(This is the first in an as yet unnamed monthly series that tries to introduce foreigners to Tianjin’s “regular Zhou’s” – the è€ç™¾å§“ (“old hundred-names”; common folk) who form the beating heart of Tianjin. Mr. ChÃ¡ng, the sidewalk barber, is next. The interviews are severely hindered by my lack of Mandarin and it shows, but it’s still a fun project. This blog version contains some extra details that wouldn’t fit the space requirements in the magazine. Other adventures with Mr. LÃ¹ and the old boys club are listed at the end of this article. Mouseover the Chinese characters to see the pronunciation.)
A Modern-day Living Lei Feng
His friends call him a â€œmodern-day living LÃ©i FÄ“ngâ€ (æ–°æ—¶ä»£çš„æ´»é›·é”‹), after the orphaned Mao-era peasant soldier famous for his unselfishness toward fellow comrades and selfless devotion to the Communist cause. The “LÃ©i FÄ“ng spirit” (é›·é”‹ç²¾ç¥ž) lives on today in elementary school textbooks, songs, an online video game, advertisements, and popular imagination as a way to describe people who go out of their way to help others. It also lives on in people like Mr. LÃ¹, our neighbourhood’s bike repairman. The way he and his friends have treated my wife, myself, and even my second-hand, high-maintenance, fake Flying Pigeon bicycle make it obvious why his friends give him this title. This “modern day living LÃ©i FÄ“ng” extends a generous helping hand to locals and foreigners alike, and he has a good deal of fun doing it.
Mr. LÃ¹ fixes bikes on the corner near our neighbourhood’s front gate every day from 7am to 5pm (8pm in the summer). But from my perspective as the one of only three foreigners in the community, we should include Welcoming Committee and Host in his job description. I don’t know if giving foreigners a warm welcome and helping them feel at home in China is a big part of the “real” LÃ©i FÄ“ngâ€™s official legacy or not, but itâ€™s certainly a part of Mr. LÃ¹’s. Itâ€™s people like Mr. LÃ¹ and his friends that make living in a Chinese neighborhood so much more enjoyable for the new foreigners.
My wife and I first moved into this community in April 2007. We were fresh off the boat with a grand total of six weeks of Chinese class under our belts, meaning we could point and mumble in the vegetable market and usually get what we wanted if we’d reviewed the vocabulary beforehand. Aside from that rather necessary survival skill, we couldnâ€™t communicate much of anything. But that didnâ€™t stop Mr. LÃ¹ and his friends from inviting us over to sit and chat when they were having lunch outside or from being generous with their food and bÃ¡i jiÇ” (ç™½é…’ â€“ the infamous Chinese alcoholic drink akin to “white lightning”). Not daunted by the language barrier, Mr. LÃ¹ used food, snacks, drinks, rounds of Chinese chess, and a lot of friendly banter to make it clear that we were welcome to stop by for more than just getting tires patched and brake pads replaced.
Some days he’s drowning in bicycles, and it looks like the repair jobs people have dropped off are laying siege to his mobile tool shed. He’ll fix more than thirty bikes on busy days, but after twelve years of repairing bicycles heâ€™s not intimidated by the heavier work load. He enjoys the extra work and the extra pay that comes with it.
When he’s not too busy he can fit in an after-lunch nap, go fishing on the canal, or chat it up with whoever’s around. Sometimes there can be small crowd; his repair corner can be a social hot spot, and he’s not too stiff to have some good-natured laughs at the foreignerâ€™s expense. Neighbours occasionally choose his corner for a game of Chinese chess, which usually draws more participants than just the required two. As the eighth of nine children and the fifth brother (he has three sisters), I imagine he learned early on how to handle a crowd.
When I first learned of his familyâ€™s size, I was shocked. Nine children? But it was the same for his friends. Decades ago Mao had said, “More people, greater strength” (äººå¤šåŠ›é‡å¤§), and people were encouraged to have large families and make more workers for the development of the economy. This policy was short-lived, but for Mr. LÃ¹’s generation â€“ people who today are old enough to be grandparents â€“ families of this size are not uncommon. Mr. LÃ¹ and his wife have a daughter in her mid-twenties who works for an oil company.
Despite his warm and easy-going manner, Mr. LÃ¹ doesnâ€™t necessarily have it easy. He makes 1500 to 2000å…ƒ (yuÃ¡n) per month (about $200-$275), and rent for him and his wife is only a little over 80å…ƒ per month ($11) because the apartment is provided through his work unit (å•ä½). However, he no longer has the security he once enjoyed when working for his government work unit at a state-owned textile factory. Like many Mainlanders of his generation, the “iron rice bowl” (é“é¥ç¢—) has cracked; the state-owned enterprises that haven’t been closed or sold can no longer provide jobs for everyone. People like Mr. LÃ¹, while still retaining some benefits from the old days like a cheaper apartment, have to fend for themselves financially. He misses the time when he didnâ€™t have to worry about the basics of life, and when it was easier to find work.
When he was younger jobs were easier to come by. He’s worked for several different companies over the years, including a furniture factory and the Tianjin Daily newspaper offices. But he’s older now, and potential employers are less interested. He worries about retirement, which usually happens at 60, and how heâ€™ll manage. More people are riding buses and taxis than in the past, and car ownership is on the rise. No one feels the gradual decline in bicycle use more keenly than bike repairmen like Mr. LÃ¹. He jokes about how hard it is to find a bathroom when working outside, but the gradual decrease in work is his biggest work related difficulty. He wishes that the government could somehow help him improve his life, but he doesn’t receive any work or money from the state.
These worries don’t hinder his generosity. He charges little for his work, and sometimes even refuses to take money, to the point of pulling it out of the money jar and stuffing it directly back into peopleâ€™s pockets. I’ve not only witnessed him do this to others, but personally experienced it myself.
Mr. LÃ¹ hasnâ€™t had a lot of contact with foreigners, but aside from a decidedly unfavourable impression of South Koreans, he says weâ€™re alright, and hopes that we will learn Mandarin well and bring Chinese culture and history back to our home countries.
Additional info on the “real” Lei Feng:
P.S. – I just now delivered a copy of the magazine and some photos to Mr. LÃ¹, and they seemed to really get a kick out of it. He didn’t seem to mind that the editors used the wrong lÃ¹ character for his name in the translation (he’s è·¯, not é™†).