Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 9

On Being Chinese

Mixed in with more letters from Barbara for Peter was one for Tom from Sharon. He tore it open immediately, and found himself being thanked for visiting a "marginally violent institutional inmate." There was then a commentary on the rest of Tom's paper. She certainly had the knack for philosophy, and he could see that she was in basic disagreement with him concerning at least one key premise. In closing, she remarked that she hadn't been feeling well the last couple of days, but hoped to be back in action soon.

Tom had been wondering how long he should wait before calling again, and he took Sharon's illness as a pretext for calling that evening. After all, it was never improper to show concern.

He wound up speaking with Miss Barnes, who said,

"Yes, Sharon did have a little dip, but we expect that."

Tom was sure that he wasn't supposed to ask what the little dip consisted in, and, when he said he hoped she'd be better soon, Miss Barnes replied,

"I suppose, the other day, you might easily have gotten the impression that there really aren't any problems at all."

"Sharon did tell me about the episode at school and her reaction to it, but, apart from that, I would never have guessed anything."

"Of course, she's a terrific girl with enormous potential. But she was thoroughly disturbed, and there's really no hurrying these things. In fact, it's better not to try to hurry them. I hope you can be patient."

Tom was actually quite buoyed up when he realized that Miss Barnes thought that Sharon liked him enough so that there was something to justify his patience. He responded enthusiastically, and then suggested,

"I could write to her in response to her note and ask if it would be convenient for me to come out, say, in a week's time. Would that be appropriate?"

Miss Barnes was, in her turn, enthusiastic. It was obvious that she had become close to Sharon, and that Tom's best policy was to do exactly what she wanted.

Tom returned immediately to K-Entry, and, in his anxiety to talk with Eric, forgot to take evasive action. A water balloon narrowly missed his head and splashed his legs as it burst on the ground. Pausing only to gesture obscenely at J- Entry, he found Eric and told him of his conversation with Miss Barnes. He concluded,

"I've been out there once and called three times. Sharon's been unavailable, probably not feeling well, half the time. So there may really be something fairly serious."

"And you said everything went well last time?"

"Wonderfully, really. And, for once, I'm sure I didn't say anything stupid or do anything awkward."

"It may have gone too well."

"How could that be?"

"Maybe she liked you a lot, but is very uneasy about getting involved with boys. She might think that you and she are headed for dangerous territory. That is, where things she can't deal with might happen."

"So it's not enough to be neuter gender. You also have to convince the girl that she's neuter gender as well?"

"With this particular girl that may be necessary. Of course, there's a traditional solution to this sort of problem. It consists in having a chaperon."

"I could ask Miss Barnes to join us. But, then, we couldn't very well talk philosophy."

"You could take me out as well. I could talk with Miss Barnes while you're philosophizing with Sharon."

"Miss Barnes is herself very attractive. But she is, I suppose, ten years older than us."

"At this point, that doesn't bother me in the least."

The next morning, in Oceanic History, they considered the voyage of Captain Edward Fenton from England in the early seventeenth century. It was supposed to make a profit by selling, in India, English goods at many times their cost. Captain Fenton, chosen by the promotors for his supposed honesty and competence, was sent off with a lot of adventurous young men. A clergyman was also sent along to keep everyone, and the expedition as a whole, on the right side of God.

Professor Albion claimed that this was free and unfettered capitalism, the sort of thing that made England, and subsequently America, great. The only trouble was that England was then what would, in the mid-twentieth century, be counted as an underdeveloped country. In particular, entrepreneurs could enter into agreements with one another, but those agreements were only marginally enforceable.

As soon as they were clear of land, Captain Fenton found that some of the young adventurers, who all had a financial stake in the voyage, wanted to go into the Pacific instead of going to India. Others wanted to dump the trade goods overboard and go a-pirating on the Spanish main. The clergyman, an articulate young man from Oxford, was quickly intimidated. Indeed, he found it necessary to write his diary in a code invented by himself lest it be used against him.

The young clergyman didn't survive the voyage, perhaps because some of the wild free spirits on board decided to hang him from a yardarm. But his diary did survive to be decoded by scholars. In its last entries, it looked as if the people who wanted to be pirates were winning out in the brisk little intramural war aboard ship.

It was separately recorded that the ship did eventually return, with Captain Fenton still more or less in command, but without making a profit. Professor Albion suggested that early capitalism was often nothing more than a form of quasi- organized gangsterism. But, still, the activities of the English, free-wheeling and opportunistic, were in marked contrast to those of the Spanish, obsessed with digging gold out of the ground. Tom drew the moral that almost any sort of activity, even if guided in only fairly rudimentary ways, was likely to put one ahead of those who only sat on their rear ends.

The K'ung Fu-tzu class was going downhill fast, particularly when it was suggested that the master could best be understood by listening to Dvorshak's Fourth Symphony. The translation they were using also produced some odd consequences. In one place, it turned out that the man who achieves manhood-at-its-best takes a strong line with those who haven't achieved that status. In short, he kills them. That would presumably have inclined K'ung Fu'tzu toward mass murder on a scale comparable to that of Genghis Khan or the legendary Ch'in Shih Huang-ti, but Tom suspected that something had gone wrong with the translation. Now in the third week, it was too late to drop the course. And, anyhow, it remained easy.

In Metaphysics, it was the space-time worm. D. C. Williams, looking quite jolly, explained that physical objects, none really permanent, are events of a sort, that is, events that have a continuous history, generally finite at both ends. Since the event-object changes position and shape, always in a continuous way, it is the four-dimensional analogue (time added to the three spatial dimensions) of a three-dimensional worm. Tom hardly knew what to think. The smiling Williams might be totally insane in a manic way, but everything he said made a sort of sense. Tom supposed that it was par for the course in philosophy.

