John’s second oldest brother, Er Ge, was like the wallflower of Chinese New Year at the family home in China’s countryside. He usually lingered in the corners with a slight hunchback and frightened, delicate eyes, like a fragile little sparrow hoping to escape the marauding glance of humans. There was a quiet, impenetrable sadness that clouded his personality, and somehow, I couldn’t get past a Ni Hao to really know the man within.
Only 26 years old, he was the only brother who still lived at the family home. He didn’t care much for study, only finishing Junior High and then going on to become an itinerant worker in the countryside, doing odd jobs for relatives and friends. But none of this seemed to explain why Er Ge withdrew from the world.
So I asked John one evening, as we sat around the hot coals and watched Chinese television. “Er Ge is so quiet. Has he always been like that?”
John shifted on his stool, and sat up, turning his face towards me. “He was always quieter than me and Da Ge — but he’s even quieter now. You know, he has reached the marrying age in the countryside, but he still hasn’t found a girl yet. It’s hard for him because he doesn’t have very good social skills.”
“I guess the family must worry about him.”
“My mother and other relatives are very concerned about him, because they think he should be married.”
I imagined that pressure — to be 26 and still not married, according to the custom in the countryside; to be reminded of this by your mother and close relatives, even as you felt helpless to solve the problem yourself.
I took a photo of Er Ge holding his nephew, Kaiqi — the son of Da Ge. His eyes fell towards the infant child in his arms, with a stoic face. I wondered about the feelings, masked behind that reticence. Was he content to hold the newest member of the family? Or was the baby simply a stinging reminder of the marriage and family life he still didn’t have?
Have you ever been surprised by the story behind the reticence of a friend or family member in China (or elsewhere)?
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, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.