My freshman year, I was new to Boston. I had moved from New York—not far in distance, but a leap to a new life stage. One day in October, as the leaves were preparing themselves to change color, I met someone else new to Boston.
He had plain, unadorned glasses, maroon shoes, brown pants, a brown coat, and a collared shirt. His skin was the color of dried ginger, mottled yellow-brown in places. His sparse white hair was covered with a corduroy cap. He hunched slightly, perhaps in age, or perhaps in deference. I looked at his face. It was smiling, laugh lines built in where you’d never think laugh lines would be—in the forehead, in the neck, on the tip of the nose. His eyes never shone, but they also never dimmed. They twinkled.
When I think about Dong Fugen now, I realize I never saw him not smiling. I never saw him frown at a strange English grammar rule, roll his eyes at an irregular verb ending, put down his pencil and huff in frustration after coming to class through a snowstorm. Dong Fugen was my student in the first class I ever taught, a Saturday class called “Chinatown ESL.” Students from the Boston Chinatown area (and often beyond) converged on our campus every weekend for two hours. At the time, as a freshman in my first Mandarin class, I was just learning the four tones. All I could say was “Mother scolded the horse (媽媽罵馬)”—and probably poorly. But I enjoyed the thought that in some way, I could use my students’ language to connect with them—and that this might inspire them to keep learning English.
I remember Dong Fugen’s name partly because of how he introduced himself on the first day. “I am Dong Fugen. Dong Fugen my name!” He chuckled slightly at his cute pun on “Don’t forget.” He was my most eager student. He used the thesaurus to riddle his optional homework essays with words that flung the sentence to the far ends of the imagination and back. His reason for continuing to study English? He wanted to be able to talk to the American grandparents when he took his American grandchildren to the park in Boston.
My secret, which I never told Dong Fugen, was that he reminded me of my own grandpa. He gave off a lofty and distinguished air, but he was in fact very humble. Love emanated from every spot on his bald pate, though he was pondering, not obvious, with his affection. I remembered the way his smile broadened when he described his grandchildren, and I imagined how happy it made him when they wrapped their short arms around him at the park. I imagined in ten years, when they could drive cars or ride the T alone, and had their own friends and some semblance of their own lives, how they might shun him. How, as teenagers, they might not even know how much shunning him could quietly hurt him. It alternately made me very touched and very panicked. I resolved from that point onwards to always hug my own grandfather, and always show how much I loved him.
Dong Fugen was my loyal student for four years. But then, I graduated. When you graduate, you are forced to move into another sphere of your life so flippantly, so quickly. I figured I would lose Dong Fugen. It happens—you have relationships with people on some border of your life—not the core—and when you move, the core might stay, but the borders change. It made me sad to think I might not see Dong Fugen again, but I thought of him often, and hoped he was well—and hoped it was enough. I didn’t think the person I would lose so quickly, in such a real and tangible way, was actually my own grandfather. As he passed away in a hospital in America, continents away from his hometown in India, I was running a half-marathon in Taipei, continents away from my own home.
We all have that in common, though—me, my grandfather, and Dong Fugen—moving and adapting to new places with a smile on our faces. That’s why I know my grandfather was okay, in the end—and why Dong Fugen will be okay—even if I’m not there to confirm that fact. I think we’ll all be okay if, like Dong Fugen, we let our laugh lines run deep.Originally published: Wednesday August 15th, 2012 by China Personified (link)