On a hot, sticky day in August 1988, the band I played with, Zlatne Uste, performed in Guča, Serbia, as the guest star of the annual competition for best trumpet and best brass band. Although we weren’t nearly as good as any of the competitors, it was thrilling to stand on a stage and survey a joyous crowd of more than 30,000 moving to our music. The competition ended as dusk descended. The bands headed for the restaurant tents and the crowd dispersed. As I made my way in the twilight, a woman and Chinese gentleman approached. Her English was barely competent, but my Serbian was even more rudimentary.
“You live in New York?” she inquired, as the Chinese gentleman stood quietly beside her.
“You go back now?” she asked.
“In a few days,” I responded.
“This is Professor Wu. He comes to New York next Thursday. He stays with you?”
Well, this was one of the bolder requests—a command, almost—I’ve received from someone whose name I didn’t know and had just met. I was, however, accustomed to housing people I barely—if at all—knew. Sometimes, friends of friends would arrange in advance to stay on my pullout sofa, conveniently located in a doorman building on West End Avenue. Sometimes, I’d get calls from Kennedy Airport that went something like: ‘My name is Lars and I’m here with my girlfriend, Åsa. We met your friend Björn at a party in Stockholm a few weeks ago at the home of a mutual friend. Björn mentioned you lived in New York, and that we might be able to stay with you for a week’. Who arrives in New York with nowhere to stay? Young, happy-go-lucky Europeans, I guess. At least back then.
If the sofa wasn’t already occupied, I usually said ‘sure’, since I knew all visitors really cared about was a convenient and cheap place to sleep. They’d arrive, I’d give them a key, and often I wouldn’t see much of them unless they were seized by a desire to thank me by taking me out to dinner.
The woman explained that she was from Novi Sad, a few hundred miles north, and that she brought her old friend Professor Wu to the competition specifically because he needed a place to stay during his week in New York. He was middle-aged and seemed harmless enough, so I said ‘yes’, and gave Professor Wu my phone number. In the excitement of that evening and the hectic days that followed, my promise faded from memory.
In those days, ZU held rehearsals at my apartment on Thursday evenings. Around 8 p.m. the phone rang. It was Professor Wu calling from Kennedy. He was wondering where to meet me, seemingly expecting me to pick him up, which wasn’t going to happen. I gave him my address and public transit directions, although I have no idea what means of transportation he actually took.
Around 10 p.m., the doorman rang to ask if he should allow a Chinese gentleman up, and a few minutes later, Professor Wu rang my tenth-floor doorbell. Rehearsal was over, but a few members lingered and remembered the story which I’d naturally related. Professor Wu spoke little English, and I had trouble understanding why such a well-dressed (he always wore a suit and tie) Chinese bureaucrat would need to crash with a stranger. Nonetheless, I pulled out and made the bed, while Professor Wu performed his bedtime bathroom activities. He then gave me several gifts: a four-inch tall and quite beautifully painted white paper maché cat and a red and navy patterned, square silk scarf. I interpreted them as examples of Chinese folk art and of a luxury product whose manufacture dates to ancient times. I thanked him, we said ‘goodnight’, and went to bed.
The next morning, I woke around 8:30 and heard the TV. A cable Chinese program. I cracked the bedroom door and saw Professor Wu sitting on the edge of the refolded sofa in his suit and tie watching a cooking show. He looked up perkily, rose, greeted “good morning,” and left. I suspected he’d been up for hours and that it must be part of Chinese etiquette to greet one’s host before departing. So on subsequent days, I rose as soon as I heard stirring in the living room, stuck my head out so he could greet me, and then crawled back to bed as Professor Wu headed out for the day.
He seemed a bit lost and lonely, so on evening three, I made him a ‘typically American’ dinner of hamburger, fries, and a salad, with root beer to wash it down. Now was my chance to find out his deal. As it turned out, he was ‘a very big potato’, as a Chinese friend to whom I later showed his business card characterized him. He was, in fact, the Minister for Economic Development of the Peoples’ Republic of China! This disclosure really confused me; I didn’t understand why such an important figure was permitted to travel alone and chose to couch surf rather than stay at a consulate, embassy, or hotel. I’ve always wondered about the role he played in China’s economic development and international presence during recent decades.
When I asked why he was staying with me, he explained that of course he could stay for free at the consulate, but that he enjoyed meeting natives in the places he visited. He learned so much about attitudes, customs, and values that way, something he never learned when restricted to Chinese—or meticulously organized diplomatic—settings. Suddenly, this stuffy suit seemed fascinating and sympathetic.
Professor Wu traveled a lot. He’d been on every continent except Antarctica and visited more than one hundred countries. Through the boldness of his hosts and their extensive networks, he almost always found nice people to stay with. And he couldn’t afford a hotel, a measure undoubtedly intended to curtail the independence of traveling diplomats. The government gave him $25 per day and his detailed expense report, turned in with his leftover (if any) currencies, had to correspond.
Then, I got around to more usual questions, like why he was in New York. To give a speech at the U.N. as it turned out. He went frequently to Geneva, World Health Organization headquarters, because his research area had been health economics, like my friend Arna in Oslo. Otherwise, he just went sightseeing and enjoyed sitting in the part of Central Park near 59th and 5th, where there was lots of action. He was positively impressed by the frequency with which he encountered Chinese restaurants outside Chinatown.
I now understood he was restricted in where and what he could eat by his meager budget. It was certainly sufficient for survival, but inadequate for gourmet dining, Chinese or other. The next day, I took him to the Empire State Building (the only time I’ve visited the top, although I did waitress for a few miserable months upon my arrival to New York at the age of 21, in a ground floor Irish pub long since gone).
Professor Wu invited me to visit China. I had no idea what he meant by that, since we didn’t communicate well. While I knew the offer didn’t include airfare, I wasn’t at all sure what it did. Would I tell him the length of my visit and what I’d like to see, and he’d arrange everything? Would we simply meet for a meal in Beijing, and I’d arrange and pay for my own accommodations and in-country travel? I had no idea. At dinner, I noted that China was far and expensive in order to see if I’d gain any useful insight.
“It’s not so expensive,” Professor Wu informed me, “but it takes three weeks to get to Western Europe.”
Apparently, Professor Wu took the slow train from Beijing to Moscow, then hopped on the Trans-Siberian railroad to get to the West. From there, he might take a plane.
“So, you spend six weeks a year just getting to and from the West [in the pre-Internet days!] and from there you travel to your work destinations?” I responded in near disbelief.
“Yes. Part of the train ride is very boring, part of it is very beautiful. But it is a good time for reading and thinking,” he observed.
Professor Wu and I kept up a lively, sporadic correspondence. I addressed letters to his son, a doctor at a Beijing hospital. Apparently, it was ill-advised for him to disclose his home or work address. In 2002, he sent me the vacation photo above. It was the first time I’d seen his wife. They looked happy in that beautiful mountain place. The letters I sent subsequently remained unanswered.
In the years, the decades, since we met, I’ve asked every sinologist I meet what Professor Wu meant when he invited me and how I should respond. I was curious and would have loved to see whatever insights into his country I might gain and was frustrated by losing contact. When I went to Shanghai to teach in the summer of 2013, I unsuccessfully tried to track him down beforehand and continued my efforts while there. My personal assistant could only tell me that he was an important government official, and it was impossible to find a way to contact them directly or personally. Professor Wu seems lost to me forever, but I am grateful for his mysterious appearance in my life and still hope that someday, somehow, our paths will cross.