In my junior year of college, I took a course titled “Modern Spanish Survey” to satisfy my Spanish major requirements. That semester we had a student from Russia named Yaroslav. During introductions on the first day of class, he said he came to the States when he was fourteen and was a third-year PhD student in Physics. When asked about why he was taking the course, he said with a straight face, “¿Por qué no?” He had long hair that went to his shoulders and seemed to possess an endless variety of loafers—from leather to suede, beige to a hue of bright yellow. They fit in well with his loose jeans. He also sported a light stubble and a pair of rimless glasses, lending him a serious academic look.
We started off the course like any other course. We spent a week brushing up on our grammar, conjugating subjuntivos in various tenses. Then we got to reading some post-romantic literature. The professor was engaging. She liked to use a combination of videos and historic photographs to complement the texts. She invited us to share our opinions and only shared hers at the end of a discussion after everybody had spoken. She also liked to direct the hard questions at Yaroslav perhaps because she thought he was older and wiser. Once she asked him whether Carlos, a minor character in a play we’d just watched, picked out the seeds when he was peeling his orange and what it implied about his mental state. Yaroslav cleared his throat and said, “There was no orange in the play, profesora. They only ever ate grapes and pomegranates.” The professor laughed, “Now that’s somebody who’s serious about Modern Spanish Survey.”
But soon she started to draw connections to Yaroslav’s background. She talked about Spanish handshaking customs at the peak of the Victorian Era, and she asked whether Yaroslav was aware of any similar customs in Russia. We read about the bigger and thicker cannons Spain developed following the Glorious Revolution, and she asked if Yaroslav had seen similar models in the museums in Russia. She said the museums in our city were too modern to display war artifacts. Once she said to Yaroslav amidst our discussion of the Catalan composer, Llobet, “I heard his music is still popular in some regions of Russia.” To most of her remarks, Yaroslav would respond with either “I’m not sure, it’s been a while” or “Yeah, I think so, my grandparents probably have memories of it.” He answered these questions in the same way he’d answer her other questions—dry, serious, and with a hint of aloofness in his eyes. We couldn’t help but turn to stare at him every time his home country was mentioned. He must’ve felt it too, as evidenced by the occasional blush on his face.
I didn’t know what the others were thinking. Perhaps it was simply a momentum that commanded unity in the classroom. Or likely, they were curious just like the professor and wanted to know Yaroslav’s response. But I felt an elevation in my heartbeat as if I was in the ride together with Yaroslav. Given the circumstance, it was an odd sensation; he and I were practically strangers, never having spoken a word to each other.
During the introductions, I’d said I was from California, twisting my accent so my Spanish would sound as American as possible. I did not go Yaroslav’s route and say I was born in China and came to the US at the age of nine. Of course, nine was a different concept from fourteen. It meant the difference between childhood and adolescence. Nonetheless, I wondered if the professor’s questions would be tailored differently had I shared the fact. I knew she’d been to China for conferences; her laptop wallpaper was a picture of her atop the infamously crowded Great Wall. At the same time, I also felt this inexplicable pleasure brewing inside of me. Seeing the blush on Yaroslav’s pearl white skin, sometimes I had to control myself from smirking.
This funny feeling continued till one night when I was alone in my dorm room. I forgot what I was doing at the time, but the room was cold. Autumn was becoming winter; I saw the first hint of snow on my window. In terms of mentality, I was probably dreaming up the same thoughts as other nights: the pretty girl in tennis club and the impossible task of finishing nine textbooks by the end of the semester for my philosophy class. Then I felt a chill sweep over my belly, and abruptly, almost as if without resistance, I recalled a scene from Mrs. Stranton’s sixth-grade history class.
“Now, let’s examine the first conflict of the Cold War,” Mrs. Stranton said, pointing at a paper map of Korea on the wall. “The Chinese invasion of the Korean Peninsula caused a rippling effect. America was put in a tough spot…” Like most days, I gawked at her sparkling lip gloss and cute freckles, but something about the “Chinese” invasion left a bitter taste in my mouth and went against the history that’d been ingrained in my memory. I raised my hand.
“But it was America who invaded Korea. The Chinese only intervened out of defensive necessity. If you look at the map, there’s only a minor river and a chain of hills between the two countries.”
The class was dead silent. Everyone paused what they were doing to look at me. I felt my body temperature rise, but I stayed put—such was the determination when we were young and starry-eyed. Mrs. Stranton and I entered into a staring contest. Then she massaged the pimple on her chin and said, “Well Allen, that’s one way to look at it. But—” She paused to look at the clock, conceivably realizing that there was no point in arguing with a kid. “But,” she continued, “We’re running low on time. Let’s review your quizzes.”
After that class all of my peers, except Nikita, kept a distance from me for a week. Nikita confessed to me. She told me I was a respectable man. “A real man ought to have your honor,” she said. I nodded and thanked her. She invited me to her lunch table and shared a slice of her pizza with me. We held hands for an afternoon.
I turned up the heat in my dorm room. I tried to think of other things to distract myself—reminiscence is unproductive and wasteful, I still believe—but that scene in Mrs. Stranton’s classroom seemed fixed in my mind. I went to sleep early that night. I slept well and dreamed mostly of waterfalls and sandy beaches. When I woke up, the scene was back. It followed me to the bus station and to the dining hall. I looked at my raviolis, and I only saw Mrs. Stranton’s freckled face, the surprised yet speechless expression on her face. Then out of nowhere Yaroslav entered my train of thought, and naturally, almost effortlessly, his face replaced Mrs. Stranton’s. Although I couldn’t quite grasp the connection between my one-off experience as a twelve-year-old and the reticent third-year physics PhD candidate, I felt this sudden urge to speak to him. The urge was at once overwhelming, overriding my desire to eat. I felt like sharing things with him—the vending machine where I bought my protein shakes, my studying spot in the library, the one-line limerick I’d read in the New York Times last week that I thought wasn’t funny at all. I felt like playing him in a sport—basketball, football, volleyball, soccer—to juggle a ball between the two of us.
I carried this energy with me to Modern Spanish Survey, but when I saw Yaroslav waiting outside the classroom by himself, all I managed to squeeze out was, “Hola, ¿Qué tal?”
He was leaning against the wall, reading a book, his trench coat hovering neatly over his loose jeans and kiltie loafers. He pushed up his glasses and looked at me. “Bien,” he said in his deep voice.
“Bueno, eso es bueno,” I said. Our conversation ended here. He went on reading his book. I played around on my phone to avoid the awkwardness. In a couple of minutes, the other students arrived, and the professor opened the door. On the way to our seats, I saw Yaroslav looking back at me. He still had that solemnity about his face, but I saw a slight tilt in the corners of his mouth. He seemed to be smiling at me, as if he knew what I was thinking.