Monday, June 30, 2014

Lin Tai Ping, Are You Dead Yet?

I met Lin Tai Ping about ten years and the man struck me as a nut. He was crazy, crazy about joking. On my last trip, I was sitting in a local tea shop when I looked over and saw this old guy ordering a drink. He had a hat on pulled down, so it was hard to make out his features, but his voice was familiar.

“Lin Tai Ping,” I called out his name. He walked toward me saying, “I am Lin Tai Ping.”
“I know,” I answered.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I am that foreigner friend,” I answered.
“Oh, that is you! You are more handsome than before. I didn't recognize you.”

He sat down with his tea and asked me if I wanted one. “I've got one,” I said, showing him mine. In our greetings, since I know he is a big fan of photography, I showed him the six physical photographs of Elijah that I carried with me everywhere I went. He was pleased, laughing and cajoling as if Elijah were there in person.

“He looks just like you! It is amazing. Look, look,” he said holding the photo up for Uncle Ray to see. “This baby is this man's child,” he said pointing at me.
“There is no way that kid is his. I've met his wife. There is no way that the two of them made this baby.” Uncle Ray said skeptically.
“You are an idiot!” he says to Uncle Ray. He turns to me, “That man is stupid,” he says.
“He's jealous,” I reply.
“You are an idiot, Uncle Ray! Look at how much this child looks like him.” He gives me back the pictures and starts talking to me.

“Do you know, I just had the funniest thing happen to me. The newspaper reported that a man from Taiwan was traveling in Mainland China and was the unfortunate victim of a bus accident. His name was Lin Tai Ping, the same as mine, and he was the same age as me.” I'd heard about this story, and it was fun to hear it straight from the man himself.

“I tell you, my Auntie is 90. She saw the news at midnight. She didn't want to call so late, but she was so worried. She waited as long as she could, but when she couldn't take it anymore, she called me at 4:30 in the morning. My phone was on, but when I answered, I was still half asleep and my voice was very horse. “Who is this?” she asked. “Lin Tai Ping,” I answered. “No, really. Who is this?” “I am Lin Tai Ping.”

After she knew it was me, she started crying and told me that she was so worried. In the end, 83 people called in after hearing the news story, enough people for Tai Ping to start to have some fun with it. When a good friend would call, Tai Ping would answer, “This is Lin Tai Ping, I am dead.” When his religious cousin called, he answered, “I am sitting next to God now. Is there anything you want to ask him?” Tai Ping describes his sense of humor as a contagion. “Maybe you are in a bad mood and don't feel like joking. But by the time I am done with you, you will be joking right along.”

I ask this man what he is doing out and about. He is a professional photographer by trade and as luck would have it, he is in the neighborhood to take some pictures. At first he played it cool and humble, “Oh you know, I'm just on a walk about with my old friend the Nikon here. You know about this kind of Nikon? These things take amazing pictures.” He has some Nikon S2 Range Finder from about 50 years ago in mint condition.

“You know, a funny story about these kind of cameras,” he starts “I was in France taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower, and I see a French man with the same camera. But he didn't have the original lens like I do. He said he couldn't afford it. So I told him that in Taiwan, only poor people buy these cameras. The guy was shocked and he was wondering how it could be true. I told him it was absolutely true, because after you buy one, you are in the poor house. The man said, well all be damned, I had no idea everyone in Taiwan is so funny.”

Now that I got him talking, he gives me a copy of a postcard that his photo was featured on. “I was recently in this photo exhibition. The exhibition featured some carving, some calligraphy, and some photography. You know, calligraphy is a very important part of Chinese art and culture. Hey, I have something I want to give you. I'll be right back.”
“No, no, Taiping don't worry about it,” I protest. “Come on, take it easy.”
“Will you be here?”
“Yes, I'll be here writing my journal, but don't worry about it. You go on with your day.”

He could see that in earnest, I didn't want to accept his gift. In order to circumvent any attempt at politeness he rebutted, “I'm not giving it to you, I'm giving it to your son. Now, you say, I'll be ready for you when you come back, like we are going to fight, and then I'll say, I'll be back to settle the score with you. That way it sounds like we are getting ready to scrap and it makes us sound cool and tough.”

Here is this 64 year old man acting like he wants to fight with me. So I'm writing and writing, and guess who pops back...Tai Ping. He grabs an manila envelope, opens it, and unfolds a series of words. “Long Fei Fong Wu,” he states. It means “Dragon Flies, Phoenix Dances.” I actually came here to take a picture of this tree. He points to the tree across the street. The funny thing about Tai Ping is that he is always observing. He is always looking at the changes in patterns and mostly, I think, the changes in light. He had noticed it, the moment he was waiting for, and he went out in the street to get a photograph of the tree. I could hardly pick up my phone and chase after him fast enough to get a couple of photos of him taking pictures of the tree. Then I went to the exact spot where he was crouching and assumed the same position and took a photo. I took it back and showed him.
 “Pretty good,” he said. “But my picture doesn't have this post and this building, just the tree and the sun.”

He showed me where the sun was through the clouds. So I went back and retook this photo according to his instructions. I proudly showed him and he said, “Now you are getting it.”
Then we got a group shot together, and when he is getting up to go, I thank him for the calligraphy. “When I die, that will be worth a lot of money. When you come back, come visit me. You can come to my house. Bring your son and he and I can box each other.” The image of this man in his sixties or seventies boxing with my toddler pops into my head and we both start laughing.  

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