There was no history of casual dating in John’s family. His maternal grandmother was a child bride, sent to live with her grandfather’s family when she was seven or eight, without the ability or understanding to contest her fate. She went from being a virginal pre-adolescent to a wife who would immediately bear children.
John’s mother, her daughter, married during the Cultural Revolution, in 1972 — with a “revolutionary marriage certificate,” stamped in red, to prove it. She was never a child bride, but still a stranger to this man, introduced to her through a matchmaker in the village, with a courtship that fast-tracked them straight to a wedding. Marriage was simply a practical matter, solving what the Chinese often refer to as their “personal problem.”
By the time I moved to Shanghai, John and I were as close as a husband and wife, living together and depending on each other. John had long decided we were a “settled couple” — that’s why he moved in with me in Hangzhou, only days after our historic first kiss. We had skipped casual courtship and went straight to something serious — serious enough to wonder about marriage.
Marriage marched down the aisles of my own mind during a mid-March dinner at a Greek restaurant with John in 2003, and I couldn’t help but tell him what nibbled at me as I nibbled on a vegetarian pita wrap.
“Sweetie, do you think we’ll get married someday?”
In the US, this was the sort of question for blase boyfriends, who strung along their girlfriends for years in a relationship more about fun than forever. But John was anything but blase about us — defying his parents to date me, a foreign woman; supporting me after I lost my job and visa; even inviting me to spend the Chinese New Year at his home. In our journey together, all roads already led to marriage. Why ask?
John looked up from his lamb pita wrap, dressed in a blue-and-white plaid shirt I’d bought him for his birthday, smiled generously, like a parent pleased with their child. “Sure — of course we’ll get married.”
There was no mystery now — we were walking our way to a wedding, someday, just as his grandmother did. But maybe it was easier to know the mystery was gone, because we had so much more to solve. In March 2003, graduate students in China still could not marry without the approval of their school — and, as the US Embassy’s website reminded us, schools in the past frequently expelled Chinese students for marrying foreigners:
Chinese students generally are permitted to marry if all the requirements are met, but they can expect to be expelled from school as soon as they do. American citizens wishing to marry Chinese students should bear this in mind. It also should be noted that at least one school in Beijing has required Chinese students to reimburse the school for hitherto uncharged tuition and other expenses upon withdrawal from school to marry foreigners. The fees in one case amounted to about 4,700 yuan per year of study completed, and the school would not release documents the student needed to register the marriage until the fees were paid. Some work units have also demanded compensation for “lost services.”
We didn’t believe any marriage could take place until John graduated from his Shanghai university, in June 2005.
Constrained by communist rule, we could only take comfort in the knowledge of a future forever, and the realization that, like many others in John’s family, we were anything but casual.
Did you ever talk marriage before you decided to get married?
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.