It’s October, 1986, and I’m sitting in the dining room at St. Aidan’s College in Durham England. The room is huge, with floor to ceiling glass windows on one side and a vaulted wooden roof. I’m surrounded by 400 English students—real English students, the kind that talk funny. We’re all wearing black gowns, because it’s formal night. Formal night also means lots of wine and beer, and the food staff serving us at our tables, restaurant style. The room is roaring, with people laughing and shouting, singing even.
Me? I’m sitting there, red to the roots of my hair. I’ve waited my whole life to be abroad, waited my whole life to be surrounded by people with different accents and different histories, and now I’m so embarrassed, I can’t talk. Why? Because I just, for maybe the tenth or twentieth time that evening, had to say, “Excuse me, what was that?”
It’s their friggin’ accents. I can mostly understand them fine when we’re in our rooms or in the hall or in our classes. But in this dining room, with two glasses of wine in me and the roar of conversation all around me, I can’t understand a thing. Finally I give up, convinced that my classmates are now certain that when I was little and just learning to talk, my mom dropped a fruit bowl on my head.
That was the first time in my life when I was on the down-side of language. You have to understand that, growing up, I was always the talker, always the one who could get out of trouble by opening his mouth. I wrote my first story when I was in second grade, my first novel when I was thirteen (“Only the Good Die Young,” about a pair of teenaged dare-devils. The movie options, believe it or not, are still available). I worked in radio, I acted in plays, I was vice-president of the student council. I was the son of a preacher man (never got me laid, though), so I knew how to tell a story and construct an argument and time a joke. On the football team, I used to get beat up by the older players because I always had a smart-ass comeback that was funnier than theirs. I read My Name is Asher Lev when I was in junior high, just to show off—which probably explains my dearth of friends. What can I say? I use words like “dearth.”
But there I was in that dining room at St. Aidan’s, shut out. No pleasant small talk, no witty repartee, no thoughtful questions designed to demonstrate both my sensitivity and brains, no brilliant pick-up lines (“I’ve got an American flag-pole in my room. Waddaya say we try out your Union Jack-off?” Well, it might've worked . . . ). There I sat, face burning, silent.
What I didn’t know back then was that I would eventually write a dissertation inspired by Obediah Slope, the former scholarship-boy who for a time practically runs a cathedral town full of rich and articulate clergy—someone who shouldn’t have discourse power, but does. Or that I would write a half-dozen articles about small schools and their exclusion from academic discourse. Or that I would come to love teaching writing to first-year students who can crack up the class with a joke, can talk up a storm with their parents, and text their high school friends 6,811 times an hour, but who came into my office convinced they can’t write (“I dunno, I’m not good with words.” Um, really?).
In other words, everything—everything—I’ve come to care about professionally rises from that one embarrassing moment—that one moment that, in the course of an amazing year where I studied at one of the best universities in the world, travelled the continent, stared in awe at Michelangelo’s David, drank my first port, vomited my first Ouzo and fell in love with, like, 20 English damsels and their lacy English underwear—everything that I’ve come to concerned myself with professionally comes from that one minor moment in the course of a single evening in the dining hall at St. Aidan’s college.
So why am I uprooting my family and my life and going to Hong Kong for a year?
Because you just never know.