Essay: Speak Chinese and Juggle For Me
Recalling an unexpected encounter with Sergey Brin.
Editor's Note: Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20—or is it? In this year’s essay contest, East Bay writers think back on a pivotal or inconsequential decision to explore what they could have or should have done differently if given a second chance.
The essays are funny and lighthearted, touching and dramatic, philosophical and contrite. They follow the authors’ journey through careers, relationships, deaths, elementary school, high school, and resettlement. The pieces are populated with a plucky graduate student, a sorrowful son, a regretful mother, an awkward teen, a tomboy pupil, a clueless mom, and someone starting over. Settle in for a nice winter’s read.
Congratulation to the winning essayists—Julie Anderson, Naneen Karraker, Maureen Ellen O’Leary, Rosie Sorenson, Wendy Bomberg, Diane K. Quimby, and Robert Menzimer. Thanks also to the many other fine East Bay writers who submitted essays for the contest. We'll be publishing the seven winning essays online here during the next week--Judith M. Gallman.
The way it worked was this: Back in 2001, a couple of friends of mine from Cal invited me to a little party at their house in North Berkeley. I figured it would mostly be other grad students, no big deal, so I showed up with a bottle of top-shelf Two Buck Chuck, expecting to chat about research, teaching, and ramen. Sure enough, I soon found myself on a shabby sofa in my friends’ living room sitting next to a guy a little younger than me—in his late 20s—with the familiar, disheveled look of a grad student. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, had sharp features, dark, curly hair that had grown out a bit too much, and a laser-like focus I found slightly unnerving.
“So what are you doing this weekend?” he asked me. It wasn’t so much a pickup line as a way to make conversation.
“The usual,” I said. “Working on my dissertation, mostly. How about you?”
“I’m flying over to England to teach the Queen how to use the Internet,” he replied matter-of-factly.
For a moment, I just looked at him. Was this a joke? Was I supposed to laugh?
I tried to read his face, but got no cues. He just gazed humorlessly back
“Oh,” I said, and nodded, figuring I’d missed the punch line.
Despite the awkward start, we chatted a while longer. I told him I used to live in China and was studying Chinese literature. He told me he enjoyed practicing the circus arts on the weekend: the flying trapeze, acrobatics, that kind of thing. I mentioned that I could juggle.
Later that evening, I learned that I’d been talking to Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google. By 2001, “google” was already a verb.
What the hell is Sergey Brin doing here? I wondered, then found out a little later that he was a college friend of one of my hosts, and that the party was a singles mixer, unbeknownst to the invitees. Peter and Colin had thought it would be fun to throw a bunch of their straight friends together—six men and six women—and see what happened.
Later that night, I remember asking Sergey whether he’d been to Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. I was going to those former Soviet Republics that summer and figured he might know something about them since he said he’d been born in the Soviet Union.
“Why do you assume all Russians have been to Central Asia?” he snapped. “Have all Americans been to the Grand Canyon?”
“No, I guess not,” I replied. Since he seemed annoyed by the question, I tried a different tack.
“Um, can I have a lucrative part-time job at Google?”
The question just popped out. It seems so rude now, but I guess, at the time, I figured, well, why not? He didn’t seem to care for small talk and here was a golden opportunity to make some extra money while in grad school.
Sergey’s answer was, however, possibly even more unexpected than my question. “Maybe,” he said. “First, let’s see you speak Chinese and juggle at the same time.”
“Let’s see you speak Chinese and juggle,” he repeated.
I considered his request. It was weird, but why not?
Someone procured three tennis balls and I began to juggle while counting to 30 in Chinese. It was harder than I thought, but somehow I managed it without dropping a ball.
When I’d finished, he nodded. “OK,” he said. “Send me an email and we’ll talk.”
It’s at this point that the story comes to a crashing halt. I never emailed him, never followed up, never even really intended to, if I’m honest. Sometimes I think I should have taken the chance and quit grad school if he’d offered me a job. Perhaps I’d be a multimillionaire by now. Was it some weird form of self-sabotage that I never contacted him? Or was I just too scared to take a risk and leave the comfortable world of academia?
The irony, of course, is that I left academia anyway. I chose to remain in the Bay Area and teach high school rather than take a tenure-track job elsewhere. That alone probably makes me crazy in many people’s minds. But the truth of the matter is, I love my life here in the East Bay.
And yet. I can’t deny that I still sometimes think about it all these years later. Did I really make the right decision in never contacting Sergey Brin? The real answer, the most honest answer, I can come up with is: Who knows? You don’t get to compare outcomes, after all; you just get to pick one path and hope for the best. Maybe I chose well and maybe I didn’t. But in my more contemplative moments, I think that it probably doesn’t matter that much anyway. Maybe all that matters is that I show up for the life I’m living now—right now—in this very moment.
Julie Anderson teaches English at the College Preparatory School in Oakland. Her essays and stories have appeared in various journals including The Gettysburg Review, Other Voices, and Broad Street Magazine, which recently nominated her for a Pushcart Prize. You can follow her on Twitter
This essay appears in the January edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online Jan. 24, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.