My lit professor in college once emptied his backpack onto the table in the front of the classroom. He removed dubious remnants of his lunch—several whole vegetables—and a pile of books. That day our class was to discuss multiculturalism.
At the time, I felt too interested in my own unrequited love drama to think too hard about embracing and understanding other cultures. I did not want to travel or make intercultural discoveries. I wanted to stay in my dorm room or pace the sidewalks creatively expressing my angst about not being in love.
My professor sat, adopting his usual eccentric posture: head leaned to the side, eyes firmly closed. He stretched one arm all the way around his head so that his palm covered the opposite ear.
Dr. Hake boasts the idiosyncratic identity you might expect from a college literature professor. He routinely keeps his eyes closed while he teaches, sometimes sits Indian-style on top of the podium, leaves his sentences dangling without ends, and asks sudden questions no one could possibly answer. He circles the campus pond every day, praying through the stack of index cards on which he has scribbled student prayer requests. He prayed, walking around that pond, that God would send me a husband. I don’t know how often he prayed for me, but I know he did because I asked him to.
His eccentricity, the frequent traffic on his direct line to heaven, and the fact that he spent several years teaching English in Taiwan made him the right man to teach us about multiculturalism.
He opened by singing a brief song in Taiwanese. It was lovely and tender, tight in its meaning and melody. The English translated:
Lonely night, no companions, I’m under a lamp.
The clear breeze is blowing in my face.
I’m 17 or 18, not yet married.
I saw a young man
Of course good-looking, white skin.
Which family’s son is this?
I would like to ask him but I’m embarrassed.
My heart is playing the pee-pay [a Chinese instrument].
I would like for this young man to be my husband.
Love is in my heart.
When will I have to wait until the lord comes and picks
The spring flower just blossoming?
I hear outside someone coming.
I open the door to find out. The moon laughs at me,
A stupid idiot [literally, a rice bucket], deceived by the wind.
He finished, told us the translation, and chuckled, “You see, people are not all that different all the way around the world.”
Somewhere in history, an 18-year-old Taiwanese girl felt just how I felt. In the bloom of her youth she hoped hard, then felt foolish for hoping.
“It connects,” said Dr. Hake. “It makes you feel at home.”
It did. I wanted him to sing it again and again—proving all over that the best parts of college didn’t come from the books. The best parts came from connecting with people—with Dr. Hake, and with a young Taiwanese girl far away, who used to be in love.