A few weeks ago, Kane Gu graciously regaled us with the story of how one “foreign student-turned-party boy” found the love of his life in New Zealand. It’s a beautiful love story and worth a read.
But what happens when Kane finally introduces his fiancee to China and his hometown of Xi’an for the first time? A fiancee that has never stepped foot in the Middle Kingdom and doesn’t speak of word of Chinese? It’s one big cross-cultural adventure that the two of them will never forget.
If you want to be like Kane and have your words published on Speaking of China, check out my submit a post page for details.
In August 2012, almost 2 years after Jo and I first met, we became engaged to be married on a cool Autumn night by the beach at Maraetai. There, Jo whispered in my ear, “I will.” We both knew we were in for an adventure of a lifetime together.
My adventure first began when I crossed the Pacific and found Jo. Then one day, we decided to trace my steps back to visit my hometown of Xi’an, China. This is my place of origin, the land that nourished me as a child, the great Northwest and the Loess Plateau dotted with cave dwellings, the voice of Qin and of a people born tough but pure of heart.
Southern comfort, Northern discomfort
We arrived in late August, expecting the weather to cool down as Autumn approached. I had been away from home so long that I had forgotten just how vicious the sun was during the Xi’an summers. While I was born and bred in Xi’an, I had suggested that we should bring warm clothing, only to be assaulted by scorching temperatures above 38C upon our arrival. There we were, each carrying a thick coat as we stepped off the plane while quickly realising how big of a mistake we had made. Needless to say, suddenly I felt even more foreign than the white guy we saw at the airport dressed in a t-shirt and shorts.
Since we arrived at lunchtime, my parents decided we should grab a quick bite to eat before we get to their apartment. My heart yearned for some roujiamo and cold noodles — typical Xi’an street food — from a typical Xi’an roadside restaurant. As we walked in, I was reunited with all the familiar and delicious aromas of pickled garlic, slow cooked pork for the roujiamos, vinegar and chilli oil. With the noisy atmosphere and the scattered tables full of people, all these memories suddenly came pouring out and I felt home again.
I couldn’t say the same for Jo, however. She was the only white person in the entire restaurant. The moment she walked into the room, all the chattering and clinking of utensils ceased abruptly with her presence as 50 heads turned her way — some amused, some bewildered, and some just amazed. As we searched around and found a table to sit down, everyone gradually returned to their own business and the noise resumed. Our dishes arrived quickly to the table one by one and so did some curious gazes. Jo quietly said to me she felt uncomfortable with the amount of staring and attention she was receiving, which didn’t surprise me. Even I felt a little uneasy about it. But I had to reassure her that people are simply curious about why a foreigner would visit a humble local eatery, and what she was doing with a Chinese family. To many, an East-West relationship is still a novelty and when the man happens to be a local, he gets to become the “translator” and the “tour guide”, as I had been referred to on multiple occasions.
Lost in translation
Even with a translator on standby 24/7 (me), life still became difficult for my non-Mandarin-speaking fiancee.
A lack of English signage made outings impossible without me accompanying her. She had limited abilities to converse with anyone else but me and translations were not always easy with cultural and social contexts were thrown in. Once a minor mistake caused a major misunderstanding between Jo and my mother. Ever since Jo had some dental work done on her teeth, she was advised to avoid foods that are “hard to eat”. In English it would generally be intepreted as items that are hard or chewy, but in Chinese, if directly translated it becomes “nanchi”, which means “unpalatable”. This, unfortunately, was how I translated Jo’s English when she was discussing a particular dish with my mom — and you can imagine my mom wasn’t happy about her dish being regarded as “nan chi”. I finally explained to her that it was indeed an error on my behalf rather than because of her cooking.
Of course, while we were out exploring the countless heritage sites Xi’an and its surrounding areas had to offer, we were solicited by one hawker after another, attempting to offer us their goods and services at vastly inflated prices. A refusal from me in the local dialect however would normally suffice in stopping the harassment, even against the very persistent ones.
While globalisation draw nations closer to each other than ever, you would think people around the world now would have more in common. But when it comes to fashion, this isn’t always the case.
What Jo, a young Kiwi woman, would consider as fashionable and attractive was almost never the same as her Chinese counterparts and vice versa. And on the rare occasions when she actually liked something, it was never in a size or style that would actually fit her. Jo had trouble shopping for almost everything in Xi’an. The biggest shoes we could find were always half a size too small. Not much luck with clothing either, as she is considered a big girl in China while her size is quite normal in New Zealand.
However, having a Chinese MIL shop with you could be a huge advantage. First, she knows where to go. Second, you end up saving hundreds as a result of her expertise in bargaining. And third, if she likes her daughter-in-law enough she might even offer to foot the bill as a gift. The drawbacks? Besides the aforementioned difference in taste, you will get taken to some very “Chinese” shopping complexes. Forget the modern, glitzy and smoke-free malls with all the creature comforts you can afford. Some hidden jewels and good bargains can be found in those sweaty, overcrowded, and sometimes gritty looking suburban shopping centers (if you knew how to find them in the first place).
For the love of food
To many expats out there, nothing reminds them more of home than the food they grew up on. It could be something simple like a burger or pizza, or in my case, cold noodles, roujiamo, and street snacks like barbecued lamb on skewers. Coming home brought me back to food paradise, but for Jo, it was a shock to the system, literally. All these new delicacies and spices just didn’t agree with her stomach.
When my mom suggested that we should go to Pizza Hut one day for lunch, I could almost hear the excitement in Jo’s voice as she said, “Please, that sounds great!” Just like back home? Perhaps it tasted even better than the Pizza Hut we remembered from back home, or perhaps I had cravings as well. So in the following days, we had sampled all the Western foods in the area — first KFC, followed by McDonald’s and Papa John’s pizza. It was like festival time for Jo and her poor shell-shocked Western stomach.
It all ended when Jo discovered Haidilao, that extremely popular hotpot chain across the country. Despite the unspeakable aftermath of each hotpot session, we kept coming back for more. Maybe Jo had found the perfect comfort food in China? It might not have reminded her of home, but it made her feel at home: a family sitting around a table, cooking and eating at the same time while laughing and chatting away. You’d never find this kind of family atmosphere in New Zealand!
That trip to China was a homecoming for me, and it was an eye-opening experience for Jo. She felt frightened at first, but then I witnessed her transformation as the days progressed. She established a mutual friendship with my parents as they readily accepted her into our family with open arms. She faithfully accompanied me halfway around the globe into a world of unknowns just to experience my homeland with me. What more could I ask for in a woman? My parents loved her as well. They already consider her a xifu or daughter-in-law despite the fact that we weren’t married yet.
Eventually, that inevitable day came when we had to say goodbye. As my parents watched us walk through the departure gate, that familiar feeling erupted in my chest again just as it did 10 years before when I left home for the first time. I tried to hold back my emotions and turned around to glance at Jo. But the moment I gazed upon her, she turned away. In the corner of her eye, I saw something flickering and eventually running down her cheek. Maybe I wasn’t the only one that had come home after all.
Kane Gu found his true love in Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.
Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts and love stories! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.