SOON AFTER I’D FOUND a summer job in Flushing, I received a phone call one evening. I was thrilled to hear the voice of Professor Meng, who had come to visit some U.S. universities with a delegation of educators. He used to be my teacher, an expert in American studies at my alma mater back in Nanjing. He had translated a book of short stories by Jack London and was known as a literary scholar in China.

“Where are you staying, Mr. Meng?” I asked.

“At the Chinese consulate here.”

“Can I come and see you?”

“Not tonight—I’m leaving for a party. But we’ll be here for a few days. Can we meet tomorrow?”

I agreed to see him the next afternoon. According to him, after New York, his delegation would head for Boston and then for Chicago and Minneapolis. Mr. Meng had taught me in 1985, for only one semester, in a course in American Jewish fiction. He was not a remarkable teacher—his voice was too flat and at times unclear—but he had a phenomenal memory and was able to give a lot of information on authors and books, some of which I suspected he hadn’t read because they were unavailable in China at the time. He was then in his early fifties, but trim and agile—a fine Ping-Pong player. He often chaffed me, saying I looked already fortyish, though I was only twenty-five. I did appear much older than my age in those days, perhaps owing to my melancholy eyes and to the dull headache I used to have in the mornings. I didn’t mind Mr. Meng’s joking, though. In a way I felt that he treated me better than the other teachers did.

It was overcast and muggy the next morning, as if the whole city of New York were inside a bathhouse. As usual, Ah Min and I set out with a van to deliver fabrics. He was behind the wheel while I sat in the navigator’s seat. We first stopped at a sweatshop on Ninth Street in Brooklyn and dropped a few bundles of cloth there. Then we drove to downtown Manhattan and unloaded the rest of the materials at a larger factory on Mott Street. It’s workshop was on the third floor of a building, and it was noisy in there, the purring and humming of sewing machines accented by the thumps of pressing irons. The floor was littered with scraps of cloth, and stacks of fabrics for coats sat against the walls. Some sewers and finishers, all women, were wearing earphones while their hands were busy. Our unloading was easy, but after that, we were to send finished products to clothing stores. We had to handle the suits and dresses carefully to avoid creasing or dirtying any of them. A thin shadow of a fellow with a pallid face helped us. Together we pulled large plastic bags over the finished garments, one for each, and then hung them on racks with wheels. After that, we took the racks down by the elevator to the first floor, which was five feet above the ground. Ah Min backed the van up to the platform of the elevator, and I put two gangplanks in place so we could pull the racks into the vehicle. The process was slow and exacting; every time it took almost two hours. We had to be very careful, because our boss, a middle-aged man from Hong Kong, would reprimand us for any damaged product, though he had never docked our wages.

Before setting out that morning, I’d spoken to our boss, who let me have the afternoon off. Ah Min dropped me at Union Square around two p.m. after we’d delivered the last batch of suits to a haberdasher’s on Fifth Avenue. He was a friendly fellow with a sleepy look in his eyes and often teased me, probably because I was a temp, as yet unable to drive confidently in Manhattan, and would return to school in Wisconsin when the summer ended. Indeed, I had come to New York mainly to make some money and to see the city, which my master’s thesis adviser, Professor Freeman, had said I must visit if I wanted to understand America.

When I got out of the subway, I found it had started drizzling. As I strode along Forty-second Street toward the Hudson, I regretted not having brought an umbrella with me. The neon lights, obscured some by the powdery rain, were glowing like naked limbs. They were more voluptuous than on a fine day, as if beckoning to pedestrians, but I had to hustle to avoid being drenched. Seven or eight minutes later, I got into the Chinese consulate’s entryway, in which about a dozen people were waiting for the drizzle to stop. An old man with a puffy face and small eyes was in the reception office, reading the overseas edition of The People’s Daily. I told him my teacher’s name and the purpose of my visit. He picked up the phone and punched a number.

A few moments later Mr. Meng came down. He looked the same as three years before. We shook hands; then, in spite of my wet polo shirt, we hugged. He was happy to see me, about to take me into the consulate.

“Wait, stop!” the old man cried through the window of the reception office. “You can’t go in.”

I produced my maroon-covered passport and opened it to show my photo. I said, “See, I’m not a foreigner.”

“Makes no difference. You’re not allowed to go in.”

