Monday, February 15, 2010


Ellen and I were having a lot of discussions back in December over the content of my blog—apparently she worries that some of the details I include in my writing might a false impression of the sort of person she is or isn’t. Anyhow, to make it up to her, I decide to get her jade for Christmas. Neither of us is a particular fan of this stone, but jade is very Chinese and even more Hong Kongy, so I figure what the heck—it’ll be a nice memento of our time in Asia and something that can be passed along to Lucy once Ellen’s past with the Russian mafia catches up with her and we come home to find her office empty but for her OED, a red editor’s pencil, and the Sig Sauer P226 semi-automatic pistol she carries everywhere with her.

Buying jade can be tricky—lots of it is cheap stone injected with dye—so when a friend of mine offers to introduce me to “this guy I know,” I take him up on it. The two of us get on the 26, ride in to Tai Po, and eventually end up in a shop roughly the size and shape of a phone booth designed for midget ant-eaters. The walls and ceiling are lined with red silk and the glass cases brim with jade: necklaces, diamond-rimmed rings, bracelets, earrings. Most of it is green, but there are other colors too: a light, pinkish lavender, a glassy, opaque white, and a warm, butterscotchy yellow.

Behind the counter stands a rather no-nonsense-looking man with thick hair lightly oiled and combed back after a wide forehead. His sleeves are rolled back in exact folds, and, truth be told, he looks less like a jeweler than a mid-level manager for an insurance agency. Everything about him is square: his face, his hands, his shoulders. Even his hair is square.

He nods curtly as we enter. Gavin, my colleague, explains that I’m looking for something for my wife. The problem, Gavin says, is that she doesn’t like diamonds.

This is true. Ellen’s never been one for diamonds, probably because of the time her entire family was murdered by Peruvian diamond thieves during her childhood as a Bolivian spy in South America. This distaste for shiny white sparkles is unfortunate, however, since almost every piece of jewelry in Hong Kong is studded with diamonds, coated in diamonds, powdered by them like so much green candy coated with really expensive sugar. In my mind, this only validates my sense that jade, on it’s own, is about as exciting as shingles on a old shack, but clearly our jeweler thinks this is a ploy on my part.

“Diamonds no problem,” he says. “I give you diamonds.”

Having come from a culture where grown men are willing to spend two year’s salary for a chip the size of a pigmy ant, I’m not even sure what to say about this. Faced with a cultural situation that I clearly didn’t understand, I do what I usually do. I say: “Huh?”

Square Man comes out from behind the counter and takes us to a display case on the wall. “You spend how much?”

I name a figure so low that Gavin actually laughs. The jeweler, though, doesn’t look fazed, obviously used to cheap gweilos who don’t actually love their wives. Reaching into the case, he pulls out a piece of jade the size and shape of a pigmy ant’s aborted offspring. It’s surrounded by rows of diamonds

“My wife doesn’t like diamonds,” I say.

“I give you the diamonds,” he replies. “No problem.”

Clearly he believes I’m clever enough to bargain the price down—not to mention that I retain the cold metal accoutrements that make such a tactic even possible on my part. I turn and face the case he’d just opened. Pointing to a two-piece necklace where you can actually see the jade with the naked eye, I say, “How much is that one?”

He names a figure double what I’d sell any of my children for. Now it’s my turn to laugh. “You’re joking, right?”

He neither frowns nor smiles. He looks straight at me out of his square eyes. After five seconds, I nod apologetically and whisper something about baby ducks and please don’t hurt me.

He takes pity. “You like this one?” he says.

I nod, then point to the lone diamond, strung between a horizontal oval and a tear-drop of jade. “Except for the diamond. My wife—“

“Doesn’t like diamonds,” he finishes, nodding. “I tell you what.” He says something to his wife, who’s come out from an office in the back, and is watching with mild amusement as her husband make fools of the dumb white guys—admittedly, not very difficult to do. She disappears into the back, then emerges a moment later holding a small manila envelope. Upending it on a piece of velvet, she pours out two small pieces of jade—one an oval, the other a teardrop.

Square Man taps them with his fingers, arranging them to imitate the 50 gadzillion dollar necklace I admired in the case. “Like this,” he says. “I make you necklace.”

I look at the stones. They are small, but very pretty. Unlike much of the jade I’d seen, they have layers to them, smoky clouds of darkness beyond darkness. You could fall into these stones; swim in them. I glance at the man. He meets my eye, unsmiling.

“No diamonds,” he says.

After that, there’s some paper work, the exchange of money and receipts. I don’t know why, but toward the end of the encounter, Gavin hands the jeweler his card. Square Man examines it politely and nods. And then, again I don’t know why, I hand him my card, too. He takes it in both hands, as you’re supposed to, and examines it, again politely.

Then he freezes.

He looks at me. At the card again. Then at his wife. She comes to his shoulder, stands on her toes so that she can read the bit of paper he’s now holding toward her in his two square hands.

She looks at it. Then at me. Then at her husband. He looks back at her, then they both turn to me.

“You work at—“ he says finally, naming my host university.

I nod.

