Incidentally, my penchant for short-term memorization worked less well in the Chinese language: I could pass the examinations with ease, but I could not keep the vocabulary, especially the devilish written characters, in my head long enough to build a solid linguistic foundation. In good automaton tradition, I went from the first few words of Chinese-language study in the fall of 1964 to a doctorate in Qing dynasty history in the spring of 1969 (something of a speed record in a difficult field). My mentor was the brilliant Professor Jonathan Spence, who painstakingly guided me through a doctoral dissertation Policies and Factionalism in the Oboi Regency, 1661 1669 demanding two years of research, all in classical documentary Chinese.
The rigors of scholarship never suited me at all. I enjoyed learning about Asian history and culture, but I never felt at home doing fastidious library research. Spence could make ancient Chinese records come alive with magical stories, but for me, it was more like dissecting old Yellow Pages. I just turned on my inner machine, conducted disembodied research, wore out Chinese-language sources and dictionaries, and spit out a doctoral thesis.
So why spend so many years pursuing something not in my heart? The honest answer is that I had to get that doctorate. I couldn't wait to receive the deep blue doctoral robe and hood that signified "Dr. Robert Oxnam." Like the Chinese scholar-officials who wore emblems to signify their status, I sought to project the image of "success" in every sense of the word.
For the next two decades, I sought to reap the rewards of all this academic preparation, to live the dream of success. But like the famous twin masks of Greek drama, one face radiated smiling confidence, but the other face, generally hidden from view, was contorted with rising pain.
Excerpted from A FRACTURED MIND by Robert B. Oxnam. Copyright 2005 Robert B. Oxnam. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion.
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