An English Professor

FINALLY RUSHENG TANG COULD RELAX, having turned in the materials for his tenure evaluation—three large files, one for research, the second for teaching, and the third for service. To get the promotion after being an assistant professor for seven years, he had to be excellent in one of the three areas and very good in the other two. Among the three, research was the most important, though his school was basically a teaching college. He was neither an exceptional teacher nor had he done a lot of service. He’d sat on two departmental committees and each spring helped run the students’ writing contest. In research he didn’t excel either, but he was lucky because a manuscript of his had recently been accepted by the SUNY Press. The monograph would be a slender volume on some divisions between male and female Asian American writers. It was not a substantial piece of scholarship, but the editor at the press had written to assure him that they would bring out the book the next spring—a year from now. Rusheng made a copy of the official letter and included it in his research file. He had already started on a second book, which was about the use of cultural heritages among Asian American authors, and he had even placed the first chapter of this project with a journal. Some of his tenured colleagues, especially the few who had begun teaching three decades before, had never published a book, and so Rusheng felt he was was in decent shape—his case should be solid.

He went to Whitney Hall, where he was teaching his immigrant literature course this semester. On this day, a Thursday, the class was discussing America Is in the Heart, by Carlos Bulosan. Rusheng spoke at length about the problems involved in choosing the form of fiction or that of nonfiction. Bulosan originally wrote his story as a novel, but the press persuaded him to publish it as a memoir. The same thing happened to other books by Asian American authors—for instance, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. That was why the writer Frank Chin claimed: “The yellow autobiography is a white racist form.” To what extent can Chin’s assertion be justified? Rusheng asked the class. And what are the fundamental differences between the memoir and the novel? What are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing in either form? The students were stimulated by the questions and even argued with one another.

A good class was gratifying to Rusheng, but this didn’t happen very often. Most times he felt as frustrated as if he were singing to the deaf. Sometimes he couldn’t help but smirk cynically in class. At the end of the previous semester a student had written in a course evaluation: “Professor Tang seemed to despise us. He often laughed at us when we said something he disliked.” This semester Rusheng had been more careful about his demeanor and refrained from chuckling in front of his class. He understood that a professor was like an entertainer, obliged to make his students feel good, but he had yet to learn how to please them without revealing his effort. However, he was pretty sure that his course evaluations would be better this time around. That would demonstrate to the senior faculty that he’d been making progress in teaching.

After the class, nobody showed up during his office hours, so he left work at four p.m. On his way to the subway station he ran into Nikki, a popular teacher and an advocate for his promotion in the department; a tall black woman, she always wore a checkered headscarf and gemstone earrings at work and spoke and laughed in a hearty voice. Rusheng told her that he had just submitted his materials.

“Wow, you’re quick,” Nikki said. “If I were you, I would’ve waited until the last day. But it doesn’t matter, I guess. Did you go over everything a couple of times before you handed them in?”

“I did.”

“No typos, no inconsistencies?” she asked half jokingly. Two dimples appeared on her cheeks.

“I proofread everything.”

“Now you can relax and wait for good news.”

“Thank you for all the help, Nikki.”

Although he assured her that he had carefully reviewed his materials, he felt a little uneasy. He’d gone over the research and the service files three times, but he had proofread the teaching file only once. He hoped there weren’t any typos or slips in it. The deadline was the next Monday, March 31, and Nikki was right about keeping everything in his hands until the very last moment. He should have waited a few extra days. After dinner, Rusheng felt more agitated. While his wife was watching a Japanese show, Under the Same Eaves, he retreated into his study and put on a jazz CD. The tumbling music floated up. He flicked on his computer, accessed his teaching file, and began reviewing it. Everything was fine—the writing was not terribly brisk, but clean and lucid; he should feel confident about it. But coming to the end of the long report, he noticed the phrase “Respectly yours.”

With a sagging heart he pulled one dictionary after another from his bookcase. None of them listed “respectly” as a word. Webster’s gave “respectfully” as the right usage, and so did the American Heritage. How about “respectedly”? he asked himself. Can you put “Respectedly yours” at the end of a letter? That must be all right. He vaguely remembered seeing such an expression in a bilingual dictionary—but which one? He couldn’t recall. That must have been the source from which he had inadvertently derived “respectly.” Oh, how silly the error looked on paper!