“You are an”—here he hesitates, pronouncing it carefully—“English professor?”

I nod again. Gavin is watching all of this, a mild, questioning look in his eyes.

Square Man almost smiles, but does not. His eyes are softer now, his brow creased.

“I have a daughter,” he begins.

The only problem, of course, is that I have three kids of my own—and a job, and an added consultancy/directorshippy-type thing. And, as you well know, my wife is chief choreographer for the Hong Kong ballet between her stints as a research biologist for the World Health Organization. We’re busy. Really busy.

Plus, I have no idea how to tutor a sixteen-year old girl. It’s just not my audience of choice. Self-conscious sorority girls? No problem. Wanna-be Hemingways? Yep. Frat boys reeking of urine from the last night’s bacchanalia? I can handle it.

But second language acquisition? High school? High-stakes exam prep? Completely out of my depth.

I try to explain this to them as gently as I can. Husband and wife look at me with those sincere eyes, those suddenly earnest faces, and the words curl on my tongue. It takes me a while to figure out what’s changed, why they look so different all of a sudden. Then I get it:

They are vulnerable.

Keep in mind that in Hong Kong, only 18% of college-aged students are allowed to enter university. Keep in mind that here, a university education is the ticket to whatever job you want. Keep in mind that parents in Hong Kong spend tens of thousands of dollars from the time their children at toddlers preparing them for the form-seven exam. I once asked a HK Board of Education director if parents ever pulled their kids out of high school early in order to increase the family earning potential.

“Never,” he said. I waited for some explanation, for more detail, for a qualifying “unless”—but it never came.

All of this flashes through my mind as I try to explain to these folks that I’m just not their man, that I’m not t qualified, that I don’t have the time. “I just can’t do it,” I say.

And then I remember the ETAs—the English Teaching Assistants—American university students who are given Fulbrights to come to Hong Kong and help Chinese university students with their English skills. 16 of them work at my host institution.

“But,” I say, holding up a finger, “I know someone who can.”

Two weeks after Christmas, I bring Laura to the store. Laura is from Wyoming or Montana or some other place where folks wear cowboy boots without irony. She’s smart as hell and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. When I e-mailed a couple of the ETAs, saying I’d met a guy who had a daughter and this might be a chance to earn some extra traveling money—and oh, by the way, did I mention he’s a jeweler?—Laura wrote back and said she was interested. She didn’t seem fazed by the jewelry thing—she’s not the type to go all gooshy-kneed at the mention of diamonds. Turns out she did a lot of tutoring of immigrant children when she was in college, saw it as a great way to get to know another culture, to form relationships that actually made a difference in the world. So this is right up her alley.

Anyhow, when I show up with Laura and her wide smile and bright face and brain the size and power of a 9030 series John Deere tractor with a 13.5 Liter Engine (or whatever the hell it is they drive in Wyoming), Mr. Cheng (for indeed, that was Mr. Square Man’s real name) calls his daughter, who comes over to meet her new tutor. After tentative introductions, Laura and the daughter begin to talk about what sorts of lessons they might have and when a good time to have them might be.

Eventually the daughter asks how much it will cost, and when Laura mentions a price higher than I’d anticipated, I glance at Mr. and Mrs. Cheng. There is a beat. Then the daughter repeats the price, this time in Cantonese. Another beat, smaller this time, before Mr. Cheng nods.

My parents come into town after that and between them and work and three kids, I forget all about the Chengs. Then my mom sees Ellen’s necklace and we decide it can’t hurt to go over and take a look, see if there’s anything that catches her eye.

The shop is closed when we arrive, so we grab lunch at a Japanese place, then come back just in time to find Cheng lifting the corrugated iron gate covering the entrance. When he sees me, he gives a quick nod and says hello. Letting us in, he flips on the lights and takes off his jacket.

“My parents,” I say, gesturing, in case he thought maybe they were random white folk in their sixties and seventies I’d met roaming the streets of cosmopolitan Tai Po. He smiles a brief, dry smile, nods again. Then he looks at me and gestures toward a small velvet-lined box holding six jade discs, each with a hole in the center.

“You like one?” he says.

I lean forward. They’re smooth and green, polished to a shine. I’ve seen discs like this before, worn around the neck on a leather cord. “They’re very pretty,” I say. My mother is glancing around, trying to get her bearings in all that glass and jade and sparkle.

Cheng nods, gestures again. “Take which one you like.”

I step back, raise my hand. “Oh no. I couldn’t.”

“Please,” he says.

“No,” I repeat. “Really. That’s very kind, but you don’t have to do that.”

Just then my mother gestures at something in one of the cases. “Could I see that please?”

Cheng pulls out his keys and sifts for the right one. My dad and I drift toward the wall display where the gazillion-dollar necklace that inspired Ellen’s gift is still on display. I tell my dad about it, letting my eyes drift over the rest of the shelf. Half-way along the case is a small droplet of jade set in a tasteful bed of flat-cut diamonds. I’d seen it weeks before, but the bling, I knew, would put Ellen off so I’d ignored it. My brother, though, had e-mailed me to keep an eye out for something for his wife, so once Cheng is done helping my mom, I gesture toward the piece.

