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Katy Wimhurst, who lives in the UK, originally trained as a social anthropologist, but ended up studying for a doctorate in Mexican Surrealism.

She has worked in various jobs including teaching and publishing. She writes both fiction and non-fiction and has been published in The Guardian (Unlimited), Interaction, GlassFire, DogVersusSandwich and Serendipity.

Certain names and dates in "Very Stupid" have been changed to protect identities













Katy Wimhurst


His name was Da Lam, which in Chinese means ”He who sits half-way up a mountain.”  Perhaps in keeping with this, he now lived on the 10th floor of a 20-story urban mountain, an enormous grey tenement block in Lower Manhattan. A small, graceful man whose dark eyes could sparkle like moonlight on water, Da Lam was 90 years old when I met him. But at that age, he still wrote books on Chinese philosophy, taught three classes of T’ai Chi a week, and had all his own teeth without a single filling—I knew that as he insisted on giving me a graphic oral demonstration one day. The teeth were part of his proof that living according to his spiritual principles, even in New York, brought him health and longevity. He sincerely believed he would live to be 250.

Da Lam was also, I was told, a bona fide guru. I wasn’t looking for a guru, although by then I had met a few phony ones, people who spouted New Age philosophy and called themselves shamans when they were closer to shams. But Da Lam, it seemed, was the real deal in guru terms. Billed as ”the man who had helped introduce T’ai Chi to the US in the 50s,” he was also an expert on the I Ching and had a regular stream of devoted followers to his Manhattan flat. Devoted followers who, I had to admit, he sometimes insulted, although not deliberately: Da Lam had been brought up as an aristocrat in China before the Communists seized power and, perhaps because of certain aristocratic traits, he was not the most tactful person in existence.

“You very ugly,” he said one day to a poor woman who had come to tell him how much she admired his teachings.

“Why she cry and leave?” Da Lam asked me afterwards.

“Because you called her ugly,” I said.

“But she…very ugly,” he said, looking at me perplexed.

I knew Da Lam as I happened to work for him as a secretary and editor. I say “happened” as I got the job through no special abilities on my part. Indeed, it was probably the easiest job interview I ever had. One day, after my second class with him in T’ai Chi, Da Lam approached me. “Someone say you English, not American?” he said.

“Yes, I’m English,” I replied.

“Then you come work for me,” he said.

Not “would you like to work for me?” or “are you available to work for me?” As I would discover, Da Lam didn’t operate in those terms. But it suited me fine. I was living with someone in New York I had fallen in love with and was trying to find work illegally; and working for Da Lam was infinitely preferable to getting five dollars and as many gropes an hour at some seedy diner. It later transpired that he offered me the job because he assumed anyone English automatically wrote the language better than anyone American, effectively dismissing several generations of American writers, not to mention several million ordinary Americans.

Nevertheless, thanks to Da Lam’s peculiar prejudices, I entered the folds of the Green-Card busters in the US, although I never considered myself an authentic Green-Card buster.

Not like Francisco, for instance, who taught me Spanish, came from The Dominican Republic, and had been in New York illegally for eight years, having been refused asylum on flimsy grounds. Francisco had two cleaning jobs, worked twelve-hours six days a week, and on his free day taught English. He had a shabby apartment on the outskirts of Harlem and no health insurance. I once asked him what he would do if he got stabbed (not uncommon in the area he lived) or contracted a serious illness.  “I’d probably die,” he answered with no sentimentality. Francisco was part of the millions of poor illegal immigrants from Latin America who prop up the economic underbelly of the richest country on earth. I couldn’t put myself in the same Green-Card-busting category as Francisco. My boyfriend was fairly wealthy, so work was a choice for me. Francisco didn’t have the luxury of choices.

I knew Da Lam was a refugee, too, although a legal one, having fled the Communist purges of the 1950s in China and having been granted asylum in the US.  “If I not run in 1955, I have bullet in head,” he once told me.

“I’m glad you ran,” I said.

“Me, too,” he replied.

Da Lam was thus part of a generation of Chinese Taoists and Zen Buddhists who had arrived in the US as refugees in the 50’s and 60’s and who, partly unintentionally, had fed the ideas of counter-cultural movements there. It always struck me as ironic that one of the most narrow-minded interpretations of Marxism in the East—Chinese Maoism—had helped engender the mind-expanding experimentations of the Beats and the hippies in the West. But Da Lam himself had no time for hippies. Although I met him a good thirty years after the hippies had had their flower-power day, he was still dismissive of them.

“What did you think of the hippies?” I once asked him.

