Ming Yue’s parents had plans for her. She knew that. She had been brought up to be conscientious, hard-working, diligent, and studious. The daughter lived up to the parents’ expectations. She did well at school, and not just in academics; she excelled at music (flute) and sports (volleyball and track). And—an added advantage over all the good traits she had developed—she was pretty.
She did not think this—beautiful women seldom think they are beautiful—but her friends at school assured her of as much and she noticed boys were friendly toward her. “Mother told me to be careful” she said to me once, “and to remember my morals.” I heard this not long after we started hanging around together, which always a prelude to dating. Her parents allowed her to date, though they applied quite of a bit of scrutiny before they permitted her to go out with a young man. “Mother and Father want to have you over for dinner,” she told me one day after English class. I knew they intended to check me out before they would allow their child to go anywhere with me, the unknown young man.
I dressed up—not a suit and tie, but slacks and a nice dress shirt. I took my car through the wash and vacuumed the inside. You never know what parents will look for. The mother of one girl I dated walked out while I was visiting her daughter, looked in the windows of my vehicle and later told me it was messy. Charise and I didn’t last long after that one. I arrived at Ming’s house at dusk, walked down the sidewalk and rang the bell. Determined to put on my best behavior, I shook hands with her parents and was bold enough to give Ming Yue’s hand a squeeze; still, I felt nervous and fumbling. Their quiet scrutiny fell so fully upon me I hoped I didn’t get nervous and do something stupid. The meal would be an examination. Like in school, I was being graded.
During the meal, which was traditional Chinese, I mostly spoke with her father. He was tall and strongly built. He wore his hair cropped close and had an angular, square-jawed face. I could picture him as a prize fighter. His family, he told me, had come to the US in the 1800s to work on the transcontinental railroad. After that project came to an end, they settled in California and used the skills they had developed laying track and digging tunnels to begin a construction company. Though sometimes dogged by discrimination in the early days, they did good work and prospered. The family grew and branched out. Mr.Yue had taken a job in my hometown as a consultant for a railroad consortium. He inspected bridges and other facilities the railways used; he also inspected tunnels. “We only have two railroad tunnels in Michigan,” he said, smiling, “but someone has to make sure they’re properly ventilated and meet government standards.”His job kept him busy, “I spent far too much time away from my family,” he said. I sensed he was warming to me. His wife said little, though she smiled at me a lot. Ming sat quietly and only spoke when one of her parents asked her a question.
He asked me my favorite subject in school. I told him it was math. He seemed surprised.
“You like mathematics?”
“Yes, sir. Very much. I plan to major in mathematics when I get to college and eventually become a math teacher—or, if I do well, a theoretical mathematician.”
“Interesting,” he said. Then he asked me to tell him about mathematics. “Particularly the parts of it you find intriguing.”
“I’m fascinated by set theory,” I told him, “especially as it relates to irrational numbers and infinity.”
“How it relates to infinity?”
“Well, it was Russian and French mathematicians who first came up with a theory explaining infinity—all of this came out of the need to explain infinite numbers and infinite functions—after Cohen first purposed set theory. But really, the question goes back much further. Zeno’s paradoxes are expressions of set theory as it relates to infinity—his argument was that to get from point A to point B, you have to cross half the distance; but to get to that point, you must cross halfway the distance to it; and halfway the distance before; so you never get there. Set theory answers what he saw as paradoxes.”
I wanted to say a little about more about Georg Cantor and Surya Prajnapti And W. Hugh Wooden but thought that would be a little complex. Thankfully, her father did not want to pursue the topic.
“I never was much of one for theoretical mathematics. It’s beyond my level of comprehension. Some of it sounds more like philosophy or religion than math.”
He smiled. I hazarded a small laugh.
“Well, those three things share a lot of common concerns.”
Not wanting to discuss either philosophy or religion, he changed the subject. We talked about school and other innocuous topics. When we had finished eating, Ming and her mother gathered up the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. We went into the living room for desert. Ming served yangyuan (sweep soup balls) she had made. We drank tea. The dessert tasted delicious and I made certain to compliment her. As far as I could tell I had passed the test. Ming sat and smiled, hands on her pretty knees, looking lovely.
The next day at school she told me I had passed with flying colors and her parents had told her they would permit her to go out with me.
I had asked to take her to our school’s production of The Sound of Music. Ming had told her parents we would leave at 7:00. I arrived at her house at 6:30 the night of the performance and talked with her father and mother. Ming invited me to a room of her house she called the “library.”
I liked the idea of a house having a library. As I had envisioned, it was filled with books, but what caught my attention was three paintings hanging on the walls. I walked over to them. Ming came up beside me. I gazed. Two were still-life paintings: a flower in a vase, three bosc pears lying in a plate—typical stuff that sort of art, but they were painted with a delicate mastery such as I had seldom seen—especially on the wall of a suburban house. The lines, gentle, easy, and natural, captured the delicacy of the objects they outlined. The paintings had a lightness to them and music-like balance. They held my attention, like all good art does, so I was captured by their spell a long moment. When the magic lapsed just a little, I noticed Ming had come to my side.
