The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 1


by Ha Jin

The flyer said, "The applicant must be able to teach various subjects, including the preparation for the SAT. Payment is most generous." I answered the ad in the morning and was told to come to be interviewed that very evening. The woman on the phone, Eileen Min, sounded quite eager, saying her daughter needed a tutor right away. At the same time, she admitted she had seen seven or eight applicants, but none of them was suitable. She would pay forty dollars an hour, which was remarkable given my other prospects.
     I was to be doing research for the professor directing my master's thesis, yet I needed another job for the summer to make enough for my tuition and living expenses in the fall. Without my parents' support, my life had been tough; however, I had managed to complete one year's graduate study. There was still another year to go. I had started working at my thesis on Jacob Riis, specifically on his effort to eradicate urban slums. My mother had called a week before and said it was not too late for me to go to a professional school, for which my parents would happily pay; I had again rejected the offer, saying I intended to apply to a PhD program in American history. My father, a successful plastic surgeon in Seattle, had always opposed my study of the humanities. He urged me to go into medicine or law or even politics—clerking for a congressman—because history wasn't a real profession. "Anyone can be a historian if he has read enough books," he'd say. "What do you want to be, a professor? Anyone can make more than a professor." I'd remain silent, understanding that as long as I indulged myself in the humanities, I'd be on my own. In my heart I despised my father as a typical philistine. He was ashamed of me; his friends talked about me as a loser. I knew he might cut me out of his will. That didn't bother me; I wouldn't mind becoming a poor scholar.
     Around 6:30 P.M. I set out for the interview. Eileen Min lived at 48 Folk Avenue, not far from my place, about fifteen minutes' walk. There were more pedestrians in downtown Flushing since the summer started, many of them foreign tourists or visitors from the suburban towns who came to shop or to dine in the small restaurants offering the foods of their left-behind homes. The store signs, most bearing Chinese characters, simulated a bustling shopping district in Wenzhou. So many immigrants live and work here that you needn't speak English to get around. I stopped at the newsstand manned by a Pakistani, picked up that day's World Journal, and then turned onto Forty-first Avenue. A scrawny adolescent girl strode toward me, dragged by a Doberman. The dog stopped at a maple sapling and urinated fitfully on the box encasing the base of the tree. The girl stood by waiting for her dog to finish. Along the sidewalk every young tree was protected by the same tall red box.
     Folk Avenue was easy to find, just a few blocks from College Point Boulevard. Number 48 was a two-story brick bungalow with a glassed porch. Beside a two-car garage grew a large oak tree, and behind a small tool shed in the backyard stretched a high fence of wooden boards. Despite the close vicinity of downtown and the houses crowded together in the neighborhood, this property stood out idyllically. I rang the doorbell, and a slender woman of medium height in a shirtwaist dress answered. I was amazed when she introduced herself as Mrs. Min and said we had spoken that morning; to my mind, it was unlikely that such a young-looking woman could have a daughter attending high school.
     She led me into her house. I was impressed by the furniture in the spacious living room—all redwood, elegant and delicate in design, like antique. A vase of Stargazer lilies sat on a credenza on the far side. On the wall above it hung a photo of a lean-faced man, middle-aged with fierce eyes and a jutting forehead, his hairline withdrawn to his crown. I sat on a leather sofa, and Eileen Min told me, "That's my late husband. He died three months ago."
     "I'm sorry," I said.
     "Sami, pour some tea for Mr. Hong." She said this to a teenage girl, who was in a corner playing something on a computer.
     "No need to trouble yourself," I said to Sami, who rose without looking our way.
     The girl headed for the kitchen. She was wearing orange slippers, and her calf-length skirt showed her thin ankles. Like her mother, she was slim, but one or two inches shorter, and had a fine figure, too. She quickly returned with a cup of tea and put it beside me. "Thanks a lot," I said.
     She didn't say a word but looked me in the face, her eyebrows tilting a little toward her temples as if she were being naughty. Then she turned and entered a bedroom off the hall, her slippers squeaking on the glossy wood floor. She left the door ajar, apparently to listen in on our conversation. I produced my student ID card and my GRE scores. "These are my credentials," I told Eileen.
     She observed the card. "So you're a graduate student at Queens College. What's this?"
     "The results of the test for graduate studies; every applicant must take it. See, I got 720 in English and 780 in math."
     "What's the perfect score?"
     "Eight hundred in each subject."
     "That's impressive. Forgive me for asking: if you're so strong in math, why didn't you study science?"
     "Actually I was torn between history and biology during my freshman year at NYU." I told her the truth. "Then I decided on history because I wouldn't want to depend on a lab for my work. If you do history, all you need is time and a good library."
     "Also brains. Is history what you're studying at Queens now?"
     "Yes, American urban history." I lifted the tea and took a sip. Then I caught Sami observing us from her room, through the gap at the door. She saw me noticing her and withdrew immediately.
     Eileen beamed, her face shiny with a pinkish sheen and her almond-shaped eyes glowing. She said, "I promised Sami's father that I'd help her get into a good college. Tell me, can you help my daughter score high on the SAT?"
     "Sure, I tutored my cousin two years ago. He's a freshman at Caltech now."
     "That's marvelous."
     So she decided to hire me. I would start the next day. Since I was still taking summer courses, I could come only in the evenings. Before I left, Eileen called Sami out to greet me as her teacher. The girl came over and said with a nod of her head, "Thank you for helping me, Mr. Hong."
     "Just call me 'Dave,'" I told her.
     "OK, see you tomorrow, Dave," she said pleasantly and grinned. Her button nose crinkled.
     Coming out of the Mins', I felt relieved. I would teach Sami five times a week, including Saturday evenings. I needn't worry about my summer anymore.

To read the rest of this story and others from the Spring 2008 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.