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Mort and Mark Ong
Mort and Deng Ming-Dao

Excerpt from Striking Through the Masks

While all this intellectual communication was skittering back and forth through the telephone wires, we would continue to meet every month or so, have lunch or dinner together, and talk about many subjects. Gradually, we began talking about more personal things. But that took time because Deng was generally formal and respectful of me as an older man. I may have considered us equals, but I knew I had to get past the barrier of his politeness if we were to truly become friends. His social graces were so pronounced, I often joked that he was more a Confucian than a Daoist. That light-hearted quip underscored another problem: although Deng enjoyed my jokes and irreverent horseplay, he was essentially a serious person. That, combined with his formal deportment, had to be breached, I thought, if we were to have the kind of friendship I prized but almost never found.

The breakthrough happened in an unexpected way. Deng always signed his letters and emails, “Sincerely.” To me, it was an illustration of his overall formality. In the second year of our friendship, I brought this practice up during one of our phone conversations. “My friend, why do you still end
your letters with ‘Sincerely’? We’re beyond that kind of formality.”

He was quiet for a moment, then said, “What do you suggest?” I made believe I was thinking for a moment, but I knew what I was going to say: he had written an essay in which he addressed my age and my combative nature by saying “It was time the old swordsman hung up his sword.” Now, as he waited for my suggestion, I said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but from now on I’m signing my letters to you ‘The Swaggering Swordsman,’ or something like that.”

He laughed and signed his next letter “The Solitary Drunkard,” and after that regularly changed the adjective with one or another descriptive word that sashayed in front of the inebriated noun at the end of his letters. From that point on, our friendship, more relaxed and jocular, seemed to deepen profoundly.

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