I met Mr. Zheng in Shanghai. After a long day of sightseeing my girlfriend and I were walking through Xintiandi. What I took to be the see and be seen set of Shanghai were lounging inside and outside the various watering holes, not trying so much to be seen just right now perhaps, but being beautiful nonetheless. There was close to an even split between Chinese and foreign faces. The site of the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party was just around the corner, that is, out of sight. Therefore, out of mind.
On my way to nowhere in particular, I walked past a man in a long navy blue robe with slicked back black and silver hair. His spectacles were low on his nose making his laughing eyes unavoidable though no one wanted to look straight at him. A pipe was sticking out from his voluminous teeth. He walked slower than everyone else with his hands clasped behind his back, holding a cane he didn’t seem to need. He was wearing a DPRK flag – no, not a lapel pin, a proper flag on a stick – protruding from a white scarf around his shoulders and neck.
I figured he was a Kim Il Sung look-alike street performer, but I couldn’t think of why there would be such a thing here. I told my girlfriend, “go ahead and get your ice cream, I’m gonna go talk to this guy.” “Oooookay, but don’t get into trouble.”
I walked up to him and said “先生你好. 你会说英文吗?” – Hello sir, do you speak English? He bared his teeth and shook his hand in my face, “Yes! but I hate speaking English!” Now that’s the stuff.
“Why are you wearing that flag?”
“Because I support DPRK. I’m going to defect to DPRK!”
He waved at the street around us, “because I’m so tired of ugly America!” I guess I understood, somehow.
“Do you mean that? Are you really going to defect to North Korea? Do you have papers and everything?”
“Yes. Maybe in 6 months I will go.”
“What will you do?”
“Nothing! I’m retired. I will just enjoy life.”
“How will you support yourself?”
“I have enough money.”
Mr. Zheng was from Taiwan where he had a successful business career. “Are you Chinese?” He asked.
“No. My father was from Japan.”
“Ah, Japan. I like Japan! They are a people who have kept their culture. Not like the stupid Chinese. You should hold on to your Japanese roots and not be an Ugly American.” Also around the corner, down the street from the first meeting place of the CCP, was the site of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea where the exiled Korean government made plans to invade the peninsula and liberate it from colonial Japan.
“Okay. Why do you want to live in the DPRK?”
“Because they are a good socialist country and they resist ugly America. The people can have a good life there.”
My girlfriend had made her way back to us and Mr. Zheng was happy to learn she was from Norway, another “good socialist country.”
“Come. I have a table over there. We can sit down together and talk.”
A pretty young waitress walked past us and he beamed and said hello to her. She gave him a knowing, co conspirator smile and said hello back. We came to his table where he had left his backpack, laptop, teacup, incense, water calligraphy pad and paintbrushes unattended. There were no signs they had been touched.
“So, you come here often?” I asked.
“Yes, everyday. I like to watch the people and talk with people and read the news.”
“You do know you can’t get on the internet and read the news in North Korea? And foreigners are kept very separate from people, so you can’t talk to whomever you want.” He brushed it away and made a sour face.
We got into it over America, China, World War II, capitalism, communism, socialism, etcetera, etcetera. Mao Zedong is a hero in his eyes. He thinks every Chinese person should be conscripted for at least 6 months, and then sent to labor in the countryside for the same duration. Only then will the Chinese stop being “so stupid.” He said I was being an “ugly American” for teaching English to Chinese people.
“If you come here, you should be forced to learn Chinese.”
I said I agreed somewhat, “but isn’t it a good thing that you are fluent in English and you can share your thoughts with us? Aren’t people’s lives richer and better if they have access to the English speaking world?”
“No! We don’t need it.”
“But what if people like it? Shouldn’t people be free to choose what they think, what they like and how they want to live?”
“Choice is an illusion. People don’t know how to choose. People need strong leaders or there will be chaos and exploitation and oppression.”
“The people here don’t look very oppressed or exploited.”
“What do they know? All they care about is their clothes and phones and money.”
“I’m with you there. People are too concerned with trivial things, but isn’t it a matter of personal responsibility and cultural and societal habits? Should people be forced to live a certain way?”
“Yes, I think so. People are not educated enough and they don’t care enough to take care of themselves.” I couldn’t disagree with that. But, people are free to act stupid, as long as I’m free to call them stupid and vice versa. However, he said later on, “my philosophy in life comes down to this: live and let live. People must follow their conscience.”
“Bullshit. Live and let live is the complete opposite of communism and socialism. The whole point with those is that everyone is tied to each other. You can’t let your neighbor live because you depend on him. He won’t let you live because he’s dependent on you. In a work unit, you can’t simply say, ‘I don’t like it here. This is against my conscience, I’m leaving!’ In a free market system, capitalism if you must, is where you can live and let live.”
He laughed and pointed his finger at me. “Ah, you are very clever! You’re good, you’re good! I know you are a very patriotic American.”
“You would like everywhere to have capitalism like America, yes?”
“Well, I want capitalism for the US, too. We don’t have a capitalist system in the US. I wish we had it. And it doesn’t mean anyone has to give up their culture if they don’t want to.”
“Ah, very clever! You’re good, you’re very good!”
He said that during his childhood and young adulthood in Taiwan he was quite pro American. But in college, there was one special professor who told him the truth about Uncle Sam. Hold on, an anti-American college professor? Now here’s a scoop. Tell me more! He expressed his admiration for Noam Chomsky, how the US cheated the world by leaving the gold standard, and got into “9-11 Truth.” I told him about the Popular Mechanics story, but it was obviously ugly American propaganda. He also mentioned his son, a doctor in the field of the evil capitalist plot of copyright law. I sensed they were estranged and he was unhappy about that.
We talked Chinese characters and we took turns drawing them on his pad. I drew my Chinese name. He wrote out his English name: Nelson Mandela. I laughed. I thought he was pulling my leg. He then produced a business card with exactly that name on it. His email address was “Maogandi@*.com.” And my name is George Martin Luther Washington King Wilberforce Crockett de Zapata. A couple of hours had passed. My girlfriend had gone to get us some coffee. Mr. Zheng said, “no, I don’t drink that imperialist stuff! I’ll have my tea.”
Whenever I tried to get more specifics about his DPRK defection plans, he would give a short answer and change the topic. I got the feeling he was bluffing. He was enjoying the good life of his Golden Years, and the fashionista beauties of Shanghai, too much.
A man with a vision? A deluded useful idiot? After spending a few hours with him, it was plain he wasn’t an idiot and did have a lot of passion and reason behind his worldview, however badly mistaken I found his conclusions. I wouldn’t call Mr. Zheng either of those things, rather, you have here a man with some good fight left in him, swaggering down the lanes of Xintiandi in the Pearl of the Orient, looking for some company. So don’t be a stranger. He growls, but he doesn’t bite.