Jun 15, 2012
Zekrollah Aflatuni loves tofu, kung pao chicken, gulaorou (sweet and sour pork with fat) and red braised eggplant. He plays the Iranian drum but sings traditional Suzhou pingtan (story-telling accompanied by Suzhou music). He wears an Iranian vest but feels comfortable in local Suzhou silk. He speaks English and broken Suzhou dialect.
The 66-year-old Iranian-Finn has lived in Suzhou for about 13 years. He calls himself a Suzhou native. "I fell in love with China and the city," he says with a big smile.
In 1998, the electronics engineer came to China from Finland due to work. But when he reached the retirement age in 2003, Aflatuni decided to stay. "I've found my niche here. It's my home now," he says.
Venturing into Aflatuni's home located near the famed ancient street Guanqian Road, one feels like stepping into a lush green garden, blocking off all the bustles and hustles outside. He bought the apartment eight years ago.
The Finn has transformed his spacious terrace into a small orchard, where he grows various vegetables and fruits, such as loquat, oranges, grape, apricot, papaya, cherry and many others. The sunlight shines through the thick tree leaves and the green vines that are sprawling on the pergola.
"I've also rented a small land in Dongshan (the East Mountain), around 1,000 square meters, to plant more trees. It's really a nice place," he says.
Several weeks ago Aflatuni bought five grape vines from Taobao.com, the country's largest online shopping website. "The prices are quite reasonable; plus it's home delivery," he says.
When in Roman, do as Romans do. Having been in Suzhou for more than a decade, the electronics engineer has totally adapted to life here.
He works as a guest teacher to lecture on electronics at Suzhou University, teaches English in local hospitals every week as a volunteer, plays in a band mixing traditional Chinese music and Iranian drumming. He also established the Happy Home Club at home for young people, where he shares his life experience and life attitudes with them.
"Chinese culture attracts me most and I find Chinese people are profound and philosophical," Aflatuni says. "This is quite close to my culture."
One thing he appreciates most about the culture is the "cha bu duo" (pretty much the same thing; don't take it too serious) life attitude many Chinese have.
"It's a clever life philosophy," he says. "It makes life easier." Sometimes you need to learn to compromise, not because you are not tough enough but you want to make people around happy and harmonious.
"Chinese are always easygoing and kind, which impresses me most," Aflatuni says. He remembers some funny experiences when he first came to the city several years ago.
One day he was absorbed in picking foods in the market. But when he looked up, he was surprised to find that he was surrounded by crowds of people, studying him with great interest and curiosity.
During that time, a foreigner buying fruit was quite a rare thing in Suzhou.
The Finn smiled, waved, said hi and chatted with the interested people standing around him. "I didn't feel offended at all, instead I regarded it as a way for Chinese to show their hospitality to a guest," he says.
But now the guest is often the host. Today Aflatuni is something of a celebrity in the city. He established the Happy Home Club in his apartment for young people. "We talk about how to be a good man with virtue and morality, what the purpose of life is and the money view," he says. They share opinions, exchange views and learn from each other.
Aflatuni admits that he finds Chinese have changed after having stayed in China for more than a decade. "People today are more money-oriented. It seems that money is the only pursuit in their lives and the only criterion to measure everything," he says with pity. "A decade ago Chinese, in my eyes, were more pure-hearted and peaceful."
He hopes the Happy Home Club can help young Chinese. "At least, they can start thinking about their future, the world and what they could contribute to it," he says.
Every weekend Aflatuni holds a free drumming class at home for young people. The Finn has more than 90 drums. Some are big, some are small and there are various shapes. Some are made of snakeskin, cowhide or sheepskin and plastic. They come from all over the world including places like Africa, Iran, Indonesia and north China.
The talented amateur Iranian drummer set up his own band, combining both Iranian drumming and traditional Chinese music.
His band features yangqin (two-stringed fiddle), erhu (fiddle) and guzheng (zither) accompanied with Iranian drum (Tonbak) and an African drum (Djembe).
During the World Expo 2010, his band performed full time at the European Square, in the Suzhou Pavilion, Finland Pavilion and Iran Pavilion.
Recently Aflatuni launched a charity project called Happy Home Drum with the help of the Red Cross and the Suzhou Conference Center. He makes drums and puts his name on it. All the money earned from the sale of these drums is donated to children from poor families. "True happiness is to make people happy," Aflatuni says. "That's what I believe in and try to do all my life."
Profession: Electronic engineer
Spitting on the road and throwing rubbish on the road.
Motto for life:True happiness is to make people happy.
This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province for a while and have a tale that's worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.
About the Column
This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province for a while and have a tale that’s worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.