I keep going on about how pretty she looked. She looked splendid in the short dress she wore. Her hair, which she usually braided or put in a ponytail, hung loose and was long enough just to touch her shoulders.
“These are beautiful,” I said. “Where did you buy them?”
“We didn’t buy them. I painted them.”
“They’re beautiful,” I repeated, unable to think of more to say about them.
“Thank you, Stephen.”
“I didn’t know you painted.”
“It’s a hobby.”
“You should stick with that kind of hobby You paint very well.”
“Thank you.” We both gazed. Then she gave out a slight laugh.
“My parents warn me to keep it as a hobby. They don’t want me doing something as ‘romantic’—that’s the word Mother uses—as trying to be a painter.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Maybe you should tell them as much sometime. It might change their minds. Daddy was impressed that you’re interested in math.”
“He doesn’t know you beat me in the City Mathematics Competition back in June,” she said. Then she laughed again. “I’ll tell him later on.”
At school, Ming had always been friendly but quiet and reserved. I had not seen the ironic side of her. It felt oddly intimate there, in front of the paintings. I felt I might take her hand, put my arm around her, even give her a nuzzle (it was way too early for a kiss). But, no—not in her house, on our first date, with her Mom and Dad hovering nearby.
“You’re quite an artist.”
“I love to paint. My mother says it’s not a very good career path.”
“It is if you’re good. Artists sell their paintings for millions.”
“They do. Anyway, we probably ought to get going. The roads might be bad.”
We drove to our school to see a production of The Sound of Music.
It’s always fun to see your friends on stage and to laugh at the roles they end up playing. We enjoyed it and had fun talking with classmates in the receiving line afterwards. We drove through the cold and snow to a coffee bar to spend the last hour or so we had together before her curfew. It was usually 9:30, but since the show started at 7:30 and, with intermission, could go close to three hours. Her parents gave us a little extra time. She ordered a coffee. I had a latte. I asked her how volleyball season was going.
“It’s going well. We’ve won quite a few games. I’ve got a lot of saves and scores.”
“Ming is tall and has long legs, but she is small-framed and can jump; an ideal volleyball player’s body. I could see how she would be good at it.
“Do you play sports?”
I felt defensive, though she did not sound accusatory.
“I don’t. I run and swim to stay in shape. I like to hike.”
“I wish I wasn’t on a team—on teams, I should say. It’s one round after another. When track season ends, I start volleyball. In the summer I play AAU. In the winter, I start volleyball.sports keeps me in shape, yes, and I make good friends being on teams, but it takes up so much time I could use doing other things. But my parents expect me to participate, so I do. And it’s fine.”
“What would you rather be doing?”
I got quite a long list. Last of all, she said, “I love the traditional Chinese artists. They form a deep influence on what I paint.” Her eyes brightened with excitement over a subject she loved.
“Do you love it more than math?” I asked, joking.
She seemed to take the question quite seriously. She thought about it for a time before she spoke.
“I love math, but I love it for its beauty.”
“Beauty. I think I know what you’re getting at, but I want to hear what you yourself mean with what you said.”
“Well”—she thought again, wrinkling her brown and pressing her lips together. She looked so beautiful I could hardly bear it. “I like to see it work out, especially in geometry. When you prove a theorem—even a simple theorem—it’s like completing a painting. The proof has beauty and harmony to it. And, of course, with geometry, it has form and structure: you can actually see it. That’s what I mean by beauty.”
“You can see that in equations too.”
“I thought as much when I learned to use the quadratic formula. It was so cool to see it work. It was beautiful, especially when it came out in a whole number. You know what else I liked?”
Once more she had taken me by surprise.
Her eyes glowed. “The geometry book I used had little inserts all through it that were called ‘Lives of the Great Mathematicians.’ They were stories of people like Pythagoras, Archimedes, Hypatia of Alexandria, Pascal—a lot more. The teacher, who was an old guy who occasionally preached sermons at us on how corrupt the human race had gotten—we called him ‘Preacher Don’—would drone on and on and I would read those inserts. I was fascinated, lost in them.” She broke out of her rapturous memories and grinned. “I almost got kicked out of class once because I was reading those stories and not paying attention to his lectures.”
“You? That’s almost impossible to believe.”
“I was so caught up in those little biographies I hadn’t listened to a word he said. He was big with kicking people out of class. He called me down and said he might have to expel me. I was genuinely terrified. I mean, my parents … I don’t know what they would have done but I thought they might kill me.”
“What happened? What did you do?”
Her grin got broader. “I started to cry. A cute, normally well-behaved Chinese girl crying can dissolve any teacher’s heart, so he let me off with a warning and sent me to the nurse. She gave me an aspirin.”
We laughed. We had talked so much our coffee was getting cold. We only had about fifteen minutes before I needed to take her home.
“Which of those stories was your favorite?”
“I liked Hypatia of Alexandria.”
I knew a little bit about Hypatia but asked her why she liked the woman who died in 400 AD.
“She was a mathematician and an inventor. She invented the hydrometer. Her book on conic sections did not survive, but a lot of other writers from her era mention it. Most people think she was a writer and wrote about mathematics. Everyone who knew her called her life exemplary. I think it was a beautiful life and that it reflected the beauty of mathematics—and mathematics as form and beauty. I still remember the last line in the profile of her: ‘The first woman mathematician was murdered by a mob.’”
