(Copyright Ryan Pyle/Corbis)
By Ha Jin
Sunday, July 13, 2008

In college, English meant humiliation to me. When I was assigned to major in the language in 1977 at Heilongjiang University, I knew only dozens of English words and was put in the lowest class, where I stayed four years. We were the first group of undergraduates admitted through the entrance exams after the Cultural Revolution, after colleges had been closed for a decade. There was no hope for a late starter like me to catch up with the students in the faster English classes, so I kind of gave up and avoided

working hard on my English. But in 1980, writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow and Malamud suddenly became immensely popular in China after American literature had mostly been banned for three decades. I was fascinated by their fiction: Their literary subject matter was not confined to politics and social movements, as it was in China, and the techniques they used -- such as stream of consciousness and multiple narrative points of view -- were unheard of to me. I made up my mind to study American literature after college. For that, I would have to pass an advanced English test, so I began applying myself.

In 1982, I got into the graduate program in American literature at Shandong University, but I was not a good student -- at least, my professor didn't like me, probably because I married in my first year there when I was supposed to concentrate on my studies. There were only three graduate students in my year, and we had American professors teaching us most of the time. Back then, no doctoral degree in our field was offered in China, so the only way to continue my graduate work was to go abroad. Beatrice Spade, my American literature professor, encouraged me to apply to some U.S. universities, and in the winter of 1984, I started sending out applications.

The next spring, Brandeis University, which I knew nothing about and which had been recommended to me by Prof. Spade, notified me of my admission and offered me a scholarship, but I wasn't very excited. I was 28, and unable to imagine living outside of China.

Since childhood, I had lived a peripatetic life, most of the time separated from my parents, so I was quite independent. But the United States was so far away and so enigmatic that ever since I had started the application, I had been possessed by a restless emotion, as if I was about to fall ill. The previous October, Prof. Spade had introduced me to a group of top American scholars in a delegation that visited our university. They were staying at a hotel in Jinan City, and I spoke with Prof. Alan Trachtenberg, the head of American studies at Yale, for a preliminary interview. I was a bundle of nerves, and when he asked if I had questions for him, I blurted out, "I don't know if I can survive in America." The question, more existential than literal, must have been tormenting me for months and just gushed out. Prof. Trachtenberg's eyes flashed behind his glasses -- he was surprised, but there was no way for me to clarify, to say that physically I could survive for sure, but that I was more concerned about my quest for a meaningful existence, which I had no idea how to accomplish in the United States.

So, I blew my opportunity with Yale. I had my scholarship from Brandeis, though, and now I had to get permission from my university to go abroad. That meant I would have a J-1 visa that required its holder to return after graduation. To me, this was no problem, as I viewed my studies in America as no more than a sojourn. Besides, the authorities, to prevent me from defecting, would not allow my wife and child to go with me, so I would have to return anyway, the sooner, the better.

A schoolmate, Yafei, and I were allowed to leave together. He was going to MIT to study linguistics. After mid-August, we went to Beijing to go through a few days of "the training," which was more like a formality consisting of speeches given by officials and brief introductions to the United States.

One of the officials, a squat, smiling man, told us to be careful about sexual contact with foreigners and not to catch VD, but he also said, "It's understandable if you have a fling with someone when you are there, because we are not puritans."

Everything went smoothly in Beijing, except that three days before our scheduled departure, we were informed that the plane tickets were no longer available, though our school had paid for them long before. Apparently, our tickets had been given to "more important people." Desperate, Yafei contacted a distant relative who had some pull with the airport. To get the tickets, we would have to give the man some brand-name cigarettes. His wife was fond of 555's, and we decided to offer him two cartons. I didn't smoke and had no idea where to buy the foreign cigarettes, which regular stores didn't carry. Yafei, always resourceful, got them without difficulty, and we split the cost, each paying 30 yuan, almost half our monthly salary. We took a bus to the man's home to hand him the bribe. He met us in the doorway of his apartment and gave us the plane tickets after taking the cigarettes. Though he didn't let us in, through a narrow pane of glass on a door I caught a glimpse of his wife lying in bed smoking. On our way back to our dorm, Yafei said that the woman's father was a high-ranking official. Years later, whenever I thought of going back to China, the image of the young woman with a haggard face and bedraggled hair smoking expensive cigarettes would come to mind and make me wince.

Yafei and I boarded a plane without anyone seeing us off. I had never flown before, so the shifting and tilting cityscape of Beijing viewed from the air was exhilarating. However, the Boeing had a peculiar smell that nauseated us. It was a typical American odor, sharp and artificial, like a combination of chemicals and perfumes. Even lunch, Parmesan chicken and salad, tasted strange and gave off the same awful smell. I would find it everywhere in America, even on vegetables and fruits in supermarkets, but in a week or so I would get used to it, unable to detect it anymore.

Prof. Peter Swiggart, a middle-aged man with chestnut hair and a roundish, good-natured face, was assigned by the international program at Brandeis to be my host, so he agreed to pick me up at Logan International Airport.

The moment I sat in the passenger seat of his car, he told me to "buckle up." I had no clue what he was talking about. He pulled his seat belt; still, I didn't know how to use mine, never having seen one in a car before. I thought to myself, This is like a ride on a plane. That was the only connection I could make with the seat belt. Prof. Swiggart helped me push the buckle into the slot.

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