The space-time worm was certainly something Tom could lay on Sharon. While it didn't seem likely that there would ever be embarrassing gaps in their conversation, she might possibly fall silent if she didn't feel well. The worm should be the cure for that. Then, as Williams went further into overdrive, Tom managed to partly follow him while, at the same time, he imagined Sharon as she undressed.

That evening, Jimmy wanted to take a walk on the river bank. He had heard exaggerated reports that Tom had a girl friend, and wanted advice. Tom would have suggested that he talk with Peter, but realized that there was a considerable cultural gap, only part of it traceable to Jimmy's being Chinese, between them.

Jimmy began by announcing that he had decided not to be Chinese. Tom asked,

"How can you not be Chinese?"

"By never going back to Taiwan or China and gradually losing contact with my father and family."

While it had never been discussed directly, Tom assumed that Jimmy's father was in charge of eliminating all those people, probably running to thousands, whom Chiang Kai-shek didn't like. It now turned out that people, alive and bound, were deposited in bath tubs filled with concentrated sulfuric acid. As Jimmy said, in a rather discouraged tone,

"They come back a few days later and just pull the plug."

One could understand that Jimmy didn't want to emulate his father, and, since his mother was dead, there was every reason for him to stay in America. Tom asked,

"Was this why you switched your major from Far Eastern Languages?"

"Partly. Since I was evacuated to India because of the communist threat, I grew up mostly speaking English. If I had stayed in Far Eastern, I'd have ended up knowing about as much as a high school student in Taiwan. That inclined me away, and now I've decided not to be Chinese at all."

Jimmy spoke with a bright smile, as if this transformation had already been accomplished. Tom replied,

"But, still, there's the whole culture, thousands of years old, and all kinds of assumptions ...."

"Fuck K'ung Fu-tzu."

"I see."

"Also fuck Lao-tze, Sun-tzu, and the Buddha."

"And I suppose you aren't terribly anxious to consult the Book of Changes or sing from the Book of Songs."

"Fuck them too."

"In fact, a clean sweep of the culture from the beginnings to Chiang."

"Which also includes my father. He, particularly, should be fucked. But not in so many words until I no longer need the money he sends me."

"That seems sensible."

It was amusing to hear Jimmy, dapper with his yellow bow tie, speak of fucking people. He was still very much the little gentleman with his well-modulated voice, and Tom didn't think that a few fucks would do him any harm at all.

"The next thing I need is an American girl, preferably tall, blonde, and beautiful."

"Eric, Kent, and I have struggled with that one for some time. Mostly, we couldn't even find someone who was short, dark and ugly."

"But now you have a girl who's tall, blonde, and beautiful."

"I've only seen Sharon once, in a large public lounge. She was friendly, but there wasn't any cuddling in the corners."

"Besides, there's the matter of American citizenship. I can get it most easily by marrying an American."

"How are you going to begin?"

"I thought we might go to the burlesque house in Scollay Square."

"They might not want to let you in because of your age. But I suppose we could try."

"I don't think it's very Chinese to go to burlesque houses, do you?"

"Probably not."

"I don't think my father does. We'll have to go, then."

"I've been a couple of times, but it's really not very thrilling."

"Wouldn't they have on stage girls who are tall, blonde, and beautiful?"

"They might have some tall blondes, but they probably wouldn't really be beautiful."

"But beautiful enough, perhaps. I could go backstage afterwards and propose marriage to one. That would solve two problems at once."

At that point, they were following the path that led through the tall grass and thickets. Jimmy stopped short and shouted,

"Look out, snakes!"

Tom could see the outlines of a loving couple writhing in the long grass, and he tried to explain quietly. However, Jimmy, raised mostly in India, was always on the lookout for cobras and such things. When it had previously been explained to him that there were no cobras in America, he merely drew the conclusion that American poisonous snakes took unknown, and even more dangerous, forms. Tom, by pointing out the figures in the grass, eventually got Jimmy to move along. After they had passed, Jimmy remarked,

"That's the sort of thing we should be doing, not studying K'ung Fu-tzu and Rembrandt."

"I've never been with a girl who was willing. It's nice to know that there are some."

"We've been looking in the wrong places. At the burlesque house, we might find the right sort of girl."

"Even that wouldn't be easy. We'd probably be bounced if we tried to go back stage."

"What if we took with us huge bouguets of flowers?"

"They'd take the flowers, and then bounce us. Even if they did let us in, the women would turn out to be twice our age and not very nice."

Jimmy was genuinely disappointed, and his small figure looked disconsolate in the wilds of the river bank, rather like that of a prospector who, looking for gold, has found only rocks and sand. He finally said,

"There must be some solution."

"You've learned almost everything you know about America from members of K-Entry, haven't you, Jimmy."

"I've taken a lot of courses, some of which concerned America."

"And gotten A's in all of them, I bet. But Harvard courses don't have any practical application to anything. Least of all to girls."

"No, I suppose not."

"Your trouble is that you'd utterly baffle girls who aren't serious students at a good college. And they're all older. At least unless you find a young female prodigy in the Radcliffe freshman class."

"I keep checking. There was a young student last year, but she left with a nervous breakdown. There aren't any this year."

"If I ever get anywhere with Sharon, I'll see if she has any friends who are suitable."

Jimmy quickly became euphoric, and Tom's insistence that it might all come to nothing had no effect on him."

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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