Tang, the famous calligrapher and painter, and his wife, Zhang — my next door neighbors — lived a world as intentional as the eccentric style of Tang’s calligraphy scrolls that decorated the walls of their apartment. Tang painted and wrote calligraphy, often for dignitaries, officials, the elite — and they reciprocated lavishly. How did I know? Because Zhang told me, whenever I saw her in the hallway between our doors.
“Renjia songde — a gift from others,” she would tell me, her lips pursed smugly as she held up the latest swag — from Amway vitamins to the expensive, first harvest green teas, all from the endless stream of guests that the couple entertained most weekends. Sometimes she would blather on about a free trip somewhere, such as an upcoming visit to Huangshan that included a river cruise.
Personally, I didn’t need Zhang — or even Tang — to talk about all of their gifts or free trips or extra apartments in the city. I already respected Tang as an artist. He was the one who memorialized my first date with John at the West Lake, in a painting. But I suspected Zhang couldn’t help it — as the wife of a famous artist, his fame and glory was all that she had, and all that she could feel proud of. There was a sad, lonely woman behind the swag. So I would stand there, smile and nod, as if I was a parent who knew better, listening to a child.
But I could do more than listen. I was a foreigner. And as much as I hated to admit it, I knew foreigners had a certain cache in China, just like the luxury foreign brands, from Armani to Rolls-Royce, that Chinese aspired to own (like the knockoff Burberry purses and prints so popular all over the country). Chinese people, just like Zhang.
So, when my foreigner friends, Camille and Lawrence, came over for dinner one night, I suggested a visit to Tang and Zhang’s apartment.
It was the usual “Beijing Opera” show, with Zhang floating around their apartment showing off the latest paintings of Tang’s, or swag from fans, all over cups of that first-harvest green tea (the best pick of the season, as Zhang reminded us over and over). Clearly, a few foreign guests had given Zhang a perfect stage for her performance, and she loved it.
After Camille and Lawrence left me that evening, I went back over to visit Zhang. If this was a performance, I couldn’t help but wonder what her review was.
“This was an opportunity for us to give you mianzi.” She smirked, with her arms crossed, as if proud of her accomplishment.
Mianzi? I didn’t need her mianzi.
But sometimes, you don’t always get what you need from a relationship. The more I thought about Zhang, the more I realized — even this gesture was another way of flashing her husband’s fame and swag in front of my foreign face. To Zhang, her family was so famous, so elite, she could even give a foreigner good face.
In the end, I did what I always did: I smiled and nodded, and didn’t argue. While I didn’t need her mianzi, I did need one thing — peaceful relations. And that’s something that still can be had, even without gifts or celebrity status.
Did someone in China give you “mianzi” that you didn’t need?
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.