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N.Y. man's ‘Bobisms’ strike chord in China

An elderly upstate New York man has become an unlikely advice guru in China, a land he’s never even visited.
/ Source: Reuters

Gently extolling the virtues of “learning and laughter,” an elderly upstate New York man has become an unlikely advice guru in China, a land he’s never even visited.

The simple, sincere advice of 85-year-old Bob Herman appears in two popular teen magazines in China and his “Bobisms” have inspired a book of columns published in China called “Adventures of the Mind: Wit and Wisdom with Bob.”

“I’ve never been to China, I have no Chinese friends and I don’t speak Chinese,” Herman, a former professor and economics adviser, said at his home in Slingerlands, outside Albany.

Herman writes about a host of topics including love, education, aging and youth, rebellion, greed and success. Readers e-mail him letters every day seeking advice and praising him for his insight.

‘They can connect with me’
“The people I hear from never heard of Slingerlands but yet they can connect with me,” he said.

Herman’s link with China began in 2002 when he was playing ping-pong in California with a woman who was the editor of a widely read Chinese-English magazine known as English Salon.

The editor had read some of Herman’s poems, which were published in an anthology. She asked him to write a column espousing his philosophy of life.

In English Salon, and another magazine called Overseas English, he is a featured columnist amid stories written for young people about Western music and culture.

“There has been an outpouring of response and I don’t understand it,” said Herman who does not write about religion or politics or about America. “I don’t want to be preachy.”

Encouraging education is one of his themes. “The teacher who opens the door to the school closes the door to the prison,” he wrote recently.

Herman said one of his favorite letters came from a 10-year-old girl during the SARS epidemic last year. She told Herman she was afraid of death and wanted him to help her overcome her fears. Like many Chinese people who write him letters, she signed in an “adopted” English name.

‘I like to consider you as a friend’
“It’s amazing that a foreigner can understand me so well. ... You are a good listener and also a patient teacher,” wrote ”Connie” from Tianjin. “I like to consider you as a friend who is sincere.”

Another person named “Shelley” from Shanghai is a teacher who enjoys Herman’s columns.

“I have designed a new activity for students in my class. This is based on Bob’s column, for we can benefit not only from the beautiful and easily understood language but also from his intelligent thoughts,” she said.

On the subject of time, Herman writes: “Time is the essence of life. It is something we all share. Each of us has a limited amount. How we use our time is the guiding force of our lives. How we spend our time tells other people who we are. We define ourselves by our use of time. We are what we do!”

Herman said his editors have never changed a word he has written. The columns appear in English and Chinese but his poems, which are often included, are never translated.

“The theme which pervades these writings is that learning and laughter are the fellow travelers that we need on our journey through life,” he said. “Our learning must give us the wisdom to settle controversies peaceably.”

In addition to learning and laughter, Herman also promotes enjoyment and sharing and writes about war and how society needs to work for peace.

“We are going to grow up or blow up,” he said.