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In Search of Happy Buddha

By Joshua Webb | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2012-11-13 15:59

China Daily website is inviting foreigner readers to share your China Story! and here are some points that we hope will help contributors.




A loud, half-muffled laugh squeezing out of his lips, the Chinese man stutters: “Loo-loo-look!” His voice is as rough as the sidewalk chalk a forceful and playful kid drags on the pavement. I frantically scan the street market of Wangfujing—where vendors’ tables align the left and right sides of a narrow pathway that stretches as far as my eyes can see—to find his whereabouts. Suddenly I spot someone in the corner of my eye, pointing. The Chinese vendor’s right arm aims directly at my friend John. The vendor uncovers his mouth using his left hand, as if he is about to blow a kiss. After a brief pause to catch his breath, he finally ejaculates: “Happy Buddha!”

Laughter crackles around us like Chinese fireworks in the early morning under the October sky of Beijing. The amused crowd transforms into a blur when I turn my head; I face the opposite direction again and glance at John, who wears a Chinese revolutionary t-shirt featuring the renowned and heroic Lei Feng. “Welcome to Wangfujing,” he smiles, basking in the attention when sensitive individuals would have interpreted the same event in a negative light. This is his second year in China, so whether or not his sensitivity to such reactions from shocked Chinese dulled long ago or never existed in the first place remains a mystery. Bald and big, he stands out in this ocean of Asian faces. He resembles Stone Cold Steve Austin, the famous professional wrestler—only John’s fatter, by the way. Much fatter. The sun looms above and casts shadows on the dirty concrete. I observe John’s shadow, which resembles a silhouette of Maitreya, the foretold Buddha, the one promised to bring happiness and prosperity to the world.

Americans are familiar with Maitreya’s image: it is the fat, gold Buddha commonly depicted in American-Chinese restaurants. Americans often mistake Maitreya’s image as a depiction of the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama. According to John, Maitreya’s fat represents prosperity for the image’s original creators, but for me, it simply represents diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, and other health problems. I ponder if the image was created in a culture of food scarcity, because such environmental conditions could make fatness a desirable trait, even a symbol for happiness and prosperity. “Now I want something—some type of jewelry—with the Happy Buddha on it,” John coos, interrupting my thoughts as he eyeballs the Buddhist jewelry nearby. We begin our search.

The laughter drifts away. Wind-ruffled traditional Chinese red lanterns tremble overhead. A gentle, cold breeze drifts in, reminding me of how I used my water bottles as heaters during the cold night: I poured sink water in my kettle, waited a minute or two for the water to boil, transferred the hot water into a bottle, tightened the cap, and placed it under my bed sheets. A fleece blanket and quilt from Wal-Mart proved much more efficient, though. People stir into the streets wearing a variety of warm-looking clothes, such as thick overcoats, wooly hats, and gloves. In front of me a curvaceous Chinese woman, in tan high heels that clack loudly, stumbles more than once while carrying two shopping bags—one with each hand. I hold my breath, praying she doesn’t twist an ankle or tip over; she’s unbreakable as she rocks back and forth like bamboo swaying in the wind. Her bob hair bouncing up and down with each step, she vanishes in the crowds.

The smells of fried scorpions and other exotic insects invade our noses from around the corner, along with the putrid smells marching from the inside of trashcans—filled with rotten Chinese food—placed strategically throughout the street. All of the smells mix together into something tolerable, but at the same time, it is still far from pleasant. To my left Buddhist prayer beads and religious images fill vendors’ tables and walls. John experienced first-hand the bargainer’s rush a few days ago, and so he relates his experience to me of purchasing a midnight-black-colored item on the wall nearby us: a Chairman Mao shoulder bag. It features a profile picture of Mao. Red Chinese characters stand out underneath him. “At first,” John recalls, “the dealer asked for ninety kuai, but I told him that was way too much for me. So, dude, he offered a price of eighty kuai instead. I told him no again. At sixty kuai I told him, ‘I might come back,’ and then I started to walk away. That’s when the vendor looked at me with a big D on his face for Disbelief, and groaned: ‘That’s what they all say!’” John, feeling commiserate for the poor vendor, I guess, says he paused, turned around, talked the vendor down to twenty five kuai, and purchased the Chairman Mao shoulder bag. Ironically he later found the exact same shoulder bag down the street for a mere twenty kuai. The end. John breathes out a barely audible curse: “Dammit!” Score: vendor, one; John, zero.

An elderly woman, a Chinese vendor, grabs my arm, trying her best to get my attention, trying her best to get me to stop and look at her merchandise. I brush off her advance, keep moving, and listen to vendors nearby greeting me in a very, very friendly manner; they gesture for me to come closer, and have smiles shaped like small teacups viewed from the side. All the while they are saying: “Hello, hello!” A little too friendly, I think, taking one step back. While I do not buy anything, John buys a custom-made Chinese seal carving and a copy of a Chinese painting. With no Happy Buddha jewelry in sight, we leave the street market.

After visiting Wangfujing’s English bookstore, which played DJ Okawari’s “Love Letter” as we searched the aisles, John and I return home. I joke with John, calling him Happy Buddha over and over again. As contradictory as it sounds calling John Happy Buddha, he identifies himself as a Christian. From my short experience of Beijing thus far, the Chinese I’ve encountered either show interest or apathy for religion. For example, I once asked a Chinese friend of mine if he adheres to any religious faith. (In fact, I asked him this after a long list of questions involving global warming, Chinese food, Chinese women, China’s space program, the rise of China, and other intriguing issues.) I quote his response verbatim: “I believe in myself.” No talk of Muhammad, Christ, or Moses. Not even Lao Tzu, Confucius, or Buddha. No sign of hostility or love towards religion. Just cold indifference consumed his face, as the steam from our Chinese dumplings infused the air in-between us at the restaurant table. Two flies circled overhead. Silence. In America’s Bible Belt, people show hostility or love towards religion, but cold indifference? Rarely. Judging from my limited experience, religious indifference seems to me a more common attitude in China, even when counting my Buddhist and Baha’i Chinese friends.

The subject inevitably transforms into a simple question: Why did you come to China? “One reason I came to China,” I say to John as I loll in the soft couch, gazing at the white ceiling, “is to find Ms. Wang!” Silence falls over our living room while I’m slumping deeper into the cushions. John waits, listening. I continue in a slightly deeper tone: “Reason number two: after graduating from college with a BA in English, I wanted to find a job in which I didn’t have to invest all of my time after work. High school English teachers, for example, have to invest so much time after school in lesson planning, grading papers, extracurricular activities, and talking to parents. I want time to develop my other talents, like writing and drawing, and gain more experience to put on my resume which involves those talents. I also thought that, since I have experience working with children in an afterschool program in the United States, teaching English in a primary school in China would not only be familiar, but fun too. Besides, I’ve always desired to do something different, to live in another country at least once in my life.” From the fourteenth floor I hear horns beeping below, on the busy street next to our apartment. “Reason number three,” I smile lightheartedly, “is for when I grow old, so I can tell others about my China stories.”

Twenty years into the future—when Chinese egg rolls have been recognized as an American food, just as Beau Sia foretold in his poem “Asian Invasion”—I look into my Asian-American child’s eyes, and ask, “So did you ever hear the one about Happy Buddha?”

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