What to do? Should he inform Nikki of this mistake? No, that would amount to advertising his stupidity and ineptitude. But what if the whole department, not to mention the college tenure committee, saw the blunder? People wouldn’t treat it as a mere typo or slip. It was a glaring solecism that indicated his incompetence in English. If he were in science or sociology or even comparative literature, the consequences of the mistake would have been less dire. But for an English professor, this was unforgivable, regardless of his sophisticated use of various methodologies to analyze a literary text. People would shake their heads and say that an English professor must at least be able to write decent English.

Worse was the thought of what a spiteful colleague might do. Rusheng knew some of the other professors had had misgivings about his ability all along. He spoke English with a heavy accent and didn’t know how to praise a book or an author that he didn’t like. He had once offended Gary Kalbfelt, the Melville expert in the department, by saying Moby-Dick was as clumsy as a deformed whale. Peter Johnson, the chairman, had never liked him, perhaps because Rusheng had been hired when Johnson was on sabbatical. He had expressed his doubts about Rusheng’s adequacy as a teacher at his fourth-year review. Fortunately, Nikki had stuck up for him and convinced their colleagues that he’d been making a name in the field of Asian American literary studies. That was true to some degree, since he had often given talks at conferences. But this time it would be different—Nikki was just an associate professor, not powerful enough to sway full professors in the matter of awarding tenure. Rusheng was worried that Johnson might exploit his mistake to ruin him.

He paced up and down his study for a long time, thinking about how to make amends. The jazz had stopped a while ago, but he wasn’t aware of the silence. Try as he might, he couldn’t come up with a solution. When he finally went into the bedroom, his wife, Sherry, was already asleep, with a comforter over her belly and her right leg on his side of the bed. Carefully he lifted her foot, with its henna-painted toenails, straightened her leg, and moved it back to her side. Then he got into bed. He exhaled a deep sigh, and she murmured something and smiled, licking her lower lip. He observed her round face, which was still youthful, her small mouth ajar. The moment he switched off the light, her hand listlessly landed on his chest. She mumbled, “Let me try that blouse on, the flowered one. So beautiful.”

He removed her hand and went on thinking about his mistake. He decided to go to the department first thing the next morning to retrieve his teaching file. It should still be there. Unlike his research materials, which had to be duplicated for the many outside reviewers, the teaching file would stay in the department, because that evaluation was to be done only by his colleagues. He shut his eyes in hopes that sleep would come soon.

Sherry sensed Rusheng’s gloominess the next morning. She put a bowl of steaming oatmeal before him and asked, “What’s wrong? You look so down.”

“I had a bad night.”

Sometimes he was insomniac, so she didn’t ask further. “Take a short nap in your office before you go to class, dear,” she told him.

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

“I’ll be back late this evening. Molin’s gonna play at Four Seas Pavilion, and I’ll have to be there.”

“All right. I’ll pick up something for dinner for myself.”

Molin was Sherry’s younger brother, a clarinetist in a local band that often performed at hotels and restaurants. He was only twenty-six, five years younger than Sherry, and still trying to figure out what to do with his life. Born in Hawaii, sister and brother had grown up in Hong Kong but came to New York four years earlier, in 1993. Sherry had been instructed by their parents to take care of him. Rusheng didn’t mind his wife’s spending a lot of time with Molin. He liked his brother-in-law and often went to his performances, but today, even though it was Friday, he had no appetite for the wild music Molin’s band played.

Done with breakfast, he set out for work. On the train he forced himself to go over his notes for the composition class, which he’d taught so many times that he could do it without much preparation. Despite his effort to concentrate, his thoughts kept moving beyond his control. He was anxious to get to the department office before the others.

But upon arriving, he found Carrie, the secretary, and Peter Johnson already there. Rusheng hurried into the small reading room where the evaluation materials were kept for the tenured professors to check out. To his horror, nothing remained on top of the metal cabinet. He came out and asked Carrie what had happened to his files. With an eye screwed up, she said, “We made copies of them for the senior faculty.”

