In the 80s, in June, when I was in graduate school, a friend called me up and asked if I wanted to make an impromptu trip from Berkeley, California to Vancouver, BC. He wanted to drive up and see his father, who was ill, and could use help driving. I had family in Vancouver too. I said yes and we went.
He had been a fellow student at UBC, a double honors math and electrical engineering major. He signed his work with his initials, JWMP, which I loved. I liked words like that, one letter off. JWMP is jump with a w, or w-jump, or j-wump, I didn’t know, to me they were initials that danced. I had such a word of my own, which I used in my class notes, Thimk, which meant, think really hard about this.
JWMP was a year ahead of me, so we had no classes together. I first met him at a practice session for the Putnam exam, a challenging math contest, and he amazed me. Putnam exam solutions typically involve some kind of creative insight. JWMP presented a solution to a problem and he had the insight and the breadth and clarity to explain it very well. I strove to catch up to him.
We also worked summers for the math department, and hung out with other students who did so. There was a general project the last summer to assist JWMP with the GRE, Graduate Record Examination, a multiple choice general knowledge test. He had grown up in Hong Kong, struggled with English composition, and the GRE was a nightmare for him, despite the fact that he was one of the best math expositors I’ve ever known. One day we put a vocabulary matching item test on the board for him, and he got every item wrong. It turned out not to matter. He got into Stanford anyway.
The drive to Vancouver is about eighteen hours long. JWMP was an ironman. He drove four hours straight and then let me take a turn. We drove from morning till late at night. He had a cassette deck and one cassette tape, rock songs in Cantonese, which he played over and over. I got a little tired of it, because I couldn’t understand the lyrics, which was ironic, because at one point JWMP said to me, “These songs are so much better than English rock songs. You see, the lyrics have a meaning.” I felt embarrassed; perhaps he thought my smattering of Cantonese was much better than it was. So I didn’t correct him that I couldn’t really understand more than a word here and there.
He also told me, to my surprise, that his favorite subject in high school, in Hong Kong, was Chinese composition. I thought for sure it would have been math or physics. English composition, the five-paragraph expository essay, was such a bore and a chore for him. Chinese compositions, on the other hand, he told me, were supposed to be short, and deep. In his words, “they are supposed to have a meaning” as opposed to support an assigned thesis statement. I wondered if this was why he was so good at explaining mathematics — his practice with Chinese compositions.
I decided to visit a friend in Seattle on this trip, so we arranged that on the way back, I would leave Vancouver on my own a day earlier, visit my friend, and JWMP would pick me up in Seattle the following morning.
I overslept that morning, and was about 20 minutes late to JWMP’s car. When I arrived, he had his front window open, elbow on the sill, head on the elbow, looking dejected.
I apologized and asked if he’d been waiting long.
“About an hour,” he said.
For the next four hours, he was silent, drove with one arm, as far from me as possible. No music, not a word. I was sure it was my fault for making him wait a whole hour.
Finally I couldn’t stand the silence, so I apologized again.
He seemed to wake from a trance. “Didn’t I tell you?” He said. “My father died last night.”
“Oh no! I’m so sorry.” I struggled to say the right thing. I hadn’t known how ill his father was.
To my great relief, JWMP relaxed a little and chatted with me. He explained that even though his dad died the night before, he still had to go back to Palo Alto for a few days before the funeral to move to a different apartment.
Eventually he said: “My big regret is I didn’t finish my PhD before he died. I wanted to do that.”
“He was proud of you, Joe, you can bet on it,” I said. “There are so many things for him to be proud of, you were a UBC superman, you did great on the Putnam, you learned English, you got into Stanford…”
I didn’t know how to say it, but I know I got the tone right, because if ever there was a student for a dad to be proud of, JWMP was it.
JWMP gave me a sad little smile.
Click. In went the music cassette.
After listening for good while, I decided to come clean. “Could you translate this song for me? I really don’t know what it’s saying.”
“This one? This one is a great one. Let’s see:
It’s like I’m wandering around in a fog.
I don’t know what she means to say to me.
I’m going down an alley.
Where is this alley going? Is it a trap?
THIS TRAP –
Best. Lyrics translation. Ever.