By the time we arrived at her house, it had begun to snow. The porch light was on but no one came to the door. We stood there. She looked up at me and, dull as I am, I realized she wanted me to kiss her. I hadn’t been sure about this and didn’t know if I should, thinking her parents might object. But I could tell by the look in her eyes what she wanted. I bent down and gave her a kiss. Snowflakes melted on our faces while we lingered. I pulled away but she moved forward, not wanting it to end. I kissed her more deliberately, felt her relax, felt her lips move in response to mine. By the time we had finished the snow had accumulated on our hair and shoulders. We laughed at that.
“Mother and Father expect you come in and say good-night,” she said.“Custom. Come on inside.”
We wiped the snow away and went into the warmth of the house. Apparently they had not seen us kissing.
We were wet from snow. Her mother fussed and said Ming would catch her death in the cold. She should carry an umbrella in the snow.
“Mother, Americans don’t carry umbrellas in the snow. They only do that in Europe.”
Ming was ordered to dry her hair. I sat down with the family to have tea.
I still felt a bit of fear that her father or mother had seen us kissing—or wondered if this was the reason we had got so wet just walking to the front door of their house. But her father (her mother disappeared) seemed cordial. He asked how the musical had gone.
“Very well. Our school did an excellent job.”
“Did Ming tell me you’ve played in orchestras?”
“I did last year at a local college—and once for Civic Theater. I play guitar. They asked me to play guitar for this production, but I told them I did not have the time.”
“You’ll have to play for us sometime.”
“I’d be delighted to.” Wanting to open the conversation up, I added, “You’ve got to have a guitar in The Sound of Music. ‘Edelweiss’ is solo guitar. So is ‘Doe, a Deer.’”
“Do music and math go together?”
“Very much. Music is in fact a mathematical construct. Pythagoras described the pentatonic scale. He described the numeric relation of tones and octaves. Playing music is similar to following a mathematical equation.”
“I guess I could understand that, though I’ve always considered mathematics as an engineer. It’s a tool to understand the operations of things and to calculate stress and distance.”
“It is that to be sure. But math also has an element of art to it.”
“Ah, you sound like my daughter. When she took geometry she would go into raptures about now beautiful it was.”
“It is.” Then, wanting to hedge things in a little bit, I said, “There are many dimensions to math.”
He seemed to agree with this. We sipped tea and talked about the weather. Ming appeared with her mother. Her hair looked thoroughly dried. I stood. She reached over and took my hands. I would eventually learn this was the only display of affection her parents allowed her.
“Stephen, thank you,” she said. “I had a wonderful time.”
“I’m happy you were able to go with me.” I turned to her father. “Mr. Yue, I probably need to leave before the snow falls much more. Thank you for your hospitality.” I nodded to Mrs. Yue. “Ma’am.”
She inclined her head in a quasi-bow. Mr. Yue saw me to the door.
The next day at school Ming was starry-eyed and all smiles. We sat together at lunch.
“You made a big hit with my parents, Stephen.”
“What did I do right? I want to know so I can keep doing it.”
She giggled. “You had good manners. People who grew up in a house influenced by Chinese culture, like my mom and dad, are big on manners and decorum. Certain formalities are expected. You were respectful and decorous to my parents, and they like that. You passed with flying colors.”
She talked at lunch—more than I had ever heard her talk. The quiet, prim, demure Asian girl stereotype got erased by her volubility. She had a class that afternoon then volleyball practice. I had study table. I was happy. Things seemed to be going well between us.
Winter headed toward Christmas. Ming and I hung around at school. I went to one of her volleyball games. Her team won a hard-fought game. When it ended, I went up to her as her team was standing around on court.
“Don’t get too near,” she warmed, putting up her hands. “I’m all sweaty.”She was soaked and looked tired.“The team is going to Deja Brew for coffee. Why don’t you stop by?” After a pause, she added, “I need to talk to you.”
“Okay. How long from now?”
“We usually take about an hour to change. I’ll call you.”
I hung around with friends until she called and said they were headed to the coffee bar. By the time I arrived there the team had taken up a couple of booths and the long table at the far end of the room. A variety of caffeinated drinks sat in front of each player. When Ming saw me, her face lit up and she waved. She had on jeans and a sweatshirt. I hardly ever saw her wearing casual clothes. She always dressed nicely for school. We found a booth where we could talk. She had not ordered yet. We both got lattes.
“Congratulations on your win,” I said. “You played ferociously.”
“Thanks. I had to. It was a tough game. They were strong and fast, but they only had three or four basic plays, and when we figured those out, we were able to defend against them and win.”
“Great. So what’s up. You seemed concerned.”
“I am a little. My cousin—my father’s mother’s son—is one of the pastors at Fairlake Church. Do you know it?”
Fairlake, a megachurch, occupied the enviable position of being the largest congregation in town.
“Which campus?” I asked. Fairlake had a main building and three “satellite churches” scattered throughout the city.
“The main one.”
“Your family doesn’t attend there, does it?”
