I took my visit with Dong a little deeper and added some perspective. “Yechen” is his nickname and how he asked me to identify him in public.

* JUNE 5, 2009

An Old Friend in China Searches for the Right Path

I just returned from a 12-day return visit to China. The trip was prompted by the release of “Beijing Blues,” the debut CD by my band Woodie Alan, and we played 10 shows in 10 days to mark the occasion. I never would have returned so soon without the CD to promote, but I was happy to get back before a host of friends leave at the end of this month. It was my last chance to revisit my Beijing existence before it vanishes forever.

I also had another mission in mind: tracking down Yechen, my original Chinese teacher who left Beijing two years ago to become a Taoist monk on Huashan, a holy mountain near Xian. I had been haunted by my failure to offer him wise counsel when he was deciding whether to follow this spiritual path or accept a job at a London university. It took me a week to formulate a good argument for going abroad, by which time he had already set his course.

Last summer, when I visited him on Huashan and found him struggling with his new life, I was more forceful with my advice, insisting that it was not too late to start over and assuring him that leaving did not make him a failure. The day before I had learned that I won a major award for this column and I was riding a high, but I was also mystified. How, I wondered, had I come to China and found myself even while this native son, who had offered me so much insight into Chinese culture and history, was losing himself.

It seemed that he was tormented by the very thing that I was celebrated for – an ability to live in more than one world. I viewed it as a strength, while he seemed to consider it a debilitating weakness. He had already spent five years in London, which he loved, and was a well-read, deep-thinking, cosmopolitan guy. Rather than integrating that into his life, he now seemed anxious to leave it all behind. Yechen had a tremendous impact on me. He was a fantastic teacher and he also seemed to personify a spiritual longing endemic in contemporary China.

For all these reasons I became determined to see him on this visit. A few months before departing I emailed him that I would be in Beijing and would like to travel to the mountain. Several weeks later I received this reply: “Leaving mountain to start my life. Like to see you.”

He had returned to his hometown of Wuxi, near Shanghai, and I squeezed in a 24-hour visit on my way to Shenzhen, where we were playing three shows. He said he would fetch me at the airport.

He looked much healthier than a year before. His long hair, which Taoist monks wear tied atop their head in a bun, was pulled back in a ponytail and he was wearing a black polo-style shirt and long khaki shorts. He was with an attractive young woman, whom he introduced as his cousin, Karen.

“She will be our driver today,” he explained.

Chatting in a lakeside teahouse felt easy and comfortable. Yechen had appeared to me in Beijing as a lone wolf, with no connections to anything or anyone beyond his mother, whom he often referred to. But it soon became clear that there was a long line of people who were similarly drawn to his quiet magnetism.

Yechen was the oldest of four cousins, Karen explained, and they all looked up to him as a sage older brother. Two days earlier, they had learned that he had spent two years on the mountain – everyone thought he was in Beijing, and his parents still believe that. The cousins were shocked but not entirely surprised.

“He always had his own ideas,” Karen said.

When I met Yechen he had just returned from London. Before that, I learned, he taught Chinese at a Wuxi middle school, where he was renowned for having students who delivered the highest test scores, despite the lowest work loads –”I thought they had enough stress,” he explained.

Also, Karen told me, Yechen had dyed blond hair and was a “real fashion guy. He cared very much about what he wear.”

Yechen asked if I minded if a couple of friends from university joined us for dinner. They were two female bank managers who had been extremely close with Yechen before completely losing touch. They had not seen him in almost 15 years, but talked about him often and finally decided they simply had to find out what had become of their smart, funny, insightful friend. Another former classmate was a policeman, who somehow located Yechen’s cellphone number. I was touched by their story and he seemed happy to be with them, though he told me that he was initially angry they had found him; he wanted to remain lost.

Later that night, over an elegant dinner of abalone and shark fin soup –some of the only Chinese food I don’t like – I listened as the old friends chatted comfortably. I could not understand their local dialect, but there was no mistaking the easy friendship they all maintained.

I asked the ladies what they thought Yechen would be during their time in college. With no hesitation, they answered in unison, “Laoshi,” (teacher) which reiterated my belief that he had found his calling long before he set out looking for it.

None of them approved of him becoming a monk; they all considered it a great waste of a highly educated, possibly brilliant man. Virtually every Chinese person that I tell Yechen’s story to has the same opinion, but he expresses no regrets.

Earlier in the day, as we strolled through some of the city’s romantically decaying waterside alley neighborhoods, Yechen told me about his experiences on the mountain. He remained dedicated to his calling. He had returned home, he said, because his “master” at Baiyunguan, the Taoist temple in Beijing, suggested it might be a good thing to do. He was not giving up on monkhood, though he had no clear vision of what he would do now.

We were both attracted to the half-abandoned, crumbling houses occupied only by senior citizens, many practicing ancient, outdated crafts like the hatchet-wielding carpenter and the woman handcrafting bamboo wicker furniture. The two of us seemed in sync in being out of sync with modern life.

After dinner, as we all filed out, Yechen turned to me. “They want to go sing karaoke,” he said. “You don’t want to go do that, do you?”

Actually, I did. I spent three and a half years in this karaoke-crazed nation without ever partaking. Yechen did not seem too keen on going, but he honored my request. Shortly after we entered the karaoke room a round of refreshments appeared – fruit platters, sweet popcorn and a dozen warm Budweisers. Yechen’s reticence vanished.

He took over the computer controls, dimming the main lights, adding flashing lights and seeking English songs for me to sing; everyone was needlessly concerned about me being bored. “Copacabana” was the best I could find, but sadly no one understood how funny it was and politely applauded my awful performance.

Yechen was now fully into it, singing Chinese pop duets with his friends in a beautiful, clearly enunciated tenor voice that astounded me.

“I think he’s still the fashion guy inside,” Karen whispered to me.

I was yawning; it had been a long day and I was ready for bed. Yechen told me he would soon take me home, but 20 minutes passed and he remained engrossed in singing, asking if I minded if Karen drove me back to the hotel alone. I was happy to see him having so much fun.

He walked me out to the lobby to say good-bye, thanked me for coming and gave me a hug. I told him to stay in touch.

I woke up early the next morning and flew off to Shenzhen to meet up with the band. As I walked through that bustling city, I received a text message from Yechen. I expected it to thank me for visiting. Instead, it read, “I am always a monk, although I am not stay temple or mountain.”

I wrote him back: “I know that. It is inside you. You can live in both worlds. Don’t feel guilty for enjoying it. Your cousin and friends are very nice and they really care about you. It was great seeing you.”

I have not heard back.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com

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