Why I Call Him “Lao Ba”

By Dr. David Walls-Kaufman

People have asked me why I call Ben Lo “Lao Ba”. As I write this line, I remember the illuminated, deeply satisfied expression coming over the face of my tai chi nephew, David Chen, when I told him that I called Ben by that name.

David, his wonderful smile spreading across his face, chuckled softly and exclaimed, “That’s a wonderful name to call him. . . . ‘Old Father’.”

David nodded again in deep approval.

The subject had come up because he and I were discussing our concern about the way Ben always behaved so remote and aloof towards us whenever we called him long-distance from Washington DC to San Francisco, Ben in his 1930s bungalow four blocks from Sutro Heights Park and the quietly roaring Pacific Ocean.

David and I, in that conversation, discovered that we both shared the fear that Ben didn’t know how much we loved him and how much he meant to us. More than anyone I ever met in Tai Chi, David shared my passion for practice in the old way that Ben taught and encouraged. Only one other I’ve met recently wishes to practice that hard.

David Chen was a wonderful exponent of Yang Tai Chi. More than myself, David never forgot to regularly call Ben and stay on top of his regular discipline to make sure Ben knew David was thinking about him. I shake my head, wishing even now I was as good as David at this mindfulness.

You can’t let your teacher forget that you love them. For you to let that happen is obscene.

If you don’t do it—it necessarily means that either you or your teacher aren’t worth a damn. . . . You decide.

If your teacher is what the Japanese call “A Living Treasure”, then you pay attention.

David developed a benign brain cancer, had the tumor removed, and then died, so tragically two weeks later of post-surgical complications. His funeral was gigantic. Six hundred people, at least. He was adored. I carried my young son, Kimble, then a little over one year old, past the coffin to have him look in one last time at his Uncle David. . . . I will never forget a night I spoke with Ben about David’s death. Ben, so stoic, began to weep. “He was such a good student,” he whispered.

Ben does not weep. There is no loftier praise.

Plunging on:

In the early 1990s, I told Ben several times that I wanted to go with him on any trip to the Orient. I only hoped I practiced hard enough that my lobbying would not insult Ben. I had heard of the odyssey my San Francisco classmates had taken years before with Ben to Malaysia to observe the 80th birthday of Ben’s fabled classmate, Master Huang Hsing-hsien. Oh, my gosh—the stories.

I wanted some of my own.

Ben gave me my chance in late springtime 1996:

“Day-bee,” Ben said over the long-distance line, “you say you want to go with me to China, right?”

Unhesitatingly: “Yes, Ben.”

“Okay. Now you have chance.” He explained that he was going on a three-week trip to China with Wei Shan, a woman student of his who arranged regular trips every few years with girlfriends of hers, and Ben was tagging along, and one of the lady’s who had committed had to cancel.

In August, I landed in Shanghai with them and we embarked on our journey to ten major cities, seventeen destinations.

At another time I’ll review the highlights of the trip. But the one germane to this journal entry has to deal with the fact that the four ladies on the trip and Ben often spoke Mandarin and I only launched into my study to attain my level of speaking Chinese like a child when I returned from that trip. So I had no idea what they were talking about.

“David”, said Wei Shan—a very attractive, very capable tour leader Chinese woman of forty-something who, I had learned, was Ben’s last student. There was some hope, I later learned, that maybe she and Ben would find their way together. “Do you want to know what we have been laughing about?”

I had noticed how a certain oft-repeated sentence pattern and word-set had regularly got my companions rollicking. Wei Shan was offering to enlighten me now while we were traveling on our hired short bus toward a restaurant in Chunking for the evening meal.

Wei Shan, by the way, was a professional gu-jung player, who had been taken from her parents by the State and placed in the Beijing conservatory. She told of fleeing for her young life out the back of the dormitory one day when screaming Cultural Revolution goons piled in the windows and doors looking to kill these prodigies of China’s past. They dragged more than a couple to ground. At one point, while we were visiting a museum, Wei Shan stepped over the velvet rope keeping visitors away from the gu-jung there on display with other classical instruments. The guard said nothing, gloved hands folded behind his Mao uniform, he looking on curiously as Wei Shan settled on her knees before the instrument, expertly tuned it, adjusted by millimeters the set of the ivory bridges lifting each string to delicate tension. Then, she started to play. The first note captivated the being of each of us fifteen-odd souls lucky enough to be in the room. Her notes swept up like birds, ringing from first to last with utter mastery—and shamed the playing I’ve heard on professional recordings of Chinese classical music.

She gave our ears a glimpse at perfection.

“We are telling everyone that Ben is our father.” Wei Shan waved at Ben sitting placidly at his dusty window seat, gazing out at the untellably congested side street, teeming with people and rinky-dink shops. “And I am the Oldest Sister, Da jie, and Vicky is the Second Sister, Er Jie, and Susan is the Third Sister, San Jie, Emily is the Littlest Sister, Xiao Jie—and you are the son from the concubine!”

The ladies jumped into howls of the exact same modulations of laughter that I mentioned a paragraph ago that I’d been hearing for days.

Enjoying the joke as much as they now, I asked, “Wow! And everybody believes I’m his illegitimate son?”

. . . . I have very dark hair—but I ain’t no Chinee.

“Oh, yes!” my lady comrades chimed together. “We can’t believe it either, but no one even bats an eye!”

Susan then told me that concubines were even then not so uncommon; her own father had two wives. Wei Shan and Vicky corroborated with other examples of somewhat hush-hush polygamy in Taiwan.

“So,” Vicky turned around to urge me, since my seat was always in the back of the short bus, “you keep it going by calling Ben Lao Ba, which means ‘Old Father.’”

And we sealed the deal with another peal of laughter, everyone enjoying the joke even more now that I was in on it.
For the remainder of the trip, I dutifully dropped the “Lao Ba” term in front of the next tour guide in the next city we visited, and then the ladies explained to them our curious genetic intermingling. I had time to accustom myself to the vision of our tour guides easily stepping across the narrow gulf of incredulity regarding my being the concubine-begotten half breed son of Master Benjamin Lo.

The cute habit of calling him Lao Ba engrained itself in me in that time, and was thereafter strongly encouraged by my friend David, as I said, and so my habit continues to this day.

The term of endearment not only makes me feel closer to Ben, but it crosses a bridge of time and culture as well, to the Dowager Empress Middle Kingdom of dog-alleys tinged with the bite of coal smoke in the paper lantern light that has flirted with the sinophile in me since I was eight years old when I first poured over the characters in my mother’s two Chinese language text books that I still have on a shelf near at hand. A flirtation, I’m sure, many of you share.