“No. Daddy isn’t big on religion. When someone asks my religion, I tell them I’m Buddhist, but we haven’t been to the Temple since I was in first grade. Part of my family is evangelical. Silas came over and gave my Dad a long lecture on the dangers of your branch of the Christian Church.”
“How did he do that? He doesn’t even know our church—or me.”
“A lot of kids at school go to that church. Somebody probably told him.”
She glanced over, saw my reaction, looked to make sure none of her girlfriends were watching, and put her hand over mine.
“Take it easy. Daddy doesn’t give a whole lot of thought to religion. But Silas is his nephew and generally you listen to a family member. He asked me about your religion. I said I didn’t know anything about it because you had never mentioned it.”
“So what do I do?” I asked.
“Mother and Father like you, Stephen. What Silas said bewildered them. I have an idea. I go to Fairlake now and then with my cousins who attend there. Why don’t you go with me next week? I’ll tell Mother and Daddy I invited you.”
I have lots of friends who are evangelical. And, of late, Orthodoxy has been the chic religion for disgruntled evangelicals to convert to, so there are quite a few converts from that particular group in our church.
“That would be a good idea. I’ve got quite a few friends who go to Fairlake.”
With its various campuses, Fairlake had about 12,000 members, so it would be difficult for anyone who lived in this area not to have a friend who attended there.
“Okay. I’ll plan on it.”
Her face lit up. “Good. I’ll call you and we’ll plan thing out. I need to go back and sit with my team.” She took my hands and her face toward mine. “Just a little one—just a peck,” she said, eyes full of delight.
I gave her a small, quick kiss. Her teammates whistled and applauded. She smiled a smile that melted me, got up, and scurried over to join the other women volleyball players.
When I told my family I planned to go to Fairlake, they reacted. Evangelicals are … well, evangelical—evangelistic. They proselytize. A couple of families from our church had converted to their particular variety of Protestantism and now attended Fairlake. So my Dad wasn’t really friendly toward the idea of me visiting there.
“It’s just because Ming asked me,” I said.
“Does she attend that church?”
“No. Her extended family does and she goes sometimes with her relatives.”
That placated my father a little bit. Unexpected support came from my brother, who is studying to be a priest.
“That church,” he put in, “is quite a show. You’ll think you’re at a disco.”
I wanted my father to give me a clear yes or no. “Dad?” I asked.
He sighed. “Okay. Just don’t get caught up in it.”
“He won’t,” my brother said. “I can guarantee that.”
“Invite her to come worship with us,” Dad suggested.
“I will, for sure. Going with her is kind of a way to placate her cousin, who is a pastor at Fairlake. Next on the agenda will be inviting Ming to our church.”
Things fell into place. Ming had already agreed to attend with her cousins. She asked them, and then her father, if I could attend with her. It’s hard to tell someone they are not allowed to accompany your daughter to church, so he said it was fine. The family planned to eat out that afternoon, and Mr. Yue asked if I would like to come along with them. Ming’s brothers, both of whom were away at college, would be home that weekend.
“I don’t want to intrude, sir,” I told him. “If this is a family outing”—
“No. Deng is at Michigan State and comes home a lot. Ang attends Krannert Business school at Purdue, so we see him quite a bit as well. It would not be an intrusion.”
So we were set.
It snowed the next couple of days, but by Saturday the weather cleared, the sun came out, and the temperature went up. By the time I got ready to go to church, the roads had been cleared. The new-fallen snow looked beautiful. I went over, picked up Ming, and drove to Fairlake.
Fairlake sits on the edge of one of the many small lakes in our city. An attractive facility, it welcomes a few thousand people to its double Sunday services (they also have one on Saturday night). We attended the early service at 9:00.
An entourage of her relatives met her. Ming introduced me to people of all ages. Apparently, not just her cousins but most of her extended family worshipped at Fairlake. After I had shook hands with maybe thirty people, we took seats amid her kin as the service began.
My brother had told me the truth. I knew the church played contemporary music, but the band walked out on stage (and it was a stage), said we were there to “celebrate our salvation,” and began playing what sounded like a slightly toned-down version of Black Sabbath or Metallica—but not toned-down a lot. We stood for the singing. And then—if the heavy rock music was not enough—they had a light show and turned on a fog machine. The musicians danced, head-banged, and waved their arms. I felt like I had walked into a dance club, not a church.
Ming smiled. She did not sing. I noticed that almost no one in the place sang the lyrics to the songs (the lyrics were projected up front on a screen). Maybe a quarter of the people sang, but most stood and listened to the band. It was more like the performance of a pretty-good local rock group than worship. The bombastic music seemed to stun a lot of people (including me) so they just stood and stared.
My church worships with a liturgy a thousand years old. We sing hymns that to outsiders seem long (some are as long as twenty verses). Many of them go back hundred of years. There is kneeling, prostration, and bowing but no head-banging and dancing. Father did not have to worry about Fairlake luring me in. I did not find what went on there remotely attractive.
The music ended. They turned the house lights on. We sat. Ming took my hand.
I will admit, the head Pastor preached a good sermon. It helped me more thoroughly understand the biblical passage he took as a text. But I knew such worship, like a large swath of Protestantism, was sermon-centered. It focused more on the message the pastor preached than on worship—less on prayer, less on response.
