After finishing my undergraduate degree I decided to take some time off before heading into a graduate program. I had been to China before, for a four month term abroad, and when my friend Alec mentioned that he too was moving back to Nanjing for a year I knew it would be a great idea for me to do the same. So, I moved back to Nanjing and became a full-time Chinese language student at Nanjing Normal University. However, this time instead of living the life of a dormitory student inside the beautiful, though restricted campus, I decided to get an apartment with friends just down the street.
Our apartment was only a few minutes walk from the University gates in the bustling neighborhood that is tucked there in between both Nashida and Nada universities. It didn't take long for me to get into the busy swing of life that occupied the corner of Hankouxi Lu and Ninghai Lu. And it didn't take long either for me to meet and experience the people who worked and lived there.
Almost every afternoon when I would stroll out through the Nanshida gates the erhu man would be playing just between the entrance to the University and that to MacDonald's. He would sit in a tiny, wooden chair, barely large enough to hold even his slight frame. In front of him was a small, blue and white tin bowl, one reminiscent of both camping and cantines.
As he played he would listen not only to the sound of his own strings, but also for the clink of coins into his tin bowl. The sidewalk his chosen junction was a busy one, and though I don't recall a crowd ever gathering to listen to him play (probably precisely because of the crowded hustle and bustle of this area), many of us passersby did drop coins into the elderly man's bowl.
When the metals clanged together, kuai and tin, he heard only consonance. He would cease pulling his bow across the erhu's strings and jump lithely up out of his chair. Holding the bow in his right hand and the erhu in his left, he would reach for your hand quickly and grasp it between them. Many times I felt both the flesh of his palm and the tight strings of the erhu pressed into the skin of my own hand.
Sometimes after passing by I would cross the street to enjoy a suanniunai at the local beer/cigarette/soda/cracker/phonecard/telephone/icecream kiosk. I would stand drinking the sweet and sour yoghurt from the tiny glass milk jug, because I knew that when I was finished, I could return the bottle to the crate so that it could later be taken and boiled and then refilled for the next day. As I drank I could listen to the soft music of the erhu as it drifted in and out of the sounds of bicycle bells, honking car horns and revving bus engines.
It has always been considerably more difficult for me to guess the relative ages of Chinese people, but if I were to hazard one about the erhu man I would say he must be in his late 70s; just a bit older than my own father. Unlike the large, imposing and stiff figure that my father cuts, the erhu man was slim and lissome and almost spritely with his agile jumps from his small chair.
While he played his face was solemn; his bluish, milky eyes closed and his lips parted slightly in concentration. But when he would spring from his chair to express his thanks to a patron, his tanned, well-worn face would erupt into hundreds of wrinkles. His eyes would always hide themselves during one of his wide smiles.
Even now, when I go back to my old Hankouxi Lu neighborhood for a visit I always encounter this man, again and again. He prefers to play his erhu further along the wide street on the opposite side and underneath the shady cover of some large, old trees. Here there is less foot-traffic, and the sound of his erhu is stronger and clearer as it floats on Nanjing's humid breezes.