“You mean they have started reviewing them?”

“Yep. They have to do that for the meeting, you know.”

A swoon almost made him fall down, but he collected himself. At this point Johnson stepped out of his office. He was a Victorianist, spindly-legged with a small paunch hanging over his belt; a colossal pair of steel-rimmed bifocals sat on his hooked nose, covering almost half his face. He greeted Rusheng and winked quizzically, but before the junior professor could say anything, the chairman was already out the door with a thick anthology tucked under his arm. Apparently he was heading for a class, yet his odd manner unnerved Rusheng, who watched the man saunter away down the hall. Rusheng’s stomach fluttered. Why wouldn’t Johnson speak to him? The chairman must have noticed his use of “respectly”!

Rusheng hurried to his own office and locked the door. Except for when he had to teach his composition class, he stayed in the cell-like room all day, brooding about his predicament. Now the whole department must have seen that hideous word, and he had become a laughingstock for sure. Even Nikki might not be able to defend him anymore. What should he do? Who could help him? Never had he felt so powerless.

In recent years he’d been writing a column for the Chinese-language Global Weekly on English grammar and usage. If denied tenure, he would become a joke, not only in the college but also to the Chinese community that knew him as an expert. His reputation would crumble. People would gloat over his misfortune, especially those who resented his negative view of contemporary Chinese arts. If only he hadn’t been so careless and so impatient. How true the saying was: “Nothing but your own stupidity can undo you.”

Unable to hold in the secret any longer, on Saturday he confessed to Sherry. She was unsettled, because by nature Rusheng was a careful man, sometimes even overcautious. They were seated on the sectional sofa in their living room. Molin was also there, and he was lounging on a bamboo chair in a corner. He wore cutoff jeans and a red undershirt. He was reading a comic book and eating chocolate-coated raisins. Rusheng asked Sherry, “Do you think I should talk to Nikki?”

“She must have seen it.”

“I’ve never felt this low in my life. If only I had changed fields in ′89.” He was remembering the summer when he had wondered if he should abandon his dissertation and go to law or business school like many of his fellow Chinese graduate students.

“Rusheng, you worry too much,” Molin jumped in, combing his dyed yellow hair with his fingers. “Look at me—I’ve never had a full-time job, but I’m still surviving, breathing like everyone else. You should learn how to take it easy and enjoy life.”

“I’m in a different situation, Molin,” Rusheng sighed. “So many people know me that it will be a scandal if I get fired. I wish I could play an instrument like you, pick up cash wherever I am.”

“I just don’t believe your career will be over,” Sherry said. “How many people have degrees from both Beijing University and Harvard?”

“In America a degree from a top school can help you land a job or join a club, but beyond that you still have to prove yourself and work hard to succeed.” He wanted to add that his degrees were in the humanities, hardly worth anything, but he checked himself, knowing that she had agreed to marry him largely because he was a rising scholar in her eyes, and that her parents had approved their marriage thanks to his two glittering diplomas, which could have been worth a lot indeed if he were in Hong Kong or mainland China.

“Look at it this way,” Sherry went on. “What’s tenure? It’s just a work permit that allows you to make fifty grand a year.”

Rusheng frowned, then conceded. “Right. I should be able to do something else for a living.”

He remained preoccupied for the whole weekend, often imagining what other kind of work he might try. When he considered how he might explain his failure to his Chinese friends, who held him in respect, he found himself at a loss. Maybe the truth was best, no matter how humiliating.

Sherry had to finish sewing an opera costume for a client, but she urged him to go to the movies or have tea with a friend. Instead he stayed home, riffling through some small magazines, none of which was interesting enough to distract him from his anxieties. The Singer sewing machine whirred in the other room, and that too somehow depressed him.

It was already mid-April, only three weeks before the semester ended. But how slowly time was creeping! Rusheng was often absentminded; in class his thoughts would wander and he would fail to hear his students’ questions and comments. When he responded to them, he spoke as if by rote. He no longer assigned homework. This semester could be his last: he knew that even if the school refused him tenure, he’d be permitted to teach another year, but the prospect was too humiliating. When he ran into his colleagues, he would avoid speaking with them at length; he felt as if their eyes were boring into him for all his secrets. Nikki once chuckled, “Wake up, Rusheng. Are you suffering from sleep deficiency or something?”