Ming held my hand until our hands got sweaty. She looked beautiful, as always. She gave the sermon her full attention, either out of interest or politeness; probably a mixture of the two. The sermon ended, the pastor prayed, gave a short of benediction, and we got up to leave.
We filtered into the church lobby (they call it an atrium). I saw several classmates I knew attended the church. I also ran into both the families from our church who had left to attend here—a little awkward, but I had known them all my life and we were friends. They asked me how I liked the church. I diplomatically said it was “interesting.” When I introduced Ming and she told them Pastor Silas Shung was her cousin, they understood what had brought me here—or so they thought.
All the introductions wore me out. After meeting at least twenty people (her relatives seemed like a congregation in themselves) I met Pastor Silas Shung. He seemed like a driven guy and asked a lot of (basically friendly) questions about my church. He had met our priest, who was a convert from evangelicalism (a thing he did not mention) and had met my brother.
“How is he?” he asked.
“He’s doing well. He graduated from seminary in the spring. He’s engaged.”
He grinned. “It’s nice your priests can marry.”
“He thinks so, I’m sure.”
We walked more. He asked me if I had ever heard of Francis Chang, which I had, his books being popular among my evangelical friends. He said I should read Crazy Love.
Ming leaned in, taking my arm, and whispered. “We need to get going so we can meet my family at the restaurant.” We took leave of Pastor Silas, got in my car, and drove to the restaurant where I would meet her brothers.
Deng and Ang both resembled their sister. I found out her family was larger than I had imagined. She had a sister and another brother, older than the two siblings to whom she had just introduced me. They were both married and lived in Arizona. Responding to the puzzlement I tried to conceal, her father said, “Ming’s mother and I married when we were very young.” He smiled as he said this, seemingly not offended by my surprise. Ming was seventeen and had four older brothers and sisters. Neither of her parents looked like they were fifty.
Her brothers were cordial. They exuded self-confidence. I could tell their parents were proud of them. Deng had been admitted to medical school. Ang had an internship lined up with a leading business in Indianapolis; the internship assured him of a job there. They were a lot like their father. And, like older brothers, doted on their little sister and were protective of her. They seemed to like me.
Her father allowed me to drive Ming home. On the way there she told me someone in her extended network of relatives had seen me kiss her to Deja Brew, told her parents, and they had called her on the carpet for it.
“He didn’t really reprimand me for it,” she explained. “Father just told that being a mature young woman who knows the ‘facts of life’ I needed to remind myself of what might happen if I got careless and did not remember my morals. He said you seemed like a good boy, and he knew you were religious so he was not worried but that it was easy to get out of control. I probably needed to refrain from ‘displays of affection’—that’s what he called it—until we had known each other a little while longer.”
“Should I talk to him?” I asked.
“I told him,” she continued, “the kiss was only a little peck and that it was in a public place. I don’t think he knew you kissed me when I brought you home from the musical.”
“Should we stop kissing?”
“Maybe—at least for a little while, maybe. Stephen, you have to understand. Family is such a big deal if you’re from my culture. I want to stop because he’s my father and I am obligated to him. I don’t think he’s angry, he doesn’t think we’ll do anything wrong. But it’s proper for me to respect his authority.”
I nodded. When I came to the next traffic light, I saw she was crying.
I pulled into a Costco parking lot. She cried silently. I held her and let her get her tears out.
“Stephen, please understand.”
“I understand, Ming. Remember, my family is Syrian. We’re not first generation emigres, but we are very traditional. I know how you want to respect your parents.” I gave a tiny laugh. “My Dad talked to me about going to an evangelical church—he warned me to be careful and not them convert me. I respect his authority. I know what you feel—at least, I know it a little.”
This helped. She stopped crying and hugged me. We went into the Costco store so she could splash her face in the restroom. I took her home, went inside, told her brothers it was nice to have met them, and took leave of her parents. Her father did not mention that he had talked to her and seemed cordial—though some slight nuances in his tone and manner suggested he knew that his daughter had probably told me of the matter, that he regretted in certain ways having spoken to her and having to give her a warning, but that things were still good between us. I tried to communication that I was not offended—tried as well as I could using non-verbals—that I understood and would behave accordingly.
The semester wore on. Ming and I had a free hour the last period of school. In a free hour at that time, you could opt for study hall or go home. We both had opted for the study hall and sat together. We also whispered. Ming was a good whisperer; I made diligent to learn. The key is to control your excitement; you get louder as you get more excited. We pulled it off well. The teacher supervising the hour knew we were good students and, I think, overlooked us when we got a little loud. We worked quite a bit on math. We whispered about it too.
We often talked about the beauty of numbers.
“The Greeks loved math, especially geometry—because it represented pure idealism,” I said to her one day in the study room. “A number is a concept. I can write ‘2’”—I wrote it on her open notebook—“but that is only a symbol for the concept. The concept has no form. But it’s real. When you’re counting your kids after an outing or calculating how to fly to Italy or to the moon, you find out how real the concept is, even if it has no form in and of itself.”
“Like Plato’s ideals?”
“Exactly. He supposedly had a sign by the door to his academy that read ‘Only those who have studied geometry may pass through these doors.’ That story may be apocryphal, but even if it is it illustrates how he and most of other Greek philosophers saw math. It was good to learn because it taught you to think in the abstract.”
