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Open Features: Who's On First

Julie Drew, on her first day as a visiting professor in the English Department at a Beijing University, anticipates and relishes the comedy of conversation.

The semester has begun, and our university here in Beijing is, like all universities, a large bureaucracy. I'll begin teaching tomorrow, and I'm a little nervous, anxious for the reassuring company of my new Chinese colleagues. I leave the apartment and walk across the campus to the English Department. I have some materials for one of the senior faculty, and I plan to drop them off for him, wander around a bit, maybe start to feel like I belong. The late summer sun beats down on my head and I wish, not for the last time, that I didn't feel silly carrying an umbrella on a sunny day.

The door to the building is locked. It is Tuesday, 9:30 a.m. The campus is swarming with students, classes are in session, but the office is closed up tight as if it's a national holiday. I head for the building next door to seek either help or information from the woman inside at the reception desk.

"Hi, I'm one of the visiting professors in the English Department," I say brightly as the door shuts behind me. "I need to get into the office to drop off these materials for Professor Yang, but the door is locked. Can you help me?"

"Ask Miss Du, she can help you." This is said without looking up.

"Where can I find Miss Du?"

"She's in the English Department next door."

Pause.

"Okay, but Miss Du isn't there now; the door is locked, and no one answers when I knock. There's no one there. And since Miss Du's absence is actually the problem, I don't think she can help me with that."

At this point the woman stops doing whatever it is she's doing, and looks at me with exaggerated patience. Clearly, I am an idiot.

"Yes, Miss Du is in Tianjin today," she says slowly and distinctly.

"But you just said to ask Miss Du for help."

"Yes, Miss Du is the one you want, she works in the English Department."

"But - okay," I say, reminding myself of the cardinal rule for travelers: no matter how it seems to me, I am the stranger, the one who doesn't get how things work here. I try again. "Does anyone else have a key to the English Department office?"

"Yes, certainly."

Relieved, I feel my body relaxing, and I say with sincere appreciation, "That's great, thanks. Who?"

"I don't know. Miss Du has that information, you'd better see her."

Pause.

I look at her suspiciously. She has to be joking - this translates into funny no matter what language you speak. But there is no trace of laughter on her face, no betraying twitch of the lips, no narrowing of her dark eyes.

"Okay," I say, trying a different tack. "Do you know if anyone else will be coming in to work in the office today?"

"Perhaps at 10 o'clock."

"Someone will be here at 10 o'clock, and they will be opening the door with a key in order to go inside and work?" I thrust, anticipating her inevitable parry.

"I don't know."

"Then why did you say 10 o'clock, which is a very specific time?" I say, my tone suggesting a premature touché.

"I said 'perhaps 10 o'clock'," she replies sweetly, besting me again.

"So perhaps 11 o'clock, perhaps 1:17, perhaps 5:30 are all equally possible, but you have no reason to believe that any of them are true?" I ask pointedly.

"Yes, that's right." She is completely unruffled. I cannot but admire her.

"Okay. When will Miss Du be back from Tianjin?"

"Perhaps tomorrow. You'll have to ask her."

I leave, but am already plotting my return. I find myself whistling, and my step is light. I savor the thought of friends I will make, the odd encounters, the sheer comedy of conversation. Maybe next time I'll get to be the straight man.

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