“Very stupid,” he said.

Calling people “very stupid,” as I would soon find out to my detriment, was a favourite past-time of Da Lam’s, but in relation to the hippies, he had his reasons. After all, his was a life of strict spiritual discipline and study.

Da Lam was my initiation into how gurus can have remarkable powers but can be  “human, all too human.” The man had genuine healing abilities.  If I had a headache, Da Lam would go to window, hold his hands up to the light, chant something or other, then return, putting his hands on my head. And I would feel the pain simply draining away. No kidding. Prior to meeting him, I had seen a number of complementary therapists, including spiritual healers, about my headaches, none of whom had helped me. But Da Lam had undeniable healing and spiritual powers. There were also occasions, however, when he had an ego the size of the Empire State Building. And this manifested quite early on in our “work.”

On my first day at work, he told me what the job entailed:

 “I talk. You write,” he said.

Da Lam was not a man who could ever be accused of verbosity, even if the work didn’t prove to be as straightforward as his explanation suggested.

We would begin the work with him dictating what he wanted to say. I would then try to decipher what the hell he was talking about, write it down, and type it up. Despite his undoubted intelligence and the fact that he understood English perfectly, Da Lam’s spoken English was—how can I put this?—unusual. I had taught English previously to non-native speakers, but nothing could have prepared me for Da Lam’s linguistic vandalism. On his tongue, verbs vanished, pronouns prolapsed, and adjectives were axed. While his version of English wasn’t without its charms—“I very smiling today” was one of my favorite expressions of his—for me, who found myself trying to understand and edit what he said, it wasn’t easy. And I soon gathered I wasn’t alone here. “What did he say?” was the most whispered phrase at all his T’ai Chi classes I attended.

After I typed up his words, or what I understood his words to be, I would edit them, print out the text, and then give it back to him to read. He would either say, “Yes, is good” or “No, I not say that.” On one particularly trying day, when he had had to say “No, I not say that” three times, he became frustrated and shouted at me: “You very stupid.”


“You very stupid. I very clever.”

Ah, I thought. The Ego had landed. But I let it ride this time. And the second, third and fourth times he shouted that I was “very stupid.” But the fifth time, I flipped and replied. “Your English isn’t very easy to understand.”

“What? You very stupid. I very clever,” he yelled.

“Your spoken English is poor sometimes.”

“No. You very, very stupid. I very, very clever.”

“Actually, your English is bloody crap sometimes.”

This erupted into a full-blown fireworks barny, both of us taking verbal pot-shots at each other, at the end of which Da Lam just marched out of the room. I was shaken, close to tears, but I was also extremely worried that, at 90, he might have a heart attack or stroke. Plus I thought I’d completely blown it as his “employee.” But a few minutes later, he reappeared in the room as if nothing had happened, handed me my money for the day, smiled warmly and said. “I think better we work do tomorrow.” He then led me to the door of his flat and gave me an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “Fire in you. Is good,” he said, beaming.

So that was Da Lam: one minute he was shouting in your face that you were stupid, the next he was smiling and giving you compliments. In an odd way, he was a refreshing person to know, even if he wouldn’t have won an award for “Diplomatic Employer of the Year.” And although the shouting matches became regular interludes to our work, any annoyances I felt towards him were always smoothed over by the way he would surprise me with incredible gestures of largesse. Once, when I felt very ill, he took me straightaway in a taxi to see a Chinese medic and paid for the consultation and medicines. On another occasion, he told me to arrive at his flat at midday not 9 a.m., and when I arrived, there was a Chinese banquet laid out for us.

And then there was his T’ai Chi itself, which he would practice while I beavered away at the computer. T’ai Chi is a system of movement, somewhere between a dance and a meditation. Watching Da Lam doing T’ai Chi was like watching a river flowing, a prayer in motion, a 90 year old man moving with the grace and agility of a Siamese cat.

But after six months of working for Da Lam, I decided to return to the UK. My relationship was breaking up and I had been offered work in London, so I said my goodbyes to Da Lam. I am sorry to say I never saw or heard from him again—neither of us were good letter writers—but I did Google him from time to time. It was during one of those Googling sessions that I discovered, in an obituary in the New York Times, that he had died in 2005 at age 96. Reading the obituary made me desperately sad.

I recalled one argument we’d had before I left.

“Through T’ai Chi and Taoism, I live to age 250,” he had said.

“Sorry, but I don’t believe you,” I had said.

“You very stupid,” he had said. “And very wrong.”

Now, reading about Da Lam’s death I wished I had been very stupid and very wrong.





 Very Stupid