“That’s like understanding space. I mean the space between objects. When you paint, you must understand it—even thought it nothing. Well, it isn’t nothing, but it’s emptiness. I guess you could say nothing is the something that it is. And on it goes into paradox.”
She visited my church four weeks after we went to Fairlake. I wondered why her parents seemed a bit reluctant to let me go.
“My cousin probably tried to convinced Daddy that you belong to a cult,” she said.
“A cult? My church is the most ancient church in the word. It’s more like his church is the cult.”
She gave me a look and put her finger to her lips.
“We’re not a cult,” I whispered.
“I know. Daddy likes you. Give him time to do research on your church.”
I laughed. “Research?”
“I know my father. I don’t think he bought everything Silas told him. He’ll come around—and he will do research.”
He did just this after Christmas and New Year’s had passed. I saw him at one of Ming’s volleyball games.
“You invited my daughter to your church,” he said at halftime. We were sitting together in the bleachers and munching popcorn we had bought at the concession stand.
“Yes, sir. I did.”
I tried to interpret his tone but could not.
“Well, your church checks out. I didn’t know much about it, but I did some study. I think it would be fine for Ming to go with you this Sunday.”
“Thank, Mr. Yue.”
“Certainly.” He hesitated then said, “And I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I didn’t trust you, Stephen. My daughter is—impressionable. I’m wary of her going places I don’t know about.”
I told her what her father had said after the game ended. I was excited about her upcoming visit. Still, I needed to warn her. “It is different from Fairlake,” I said.
She smiled. “I hope it’s quieter.”
Ming seemed impressed when we walked into the main sanctuary of my church. The building is new. We had another building downtown but outgrew it. There was no room to add on or expand, so we went in with another Orthodox church that had outgrown its facility, bought land in the suburbs, and built a large, new building.
Ming seemed impressed with the dome with Christ Pantocrator (Christ the Ruler, Redeemer) and, below that, the icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), the iconostasis, and the gold, the color, the beauty of the church. She gazed about her, her eyes pausing on different features of the church. She asked me about the bread on the altar. I explained how one loaf was for the eucharist and the others represented us giving ourselves in service to God. I think the diversity of the church impressed her as well: Russians, Ethiopians, Arabs and Greeks attended our church, along with a lot of what my father (perhaps a bit cynically) called “white people,” meaning converts from various American church groups—plentiful these days, and mostly of European origin. Just before the service began, Ming met my mother, father, and brother, who all had various duties in the church that morning and because of this would not be sitting with us. Mother said we would be certain to have her into our home soon.
During the service, she listened to the hymns, sang with some of them, looked around (though not so much that people would think her irreverent), listened to the prayers, to the ancient liturgy sung a cappella, the homily, watched the splendid rites, marveled the beautiful robes of the priests, the censer emitting incense, and seemed intrigued and touched by what she heard and what she observed. It contrasted in her mind, I am sure, with all the bombast at Fairlake. She sat quietly, rapt, dazzled. The service absorbed her attention from beginning to end. I went up for the eucharist and brought her back some blessed bread, explaining that it was not consecrated and anyone, even visitors, could have it.
And she spotted the Xun family.
I had forgotten about them. They were Chinese, second generation, and their family had attended a Russian Orthodox church in China. She seemed amazed at seeing Asians in the place.
Our services are long, though our church has pews so you didn’t have to stand through the whole thing as you might in more strictly traditional Orthodox Churches. When worship ended, the two of us went to the fellowship room for coffee and pastries. The Xun family had spotted Ming and introduced themselves. They had six children in their clan(one set of twin boys) ranging from newborn (the twins) to about fourteen. The oldest girls seemed charmed with Ming, who was pretty, older, and fashionably dressed. They chattered with her until their parents told them to quiet down. As always, Ming showed herself charming and friendly. I wandered off and talked to friends, who asked me about my “girlfriend.”
The Xun family took leave after a long conversation (the girls got Ming’s web address so they could text her). She came over, stood beside me, and took my hand.
And we ran into my priest.
Father Samuel looks all the part of a priest of my denomination. Sixty-three, mostly bald but with a bushy beard, august in his embroidered robe, he could pose for an encyclopedia photograph typifying the look of a priest from the Syrian church. Like most orthodox priests, he is something of a scholar (our theology is so complex one all but has to be a scholar to understand it). Ming met him and his wife. His wife went off after chatting for a time. He asked if Ming had met the Xun family. She said she had and then added, “I was surprised to see Chinese here. The Orthodox faith isn’t widespread in China.”
I saw his eyes flash. “Not widespread,” he answered, “but not absent.”
Dread filled me. Would he bore Ming with a lot of historically obscure facts? I suspected Father Samuel had more sense than that. He gave a short and (at least I thought) interesting talk about the Nestorian missions to China in the 600s, mentioning the “Nestorian stone,” an ancient pillar with Christian writing on it in the Chinese language, only recently discovered. He briefly mentioned the influence of the Eastern Church on China and the effort of Russia to introduce the faith there. Ming listened, not merely out of politeness (I knew her well enough by now to know this) but with genuine fascination.