My teacher intervened. “I’m staying here. Please let us in, comrade. He was my student. We haven’t seen each other for more than three years.”

“Have to follow the rule—no visitor is allowed to enter this building.”

My temper was rising. Just now I had seen a young woman, apparently a visitor, go in with a nod of her head at the geezer. I asked him, “Doesn’t this building belong to China? As a citizen, don’t I have the right to enter Chinese territory?”

“No, you don’t. Stop wagging your clever tongue here. I’ve met lots of gasbags like you.” His lackluster eyes flared.

“You make me ashamed of holding this passport,” I spat out.

“Get a blue one with a big eagle on it—as if you could.”

Mr. Meng said again, “We won’t go upstairs. There’re some chairs in the lobby; can’t we just sit over there for an hour or two? We’ll stay in your view.”

“No, you cannot.”

The entryway was so crowded by now that we couldn’t chat in there, so we went out in spite of the rain. We crossed Twelfth Avenue and observed for a while the aircraft carrier Intrepid exhibited on the Hudson, then turned onto Forty-fourth Street, where we found a diner set near a construction site, at a corner of which stood a pair of Porta Pottis. The place offered Italian fare. Mr. Meng ordered spaghetti with meatballs and I had a small pepperoni pizza. He confessed he’d never eaten pasta before, though he had come across words like “macaroni,” “tagliatelle,” “vermicelli,” and “linguini” in American novels and knew they were all Italian noodles. I was pleased that he enjoyed the food, especially the tomato sauce and the Parmesan cheese, to which my stomach was as yet unaccustomed. He told me, “This is so hearty and healthy. I can taste olive oil and basil.” I couldn’t share his enthusiasm, since I still ate Chinese food most of the time.

He went on, “New York is so rich even the air smells fatty.” He lifted his Heineken and took a gulp.

After reminiscing about some of my former classmates who had recently left China, he asked me, “How much can you make a month here?” His large nose twitched as a smile came on his narrow face.

“I’m paid by the hour, five-forty an hour.”

He lowered his head to do the sum. Then he raised his eyes and said, “Wow, you make at least twenty times more than I can back home. In a few years you’ll be rolling in money.”

I smiled without a word. He hadn’t considered that I had to spend more and pay taxes. He could hardly imagine how hard I worked. A stout waitress wearing an orange apron came over and handed us the dessert menu. I recommended that we both try the crème brûlée cheesecake, and he agreed. I liked desserts, which to me were the best part of American food. Sipping his coffee, he sighed. “What I wouldn’t give to be in your shoes, Hongfan.”

“I’m just a student. How can you say that?” I said.

“But you’re doing graduate work in the United States and will be a real scholar someday, not like my generation, ruined by political movements in our formative years. We’re a true lost generation.”

“But you’re already a professor.”

“That’s just a title. What have I accomplished? Nothing worth mentioning. So many years wasted, it’s impossible to make up for the loss.”

I remembered his translation of Jack London’s stories, which was a respectable effort, but I didn’t bring that up. I was moved in a way; few teachers at my alma mater would speak so candidly to a student. When the cheesecake had come, he asked me whether I’d like to accompany him to meet with Professor Natalie Simon at Columbia. I was reluctant, afraid I’d lose another afternoon’s work, but knowing that Simon was a famous scholar in modern American literature, I agreed to go with him. I assumed I could get permission from my boss again.

After dinner, I took Mr. Meng back to the consulate and promised to meet him at one thirty the following day. The rain had let up and the clouds were breaking, but the air was still as muggy as if it were rubbing your skin. Having seen him disappear in the entryway, I turned toward the subway station.

To my relief, my boss gladly allowed me another afternoon off, saying his daughter had graduated from Barnard College, so he liked the idea that I would accompany my former teacher to visit the university. My boss was in a jolly frame of mind these days, because his daughter had just passed her bar exam. When I joined Mr. Meng outside the consulate, he was holding a shoulder bag. I wondered if I should carry that for him, but thought better of it in case it contained something valuable. Together we took the No. 3 train uptown.

Columbia’s English department was easy to find, and the door of Professor Simon’s office was open. She welcomed us warmly and seated us on the only sofa in the room, which had tall windows. She waved apologetically, saying, “Sorry about such a mess in here.”