He replied, “I’m on a deadline for a paper and didn’t hit the sack until after midnight.”

He and Sherry had talked about the next year. She suggested that he look for a job at another college, but he wouldn’t do that, saying he would become a kind of pariah that few schools would be interested in hiring. He preferred to do something else, even though he might have to start from scratch.

One day, while having a drink with an editor of the Global Weekly, Rusheng asked whether he might work for the newspaper, knowing it was advertising for an opening in its editorial department. The man, named Eujin, shook his double chin. “No, no, Rusheng, if I were you, I wouldn’t even think about it.”

“I’m just tired of academia. I want a change.”

“People always feel that other hills are higher than the one they’re sitting on. Frankly, I envy your ability to make a living with English. Unlike you, I’m trapped in Chinese. I’m a senior editor at the paper—the highest-paid editor—and I make only twenty-six thousand dollars a year.” Eujin paused, then continued, “How much does an associate professor make?”

“Around fifty-five grand, I guess.”

“See the difference?” Eujin put a handful of salted peanuts into his mouth, munching noisily, a bit of beer froth on his graying mustache. “Do you know how I feel about the difference between you and me?”

“I’ve no clue. Tell me.”

“I feel I’m still in the yuan system, even though I’ve lived and worked in the United States for more than two decades. Rusheng, you’re already in the dollar system. You mustn’t think about working for any newspaper if it’s not printed in English.”

Rusheng couldn’t explain his plight to Eujin. He promised him to continue contributing his weekly column on English idioms and pitfalls, which Eujin said people loved to read.

Early the following week Rusheng came across an advertisement for sales representatives for a publishing company. Though he didn’t feel he could make a successful salesman, he called the number in the ad, and a cheerful-voiced man told him to come in for a preliminary interview on Thursday afternoon, at three.

Two days later Rusheng showed up at the office on Roosevelt Avenue. The man receiving him was thin but broad-framed, with a mop of sandy hair; he introduced himself as Alex and held out his hand, which felt flaccid when Rusheng shook it. He gave Alex his résumé, which presented him as a part-time English instructor and didn’t mention his PhD from Harvard. As the man skimmed the vita, his face widened and his hazel eyes lit up. “I was an English major. I love the classics, especially The Iliad. I still read every new translation that comes out.”

“It’s a great poem,” Rusheng said in surprise. Seldom had he run into a literary person outside the college, save for the editors at the Global Weekly. He went on, “Nowadays people talk so much about democracy and justice, but in fact most of the ideas are already in Homer.”

“Exactly. What do you teach?” Alex placed the résumé on his desk.

“American literature.”

“Do you teach Steinbeck?”

“Sometimes. I’ve taught Of Mice and Men.”

“I love his books, East of Eden, particularly.” Alex’s enthusiasm discomfited Rusheng—he knew that most modernists disliked Steinbeck.

Alex then said Rusheng was qualified and invited him to attend an acceptance meeting in White Plains on Saturday. The interview had lasted only about ten minutes, as apparently Alex had to meet someone else. He wished Rusheng the best of luck.

Coming out of the building, Rusheng thought about becoming a salesman. It wouldn’t be bad. Alex seemed to be cheerful and had his own office in the center of Flushing, even a secretary. Maybe if he, Rusheng, worked hard, someday he too could have that kind of confident body language, minus the weak handshake. But White Plains was far away. He’d have to take the train to get there, which meant the whole day would be gone. Still, he didn’t have a choice.

That night he talked to Sherry about his interview. She encouraged him to attend the meeting, saying he should try a few things to see what suited him best. He told himself a salesman could make a good living, and that this is America, where there’s no high or low among all professions as long as you can draw a fat paycheck.

