September 22, 2020

My Friend Wu and Me

By John Guy LaPlante

I have lots of friends, lucky me. But my friendship with Wu is one of a kind. Yes, unique. In fact, extraordinary.

He is Chinese, from Shanghai. His name is Wu Bin.

If I were Chinese, my name would be LaPlante John. I did not know that. He feels Wu is an easier name for foreigners like us to handle.

About our friendship, consider the following. I am old. He is young. He could be my grandson.

I’m American. Don’t speak Chinese. Good thing he speaks English. Otherwise, our friendship would have been doomed.

We met in Nairobi, Kenya, of all places. It is a black nation. That’s on the eastern side of the African content. Nairobi was a major stop on my solo trip around the world. It became a chapter in my book, “Around the World at 75. Alone, dammit!”

And as always, whenever possible, in Nairobi I was staying at a hostel. Wu had checked in the day before. He had the bed across from mine.

He was 30, on vacation. A graduate of the University of Shanghai. He was completing a month in Kenya and adjoining Tanzania. Came because of his interest in anthropology.

I met him with special interest. When I was in college, I had a Chinese pal by the same name, Wu. He was the first Chinese I ever met. I mentioned that to this new friend of mine. He chuckled. He said Wu was a very common name in China. As common as Smith or Cohen for us.

Wu Bin, no relation to my boyhood friend, was a microchip engineer working in marketing for a big company supplying chips to companies around the world. Including some of our best known computer companies.

I asked him, “Isn’t it rare for young Chinese to get out of China and travel for pleasure?”

“Yes, I am very lucky to be able to travel like this.”

He said he earned a high salary by Chinese standards. That impressed me.

He said he had just treated himself to a balloon ascent over a famous historical site.

“It cost $300. Very expensive. But I have very nice pictures to take home.”

Told me he had traveled to Europe, India, and many other parts of the world. Part of it was for his company, but not all.

Also rare was that he was not yet married at age 30, he said.

“Everybody tells me, Marry! Marry! I say no, not yet. I want to wait. When you marry, everything changes.”

He did say he had to find a way to raise extra money for this trip. He brought along five digital cameras. Very hi-tech cameras – complete, with chargers, AC adapters, the whole works. Had sold four of them so far.

“No problem. Many rich people everywhere.”

There were quite a few Americans in Nairobi. I thought he might be the only Chinese in this huge city. I left the city sure we would never see one another again.

But what happened is that like others who were interested, he continued to receive email updates from me about my big trip.

But, so unusual, he would always respond.

By this time, I was back in the U.S. I was in Los Angeles, living with milady Annabelle. We were a committed couple.

When I wrote that I was planning to write a book about my trip, and would include many photos he became

Very interested. In fact, excited.

One day he wrote, “John, I will publish the book in China!”

What a wacky idea! So I thought.

But he mentioned it again. “Yes, publish it in Mandarin. That is our most important language.”

I was interested, of course. But I thought nothing would come of it. But he kept it up.

One day, he made me an offer in dollars. Wow! To put an end to this, I wrote, “Wu, we have a lot to discuss. Come on over!”

I was sure he would make an excuse. Probably too busy at work!

End of discussion.

After all, making a round-trip to the US is expensive. And complicated. He’d have to take time off from work. Get a visa. On and on.

Well, he flew over. We picked him up. He stayed four days with us. No mention of the book. We showed him around. Fed him.

He was a lot of fun. Then he left for three days to visit Yosemite National Park, then came back for a few more days with us. Still no mention of the book. Just a scam, I decided.

Two days before his flight back to Shanghai, he said to me, “Now, John, let’s write our contract.”

Wow! Could this be for real? It was. We sat down and I drafted the contract. I included the sum of dollars he had offered. Plus a provision for royalties. Oh, I also had a DVD of photos I had taken on my big trip. He also bought that. I showed him what I had written.

“Excellent,” he said. “But this contract must be written Chinese style.”

“No, no, Wu. If you put it in Mandarin. I will not be able to read that, and I would not be able to sign a contract like that, of course.”

“No, John. Not a problem. This is very good, but for us Chinese every contract must start with the words, “After friendly discussion….”

No problem, I told him. It was indeed a friendly discussion.

Then I shook hands with him. He did not understand that.

I explained that shaking hands at the end of a business deal is an American custom. He chuckled. “I love some of your American customs!”

And I said to myself, “I really like this guy!”

Annabelle and I drove him to the airport. We shook hands. Annabelle gave him a hug. He was all smiles. And he flew home.

We have been the best of friends ever since. For many years. It’s been an active friendship. I could give you many details but I have to speed up my story about him. No way can I go into the many details.

He went ahead and published my book in Mandarin. Translating it was a big job. I like to think that the translation was a good one.

He decided to give his book a big PR kickoff.

Big surprise! He invited Annabelle and me to attend. Unfortunately, she could not come along. A bad knee! She suggested I bring my sister Lucie along. A great idea. I am a few years older than Lucie.

She’s a very good sport and lots of fun. And very charming. She and Wu clicked the minute they met.

For the kickoff he had rented a large assembly room in a major hotel. And invited many guests, including journalists and TV personalities.

He wanted me to give a talk, and he would translate in Mandarin.

We practiced a couple of times.

I was very nervous. Who wouldn’t be? Then answered questions from the floor. And all went well.