She was younger than I’d thought, in her late thirties and with a regal bone structure and sparkling eyes, but her face was heavily freckled and so were her arms. Mr. Meng was fluent in English, though he had studied Russian originally and switched to this language in the early 1960s when China and the former Soviet Union had fallen out. He began talking to Professor Simon about a bibliography of American literary works already translated into Chinese—a project that he had been in charge of, funded by the government. I listened without speaking. “In addition,” he told her, “we have been writing a U.S. literary history, a college textbook. I will contribute two chapters.”

“That’s marvelous,” she said. “I wish I could read Chinese. It would be interesting to see what the Chinese scholars think of our literature.”

I knew that six or seven professors had been working on that book, which would be nothing but a mishmash of articles based on the summaries of some novels and plays and on rehashing official views and interpretations. Besides the censorship that makes genuine scholarship difficult, if not impossible, some of those contributors were merely dilettantes. In most cases these people didn’t know American literature at all. Professor Simon had better remain ignorant of Chinese, or she would surely be underwhelmed. She lifted two books, both hardcovers, from her desk and put them on the coffee table before us. “These are my recent books,” she said. “I hope you’ll like them.” The top one was titled Landscapes in Modern American Fiction, but I couldn’t see the title of the other one.

Mr. Meng touched the books. “Can you sign them for me?” he asked her.

“I’ve done that.”

“These are precious. Thank you.”

To my amazement, he took a brown silk carton out of his shoulder bag and handed it to Professor Simon, saying, “Here’s a little present for you.”

She was pleased and opened the box. An imitation-ivory mahjong set emerged, glossy and crisp in the fluorescent light. “Oh, this is gorgeous.” Despite saying that, she seemed bewildered, and her jaw dropped a bit, as if her mouth were holding something hard to swallow.

“Do you play mahjong?” asked Mr. Meng.

“I don’t know how, but my mother-in-law often plays it with her friends. She’s retired, so this will be perfect for her.”

A sour taste seeped into my mouth as I observed my teacher putting the two books into his bag. His manner was as natural as if he were an old friend of hers. In fact, he’d told me they’d met only once.

We didn’t stay longer because Professor Simon was going to teach at three. She said she’d be delighted to visit Nanjing again if she was allowed to join the U.S. delegation that would go to China the next spring.

Coming out of the building with immense columns at its portals, I said half joshingly to Mr. Meng, “How many sets of mahjong did you bring along for this trip?”

“Six, but I have some sandalwood fans with me too. I give a set of mahjong only to an important figure.”

His tone of voice was so earnest that I didn’t know how to continue. He had no sense of irony and couldn’t see that I was troubled by the discrepancy between the two kinds of gifts exchanged between him and Natalie Simon. I remained tongue-tied as we headed for the front entrance of the campus. He knew how to get back to the consulate, saying he had a map and would like to stretch his legs a little on such a gorgeous day, so we said good-bye and I went down into the subway station alone.

•    •    •

June was soon over. During the day I delivered fabrics and finished garments, and at night I pored over Edward Said’s Orientalism. I thought that Mr. Meng had left with the delegation for Boston. Maybe he was in the Midwest now. But to my surprise, one evening I got a call from him.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“Still in New York,” came his soft voice.

“You mean you didn’t leave with the others?” I was astonished to realize that he’d left the delegation.

“Right. I don’t want to go back too soon,” he said flatly.

For a moment I was too stunned to respond. Then I managed to say, “Mr. Meng, it will be very hard for someone your age to survive here.”

“I know. My wife is ill and we need to pay for her medicines and hospital bills. I could never make that kind of money in China, so I decided to stay on.”

I was unsure if he was telling me the truth, but it was true that his wife had been in poor health. I said, “You may never be able to go home again.”

“I won’t mind. A human being should live like a bird, untrammeled by any man-made borders. I can be buried anywhere when I die. The reason I’m calling is to ask you to put me up for a few days.”

I knew that my accommodating him might implicate me in his defection, but he was my former teacher, someone I was obligated to help. “Okay, you’re welcome,” I said.

