Thursday, June 22, 2017

A foreigner's welcome to Liu's Bakery

Since we've arrived in Taiwan, we've been seeing this commercial on TV.  To outward appearances, it's an elderly KMT general brandishing a pistol, suggesting you buy his biscuits or else.  They mystery was killing me, I needed to know what he was saying, and so I scoured the internet.  What he seemed to be selling was branded "Nutricom," so I found an e-mail for Nutricom USA, asking if they knew of the ad and if they could clarify.  Happily, this venerable gent's daughter is in charge over in Florida, and she translated.  Turns out his name is George Liu, and he's selling wheat germ.

"Nutricom has given me strong health and vitality.  This old soldier has none of the Three Highs (cholesterol, blood pressure, sugar).  Modern people eat too well, but rich diets have come to kill!  Nutricom is the weapon to defend your health.  Come to Liu's Bakery and garrison your health.  And don't forget to try our new Sun Biscuits!"

That's a bit of a paraphrase, but essentially it.  His daughter then surprised me with an e-mail saying George wanted to meet me.  A TV celebrity and war hero, how could I resist?  A date was set and I started hunting around for a suitable present.  In Chinese culture, exchanging small gifts is de rigeur, and given his advanced age and venerability, I wanted to make sure I found something to match.  I found a small bonsai tree in a pot, which I thought bespoke dignity and longevity.

It was a rainy morning, so I took a cab to the bakery.  No sooner had I walked in and asked for him, George was right behind me, surrounded by a gaggle of family.  He is a very happy patriarch, and, indeed, very robust for 92.  He saluted, which I returned (Semper paratus!), and he saluted again, this time for my beard.  (It's nothing back home but Taiwanese think it virile and really like it.)  He accepted my gift and we paused for a photo opportunity.  He would tell you his English is poor (it isn't), but he was very jocular and on our way up to his office, he told me he had seven children and 17 grandchildren.  He asked me if I had any children and I said no, and then he offered to give me a few of his as he had some to spare!

We settled in upstairs in a windowless office, nevertheless furnished with chairs made of the tropical hardwoods and tung oil for which Taiwan is famous.  The walls were covered in calligraphy scrolls, which I later learned were George's own handiwork.  He called for tea, and his youngest daughter, visiting from the U.S., translated as necessary.  As I said, George's English is good, but like most people over a certain age, his hearing is diminished.  It's difficult enough to hold a conversation in a foreign language, but especially if you can't hear clearly.

George was born on the Mainland and served in the National Revolutionary Army of the KMT, under Chiang Kai-shek.  He evacuated the mainland for Taiwan in 1949, and, apart from a stint in Florida, has been there ever since.  He left the army and has been in the baking business since 1959.  George is a physical fellow, and likes to touch your hand and shoulder while talking.  In this way, he leaned in to offer a correction: He was a major in the army, not a general, but unlike all of the generals today, he's actually been to war!  I was half-certain the next thing he would say would be to challenge me to arm-wrestle.

A religious man, George got his start in delivering bread by bicycle at the suggestion of a Canadian missionary.  (Allow me to insert a "God save the Queen".)  Indeed, he was wearing a Gideons Society tie that proclaimed Jesus as Lord.  Do you know where God is, he asked.  Up, I gestured.  Yes, but also here, he said, pointing to his chest.  "God is love.  People kill in the name of religion.  But if you have love, everything in the world will turn out fine.  No wars, no hatred," he beamed brightly.

He's had a few near-scrapes with death in his life that I suspect have sharpened his sense of God's agency in his life.  During the Chinese Civil War, he accidentally shot his foot through his holster.  While he was laid up in sickbay, his unit was all but obliterated by the Communists.  "That gun saved my life," he said.  Another time, he was on leave to see his parents, and his mother had made jiaozi, or dumplings.  Oh, I'm sick of them and I'm late in getting back anyway, he said.  His father took him aside and said, Why don't you just have a seat, eat some, and make your poor mother happy?  So he did, and ended up missing his unit's departure.  As with the gunshot wound, his unit was wiped out and his life spared.

The gun in his commercials was a replica, and he let me hold it.  But George values it as a happy reminder of the gun's part in God's plan for his life.  He showed me his major's uniform and photos, recently taken, of how well he had been received on the mainland as an old veteran, on the outskirts of Beijing where he has established a local factory.  These mementos (and also TV commercial props) he keeps in a small bedroom adjacent to his office, which he casually but in all seriousness offered to lend me when I'm next in town.

By the time the war was over, George was in Taiwan and again in sickbay with tuberculosis.  There's no hope for you, he was told, it's just a matter of time.  It was then that he found religion.  Besides, he had too many buddies to avenge to just give up and die!  So Jesus cured him, but he had yet to embrace humility.  What sins do I have to repent of? he asked.  He was out of the army, with no job prospects and no girls who would marry him without one.  His Canadian missionary friend suggested selling bread to the U.S. military.  Around this time he had the breakthrough realization that "God is love," he forgave his enemies, and things started to click for him.

Indistinct from his business interests, George has long been on a crusade to improve people's health.  People eat such garbage, he says, echoing concerns I've had across East Asia, as people increasingly adopt Western foods.  Ever notice the oldest person alive is usually Japanese?  There's a reason for it.  They traditionally don't eat sugar, refined carbs, and vegetable oils, which are central features of the Western diet.

George's magic bullet is wheat germ, which, compared to regular white flour, is high in protein and bran.  I tasted a bun modeled after the ones he ate in the Nationalist army, made from whole wheat flour.  It was dense, but good.  George watched me very closely to see if the bun would meet with my approval.  And it did.  It is dense but toothsome, and, from my experience of American rations, better than anything they vacuum-pack as MREs. (Okay, I admit: I really like the maple nut-cake dessert.  The squeeze cheese and cracker are a guilty pleasure.)

As with other visitors, George had me write in his diary to memorialize the event.  I was sure to endorse his nutritional theory, as I'd seen what the Western diet was doing to the Taiwanese, as it has done to us back home.  Indeed, refined carbohydrates and added sugars are killing us, and everyone abroad to whom we export our diet.  Acknowledging his age, saying he doesn't think God will grant him more than two or three years (may he get 20!), but he says he is writing a book that will encapsulate all his nutritional theories.  I have nothing to add to his wisdom save that he might read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.  It might be complex for his English, but he has very patient and loving daughters to translate for him.

He had another appointment for the afteroon, so we had to bring the meeting to a close, but he generously sent me away with samples, literature, and several Chinese Bibles.  I've said before that you don't give a priest a Bible for a present because he likely already has 30, but I make an exception for foreign language editions.  I was just barely manageably laden down with treasures, and I must have looked quite the sight walking the half-mile back to the apartment.

I left Taiwan (this entry having taken me a few months to complete) just as George had asked me to dinner.  I countered that my wife would be in Taiwan this July (as it turns out she won't) but he said he would be summering in Florida (you would have to have experienced Taiwan to understand the logic!).  I don't know when or how but I hope to see George again.  But I feel as though I have more to learn, and he has more to teach.  And beside all that, he is just a damned pleasant fellow.  I will treasure what time I had with him, and if God adds an hour or two, I will be grateful all the years of my life.

I don't know how they say it in Chinese, but as they said at my ordination as a bishop, Ad multos annos—to many years!