Old Man Bai

Original story in Chinese by Prof. Lee Chack-fan; retold by Raymond Lam

No one knew Old Man Bai’s given name. Nor did he actually turn up to this year’s graduation ceremony, so it was all a bit awkward when it was his turn to be honored by the school assembly. Draped in his fancy academic garb, the headmaster looked around uncomfortably as murmurs rippled through the students. It had been more than 15 minutes—a remarkable delay given the solemnity of the occasion.

“Perhaps we might as well start, even if Mr. Bai isn’t here,” invited the principal tentatively. He looked down at his short tribute, all ready on the speaker’s podium. But was it simply better to save time and cancel his speech, if the subject wasn’t there to listen? No. No, he thought, looking out at the sea of girls and boys’ waiting faces. Old Man Bai never saw this as about himself. He never even intended to show up to today’s ceremony, of which a significant amount of time was devoted just to him. But the headmaster needed to do this, because the students wanted to hear a story they were already familiar with. They wanted to see the school’s powers-that-be recognize what they all felt: the debt and depth of feeling they had for Old Man Bai.

The principal cleared his throat. “Mr. Bai—or Old Man Bai, as you like to call him, was no alumnus of this school. For all we know, he might never have went to school at all. Or perhaps he might have a PhD from Nankai University. Who knows?” He pursed his lips. “I’m sure he has taught us all by now not to assume things about others. The only information he ever gave us is that he is ninety-three years old.” Another ripple of mutters went through the assembly. Those who saw the Old Man never sensed he was that old.

“That surprised me too,” conceded the principal. “After all, this school has been blessed with his presence for nearly two decades, and he still looks as if he were a spritely seventy-year old. It’s perhaps because of that bike he always rode to the schools around Tianjin.” Old Man Bai was quite the fixture around here, and the students, usually more interested in their cliques and who was cool and who was not, didn’t mind chatting with him during their lunch hours. He always wore a stained white singlet, dirty sandals, and baggy, decades-old khaki trousers. He had a brash, almost boyish, smile, with missing teeth and a toothpick between his lips. But even then they didn’t quite know the bald elder well. All they could figure out was that he was earning money to support the fees of poorer students. He did that by taking all sorts of jobs, criss-crossing town on his trusty, well-worn bicycle. No one knew which jobs he took, or how many he might have tried at any given time.

“Please don’t forget that our school is only one of many that have been blessed with the money that he earned—I’m sure quite painstakingly—and gave to us for your benefit,” said the principal, meeting the young eyes aimed at him. “Over a period of almost twenty years he donated enough money that could buy a mansion on the outskirts of Shanghai. We estimate that over three hundred of you alone, not to mention those from other schools, have been direct beneficiaries of his hard work.”

While no one knew who Old Man Bai really was, everyone knew what he was not: a billionaire or a philanthropist. As far as the students could tell, his bike was his only possession. “We’re all familiar with the story of when Nankai University wanted to celebrate his accomplishments and offered a limousine to chaffeur him to campus. He asked that the fuel costs of that ride be used to buy textbooks. I think we were all surprised and touched when we found out about his reflexive, instinctive generosity,” said the principal.

“I know all of you don’t want to let him down. So when you leave this room today, I deeply, deeply hope that you won’t forget him, and that you’ll redirect his kindness to the wider community and all society. Wherever he is, it’s what he would’ve wanted.”

The principal paused one last time, perhaps subconsciously wondering if Old Man Bai would burst in through the Student Hall’s doors just before he finished, like in the movies, to finally receive his just reward. But he never came, and the students’ standing ovation would go unseen and unheard by him.

Many hoped in their private moments that he hadn’t left the world with no knowledge of how many young people cared about him. Or perhaps he was still out there, on his bike, in another town, delivering hard-earned money to neighborhood schools.

Next time, when you hear the ringing of a bike bell, look out the window.

Perhaps, just perhaps…


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