In Chinese, you can say so much, with so little. Four-character idioms could say what a sentence or two in English might. One character could even do the work of a short sentence or sentiment.
But sometimes simplicity invites questions — when one character could mean so many different things. Think about the character 到 (dao). Depending on how you use it, it could say: arrive or reach; to go to; up until, or up to; or thoughtful.
After spending several days touring Beijing with John, our conversations went from so much to so little, where silence filled more of our moments, as if our relationship, like one character, could say more than so many words.
Yet, despite our understanding, I longed for words. I found strength and security in John — in us as a real, lasting couple — through words. Without them, questions began to fill in my mind as we passed National Day together.
John and I arrived in Shanghai, and it was so thoughtful of him to take us to his school dormitory for a break, after the exhausting overnight trip on the train, with little sleep. With the questions churning in my tired mind, it wasn’t long before I did the not-so-thoughtful thing, sitting on his bed — I cried. The tears seemed as endless as the ridiculous questions in my head. And words to explain it all to John failed me.
It was easy enough to pretend there was nothing wrong, because Shanghai wasn’t home to me. On vacation, we filled the time with intimate meals, movies, and the landscape on the train from Shanghai to Hangzhou. But once I arrived in Hangzhou, in my familiar surroundings, suddenly my most familiar senses — my true feelings — came out, and there weren’t enough meals, movies and landscapes to make me forget. Especially at one evening dinner, just after watching “The Bourne Identity” in a theater, dubbed in Chinese.
“You’re so quiet. We’ve hardly talked during the past several days together. I just wonder…is everything okay with us?”
John looked up at me with placid eyes from his bowl of rice. “I’m just a quiet guy. That’s my nature. You should just learn to accept me.”
His words left me in silence — because they spoke the truth I had avoided all of these days. I had some more rice, and soup, as I searched for the words to say to him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be that way. I guess I just get emotional sometimes. Words are comforting to me.”
John didn’t need words the way I did. He grew up in a culture where you could say so much with so little. If I wanted to be his girlfriend, and more, I needed to learn how to manage the silence, how to know him beyond the words.
But, even so, a part of me understood the power of saying less, of showing, not telling. Before John left, I presented him with a formal scroll painting for his birthday, done by my next-door neighbor and local artist, Tang. “It’s to commemorate our first date by the West Lake, when we watched those bats flying across the water from Su Causeway.”
Something moved me to commission that painting so early in our relationship. Maybe I knew it then — that ours would be forever. That we had finally arrived into something thoughtful: true love.
Were you ever surprised by the silence from your Chinese boyfriend or Chinese girlfriend?
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.