, which is supposed to bring wealth.

I’m fascinated by the old men in this country.  I don’t know why.  Every time you stroll into a park in Hong Kong, you’ll find old men sitting on benches, shoes off, bare feet curled up beneath them.  Clearly this is part of the Chinese culture, because even a small park will have dozens and dozens of these benches.  And on every one will be old men, knees bent and their feet up, chatting quietly.  I love that their feet are bare.  So undignified by American standards, yet here it looks nothing if not dignified.   

Part of the reason I like all of this—the old men, the parks, the postures—is because it’s so different than the US.  Sure, you can go to park and see old men playing chess or sitting with their grandchildren and reading books.  But most of the time we seem to shunt old people off to retirement facilities of various kinds—homes, communities, assisted-living arrangements.  We visit them every second Thursday, or on holidays, or when we can’t find the key to their wine cellar, then write sentimental books about them.

Perhaps because of this, some large portion of the retirement-age populace (notice how I avoided the term “old geezers”), seems determined to fill their golden years with as much activity as possible, as if to assert their vitality and relevance.  America is, after all, a country where “success” is defined by what you do and what you’ve done—and what you get done on a daily basis.  We’re a task-oriented nation,  a check-list nation, for sure.   Maybe we could use a little time on a park bench, our bare feet in our laps.

Years ago I suffered a series of anxiety attacks—too much caffeine, it turned out.  Before we realized what was causing them, though, I went to see a therapist, a youngish Hispanic woman who had a great way of making me feel good about myself even though I hadn’t really done anything.  In the midst of one of our conversations, I mentioned a recent moment in my work where I hadn’t over-reacted to some irritating factor.

 “That’s great,” she said. 

“I know,” I responded.  “But a little dorky.  I don’t really want to be one of those Zen guys.”

She burst out laughing. 

“What?” I said.  I grinned too, a little uncomfortably. 

“Yes you do,” she said. “You most certainly want to be one of those Zen guys.”

 And she was right.  My whole life, I’ve been the spastic center of the storm-filled universe.  Consequently, I’ve always surrounded myself with calm people—Quakers, philosophers, librarians, bass players, writing center directors, a woman who lived in England and Germany and only talks when she has something really meaningful to say.  I’ve done this, I suppose, in a desperate attempt to silence the jitteryness in my bones, hoping some of that mellow might rub off.

And now I seem to be in a country full of Zen men.  Or Confucian men, more accurately, men raised in a culture that seeks inner harmony first, above all else. 

Here again I know I’m idealizing.  My colleague Anita tells us that things are changing in Hong Kong:  the elderly are less and less revered.  Rather than sticking around to care for family, as was the custom, the younger generation heads of the mainland, seeking gobs of money.  And too, where are the women in all of this?  How come they don’t sit on the park benches, feet up, chatting?  I’d like to think they’re somewhere playing Mahjong—and sure enough, you do see tables sometimes in the parks—but now I wonder if they’re at home, cleaning, or out slippering carefully through the crowded aisles of a wet market. 

But that doesn’t end my fascination with old men.  Like the guy with the square shoulders.  Or the one three weeks ago on the ride back from the fireworks celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic.  The trains were packed, of course, and as we rushed from one train to the next in Hung Hom, I spotted a still-empty seat.  I was about to block it for Ellen or myself, when we saw the old man.

            He was bent over, but not frail, his eyes intense and clear behind gold-rimmed glasses.  Beneath a brown vest, his belly pressed against an old T-shirt.  He saw the seat, then saw me.  I gestured.  He shook his head.  I was tempted—hot, tired, ears still ringing from the fireworks.  But geez, he was an old man.  And I’m not that big a butthead.

            I gestured again, and he grinned and took the seat.  Three stops later I was leaning over Jamie, trying to pry a water bottle from his hands, when I felt a tug on my sleeve.  I turned.  It was the old man.  As the train slowed, he gestured towards himself and then his seat—and smiled.  Then he rose.  His T-shirt was worn, almost see-through.  His fingernails were long.  I watched him shuffle between the teenagers standing by the door, their fingers tapping Nintedos as he made his way to the exit.  He barely reached their shoulders. 



Eric said...

I've been meaning to ask you if you've read The Honourable Schoolboy, by John LeCarre? Not beautiful fiction, but a good spy novel and set in Hong Kong.

Paul said...

Good rec. I'll check it out!