When someone else tagged Father Samuel, he said he needed to go. Ming said, “Thank you, sir. It was wonderful to meet you and to visit your church.”
Her polite formalism did not erase her sincerity.
We left and headed back to her house.
In February, I took her to the Valentine’s Day Dance. In March I bought her a birthday gift. March is a nasty month in Michigan, divided between cold, snow, rain, thaw, and wind—but I like gloomy weather. I worked hard at school because I wanted to get into MIT. Ming spent more and more time painting—so much her ever-vigilant parents noticed.
“What do you think of Ming’s art, Stephen?” Mr. Yue asked me one day.
“I think she does a marvelous job.”
“She is good at drawing, no doubt. I’m a little concerned about her spending too much time at it.”
Ming had showed me her last grade card—all A’s. Her father could not say absorption in art had adversely affected her academic performance.
“That’s fine,” he said, “but we want to her to get a good-paying job. We hope she will marry, of course, and have a family. A family and a career can go together. But we want her to have a profitable career.”
I contemplated and then decided to speak.
“Well, sir, artists make phenomenal amounts of money. Paintings sell for millions of dollars sometimes.”
“That is true, but there is a lot of uncertainty in getting to the level that your painting will sell for high prices. If she were a doctor she would have a more secure path to financial stability.”
Now I knew their plans for her. They wanted her to go to medical school and become a physician like her brother, Deng.
“Yes, artists do have to ‘break in’ to the art world, and there is a bit of uncertainty in that. But Ming is good. I’m amazed at the quality of what she has produced in the last couple of months.”
My praise was not merely for the sake of argument. Ming had painted six canvases the last few months. They were amazing—amazing especially for perspective.
She had mentioned space and said it was an abstract concept that was nonetheless real—like numbers. Her newest paintings presented a sense of depth and dimension that was more than mere representation. When you saw her art (especially her most recent art) you got a sense, a feel of depth in it, like you do in many of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. She understood space and could create it in a two-dimensional plane.
Others noticed her excellence. She had taken art as an elective (we had electives in our high school) and her teachers were amazed. They praised her endlessly. One suggested she go to art school. She told them she doubted she would pursue a career in art but would always paint for the pleasure of self-expression. I knew, though, that she wanted to paint. She wanted to be an artist despite what she told her teachers.
When I commented upon her amazing creation of depth, she replied that she had always puzzled over how to represent space in a painting.
“In a lot of my early paintings I saw the space around objects as emptiness. Now I’ve come to realize that space isn’t emptiness. It’s a part of things—of creation. It’s infinity. Father Samuel suggested a book that talks about how Russian mathematicians could comprehend infinity because they believed it was related to the order of creation.”
He had suggested that book to me as well, but I had not bothered to read it. I resolved that I would.
“Once you know space is something and not nothing it makes it come alive—at least for me. It isn’t flat, vacant emptiness. Something is there. Something makes it tangible and real. It intrigued me that Russian mathematicians were not troubled by thoughts of infinity—not like Cohen was troubled about the set that contains all sets. They believed that God made all things. Vast, huge things, or empty things—things like space and infinity—are not fearful for them because they knew it was emptiness—not a manifestation of nothingness that threatens to engulf us. Rather, they’re the designed by a benevolent Creator.”
Since going to church with me, Ming had become cozy with the Xun family. Their younger daughters liked her and the family saw her as a good influence on them (because of her influence their mother was letting them wear their skirts shorter). She began attending church with them.
As we headed for graduation, Ming gained admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because they had the best pre-med program in the country. Ninety per cent of the students who graduated from the program were admitted to medical school. Her father rejoiced at this but expressed concern that she was spending so much time painting.
“It’s a good thing to do, and I know she enjoys it, but I’m afraid it’s taking up too much of her time.”
“Her grades are good. She said she had all A’s.”
“Yes. Still, pre-med and then medical school take a lot of time and determination.”
“She’s doing well academically now. I’m sure she will do well in the future.”
Her art teachers marveled at her creations; the other staff who taught art expressed astonishment. One took some of her paintings to a local gallery. The gallery wanted to buy them and offered a good sum of money.
“It was hard to sell them,” Ming said. “I couldn’t part with one of them, so I kept that particular painting and sold the other two. I can pay off good chunk first semester charges with the money I got from them.”
Her father was pleased but wary. I told him Ming was looking forward to her pre-med training and to eventually serving as a physician.
“Her teachers want her to exhibit her art—with the aim of selling it. Did you know that?”
“No, sir. I did not know that.”
The surprised expression on my face convinced him I was telling the truth.
“They want her to exhibit a week after she graduates. That means she will have to have enough art that there will be a variety choice for people who come there to buy. Painting new canvases will take up quite a lot of her time.”
I nodded. I was still surprised Ming had not told me about this.
At school I asked her about her painting. Her eyes lit up and she asked me what I had heard. I told her and she filled me in on what was happening. Her teachers had arranged for an exhibit at a local gallery. They had also released a pre-exhibit Facebook page. She already had offers on four works, which would be taken as opening bids. I could tell she was excited. She told how much she had been paid for the painting she had done earlier in the year. The bids she had gotten online for the other two paintings, combined with that, might even pay for her first semester at college.
