On this Fall (back) morning, I’m going to tell a story — a story of the greatest man that ever lived. Whose name would come up on your lips if someone asked you who was the greatest man you’d ever met? According to Rivers Cuomo, it’d be himself.
While I have to agree that Cuomo is one of the most creative songwriters out there, he’s not my Greatest Man. I knew my Greatest Man for only 30 hours, but he is and will always be a better man than me.
When I met him, I was freshly 18 and angry. I’d just graduated high school and been shipped off to China to spend time with my father. My mother kept sending me passive-aggressive emails asking me to negotiate my finances with my father for the upcoming college semester. I understand now that she was worried about the sudden end of child support, but at the time I was just annoyed. I wished I didn’t have to spend another penny of my parents. Then, there was my father. After I’d finally gotten used to Pistol Lady, now there was Squash Lady. My father and I play squash together — it’s always been our ritual. Then, one day he invited 25-year-old Squash Lady along and told me she was his colleague from work. Halfway through the session, he tapped her ass with his racquet a mere foot from my face. I wanted her to go to hell.
A few weeks later, my father arranged for us to take a trip to Dali in the west of China. I’d loved Lijiang (also in Western China) when I’d visited, so I was fairly excited to go. The night before we flew out, however, I was lucky enough to receive 15 golf ball-sized mosquito bites. When we arrived, I was cranky and the city did not impress me much. Dali didn’t compare to Lijiang’s old town, where hotel rooms were locked with chains and candle-lit paper lotuses floated down the stream. Instead, I saw natives living out of garage-like structures and rickshaws constructed of metal scraps. There wasn’t a place to go horseback riding (my activity of choice no matter where in the world I go) and we had to walk a mile uphill to make it to our hotel.
My dad took me to the most famous tourist attraction in Dali, the Three Pagodas. The whole time, though, I was crying behind my new Ray-Bans. My mother had just harassed me for weeks to buy season football tickets. When I finally did, she emailed to clarify that she had wanted my father to buy them and now I would have to ask him to reimburse her. Asking my father for anything was like death to me, so I climbed the Pagodas and cried. Then my dad got pissed because I wasn’t interested in anything, and our trip was a waste of time. On top of all this, I knew in the back of my heart that I was going to break up with my high school boyfriend soon.
It was in this context that I met him. In the afternoon, my dad went on a walk by himself while I stayed behind at the hotel. When he returned, he announced excitedly that he’d made friends with the owner of a tea shop. He had told them that I was his business partner (my dad is weird like that), and perhaps we’d be interested in exporting their tea to the United States. His good spirits lifted mine, and we began to build on each other’s ideas. The owner, whose name was John Li, had insisted that my father bring me to the shop. It was raining as we navigated Dali’s winding streets and found the tea shop.
For the next few hours, my dad and John discussed Pu-erh tea’s unique properties. As a side note, I was surprised that I knew this tea — my father had bought a cake a few years back and we’d always called it “horseshit tea”, after its particular scent. John explained the process of fermentation and showed us the difference between high-quality and low-quality Pu-erh. He constantly refilled our tea cups; we must have drank a gallon that night. As my interest in their conversation waned (my Mandarin fails me at a certain point), I noticed the other man seated at the table. He was reading a book and he’d make a comment to John every once in a while. He appeared middle-aged, like the other two men.
The first thing he said to me was that my dad had a great life — a wife and family in the States and a good job back in China. This statement was so absurd that I had to roll my eyes. In my characteristic naïveté, I began to explain the Pistol Lady situation to this stranger. To my surprise, he seemed to understand perfectly. He introduced himself to me as “Knight” and before I knew it, he was telling me his life story. The most peculiar part was that he spoke in very broken English, the kind of English one picked up through speaking with others who also spoke broken English, yet we neither resorted to Mandarin nor had problems of communication.
It seemed as if I could say nothing, and this man would understand me. What he proceeded to tell me, though, was beyond the understanding of my inexperienced mind.
To be continued…