Whispers of an old man winter

Posted on Dec 09 2011

Jaime R. Vergara

By Jaime R. Vergara
Special to the Saipan Tribune

My younger brother loves to take photos. He travels a lot, hitting the portable yurts of the Mongolian steppes and the twilight spas of Isla de Pascua this year. Then he sends copies of his work to a coterie of friends, easily done these days with the Internet’s digitized low-resolution samples.

In his earlier days when blood of Iberian Don Alejos osmosized through his arteries, and flowed freely through his veins, his SLR was tele-equipped with the latest gadgetry from Nikon’s upscale lenses. He would sneak in a photo of a mademoiselle, hardly a lassie in distress, possibly from Montreal, languishing in the warm waters of the Caribbean au naturel, all nicely crafted like a tourist postcard ready for mailing. We looked forward to his snail mail then.

Alas, the years are showing its toll. Brother now shoots moai on the ahu of Easter Island in fabulous sunsets but neglects the Rapa Nui in their wild fireside dances. But then, the native sunder Chilean rule might have turned more Iberian than islander, or Dutrou-Bornier did in the island for good!

Like a Russian recipient’s appreciation of his photos in Mongolia, we’re likewise stuck in the wintry winds of the Manchurian plains in Dong Bei and I am beginning to long for the polluted waters of Micro Beach and the algae infested lagoon of Saipan. One of our last sights of the Kilili Beach pala-pala were girls practicing to entertain tourists from Russia, China, Korea and Japan, in island-garbed affectations that no self-respecting Tahitian would wear, ungracefully shaking their booties as if the Alohaland missionaries are no longer on watch.

We are evidently in a daydreaming mode. The reality is that we hie indoors when water involuntarily wells out of the tear ducts and freezes on the chin after creeping through the cheeks. T’is cold, and that was the state of affairs when I went downtown Friday to the post office by the north rail station to retrieve a package of National Geographic maps, a Fromm book and a CD that a colleague sent to assist trainee pilots get oral ChEnglish before flying school in the US of A.

It was while we were on the hour-and-a-half bus ride that we began thinking of old man winter in China. Press accounts of the economic miracle in the last decade since China joined WTO is a façade that bodes well when keeping face, a national pastime. But behind the glitter of the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo, the Guangzhou Asian Games and the Shenzhen Universiade, and the smiling volunteers ever ready to assist foreigners, guests, and patrons, are unheated college dorms where residents carry thermos bottles around daily to be filled with hot water for their tea and morning ablutions. Showers for a few renminbis are a weekly ritual in central communal bathrooms.

We were a tad late to miss the rush hour of office workers and shopkeepers in the bus so we stood through the first leg of the trip into town until we lucked into a vacated seat halfway. We were at a quandary whether to offer the seat to an elderly woman, or a young mother loaded with a child and luggage. The elder said, “You need the seat more than I do, lao ye ye,” using the endearing word for grandpa, translated to us by a Jewish bilingual who was on the bus. That’s when we realized we are, too, an old man of winter.

Chivalry insisted that we next offer the seat to the mother with child, but our knuckles and knees made it clear they needed kneading, and that we no longer had the youthful stamina to be on our feet the rest of the way in the unheated bus. We kept our mitts and muffs on and wore our cap with the earflaps, dabbed oil unto the lip, and took comfort in the human heat of forced intimacy.

Or so I thought but before despair set in, we passed through a corner with some 30 winter-wrapped workers advertising their skills and their phone numbers in placards for those interested in engaging their services. These were manual day laborers, looking only a decade younger than I am, willing to dirty their hands in construction sites, or be hired hands for cleaning and maintaining buildings. There were three similar corners before we reached our destination.

These uncomplaining men and women braved the cold just so they might earn enough to buy mien chow (noodles) and jiao zi (dumplings) for the home wok, under billboards advertising the latest Mercedes Benz. The contradiction of the 85 percent fighting for the scraps under the table of the 15 percent who ride on heated Range Rovers abides even in a country that has become the number one market destination of Ferraris and Maseratis. Mao’s proletariat don’t seem to mind, but for this observer, double the pain when the cheap products once ordered in the last decade by the developed world’s market is turned around to populate the local store shelves at inflated prices more expensive than their previous WalMart destinations.

That’s when it hit me. These folks are working for themselves; “their selves” are getting expressed. The heretofore group face is taking on individual personae. Commerce and consumption may be flesh on the bones, but who was I to deprive them the freedom to make choices even if I know it in my bones to be a grievous mistake?

Old man winter in China is fine, even behind the façade. This other old one is adapting to his new lease on life.

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