Dr Wei started also, his deep, bossed gong laugh. “I say this to say that I admire the culture, your culture, its respect for education above all. Every African man I have ever encountered in an academic setting excelled, barring none. I haven’t met a single lazy African student, or a fat one for that matter, in 40 years here. I know it sounds crazy, we laugh, but believe me. I teach undergraduates. I see it every day. African immigrants are the future of the academy. And the Indians.” He paused here to finish his tea.
While Olu sat, smiling, an odder thing still: to be enjoying Dr Wei’s conversation. Ling had always reviled him as arrogant, unyielding, charming to a point and indifferent beyond. She’d never gone home for vacation in college, finding overseas community service work to do instead. She’d skipped her sister’s wedding so as not to see her father, and ignored the man’s calls when they came, twice a year, the one – September second – for an off-key “Happy Birthday,” the other Chinese New Year for “Kung Hei Fat Choy.” Olu knew better than to probe, and he didn’t, for 15 years almost had never once asked: honey, why don’t we drive out to Newton to see them? or what did he do to you? Never once asked. And Ling didn’t either: what had happened to his father, why they’d never been to Ghana (they’d been everywhere else), why he’d balked only recently at an email from Fola inviting them for dinner on Christmas? Instead, they hung there between them, in Allston, New Haven, now a 10-minute walk from where Olu once lived: all the questions and heartbreaks, unanswered, untreated, just left there to dry in the silence and sun.
So Olu was shocked now to find himself smiling, at ease with this man whom Ling hated so much. There was something even appealing about Dr Wei’s manner, the efforts of the fastidious mathematician to make friends. As smug as he seemed, the hair smoothing betrayed him: Dr Wei was self-conscious, of what was unclear. Perhaps of the accent that coated his consonants, a threat to the facile delivery, the r’s? Perhaps of the slightness of build, further slighted by nearness to Olu’s own wide-chested frame? Perhaps of the sadness alive in his pupils, as present as laugh lines around his bright eyes? Or of something else, dark, Olu couldn’t see what, but could sense that this man was no stranger to shame. And was opening his mouth to say “Interesting” or suchlike when Dr Wei smoothed down his hair and went on.
“You know, I never understood the dysfunctions of Africa. The greed of the leaders, disease, civil war. Still dying of malaria in the 21st century, still hacking and raping, cutting genitals off? Young children and nuns slitting throats with machetes, those girls in the Congo, this thing in Sudan? As a young man in China, I assumed it was ignorance. Intellectual incapacity, inferiority perhaps. Needless to say I was wrong, as I’ve noted. When I came here I saw I was wrong. Fair enough. But the backwardness persists even now, and why is that? When African men are so bright? as we’ve said. And the women, too, don’t get me wrong, I’m not sexist. But why is that place still so backward? I ask. And you know what I think? No respect for the family. The fathers don’t honor their children or wives. The Olu I knew, Oluwalekun Abayomi? Had two bastard children plus three by the wife. A brain without equal but no moral backbone. That’s why you have the child soldier, the rape. How can you value another man’s daughter, or son, when you don’t even value your own?”
Olu was silent, too startled to speak.
“You can’t.” Dr Wei opened his hands: QED. “Your mother, for example. Ms Savage. Not Mrs. With a different last name than yours.
Sai. Is that right? I’m assuming – and it is just an assumption, I acknowledge – that your father left your mother to raise you alone?”
Olu sat, frozen, too angry to move.
“Exactly. And there’s your example. Your father. The father is always the example.” He paused. “Now you may say, ‘No, no, I’m not like my father –’ ”
“No,” Olu mumbled.
“And that’s what you think, but –”
“I’m just like my father. I’m proud to be like him.” Just barely a whisper through Olu’s clenched teeth. Dr Wei, caught off guard, tipped his head and looked at Olu – who, hands and chest trembling, looked steadily back. Said, “He’s a surgeon like I am, the best in his field,” and the rest in an outpour, one soft seething rush: “The problem isn’t Ling wants to marry an African. It’s not that she’s marrying me, and she will. No, the problem is you, Dr Wei. Your example. You’re the example of what they don’t want. Both of them, Ling and Lee-Ann, and why is that? Why aren’t there pictures of them in your place? What was it, ‘the father is always the example’? Both of your daughters prefer something else.”
Ling appeared now in her coat, holding Olu’s.
Aaaaaaa-men. “Lacrimosa,” the choral climax.
Dr Wei cleared his throat, but before he could speak Ling grabbed Olu and left. Out the door, just like that.
[End of book extract]