Sometimes love isn’t enough, as A Dream of Red Mansions — theÂ classic Chinese novel of the demise of a powerful family during the Ming Dynasty — tells it. It’s not enough that Lin Daiyu and Jia Baoyu love each other — love is not theirs to choose, but chosen by their parents instead. And the weepy, sensitive, and critical Lin Daiyu just can’t win hearts like the well-behaved, more presentable Xue Baochai. Xue Baochai and Jia Baoyu are married, and Lin Daiyu dies not long afterward.
As I read A Dream of Red Mansions on the afternoon of September 14, 2002, I am reminded that life is not always ours to choose — that sometimes, things happen. Sometimes, things just die…like the power.
I was all by myself that rainy afternoon, while John went to spend the day saying goodbye to his close male friends from high school and college, his “brothers” — in just five days, he would go to Shanghai to start graduate school. I spent the afternoon with the love triangle in A Dream of Red Mansions — Lin Daiyu and Jia Baoyu and, yes, even Xue Baochai. But as I turned the pages, approaching Lin Daiyu’s inevitable demise, the power suddenly went out. Not long after that, so did Lin Daiyu, on the pages of my book.
With no John, no power, and no Lin Daiyu, my world — from the pages to the present — felt so dark and lonely. If John was saying goodbye to his “brothers,” I seemed to be saying hello to what it would be like without him by my side. I wonder if that alone could have sent Lin Daiyu — who was ill even as a baby — to the sickbed.
I wasn’t that sensitive. But pretty soon, the rain, cold and emptiness chilled my soul, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t be alone — even if it meant spending time with my next-door neighbors, who happened to have power.
Teacher Tang was a famous calligrapher from Hangzhou, and he had an ostentatious, but boring wife, Zhang, who loved to boast about all of the free gifts and trips they took around China. Initially, they welcomed me in to share dinner — but then dinner turned into something more.
“Would you like to sing karaoke with us?” Zhang blurted out, with her usual self-satisfied, sour smile. I figured she probably invited me over just to tell everyone about how she sings karaoke with her foreign friend — from America. But I didn’t care. I needed something — anything — to remind me that I wasn’t alone.
“Sure, that would be great.” I walked in and sat down on the couch. Tang and Zhang, like many Chinese families, had an in-home karaoke system with a microphone and device that looked like a DVD player.
“Pick a song,” said Zhang, thrusting the songbook into my hands. But as I flipped through the pages, I discovered she had none of the more recent songs I knew, songs from Jay Chou.Â The only song I could find was by Xu Meijing, “Moonlight in the City.”
I stumbled through it, miserably, as I realized I couldn’t recognize all of the characters in traditional Chinese. The karaoke system rated me at the end of the song — I got a 66. I turned red as saw Zhang’s judgmental glance, which seemed to say “you need practice.”
Zhang then grabbed the microphone from me, and put on some really old-school karaoke, a song I didn’t recognize from the 1980s. She stood up and belted it out, hitting every note and character confidently. When the system rated her performance, she got a 98.
“A-ha!” she exclaimed. “I have the highest score!” I slumped back in the couch. I didn’t do any better on the only other Xu Meijing song I knew, “Regret,” and Zhang seemed to regret I sang again. I regretted I even came.
So, not long after, I decided to leave on the pretense that I was exhausted. I returned to my dark, powerless apartment, and, laying on my bed, did the only thing I thought of to fill the space — singing Chinese pop songs. But pop and its empty melodies cannot sooth a lonely soul. No next-door-neighbor company, karaoke, or Chinese pop songs could change the fact that I was alone today. Or that John was leaving me for graduate school in five days. This past month and a half with John had been like a long party. And, like Lin Daiyu, I feared the loneliness at the end of the party.
Soon, the inevitable tears came along, even as I continued to sing to myself. Lin Daiyu, famous for her tears, would have understood, but would John?
Even John’s party that day had to come to an end. At 12:30a.m., he returned home.
“Where have you been?” I sobbed. I got up from bed and embraced him as if he had been away for a year, not an afternoon and evening. “The power went off. And my book was too sad. And I couldn’t do anything later on but sing to myself to pass the time.” I blurted each out in between tears, squeezing him even tighter.
“I’m sorry — I didn’t know you were in trouble,” said John in Chinese, holding me. “But I’m here now.”
He was here. He had been with me for more than a month and a half. I only hoped he would still be here after he went to Shanghai — and that love was enough to keep us together.
Did the fear of separation — or loneliness — ever haunt you in a relationship?
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.