John brought me to Tonglu, his hometown in the Chinese countryside, to climb Daqi Mountain. If only I knew I’d have to do more than just climb the mountain — I’d have to climb out of the mess I created this morning.
John didn’t see the best of me on that bus, complaining about the indirect, circuitous route, the precipitous driving, the secondhand smoke, the unpredictable pickups and drop-offs. It was only a couple of hours — why did I say anything at all? After my display of intolerance and impatience with China, did John wonder if the girl he fell in love with — the girl who opened herself to China, who wanted to understand — was still there?
As we sat down at one of Tonglu’s restaurants, dining on a feast of vegetarian delicacies for lunch, I laid myself out — with all of my flaws — like the dishes before us. “I’m so sorry about this morning. I don’t know what I was thinking. I may have been here in China for two years, but I don’t understand everything. I should have been more understanding.” I exposed myself for what I behaved like: a foreigner who only saw the shadows of China. But all I seemed to eat during lunch was shame, and the deep, persistent feeling that I was pushing John away.
As John gets closer to me, he also gets closer to what I fear most — my own shadows. I am something both beautiful and frightening, lovely and dark. He fell in love with the beautiful, lovely side of me, but will the frightening, dark parts of me turn him away?
Maybe they did for Frank, my ex-Chinese boyfriend. Nearly a month after we started dating, I found Frank’s words as a series of text messages one evening when I finished my workout at the gym. “Why are you creating such tension? Why do you have doubts about our relationship? You are selfish in your sensitivity. Your emotional fluctuations are too frightening!” The thing is, in a way, he was right. I did create tension, I had doubts, I did get too sensitive, and I cry just like that.
I didn’t want to cry now, but as John and I left the restaurant — with no sign that he had forgiven me — tears slowly welled up in my eyes. Crying isn’t going to help, especially in a country that values emotional restraint, but as long as I worry John might leave, my self-restraint is leaving me in this moment.
“Is there something wrong?” John turns to me with a look of concern.
I want to tell him so much — that I’m worried about where we are, that I want some reassurance, some kind of sign. But it’s just not the right time to say anything like that, and I just want the tears to go away.
“It’s my allergies,” I say.
“Let’s find a pharmacy, and get you some eye drops.” I clutch John’s arm like a blind girl, blind in so many ways, and he leads us to a pharmacy down the street, buying a little blue vial of eye drops shaped like a blue diamond prism. John opens the vial and dribbles the blue liquid into my eyes, like a second baptism, the cooling sensation in each drop somehow absolving me of the morning’s wrongs and imperfections.
After a few moments, the tears stop, even if the worry still lingers. But John only sees tears, not worry, and leads us on to Daqi Mountain, the peak we will climb that afternoon.
We pass through a bamboo forest at the base of the mountain, and then begin enter the forest, meandering up switchbacks in the granite trail that ends just below the summit. Each footstep, each movement, each word between us builds as we ascend, and so does my resolve for some sign. A sign that John still loves me, even with my shadows. As we pause at each overlook, or pool, or waterfall, I want to interrupt the conversation, to ask him. But my timing is like the birds above us flushed out with the our footsteps — just when I nearly have it in sight, it seems to fly away.
Finally, we reach the end of the trail, with a waterfall and a azure reflecting pool just below the summit. John and I take our shoes off and stand barefoot in the reflecting pool. We are both exposed, both caught in the moment, and, somehow, I can’t help but say what I’ve been longing to say.
“John, would you be able to tell me you love me?”
John turned towards me and smiled gently. “Yes. I love you.” He then took me in his arms and kissed me. I felt as though he kissed me a thousand times in that reflecting pool, cradling my head, letting my fears dissipate into the mist surrounding the waterfall.
Then we stopped for a moment and looked at each other, still in each others’ arms. “I’m such a silly girl,” I confessed with repentant eyes.
“No,” said John. “You’re not silly at all. Not at all.”
John and I glide down that mountain together, skipping and running down those switchbacks etched into this constant, solid mountain. Our relationship isn’t Daqi Mountain yet, but someday, we will find something just as constant and solid with one another, step by step, switchback by switchback.
Did you ever have an uncomfortable moment (or moments) with your boyfriend or girlfriend? How did you manage to “climb back into love” with them?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.