The daylong acceptance meeting was held at the Ramada Inn, and Rusheng arrived fifteen minutes late. About twenty applicants were present, a third of them women; and each was given a glossy blue folder containing half a dozen handouts, a pencil, and a lined notepad. The speaker was an expert salesman, round-shouldered and hawkeyed; his hips leaned against a table as he talked about how to persuade potential customers to buy the product, The Universal Encyclopedia. Beside him was a whole set of the books, twenty-six volumes in three stacks. Now and again he’d pick up one to show the high quality of the print. According to him, a salesperson would get paid a commission of twenty-five percent of the list price. A whole set sold for $650, which meant you could get $162.50 from every sale.

“Imagine you make five or six sales a week,” the man continued. “That would be a substantial income for anyone. The beauty of this job is that you can set your own schedule and there’s no boss to keep tabs on you. You can work ten hours a week, or twenty hours, or sixty hours. It’s entirely up to you, although you’ll need a car for transporting the product.”

That wouldn’t be a problem for Rusheng, since Sherry had a car. A few applicants raised questions, and the salesman told them that he had been in this business for eighteen years and loved it. As he spoke, his broad cheeks twitched as if to force down a grin. Rusheng couldn’t help but wonder if the man was telling them the truth.

Since most of the attendees had come from New York City, the company offered them free lunch at the hotel. They went into the dining room, with its French doors facing onto an oval pool. A breeze crinkled the water now and again. Rusheng sat next to a short, roly-poly man named Billy. As they ate chicken breast, steamed broccoli, and whole-wheat rolls, the two of them got into a conversation. The ruddy-faced Billy said he was a pastor but enjoyed selling the encyclopedias on the side. “Actually, I sold two sets last week,” he said in a warm voice.

“Did you work hard to make the sales?” Rusheng asked.

“Not really. I just brought the first volume with me when I went to visit some families in my parish. They were pleased to buy the whole set, because they have school-age kids who can use the encyclopedia for their homework. What do you do, Rusheng?”

“I teach at a college.”

“Part-time or full-time?”

“Full-time.” Rusheng dropped his voice a little.

“That means you’re a professor.”

“Sort of.”

“To be honest, if I were you, I wouldn’t bother with this sales job.”

“How come?”

Billy burped, then lowered his voice to a whisper. “A lot of the information in the encyclopedia will be available online soon. In a couple of years nobody will want to have such a big set of books at home anymore. I bet even the publisher won’t reprint the thing again. What we’re selling must be the remainder. You can’t take this job as a profession.”

“Then why are you in it?”

“I’m doing it just for fun, to make a bit of cash for my church.”

Rusheng didn’t return to the afternoon session, leaving his blue folder on a coffee table in the lobby. He stepped out of the hotel and headed for the train station in the warm sun, wearing a blue T-shirt with his button-down shirt tied around his waist. His lean body cast a squat shadow at a slant.

•    •    •

The semester was coming to an end. Rusheng graded papers. He could hardly concentrate, but he kept reminding himself that these were the final batch. Afterward, he wouldn’t have to read this sort of garbage anymore. “You’ll be liberated soon,” he told himself. Yet whenever the foreboding of his imminent humiliation came to mind, a pang would seize his heart. Recently he’d been thinking of the Buddhist temple near Niagara Falls, on the Canadian side. He’d visited two years before and had a wonderful time there, conversing with a short-bearded monk while drinking chrysanthemum tea and cracking spiced pumpkin seeds. The night he spent at the temple’s inn was the most peaceful time in his life. It wasn’t just peace that he enjoyed there—he felt clear-minded for days after. If not married, he would go there again to see if they would accept him. They might, since he could be useful, at least as an English translator and literary pundit. How he was longing to settle in some place where nobody knew about his past.

Then, one evening in mid-May, Sherry came home with shiny cheeks and smiling eyes. She waved a letter at Rusheng and trilled, “Great news!”

“What?” he grunted, not in any mood for levity.

“You got tenure.”

“Really? You’ve got to be kidding me.” He stood but didn’t move, his slightly bulging eyes fixed on her.