I gave him my address and the directions. I didn’t feel comfortable about sharing my tiny apartment with anyone. I hoped Mr. Meng would take my place only temporarily. Two hours later he arrived with a bulky suitcase and his shoulder bag. Since he hadn’t eaten dinner, I cooked a pack of instant noodles for him, adding to it two chicken legs, two eggs, and a bunch of cilantro. He enjoyed the meal, saying this was the best dinner he had eaten since he’d left home. “Better than the banquet food,” he told me. I asked him where he’d been all these days, and he confessed that he had stayed with a friend in the Bronx, but that man was leaving for upstate New York for a job in a casino, and so Mr. Meng had to look for lodging elsewhere.

In a way I admired his calm, though his round eyes blazed feverishly. If I were in his position, I might have gone bonkers. But he was an experienced man, toughened by a hard life, especially by the seven years he had spent on a chicken farm in the countryside. After the meal, it was already half past ten. We sat at the shaky dining table, chatting and sharing a pack of Newports and jasmine tea. We talked and talked, and not until around two a.m. did we decide to turn in. I wanted him to use my bed, which was just a mattress on the floor, but he insisted on sleeping on the sofa.

We both believed he needed to keep a low profile for the time being lest the consulate track him down. He shouldn’t go out during the day, and every morning I’d lock him in when setting out for work. I always stocked enough food and soft drinks for him, and he would cook dinner for both of us before I came back in the evening. He seemed very patient, in good spirits. Besides groceries, I also brought back Chinese-language newspapers and magazines. He devoured all of them and said he’d never thought that the news here was so different from that in mainland China. The articles revealed so many secrets of Chinese politics and gave such diverse interpretations of historical events that he often excitedly briefed me at the table about what he had read. Sometimes I was too exhausted to listen, but I wouldn’t dampen his excitement.

On my way home one evening I came across a barely used mattress dumped on a sidewalk. Together Mr. Meng and I went over and carried it back. From that day on he slept in the second bed in my room. He often jabbered at night, having bad dreams. Once he woke me up and kept sputtering, “I’ll get revenge! I have powerful friends at the Provincial Administration. We will wipe out you and your cronies!”

Despite that kind of disturbance, I was glad to have him here—his presence reduced my loneliness.

Two weeks later we began talking about what he should do. I had stopped locking him in and he often went out. So far, his disappearance had been kept secret by the consulate, and no newspaper had reported it. That might not be a good sign, though, and the silence unnerved us, so I felt he should remain in hiding. Yet he was eager to work to earn his keep. I advised him to wait another week, but he wouldn’t listen, saying, “We’re in the United States and mustn’t live in fear anymore.”

We both believed he shouldn’t apply for political asylum right away, since that should be a last resort and would mean he might never set foot in our motherland again. It would be better if he just lived here as an illegal alien to make some money. He could try to change his status when things cooled down—once he had the wherewithal, he could hire an attorney for that. Soon he began looking for a job in Flushing, which wasn’t like a city yet in the late 1980s; housing was less expensive there, and businesses had just begun moving in. Since he spoke English, it wasn’t hard for him to find work. A restaurant near Queens Botanical Garden hired him to wait tables, but he persuaded its manager, Michael Chian, who was a co-owner of the place, to let him start as a dishwasher on the pretext that he had no work experience at a restaurant. His real reason was that a dishwasher spent most of his hours in the kitchen, away from the public eye. The next day he started at Panda Terrace, making $4.60 an hour. He was pleased, although when he came back around eleven at night he’d complain he was bone-tired.

He was capable, and his boss and coworkers liked him. On occasion I went to the restaurant for a bowl of noodles or fried rice. I rarely ate dinner at that place, which I frequented mainly to see how Mr. Meng was doing. To my discomfort, the waitstaff called him “professor.” He’d been rash to reveal his former identity to his fellow workers, but I said nothing about it. He seemed at ease in spite of washing dishes all day long. He told me he’d been observing the staff wait tables and concluded that he could do it easily. In a month or two he might switch jobs, either working as a waiter at the same place or moving on to another restaurant.

One Sunday afternoon my coworker Ah Min and I went to Panda Terrace for a bowl of wontons. As we were eating, two white girls in their late teens pulled into the parking lot and came over to the front door. Mayling, the barrel-waisted hostess and also a co-owner of the place, went up to them and snapped, “You can’t eat here, no more.”

The girls stopped short in the doorway, one wearing a sky blue sarong and bra, hoop earrings, and mirror sunglasses, while the other was also in a sarong and bra, but a yellow one. They were both chewing gum. “Why? We have money,” the tall one in blue said, smiling spuriously and baring her flawless teeth.

