The woman behind the glass slides my passport back under the window, along with the application I’ve just signed in order to clinch a withdrawal from my American bank account. She tells me the signatures don’t match, and fixes a Case Closed glare upon me. We are in the small city of Baoding, a hundred kilometres south of Beijing and its bounty of hospitable ATMs that my wife and I took for merry granted in our 36 hours in the capital. We have just spent our last two yuan to take a bus to city outskirts, to what we have learned, after an all-day struggle, is the only joint in town we could hope to turn to for replenishment. We are exhausted and very hungry, and know no one in this city to whom we might gracefully appeal for a loan. While I have always taken private pride in my ever-changing signature, never has its authenticity been questioned. Round and blue as the earth seen from space, my eyes through institutional glass have always inspired trust. Leave it to a nation of ideographs to unmask me. I lose control in the worst American way: “Do I contradict myself, very well I contradict myself, I’m a human being, I will not stagnate, this passport is two years old,” etc. I start signing my name again and again on the rejected application, holding it up to the window to display my multitudes.
Fortunately my wife is a pillar of cool, her signature stagnant, her credit card ready.
On the bus back across town I am sulky. The episode has tweaked a focus in my brain and I see what I could not before. One yucky eureka. I wonder how long I have viscerally known what I am now formulating for the first time: I am a fraud. So simple. It permeates everything about me, including my reason for being in China. When was the last time my be and seem were one? I’m my own impersonator. I fear — and, like a conflicted criminal yearning for capture, am in part relieved to suspect — that this is only the start of my comeuppance. Tomorrow classes start at Hebei University, where I have taken a teaching position. I am underqualified and unsuited for this job in every way I dare name.
I have taken, in fun, to calling my wife “Olan,” after the character in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. A fraud even in the seventh grade, when I was supposed to have read the book, I weaseled my way out of the ordeal by composing, together with a friend, a song based on its story. It began thus:
Today Wang Lung is seventeen
And on virginity not too keen.
So the House of Wang he calls on
Finds out that his wife is Olan.
Appetizing she doesn’t find him—
She always walks ten feet behind him!
So charming were my friend and I in performance that the teacher didn’t notice our copious lyrics covered only the first third of the book.
My wife, unlike Buck’s protagonist, is usually several steps ahead of her husband. Not only is she taller and possessed of a longer stride and, whenever we walk together, more driven by purpose and less likely to dawdle or snag, her mind (I have only in the last few months of our eight years of marriage come to accept this) is more nimble than mine by several somersaults. This is clear in spite of her being born and raised and educated in Russia, and having an English vocabulary I can dwarf in deep coma. On the bus it occurs to me: perhaps it is our culturo-linguistic disparity that has enabled me to fool her all these years into thinking me worthy of her? My thought and speech is jam-packed with received witticisms, but after all, if you’ve grown up never hearing things like “That’s a whole other can of beans!” or “Ask not what you can do for XYZ, but what XYZ can do for you,” they can sound pretty clever upon first encounter as an adult. And I got a million of ’em, enough to fill a book, which I did, of course, full-throttle fraud that I am, and which she loved. But what does she know of English prosody? No more, clearly, than the well-meaning Chinese educators who have hired me as a “visiting scholar.” (I am expected to teach American Poetry. I am not nor have I ever been interested in American Poetry. My college degree was no small group effort. I seem to recall a staircase, a refrigerator, some trees, perchance a wolf? Oh those eager, unsuspecting students…the noble thing would be to leave the country right now.) Painting is what Olan knows. She too has been hired to teach here. But she will be teaching what she knows.
I look down at my passport and wistfully admire the one-of-a-kind signature, more symmetrically florid than most, one of my best. The photograph above it shows a bearded doofus with wild albeit thinning hair, the sloppy ends of which I Whited Out, as much as credibility would permit, on the Xerox I faxed to China when applying for my professorship.
Olan’s hand is out. “You’ll lose it,” she says. Actually it was she who applied the White Out to my picture, after I’d failed to do it credibly. I hand her the passport and she places it in her bag and zips it safe. We are in the back of the bus a la Hoffman & Ross at the end of The Graduate. God knows where we are headed.