Foreseeing a boring life of retirement back in the US, David Tool packed up and parted from his family in 2001 to set out for China where he would feel a sense of usefulness and excitement.
With regular incomes from the US Army, a university and the government, Tool could have enjoyed a peaceful later-life, "watching TV, walking dogs, or just sitting there" like other well-off retired Americans. But for him, that would be "dying and useless."
Known as Du Dawei among his Chinese friends, Tool, 63, actually prefers to be called "Lao Du," which sounds more like traditional Chinese. Now he is teaching Analytical Thinking as an English course and research methodology for about 14 hours a week at Beijing International Studies University, but this is just a small part of his work.
Since first settling down here in 2001, Tool has visited scores of local museums, taking notes of the broken English on exhibit cases. He is working on a program to train handicapped people to be tour guides. He goes to public toilets, hotels, shopping mall, and tourist attractions measuring the door widths to make sure wheelchairs can pass through. He actively encourages elderly Chinese to pursue their later-life's meaning.
And for all this, Tool has never asked for a penny. His persistent drive to do voluntary service started with a round of misbegotten laughter.
Back in 2001, Tool joined other foreigners watching a Beijing Opera show in a theater. When it came to the highlights of Monkey King, an onscreen subtitle which was supposed to read "auspicious clouds," instead read "auspicious clods." The entire audience except for Tool burst into torrents of laughter. He loved Beijing Opera so much that the incident made him very upset.
"The audience shouldn't be impolite and what's more distressing is that the theater should be more respectful of traditional Peking Opera with correct translation," he said.
That's when he got the idea that he must help correct English at all local tourist sights.
By now, Tool has been officially recognized as a consultant for several influential organizations.
His cooperation with the Beijing Municipal Government Foreign Affairs Division started with correcting English in the subway. The only remaining error he sees is in the announcement "This is the terminus of the train" which should be replaced by the more appropriate word "line" he says.
As for the ring roads, Tool helped rephrase broken English signage, such as "don't drive tiredly" but says that such signs as "Keep space" and "Carriage way" should be looked at as appropriate English with Chinese characteristics since there is not really an agreed upon "standard" English for all situations. It took him a year and a half with the assistance of other Chinese colleagues to edit English used at 40 museums and he's tackling another 40 now.
"Lao Du has been very helpful in our efforts to build a tourist-friendly international city prior to the Olympic Games in 2008, " said Xu Luping, coordinator from the Foreign Affairs Division.
Meanwhile, Tool was invited to be the adviser of Cultural Relics Bureau and All-China Handicapped Federation's Beijing branch. He found very few Chinese cultural sites were easily accessible to handicapped people, with their narrow gates, high doorsills or high press buttons.
"It's not fair!" he said.
According to Tool, handicapped Americans spend US$3.1 billion each year traveling abroad. Surprisingly, the third most popular destination for them is Thailand, after Mexico and Canada. Chinese tourist sites should learn a lesson from Thailand's counterparts, he believes, as revenues show that the consideration for the handicapped was paying off.
Tool found that many of China's handicapped live in poverty. He believes the solution is to "help them help themselves."
A dramatic life
Believing that "an interesting professor should travel around the world and see things before teaching," Tool first joined the US Army in the 1960s and was dispatched to Viet Nam for one year. Later he led his battalion to South Korea several times in the late 1980's.
By the time he returned from Viet Nam to the US in 1967, Tool was already madly in love with Asian culture. For the next few years, he got a master's degree in Chinese Geography and a doctorate in Education from the University of Southern California, where he also taught for many years.
In 1991, Tool made his first tour to China and taught at a university in Northwest China's Gansu Province, where he was awed by the Yellow River. The charm would have kept him in the country more than three years if not for his promotion to colonel by the US Army in 1993.
His Chinese life resumed in 2001 with an invitation from Beijing International Studies University. Aside from teaching in the classroom, he regained his sense of usefulness by checking museum signage, measuring for handicapped accessibility and examining ring road signs.
Tool has a nice house with a couple of ponds and workshops in Los Angeles, California.
Tool and his wife have been married for 37 years. His wife is a nurse in Los Angeles. She often comes to spend summer and Christmas holidays in China. When she's in the US, they e-mail almost every day.
"I believe married love only lasts for five years, but true affection and respect can last forever. We are really best friends, and I love her very much," Tool said.
Their son is a ceramics artist who teaches at Berkley University and he will go to Jingdezhen, a town famous for porcelain, next year to study Chinese ceramics. Their daughter is a lawyer who had little interest in China until she visited last October.
Asked if he feels lonely most of the time, Tool said: "I'm alone, but I also feel lonely. At the end of the day, it's lonely. You're not in your own country, not with your family."
"But my loneliness isn't more powerful than my need to be useful."
(China Daily August 16, 2006)