NAN liked the job at the factory. He worked at night and on weekends when all the machines stopped and the workshops were closed. There was another watchman, Larry, a spindly student majoring in thanatology at Mount Ida College. He and Nan rotated. On Nan ‘s first day Larry told him, “I can’t hack it anymore, have to quit one of these days.” Indeed the fellow looked sickly and shaggy, his face always covered in sweat, but he never missed his shift.
Once an hour, the watchman had to walk through the three workshops and the warehouse to make sure everything was all right. There were sixteen keys affixed to the walls and the wooden pillars inside the factory, and he had to carry a clock to those spots, insert the keys into it, and turn them, so that the next morning Don could read the record. As long as the clock showed enough of the hourly marks, Don would be satisfied.
Usually a round took Nan about fifteen minutes; after that he could stay in the lab upstairs, doing whatever he liked. A black-and-white TV sat on a long worktable strewn with pinking shears, large scissors, rulers, red and blue markers, and bolts of waterproof cloth of various colors. If he got tired of reading, he’d watch television. On weekends he could go up to the rooftop and stay in the open air. Behind the factory, close to the base of the two-story building, flowed a branch of the Charles. The green water looked stagnant; it was quite narrow, no more than a hundred feet wide, but it was deep. Sometimes one or two anglers would come fishing on the bank, and Nan, not allowed to leave the building, would sit on the rooftop and watch them. Most of the time they caught bass, bluegill, perch, pumpkinseed, and smelts, but the water was so polluted that they always threw their catches back, even a thirty-pound carp Nan once saw a man drag ashore, its rotund body motionless while its slimy tail kept slapping the grass.
Between his rounds, Nan read a good deal, mainly poetry and novels, and if he didn’t read or watch TV, he let his thoughts roam. Recently many Chinese students in the humanities and social sciences, having realized they might have to live in the United States for good, had changed their fields in order to make themselves more marketable. Nan knew that some people who had been writing dissertations on Shakespeare or Dewey or Tocqueville had decided to go to business or law school. More amazing, in some cases their advisors encouraged them to switch fields and even wrote recommendations for them. Nan’s professor, Mr. Peterson, was different and said it was unfortunate that Nan would be leaving the Ph.D. program, because he believed Nan could have become an excellent political scientist if he had studied the subject devotedly. Professor Peterson even tried to dissuade him, but Nan wouldn’t change his mind.
Nan was determined to quit political science, but deep down he was disappointed about leaving academia. He had written to Professor Clifford Stevens at the University of Chicago to inquire about the possibility of doing graduate work in Chinese poetry or comparative poetics under his guidance, but he never heard a word from that distinguished scholar. Nowadays most American graduate schools were inundated with applications from China. Worse yet, after the Tiananmen massacre, the student enrollments in the Chinese language and studies had dropped so drastically that many American colleges had begun to scale down their Chinese programs. So, for the time being, there was no way Nan could study Chinese poetry.
Four years ago, a former professor of his in China had visited the United States as part of a Chinese delegation of American Studies, as an expert in U.S. political history because he had translated some essays by Thomas Jefferson. When his former teacher came to visit Harvard, Nan went to the Holiday Inn in Somerville to see him. The old man, beardless and browless like an albino, told Nan about his meeting with Professor Carolyn Barrow at Harvard. He said, “The old lady was very nice and gave me six of her books. Do you know her writings?”
“I read some of her papers. She’s well revered for her work in political theories.”
“I guessed that,” the teacher went on. “I gave her a stack of plates.”
“What do you mean?”
“I brought with me some fine porcelain, and I gave her eight pieces.” He smiled, his lips puckered.
That account had scandalized Nan. His old teacher hadn’t shown any trace of discomfort, as if the fact that his porcelain and Professor Barrow’s books were at least equal in monetary value had canceled all the difference in the nature of the two sets of presents. Nan was sure that some other Chinese scholars had done similar things. Without telling anybody, he had made up his mind that he’d write many books after he finished his Ph.D. and returned to his homeland to teach. Someday when he came to revisit the United States, he’d bring only his own works as gifts for American scholars. Yes, he’d write a whole shelf of books and would never subject himself to his teacher’s kind of disgrace.
Now that ambition, inflated with a sense of national pride, was gone. He might never go back to his native land, and it would be unimaginable for him to write scholarly books in English if he was no longer in academia. Worse, he had little passion left for any field of study except for poetry. But that was impossible for now.