The Shanghai Professor

We sometimes rent out an extra room, usually to grad students at our local university. Once or twice a year we take applications and show the room to prospective housemates. Fung looked the place over and before he left—because the rental market is tight—he said to me as a kind of parting appeal: “If I am fortunately live here, I teach your children Mandarin—free!” and he nodded quickly, his eyes squeezed shut by an overly bright smile. Later on, in the car, my 11-year-old daughter said from the back seat, “Dad, I don’t think he’s a good choice.”

“Why not?” I said. “He seems nice.”

“I know. I just don’t want to learn Mandarin.”

I looked at her in the rear-view mirror. “Oh, don’t worry, Sweetie,” I said, and I held her gaze to be sure she understood this point clearly: “None of us is going to learn Mandarin.”

Fung was visiting California from Shanghai, as an exchange professor of Graphic Communications. I figured that he had been vetted by the Chinese and U.S. governments and by the University. His school sponsor introduced him. He was thirty-two years old with a wife and toddler back home. He was a college professor even, not just a grad student. I also thought that having him around would be a good opportunity for all of us to learn something of another culture. So Fung moved into our extra room with a suitcase, a laptop, and a mattress he’d found on Craigslist.

When he came to the United States on his China-sponsored exchange professorship, the first thing Fung did was to get a U.S. driver’s license. I have no idea how he acquired it, because soon after he flopped his Craigslist mattress on the floor in his room I offered to let him drive us to a local baseball game. It was the last time he sat behind the wheel of my car because as soon as he turned right onto a busy street he drove for about six blocks going about seven miles per hour—I’m not kidding—with vehicles behind us locking up their brakes, looming large in the rear-view mirrors. “Faster!” I pleaded, “Go faster, Fung!” but his comfort zone was already maxed out.[1] He may have wondered why we never took him anywhere after that and the reasons are complicated.

One problem is Fung mistook us for something like a host family when we simply needed someone to share the rent. He taught the kids to make “cat-ear” pasta one Sunday at lunch, which was generous of him. The kids enjoyed it, but it didn’t mean they wanted to be his friend or his English tutors. Fung had no hesitation about interrupting the kids’ homework to ask them what something was called and how to spell it. He tried to be more a part of the family. Once he volunteered to help clean the house on a Saturday morning, saying, “It will be funny, I sink.” My daughter would correct him, irritated beyond her years. “Think, Fung, think!” We were pulling away from him. He had repeatedly ignored the advice we gave him to pronounce his “th” sounds properly and we took it badly. If he was interrupting us for tips in English, why wouldn’t he make use of them? (He could make that “th” sound just fine, by the way: he showed us.) We tried to train Fung like a dog by telling him he sounded very “American” when he pronounced things correctly. He seemed embarrassed at the compliment in an oh, go on kind of way, but he was also clearly delighted by the idea that his English could be so convincing. He didn’t make the “th” sound a habit, though. When we took time to answer his numerous questions about language he never self-corrected his polite “Okay, sank you.”

As far as I know Fung never learned the word “Hey” either, which to me is a perfect Americanism to adopt if you want to sound authentic. Instead Fung replaced Hey with Hi. So I’d come home and say, “Hi Fung.” He’d say, “Hi, Jim.” Then a minute later he’d say, “Hi, Jim?” So I’d say, “Hi, Fung?”, wondering what the game might be. Then he’d ask a great question like, “How much should I pay for car?” (It was only when he pressed them together that I understood that he meant “hey” instead of hi, as in, “Hey, Jim, how much should I pay for car?”) Hey vs. Hi and the subtleties of their common usage were eclipsed by the horrible realization that he was actually serious and by me hearing myself say, “No, Fung. Do not. Buy. A car.”

To him, our vowel sounds were like an accent. So the words, rib, rob, rub, were all the same. He might tell me for example, “This tonight I will go to my friend’s house we will cook pork robs.” “You mean pork ribs.” “Oh, okay,” he said, but his expression said, Quit nit-picking my accent—you know what I’m trying to say. Or he’d counter with, “How can you spell this word?” “R-i-b.” He’d look it up on his handy translator. “Oh, okay, I got. I got.” The electronic voice of a British woman would say “rib” through a teensy speaker hole. I came to like her presence in the house. While I was working at my desk Fung often sat behind me at the table, tapping on his laptop. The British Lady pronounced various words for him: “Vibrant. Mechanical. Pulp” she’d say. Or, “Hominy. Polyester. Quince.” Her performance brought to mind an open-mike poetry reading I attended once where a stoned kid read an entire menu from a Vietnamese restaurant; he introduced it to the audience as “the most beautiful poem” he’d ever heard.[2]

Nor could he be the quirky, comical, out-of-step sitcom character...

