When you have a Chinese boyfriend, you have a strange sensation, perhaps the first since your arrival to China — that maybe you’re not so foreign, or so different. The way John spoke to me, and cared for me, made me feel — if only for a moment here and there — that we were equals.
Yet after he left, I began to see that it wasn’t just John who had the capacity to see past my foreign face.
“We shouldn’t see each other as a Chinese and an American.” Those were the words of Zhang Bin, a friend who lived across the street from our office — and who agreed to make lunch with me during the weekdays.
Lunch had been a headache for me ever since I entered the company. The boxed lunches delivered daily to the office were too greasy, and had few vegetables to satisfy a vegan, driving me to find lunch alternatives outside the building. I found them in a variety of restaurants — from a local Zhejiang specialty restaurant to a Japanese noodle house — but usually had to enjoy lunch alone.
I didn’t mind it at first. But when you’re a foreigner, nobody forgets your patronage — and the more you come to a restaurant, the more the servers or restaurant help seem to stare or simply whisper about you. I liked the food, but I didn’t like being on display, all on my own, and desperately hungered for something better.
That’s when Swallow made the suggestion that changed lunches as I knew them forever. “You could try cooking with Zhang Bin. He spends every day at home studying, preparing for the post-graduate exam.”
I had met Zhang Bin — a good Sichuan friend of Swallow’s who shared an apartment with her and her fiancee. He was a reticent, gangly fellow with a who I had barely spoken with, even though he did come to my birthday party this past summer. But he seemed nice enough. “He wouldn’t mind having me around?”
Swallow flashed me her warm, Sichuan smile. “He already has to make lunch on his own. How much trouble would it be to do lunch for two people? I’ll suggest it to Zhang Bin and see what he thinks.”
Zhang Bin loved it. It was hard for me to imagine Zhang Bin getting excited about anything — excitement wasn’t an emotion that I had seen register across his otherwise shy gaze. But it was easy for me to accept a reprieve from the restaurants.
It was more than that, however. Zhang Bin’s kitchen was the antidote for the gratuitous lunchtime stares and whispers of any local restaurant — because Zhang Bin didn’t care that I was a foreigner.
“We shouldn’t see each other as a Chinese and an American. We’re just two friends, working together.”
After that, I crossed the street into Zhang Bin’s kitchen every day for lunch. And, even though my Chinese boyfriend, John, was far away, I could still cross into worlds, and moments, where being a foreigner just didn’t matter.
Have you ever had a moment — or a friend or lover — that made you forget you were a foreigner?
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.