The other girl grinned with her rouged lips, her kohl-rimmed eyes flickering. She said, “We love your eggplant fries. Mmm, yummy! Your dumplings are excellent too.”

“Go away. We don’t serve you,” said Mayling, who tended to speak English haltingly unless she was angry.

“This is America and you can’t throw your customers out, d’you know?” the shorter girl kept on.

“You’re not our customer. You two didn’t pay last time. I follow you to parking lot, and you saw me, but you just drived away.”

“How can you be so sure it was us?”

“Get outta here, thief!”

“Don’t be so nasty, China lady,” the tall one said, smirking while her tongue wiped her bottom lip. “How can you prove we didn’t pay you? You’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“Don’t call me dog! Go away!” The hostess flung up her hand, rattling the jade bangles around her wrist.

The girl in yellow put in, “You can’t accuse us like this. See, I have money.” She took out a sheaf of singles and fives and waved them in front of Mayling’s face.

Purple with anger, the hostess warned, “If you don’t leave now, I call police.”

“Oh yeah?” the tall girl shot back. “We’re the ones who can use a cop. You accuse us of theft with no evidence. D’you know what this means in America? It’s called slander, a crime. We can sue you.”

“Yeah, we’re gonna sue your pants off,” added the one in yellow.

Mayling looked confused, but Mr. Meng strolled up to them, his hands clasped behind his back. In an even voice he said to the girls, “Ladies, you mustn’t take advantage of us again. Please leave.”

“God, I’m so hungry! Why can’t we just have a little bite?” persisted the shorter one in yellow.

Mayling roared, “Get the hell outta here, you robber! We don’t want to serve you.”

“How dare you call us that?”

“You are robber. You rob us. What else you are? If you want to eat here again, give us thirty-seven dollars you didn’t pay.”

“C’mon. Like I said, you’re talking to the wrong people.” The tall girl put on a suave smile. “Did you ever see this pair of sunglasses before?”

“No, but I remember your earring.”

“Give me a break. Lots of women wear this type of earrings. You can get these at Macy’s for eighteen bucks.”

Mr. Meng said again, “We have kept a record—your car’s plate number is 895 NTY, right?”

“Yes,” Mayling picked up. “If you don’t go away now, I call Officer Steve again, and you can’t see your mama tonight.”

The girls both gave a gasp. Observing them from where I sat, I wanted to laugh but checked myself. The one in yellow grasped her friend’s elbow and said, “Come, let’s get out of here. This is nuts.”

They both went out, teetering in wedge heels toward their scarlet coupe, their purses flapping. As they were pulling away, both Ah Min and I stood to look at the license plate, which matched the number Mr. Meng had declared.

“Bravo!” my coworker cried.

“Wow, that was extraordinary,” I told my teacher.

Michael Chian, Mayling’s husband, had witnessed the scene, but was unable to put in a word the whole while. Now he kept saying to Mr. Meng, “Amazing. You remembered their plate number, tsk tsk tsk. I can never do that, not even if you beat me to death.”

Later Mr. Meng told me in private that he had just snuck out and looked at the license plate while Mayling and the girls were quarreling. That cracked me up. Indeed, he was a clever man, worldly wise.

His resourcefulness impressed his boss so much that Michael offered him the manager’s position at the new place in upper Manhattan that the Chians were about to open, but Mr. Meng said he was too old for a job like that.

One night in the following week he returned with a copy of Big Apple Journal, a local Chinese-language newspaper, and slapped it on the dining table. “Damn Michael, he blabbed to some reporter about the two shameless girls!”

I looked through the short article, which gave a pretty accurate account of the incident and described Mr. Meng as “Professor Liu.” Lucky for him, he’d been using an alias all along. I put down the paper and said, “It’s no big deal. Nobody can tell you’re the wizard with an elephant’s memory.” I knew he feared that the consulate might pick up his trail.

He said, “You don’t know how long the officials can stretch their tentacles. I’ve heard that this newspaper is financed by the mainland government.”

“Still, it’s unlikely they can connect ‘Professor Liu’ with you.”

“I hope you’re right,” he sighed.

