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I met Li Shui Wang earlier this year in Kunming. The old man was sitting on a bench in a small park intently watching me as I struggled with two lenses, my camera and a bag all while attempting to change said lenses.

Mr. Li recognized my dilemma and invited me over to share his bench where he immediately started talking a blue streak, most of which I did not initially understand. I smiled politely and nodded a lot and went to work changing out the lenses. I noticed the ID hanging around his neck with the name Li Shui something. I said out loud, “Li Shui”, and his eyes brightened. He became even more animated, talking rapid-fire old-man Chinese that I was having a very hard time with. Eventually my friend Eddy came over and between the two of us we were able to determine that old Mr. Li was a decorated veteran, a Kunming native, and 90 years old. He was sharp as a tack with the kind of sparkle in his eyes that I only hope my grandchildren will experience one day when talking with me.

I love these kind of impromptu encounters in China. Even with my poor language skills we managed, with gestures and smiles, to communicate. Looking now at the frail man in worn clothing, wrinkled hand on his crutch, it’s hard to envision him as a hard-as-nails menacing soldier. Did he spend time in Korea or Vietnam? As old soldiers do, Mr. Li will fade away one day too soon. I’m glad we had our encounter in the park first. I hope the experience was at least a fraction as good for him as it was for me.

Before anyone gets too excited (or perhaps dubious) about my Chinese skills, 李 (Li) is my wife's family name and 水 (Shui) is the character for water, so those were both fairly easy for me. Lily had to tell me once I got home that 旺 meant Wang.

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