She had become fast friends with the Hue family. She had also become a catechumen in the Orthodox Church. She was taking classes about the beliefs of my church and planned to present herself as a convert and be baptized. She had asked her father for permission to do so. He seemed astonished, she told me, but not negative about her choice. He admired the Hues, was not hostile to religion, and knew that Ming would not want to convert to a religion unless she had thought the matter. “She might be impressionable,” he later told me, “but she is not impulsive.” He said his family had practiced “village Buddhism” but abandoned it when they immigrated. Quite a few of his relatives had become Christians and the religion did not seem to have done them any harm. Father Samuel appointed Mr. Hue as her sponsor; he appointed Vickie, his wife, as her godparent. Ming attended a class every Saturday afternoon and attended services, sitting either with me or with the Hue family. She did not participate but observed. Afterword, she would ask me to explain things. Pastor Shung obviously thought Ming was not worth fighting over and did not objects to her conversation.
My father was delighted that Ming would be received into the church. He once commented that I did not seem overly enthused about it.
But inwardly I was brutally honest with myself and knew I was not.
Nothing about Ming had changed. I would almost say she had not done anything to put me off, but I had to admit that she had.
Her Father and Mother seemed to realize her potential as a painter. She had earned a sizeable sum of money for the works she had sold already; if there were other bidders at the exhibit, she might earn even more. Ming still meant to go to Chapel Hill and do a pre-med degree; but she would paint. It might even be that she would choose to be an artist and not go to medical school. Her course was set either way.
She did not need my help to determine her future.
That was the shame of it. I had loved her not as she was but because she had assumed a role that I, in my fantasies, had always wanted to realize. I had seen her as the damsel in distress, the kidnapped princess, the oppressed maiden suffering unjustly: Cinderella, Rapunzel, Una in The Fairie Queene. I, the knight in shining armor, had ridden up to rescue her. Now she had shaken free of the restraints that, when we met, had hindered her. Those distresses had ended; she had eluded her kidnappers; she had lifted herself from injustice.
Where did this leave me?
I felt stupid, felt like a jerk who fit the description I heard from time to time about patriarchal men. As long as I could rescue my helpless princess from oppression of demanding parents, I was a hero. Then she turns out to be the woman warrior. She had freed herself.
The conflict of being a human being: I was happy for her, but I felt chagrined that she had succeeded in determining the direction of her life. I rejoiced to see her determination but felt slighted that she had decided the course of her life without my help. I cheered her independence but felt offended because she had arrived at her aim apart from me.
A fool, a jackass, a sexist, an egotist? Yes. Only yesterday she had asked me, “Is something wrong, Stephen?”
I said no.
“But you act like I’ve done something that bothers you. What is it? You can tell me.”
I saw the worry in her eyes.
I put my arms around her and said I was sorry. I had a lot on my mind; some family issues that had arisen (this was an out-and-out lie) and I was up in the air about which college to attend and how to pay for it (again, false: I was going to MIT and had a full-ride scholarship; my family had saved for years and their “college account” had accrued huge amounts of interest so that money was not an issue). That was Thursday. I said I would pick her up after she finished her class at church and we could do something together. She nodded but still looked uneasy.
I could not pay attention in class. I went to the school nurse and told her I didn’t feel well and wanted a pass to go home. She wrote one out for me. I drove to my church.
The side door was unlocked. I went into the sanctuary and sat down.
If you’ve grown up in church—whatever kind of church is; whether ornate with icons and a magnificent altar like mine or a plain-style Baptist place of worship—being there soothes you. I felt that familiar, vaguely numinous sensation fall of me. I had not come to pray. Maybe I needed to pray for forgiveness but I did not have that in mind either. I guess I had come, more than any other reason, for perspective.
One of my teachers my Junior year assigned, “Church Going,” by Philip Larkin, a Twentieth-Century English poet, an unbeliever, who wrote a poem about going biking and stopping at an empty church. It had the lines
A serious house on serious earth it is
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized and robed as destinies.
He goes on to say it is a place “proper to grow wise in.” I had liked the poem, read and re-read it so often I had memorized those lines. The house of God? I believed it was. A sacred space where God could manifest himself? Certainly. But even Larkin, who said he did not believe, recognized that it was a “serious house.” It was the site of wisdom, a place to gain wisdom. There was, he suggested, “just something” about being there. It was a place to enter and, there, to realize.
I sat for a while. I did pray and then went home.
Ming looked anxious when I met her after her class at church. I tried to show that I felt better. She smiled and looked relieved.
“I can get caught up in myself too much,” I told her. She thought I meant over the problems I told her of the other day (which were fictitious). I knew what I really meant.
We went to the Hues and enjoyed a meal. Then all of us went to Leonard Street Park, which had hiking trails and a wilderness area.
As we walked on the hiking trails, I thought of how Ming was perceptive, intelligent, and analytical. I knew she would have seen through my subterfuge after a while; she would have figured out what had been bothering me. I was only glad I had had the humility to be realistic about my own failings and change my perspective. As we hiked with the Hue family, I was thankful—for Ming, of course; for the beauty of an early summer day; and for a serious house that stood on serious earth.