“How much is that one?”

He comes out from behind the case and opens the glass door. Taking it out, he shows it to me. “This,” he says, “is very good jade.”

Setting it on the counter, he rifles through some papers and pulls out an 8x10 photograph: it shows a large piece of rock, three times the size of a grave-stone, veined with white. “Burmese jade,” he tells me, tapping the picture with a square nail.

I hold up the small necklace, then glance at the table of rock. “This? From that?”

He nods.

I looked at the droplet again. It’s very very pretty—elaborate, but tasteful. I take my finger and turn over the small tag hanging from a string.

And almost fall over.

It costs even more than the gazillion-dollar piece—half-again as much, in fact, enough to feed most of the population of Bolivia (the country my wife once gave her life for) for a good three weeks.

“Oh,” I say, and put it down. Quickly.

Cheng sees what’s happening and picks it back up again. “No,” he says. He pushes the stone toward me, then picks up his calculator. Thinking for a minute, he taps out some numbers, and shows them to me.

I look. Then look again. Then flip over the tag to make sure I’d read it right the first time. Then hold up my hands.

“No,” I say. “You can’t do that.”

“I make it myself,” he says. “It’s okay.”

I look at him. He’s a very handsome man, his face large, with a fine nose. Small wrinkles crease the browned skin beside his eyes. This strikes me as odd, because he really doesn’t smile much, though I can see now that he really is a kind man, that change of expression for him means a glow in the eyes and a twitch of the mouth. He’s very much like my grandmother that way, a woman who never told me she loved me, but whose love I never once doubted.

“No,” I say again. “You can’t do that.”

“For you,” he says, “this is the price.”

This, of course, is the line that you hear everywhere when you’re traveling. Peddlers in Vietnam are shameless about using it, all but winking at you when they say it, letting you know that they know that you know it’s a joke—and that they don’t mind, and neither should you.

Cheng, though, is not joking. The price he’s shown me is well under half—well under half—of the marked price. Still more than any piece of jewelry I’ve ever bought before—but even so . . .

“No,” I say. “That’s very kind of you, but you don’t have to do that.”

He picks up the stone, raises it to eye level, tilting it so that we can both see into it. “This jade is very good. Very good. Top quality. But there,” he says, pointing. “See there? Is little flaw. Tiny.”

I peer closely. I can see what he’s talking about—a small, darkish spec, like a gnat caught in green amber.

He takes his hand down again, looks at me. “Is very beautiful.”

He isn’t kidding. If I’d thought the necklace was pretty before, now, after looking into it and seeing that universe of color with one small planet floating inside—now, I think the piece is gorgeous.

I have, as anyone who’s met me for more than five minutes undoubtedly knows, an unlimited capacity for screwing up a good thing. The tools in my arsenal are varied and well maintained, honed, and oiled, locked and loaded: I can say the wrong thing, sigh so that it sounds like a snort, roll my eyes in a bizarre attempt to express gratitude, crack an ill-timed joke, or freeze up my brain by overthinking.

Of all of these, the one I am closest to at this particular moment is the last: standing there, looking at Cheng, looking at that necklace, looking at that ridiculously low price flashing from the calculator—all I can think about is how I don’t deserve this. If anything, this is a gift that should be going to Laura. After all, she’s the one who’s tutoring his daughter when I couldn’t be bothered. Geez, the guy is rewarding me for being too arrogant and too busy and too pre-occupied to see to the future success of a 16-year-old girl.

Somehow, though, this time I have the brain cells necessary to recognize when I see it a gesture of genuine, if not friendship, at least kindness. Just this once, I find a way to accept the offering of a man who is honest enough to show me the one flaw in a perfect stone—and then reassure me that, indeed, this makes it just that much more perfect.

I look at Cheng, then at the jade tear.

“It’s very beautiful,” I say.

He nods.

“Thank you,” I say. “You’re a very good man.”

His chin lowers slightly, and the skin stirs around the corners of his eyes. For a moment there—just a moment—I think he’s going to smile.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE this entry! Sweet and compassionate on so many levels. I think you are softening on us. Doesn't have nearly the bite some of your other entries have.

Anonymous said...

Hey anonymous, he's actually very soft, not nearly as prickly as his blog persona. And very self aware. He does have an amazing knack for screwing up good things.

Oh, and Dr. Hanstedt, that piece of jewelry is beautiful.

Najla said...

Paul - I've been meaning to tell you how much I like the pictures you include -- especially the ones at the top of your blog page that change occasionally. Some are quite spectacular. Well done!

Erin said...

I love this entry - I hope Uncle Bruce & Aunt Sherrill are having a terrific time!! Jordan and I are headed out to your neck of the woods (kinda) next week... we're going to Thailand for his brother's wedding. Also, I'm so excited - I get to go to dinner and a talk by Paul Farmer next week (for free)! You were the one who recommended Mountains Beyond Mountains to me, which I just love. Farmer is speaking at a Summit for GlobeMed, which is a student-led org (I'm on the Board). Anyways, I hope all is well, and I love the pictures!