But I was not right. Three days later the phone was ringing when I came back from work. I rushed to pick it up, panting a little. The caller, in a mellifluous voice, said he was Vice Consul Gao in charge of education and cultural exchanges. He wanted me to come over to the consulate. Flabbergasted, I tried to keep a cool head, though my temples were throbbing. I told him, “When I was there last time, I was not allowed to set foot inside the building and someone on your staff even called me a gasbag. I was so mortified I thought I’d never go there again.”

“Comrade Hongfan Wang, I personally invite you this time. Come and see me tomorrow.”

“I’ll have to work.”

“How about the day after tomorrow? That’s Saturday.”

“I’m not sure if I can do that. I’ll have to speak to my boss first. What’s this about, Consul Gao?”

“We would like to know if you have some information on your teacher Fuhua Meng’s whereabouts.”

“What? You mean he disappeared?”

“We just want to know where he is.”

“I don’t have the foggiest idea. The last time I saw him was at Columbia, where we visited Professor Natalie Simon.”

“That we know.”

“Then I have nothing else to report, I’m sorry.”

“Comrade Hongfan Wang, you must level with me, with your motherland.”

“I told you the truth.”

“All right, let me know when you can come.”

I said I’d phone him after speaking to my boss. Hanging up, I couldn’t stop fidgeting. Whenever I had to deal with those officials, I felt helpless. I knew they might view me as an accomplice in Mr. Meng’s case and might give me endless trouble in the future. Perhaps I wouldn’t be able to get my passport renewed.

That night when I told my teacher about the phone call, he didn’t show much emotion. He merely said, “I knew all along they were on my trail. I’m sorry to have dragged you into my trouble, Hongfan. You must be careful from now on.”

“I know they may have put me on their list as well. But they can’t do much to me as long as I live here legally. What are you going to do?”

“I can’t stay in New York anymore. In fact, I’ve been in touch with a friend of mine in Mississippi. He opened a restaurant there and asked me to go down and work for him.”

“That’s a good idea. You should live in a remote place where the officials can’t find you. At least stay there for a year or two.”

“Yes, I’ll live in complete obscurity, dead to the world. I won’t go to Panda Terrace tomorrow. Can you return my uniform for me and tell Mayling and Michael that I’m no longer here?”

“Well, I shouldn’t do that because they could easily guess I know where you are, and then the consulate might demand a tip from me.”

“Right. Forget about the uniform, then.”

He decided to leave for the South the next day, taking the Greyhound directly to Jackson. I supported his decision.

To my surprise, he pulled his suitcase out of the closet and opened it. He took out a big brown envelope stuffed with paper. “Hongfan,” he said with feeling, “you’re a good young man, one of my best students. Here are some articles on Hemingway I brought out with me. I planned to translate them into English and publish them as a book with a title like Hemingway in China, and to be honest, also as a way to make some money and fame. Now I’m no longer in a position to work on this project, so I’m leaving these papers with you. I’m sure you can make good use of them.”

He was tearful as he placed the envelope in front of me. I put my hand on it but didn’t pull out the contents. I was familiar with most of those articles published in the professional journals over the years and knew they were poorly written and ill-informed. Few of them could be called scholarly papers. Had Mr. Meng rendered them into English, they’d have amounted to an embarrassment to those so-called scholars, some of whom had never read Hemingway in the English, except for the bilingual edition of The Old Man and the Sea. They’d written about his fiction mainly in accordance with reviews and summaries provided by official periodicals. Few of them really understood Hemingway. Before I read The Sun Also Rises in the original, it had never occurred to me that Hemingway was funny, because the wordplay and jokes were lost in translation. I was positive that no publisher in the United States would be interested in bringing these useless articles out in English. It was foolish for Mr. Meng to have conceived such a secretive project and to assume that one could make fortune and fame with it. All the same, I told him, “Thank you very much for trusting me.”

He then handed me a bundle of cash, more than $1,100, and asked me to send it to his wife. I promised to mail her a check in my name.

He sighed and said our paths would cross someday. He stood, then went into the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash before going to bed. The next day would be a long day for both of us.

I’ve never seen him again since, nor do I know where he is now. For two decades I’ve moved from one state to another and never returned to China. Eventually I lost those Hemingway papers. But I remember that it was on the day Mr. Meng left New York that I sat down at night and began my first novel in English.