She stepped over and handed him the letter from Peter Johnson. Rusheng skimmed through the chairman’s writing, which said:

Dear Professor Rusheng Tang,

I am delighted to inform you that our department voted to promote you to associate professor with tenure. We appreciate your accomplishment as a scholar and your devotion to teaching, and we believe you are an invaluable asset to our department …

Johnson went on to explain that the promotion still must be reviewed and approved by the college, but he also said that would be a formality, because to his knowledge the dean had never overruled one of their department’s tenure decisions. After reading the heartwarming letter, Rusheng was still rooted, as if in a trance. He wasn’t sure if he could believe what the chairman had written.

“What’s wrong?” Sherry asked. “You’re not pleased?”

“If the department voted to grant me tenure, Nikki would be the first one to notify me.”

“Read the letter again. They held the meeting the day before yesterday.”

“Still, this information shouldn’t have come from Peter Johnson first. He can’t bear the sight of me. You know that.”

“You’re too paranoid. Johnson wouldn’t dare to pull a prank like this on you. Give Nikki a call and find out if it’s true.”

“All right.”

He dialed Nikki’s number, and at the third ring her carefree voice came up. When he mentioned his misgivings, she laughed. “Of course it’s true,” she assured him.

He wondered why she hadn’t told him, but he didn’t come out and ask her. Then she added, “Peter was quick. He was supportive this time.”

“Oh, I didn’t expect such an upshot.”

“You earned it, Rusheng. I planned to call you yesterday, but my daughter was leaving for a Scholar Bowl tournament today, so I was busy helping her pack. Then, after seeing her off this afternoon, I was stopped on the way home by a friend I hadn’t seen for years. So I came back late and meant to call you tonight. Sorry I wasn’t the messenger of the good news, but I’m really, really happy for you. In fact, except for three or four people, our whole department supported you. Yours is a strong case, and I’m sure the dean will approve it. You should celebrate, Rusheng.”

Before hanging up he thanked her and said he would let her know the date for his celebratory party. Finally he was convinced. Oh, sometimes even good old Homer nods—how absentminded those erudite professors could grow when they devoted themselves to their magnificent papers and books, preoccupied heart and soul with all the marvelous, cutting-edge theories, like intertexuality, polyphonic narratology, deconstruction, and new historicism. They’d never even noticed a simple wrong word, “respectly.”

“I’m tenured, wow, I’m tenured!” Rusheng cried out. He rushed over to his wife and grabbed her by the waist, swinging her around and around and around.

“Put me down! Put me down!” she shrieked.

So he did. “I’m tenured. Wow, I don’t have to worry about being fired anymore. I’m a real professor now! This can happen only in America!”

“And you’ll get a big raise.”

Suddenly he burst into laughter. He laughed and laughed until he doubled over, until Sherry began slapping his back to relieve his coughing. Then, straightening up, he broke out singing “Born to Be Wild,” a song Molin’s band often performed.

“Born to be wild!” Rusheng chanted, stunning his wife.

Not knowing the whole song, he went on belting out the refrain with garbled words: “Born to be happy! Born to succeed!”

“Calm down, calm down!” his wife pleaded. But he wouldn’t stop giggling and kept chanting, “What a wonderful world! Born to be tenured! Born to stand out!”

Sherry picked up the phone and dialed a number. “Molin, come over quickly. Rusheng has lost his mind … No, he’s not violent. We just heard he got tenure and he was shocked by the good news. Come and help me calm him down.”

A few moments later Molin arrived. Rusheng was still singing, though he spewed out snatches of Beijing opera now: “Today I’m drinking a bowl poured by my mother / Ah, the wine makes me bold and strong …”

“Give him some Benadryl,” Molin told Sherry. He pulled Rusheng up from the sofa and guided him away to the bedroom.

No sooner had Rusheng sat down on the bed than his wife came with a cup of warm water and two caplets. She made him swallow the soporific, then sister and brother put him into bed. A film of sweat glistened on his domed forehead. She threw a blanket over him and said, “You must have some sleep, dear.”

Rusheng was still humming something, but his voice was subdued, and his exhaustion was now apparent. Sherry dimmed the light on the nightstand and went out with her brother. “What should I do if he goes hysterical again? Take him to the hospital?” she asked Molin.

“Wait and see. He may become himself again tomorrow.”

“I hope so,” she sighed.