Perhaps I’d hoped Fung would be some kind of sophisticated and exotic accessory to our family. I thought he would be intellectual and studious and teach me interesting things about Graphic Communication. After he moved in, I would never have called him “sophisticated.” Nor could he be the quirky, comical, out-of-step sitcom character that would make the rest of us seem hip and self-congratulatory about our native citizenship. No, Fung was pleasant enough to have around, but we couldn’t really connect. Eventually we all stopped trying.

Fung told me he taught Photoshop in China. He translated some papers at the university here and he attended some lectures, but honestly, his exchange professorship looked more like a vacation to me. In the beginning he spent a lot of time on the internet, a trait I associate more with adolescents than adults. It made more sense to me when I remembered that our internet is a different world than Chinese internet. In fact, Fung said that until he arrived in the States he had never seen photos of the Tienanmen Square Protests of 1989. His laptop screen is where Fung focused a lot of his attention. I suppose after he’d seen the internet through American eyes he had pretty much seen it all and as weeks went by he gravitated to Chinese game shows, Chinese movies, and music videos. His face was placid and receptive in the glow of those programs. When his expression became serious and he leaned forward, frowning studiously at the screen I figured he was back at his graphic communications work. But it turned out he was only bargain shopping online: watches, GoPros, and iStuff.

Fung told me there are 24 million people in Shanghai. Very few of them have cars and, because space so limited, cars are quite a luxury. Almost anyone can afford a car, but to get a license for it? The government releases a small number of licenses every month and a car owner must hire a professional to access an EBay-like government website and continually bid upwards for his client. On average, the license plate is sold for four times the value of the car. “Twenty thousand,” Fung said, nodding gravely.

When he decided not to buy a car for his short visit in the States, Fung instead took a forty-dollar bicycle off a Chinese student’s hands. The great thing about his pre-owned bike is that I could hear Fung coming home from half a block away. His brakes sang not so much like a freight train’s wheels, but lower in pitch, as if someone were squeezing a goose like bagpipes.

Gradually I began to understand that Fung did not accurately represent all Chinese people or all professors or all grown-ups. One evening while I was showering, I heard Fung’s bicycle braking in the driveway. Then he started yelling up to the bathroom window, “Jeem!…Jeem! Are you fall sleep?” (What, asleep in the shower?) I figured he’d locked himself out. “Jeem!” he called. Well, the window in the shower is small and high up, so that to look out I would have had to grab the narrow windowsill with my fingertips and perch my toes on the teensy ledge of the tub. Then I’d have to pull myself up and hold on with wet hands and feet just to peek out the little screen window and answer him. But he kept yelling, “Jeem!” So I did. I got my chin up to the windowsill and looked down just in time to see Fung tripping over a low bush. He looked like a bumbling Chinese Chevy Chase trying to keep his balance while the handlebars of his bike got away from him and the bike light, which was mounted on the front, swerved around the porch and Fung wagged one arm, trying to save himself as he and the bicycle spun to the ground all together. I told him I’d come downstairs.

He was okay. He’d just forgotten his key.

“Jeem!...Jeem! Are you fall sleep?”

The sad thing is that his presence ultimately became annoying to us. Fung’s personal habits were jarring. Especially in mornings, but any time of day, he would suddenly clear his throat in such a grating way that it startled and irritated us. It put us on edge to hear a sound like that out of the blue, a loud hawking like the scrape of a flat-blade shovel across concrete. He made no attempt to be discreet about it. By my standards it was crass, plain and simple.

“My god,” I’d say to the kids. And when he was upstairs on the phone to China the rhythms and inflections of his speech in Mandarin sounded downright rude to my ears. It was loud without mirth, choppy and aggressive-sounding. His vowels slid like woozy bows on violin strings, sneering or whining, maybe, who knew? And those vowels were knotted together with rasping guttural fricatives that came across as derisive and dismissive to the person on the other end. All so overly loud. He had a conversation like this standing just outside our front door once. I’m sure plenty of neighbors could have heard him. When he hung up I asked him if everything was okay and he smiled, “Oh, yes. I speak with my father-in-law.” He seemed quite relaxed and good-natured, as though the conversation had cheered him up.