From China, Lucie and I went on a tour of a dozen Asian countries. That was a decision I made after Wu’s invitation.

She told me she would love to come along but said right then and there she’d have to fly home early because of a major happening back home. We had a fine time together. I was very sorry to see her fly home.

I wrote up that big and wonderful trip in my book, “Around Asia in 80 days. Oops, 83!”

A very popular book at that time was “Around the World in 80 Days!” That’s how I got the idea for the title of my book.

Well, I have been to China four times, all because of Wu. That’s been very wonderful.

The second time was for Wu’s wedding. He invited milady Annabelle and me. She was better now and jumped at the chance.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine at that time. I got permission to go.

From Kyiv, the capital, I flew easterly to Shanghai. Annabelle flew west from Los Angeles. We arrived at the huge Pudong Airport only 90 minutes apart, and Wu was there to greet us.

Such an interesting and beautiful wedding. And the dozen days that followed. All thanks to Wu.

Then Wu took us back to Pudong Airport. Annabelle flew east home to Los Angeles and I flew west back to Ukraine.

Wu made another trip to the United States and visited us. It’s wonderful.

Wu, and my sister Lucie, of course have been in close touch all these years.

We were very pleased to hear of the birth of his son. And his steady climb up the ladder in his field.

Annabelle got to see a lot of that. She died a year ago, sad to say. In just a few words, what Wu has become is a super salesman with an intensive engineering background.

His specialty has been LED lights. He told me once, “John, go to your local Home Depot and you will find my LED lights there.”

As such, he has traveled to many countries in his business, in Asia and countries in Africa.

No need any more to bring along hi-tech Chinese cameras in order to make extra money.

Over the years, thanks to what I could see from Wu and could figure out by myself I became so impressed by China’s growth that I invested in a Chinese mutual fund, and that did very well.

History tells us that it has been in the last hundred years that our USA became the wealthiest and mightiest country in the world.

Well, I believe it’s now in these upcoming hundred years that China will become the wealthiest and mightiest country in the world.

You may be thinking that yourself.

In these years of our friendship Wu and I have remained in close touch through the Internet.

It’s always been a great pleasure to see an email from him in my inbox.

Recently I got to thinking that our friendship is such a different and extraordinary one that you might be interested in hearing about it. So here it is.

With his worldly experience, he has strong opinions and doesn’t mind sharing them.

He’s always doing extraordinary things. Recently he learned to fly a helicopter. How about that!

Now a French company is building a huge chemical plant in China and Wu is the official translator and interpreter. That’s a big job indeed.

I mentioned to him that I would like to write about us.

And I realized that there were many things about his everyday life that I was not aware of. And I asked him a series of questions. Some quite personal. And he has answered them. That impressed me.

Here they are. I believe that you will enjoy them. And learn a bit about China.

Hello,Dear John,

The follows please find my answers.

How many hours is the normal workweek? 8H* 5Day= 40 hours

How many days off do workers have per week? 2 Days

How many days of vacation every year? About 5-20 days, depends on working experience By the government? Same in the whole country

By private companies? It’s hard to say, in the South or in the North, are totally different.

Is there a standard retirement age? For man, 65. For woman, 60.

Do people receive a pension when they retire? Yes.

From the government? From the government.

Or private corporations? NO.

Or both? Only from the government

Are most schools free? For the public school system, it’s free. Are most universities free? No, need to pay the tuition.

We have 50 states in the USA.

How many states does China have? We have 32 provinces in China.

Don’t 99 percent of the people live in large apartment buildings?

In the city, that’s true. In the suburban area, people mainly live their own house or rent an apartment.

Do they own their apartment? Case by case, about 60% people own their house.

Do you own or pay? I have my own apartment. Actually Lucie and you even stayed in it. Are you employed by a corporation or are you self-employed? Employed by the company. At what age do you plan to retire? 65

What kind of work would you like your son to do when he is a man?

Doctor, teacher, architect, any job he likes indeed, and he could do something useful for the society. Meanwhile, be kind to the friends, neighbors.

Wasn’t your father a public school teacher? Yes, he was a teacher before 

At what age did he retire? 65

I know how generous and loving you have been to your father and mother. How comfortable would their retirement be without your financial support?

I am their only one kid, it’s nature to support them as I could.

Is there a standard vacation for workers every year?

For me, about 12 days.

Do sick people have to pay to go to a hospital? Yes, some people without social security need to pay it.

Is there a government insurance plan? No, mainly we have a personal insurance plan by ourselves, not the government.

At what age do people begin to vote? At 18

Can women vote? Yes, for sure.

Are some kinds of people not allowed to vote? All Chinese citizen can vote who is over 18.

What do you think of Xi Jinping? He is capable to handle the current issues. He is not perfect, but acceptable. Isn’t he your president for life? No, I don’t think so.

Do you like him? For me, he is OK for the country.

How many major political parties are there? About 9 parties totally.

Are you a liberal (for us, a Democrat?)

I am a liberal.

Or a conservative (for us, a Republican?)

Do most people believe in God? People have different definition on God. In China, it could be the Buddha, Guanyin God, or Local City God. We have local gods in our mind. If you live in China longer, you can see that.

Here are 2 pictures for your reference.

That’s a temple in Southern China, which also popular in Southeast Asian countries.

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