Sometimes, life doesn’t keep the people you love the most by your side. As John left on September 19 for Shanghai, I still spent every workday in the office with Frank, my ex-Chinese boyfriend, sitting right by my side. And on September 23, I would have to attend a conference in Beijing with Frank.
Mr. CEO, the head of this Chinese Internet company, had asked me to go to the conference. “I’d like you to help represent the company,” said the sprightly 30-year old with a hand cupped over a slight smile, almost as if embarrassed. Maybe Mr. CEO had so much more to say, but simply kept it to himself.
Frank, however, wasn’t about to keep to himself his assessment of why I was going. “You’re there for ornamental purposes,” he announced confidently, almost with a smirk on his face. I wasn’t a Christmas tree, yet it was obvious that Mr. CEO needed me there to make the company look more international. Still, Frank’s words smacked of such sarcasm, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was how he pushed me away and created space between us — even when that space, physically, didn’t exist.
When you’re forced together, against your will, sometimes language is all you have for separation. I had stopped calling him Frank a long time ago, using his Chinese name instead. It was as if the thoughtful, romantic, imaginative Frank had been replaced by a cold, cynical Wang Zhigong. I could no longer find any comfort in Frank’s company, and Frank must have wanted it that way — even on this trip to Beijing.
After my arrival, I stood at Tian’anmen Square with Frank and the selected sales reps and sales managers attending the conference, discussing what we might visit in our limited spare time here.
Helen, the Chinese sales rep I’d been assigned to room with, spoke up. “We only have one afternoon, right? So maybe we can see the Summer Palace, or the Forbidden City, or the Temple of Heaven. But I’m not sure we can see all three.”
Frank, grinning, suddenly jumped into the conversation. “I saw The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace all in one afternoon.”
“You did not!” Helen and I both said to him, laughing.
“I did!” Frank declared.
But inside, I wasn’t laughing. It was the most ridiculous thing I’d heard, but simply who Frank was now.
Later that evening, Frank joined Helen and I as we went to a store near our hotel to pick up a few things. Frank decided to “entertain” us with questionable anecdotes about his childhood in Northern China. When we passed a few mule-drawn fruit carts in the streets of Beijing, he said this: “In my village, we only had mules to get around — I never saw a car until I left.” As we ate glutinous rice treats bought at the store, he asserted that “as a child, it took two hours to walk to school from his home.”
Even Helen, who grew up in an impoverished province in the middle of China, doubted his stories. “Come on, that’s not true!” Frank would never confirm or deny any of it, only leaving us with his crafty grin.
Like the Forbidden City — which he claimed to have visited in that hasty afternoon — Frank’s heart was impenetrable and fortified against the forces around him, especially ex-girlfriends like me. I haven’t any idea as to what goes on behind the walls around his heart, and I will never know.
Have you ever had to use language to create a barrier — when distance just wasn’t possible? Or have you ever felt the linguistic distance between someone you used to be close to?
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.