I assured the kids that all Chinese people eat differently than we do, too. I tried to sound breezy and non-judgmental about it, but inwardly I cringed every time Fung sat down to for a meal.

“Dad. Did you see him? He was eating pizza with chopsticks.”

Yeah, I saw that. Sandwiches, too. I didn’t pretend to the kids that I understood the logic behind tweezing a sandwich to eat it. That was strange, but soups and noodles were far more off-putting. In fact, I have never heard such exaggerated chomping.

But why am I being so hard on him? None of us eats noiselessly. I mean, whose is the correct etiquette? Is there a right and wrong volume when eating? Well, yes there is. It just depends on where you are. Fung chewed in a way that, with my eyes closed, I’d have sworn there was a St. Bernard eating from the table. Each time his sticks dredged up a clump of noodles I steeled myself for the vacuum-cleaner slurping and subsequent smacking that was about to happen. Anticipation undoubtedly made it worse, but even so, I winced with every bite.

One day in early January while I was having tea in my living room and enjoying the quiet afternoon I received this email at my computer:

Would Mr. Fung happen to bike wearing a neon yellow/green long-sleeve shirt and big clunky headphones? We saw a man of that description crossing South Higuera at Bridge Street in a way that could easily have ended his life…I said “Wow, that guy could have just died,” and the girls said “Hey, I think that was Fung!”

Indeed, Fung arrived home with his bright biking jacket and big headphones around the same time that email hit my inbox. He often appeared reckless and unaware of what was going on around him. I’d seen him myself veering into oncoming traffic not far from here.


Once he spontaneously brought a monstrous suitcase downstairs and asked me if it was within baggage limits for “the airplane”. I could only shrug. I could tell you other stories too, but an uneasy feeling is growing in me about this whole report: would I write these things if I thought that Fung were likely to read them? Perhaps. But it’s certainly easier to do when I know he’s far away on the streets of Shanghai, weaving his bike upstream in traffic, hawking and yacking in Mandarin about god-knows-what: me? And what would he say? That I’m uptight and oversensitive about noise; that I’m too lazy to learn a foreign language; that I’m a Backseat Driver in the car?

On the last day of his stay here Fung propped his Craigslist mattress against the fire hydrant on the street. I told him that was against the law, something I often told him as shorthand for that’s really not a good idea. I saw the helpless panic in his eyes when he realized the impossible burden of having to legally dispose of a crummy mattress. I wasn’t trying to torture him, but I wasn’t such a chump that I’d let him abscond to Shanghai and hoodwink me into dealing with it, either. I told him in America it was customary to ask a friend with a pickup truck to move mattresses. After a little while on the phone, a confused-looking white guy and a Chinese man came over in the confused guy’s red truck and they all left with Fung’s mattress. I presume they leaned it against a fire hydrant in another neighborhood.

The problem with Fung is that he didn’t do anything wrong. He was—or we were—just too different. He spent the last night in America with some of his Chinese friends, and on the way to the airport he asked them to stop here one last time. He wanted to return a small pan he’d borrowed. I was talking with a friend on the phone when Fung rang the doorbell. We’d already said goodbye to each other the day before, but I held the phone sort of behind my back and took the pan from him, giving him another hushed goodbye and good luck. He leaned forward to give me a brief hug and stepped back. He looked at me, smiling, pausing maybe to commit this scene to his memory. We both knew that in 36 airline hours a whole world would be between us and that Fung would never be in the United States again, and that if we hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunity to know each other better, perhaps it was only because we were so temporary in each other’s lives from the very beginning. He held my eyes for a moment, then gave a quick duck of his head in what could have been gratitude or regret, or even both, that strange mixture of emotions found in certain goodbyes. And if that’s what he meant to say: “Thank you” and “I’m sorry”, then for that moment he and I were exactly the same.

[1] When I asked to see it later, he showed me his bona fide California Driver’s License. I still don’t know how he got it because, if I’d driven like he did around the town square back in my hometown, I never would have been permitted beyond that town square. I even wondered if he’d ever driven a car before, remembering the way his hands trembled (with excitement, I had thought) when he put the key in the ignition.

[2] It was only interesting through the appetizers if you weren’t stoned. After that it was just dumb.