When I called for submissions a couple of weeks ago, never did I imagine the overwhelming response from readers. Literally within days of posting, the submissions started rolling in.
The first I received was this piece from a woman with the nickname “Smallsquirrel”. It is a poignant and thoughtfully penned story of how her engagement to a Chinese man from a prominent Beijing family eventually ended. I’m honored to kick off my new series — which I’m calling “Fenshou” from the pinyin for the Chinese word for breakup — with what I’ve titled “I Was Once Engaged to a Chinese Man.”
Long ago, in what seems like another lifetime, I was once engaged to a Chinese man.
I met this man, we’ll call him Zhong, in graduate school. We were peers. We dated and eventually planned to marry. During our relationship I tried very hard to understand his culture. He was from Beijing, and both of his parents were very successful. What I knew about China then I could fit in a single paragraph.
We eventually traveled to China so I could meet his family. I remember once Zhong had stringently told me that foot binding was a myth. It was “made up by the stupid Americans to shame China.” So imagine my shock when his aunty answered the door to the family home tottering on teensy nubs. I learned later from a family friend with a penchant for chatter that she had been married off as a young girl to a successful Army man. As a symbol of his wealth, so that she would be forever reliant on servants, her feet were broken after the marriage, folded over on themselves and bound tightly in cloth. Not two months after they were wed, the aunty’s husband was killed and she was shipped back to her family… crippled. When I tried to ask Zhong about the aunt, he ignored me. When I persisted, he wheeled around and hissed at me that we would never speak of it again.
This was my baptism into China.
China is an amazing place, full of beauty and preternatural grace. Walking through the streets of Beijing I felt as if I was in a movie. But I noticed that everything in China seemed to have a purpose. Nothing was random. No one said anything in an offhand manner. Words were measured. Even emotions seemed calculated. I started to be able to place a finger on what was causing the nagging doubts I had been feeling about my engagement. I wondered, also, when I would be given the script so I could at least play my part competently. It never came.
I finally began to understand that for Zhong’s family, everything revolves around appearances and that I would need Zhong to brief me on how to act before every meeting with a family friend or relative. The instructions would go something like: “Wear something conservative. Mention your Master’s degree but only after he mentions his PhD, so he knows you are inferior to him. And make sure you look down when you talk to him. Also tell him that you like to garden and other simplistic tasks.” Um, I hate gardening. No matter? Oh right, I have to create an image.
At one point we had to go visit an old friend of Zhong’s father. I found out on the way there that he was a former ambassador. He would be serving us a certain kind of tea, which I despise, but I was to drink it. I was to drink two cups, actually, and praise it. I was to say the bare minimum, and I was to answer all the ambassador’s questions in a deferential manner. Under no circumstances should I talk plainly with the man, and I should not mention my degree in Political Science. My hands should remain folded in my lap.
We got to the ambassador’s house, and it all went wrong from the start. I am a terrible liar, and so when the ambassador asked me what my undergraduate degree was in, I stumbled. As a result he came to know I was a student of politics. Even though he seemed very friendly and eager for honest discussion, I tried to keep my views very benign. Then I excused myself to use the restroom, as I had begun to feel quite sick.
As soon as I was done spilling my guts into the toilet and tried to gracefully recover, I realized that the toilet would not flush. I was horrified. I stood in silent panic for what seemed like eons. I tried it again, begging it, “Please, please, please flush, damnit!” But nothing was happening. Finally I peeped my head out the door and whispered for Zhong. He could not hear me. But the ambassador saw me, and came to my aid.
“Oh!” he said jovially, “the flush is broken, you must do this…” and began to fill a bucket with water. Zhong glared at me as if I had done this all purposefully. I stood by in horror as the ambassador worked to flush my vomit down the toilet, all with the same demeanor as he had when we had earlier been discussing the former Soviet Union.
In the taxi on the way home the only words that were spoken to me were, “Do you have any idea how much you have shamed me? My family? I cannot look at you. Do not speak. I asked you very simple things and you cannot even do that much.”
The list of things I was never to speak of grew to epic proportions that month. Human rights, alternate sexuality, my views on democracy, my views on anything really, except scholarly insights into neutral topics like linguistics. I was not even allowed to have an opinion on cooking, since each time I ventured into the kitchen I made terrible blunders. For example, once when chopping vegetables to help with the evening meal, I was met with strange sideways glances from Zhong’s mother. When I was done, I noticed that she shooed me out, and threw the carrots away. When I asked Zhong what had happened he informed me that “everyone knows that the carrots for that chicken dish must be julienned. You made slices. And they were uneven.”
When we returned home I broke the engagement. It was better for everyone for that way. I am a spirited person. I am an opinionated woman who expresses her opinion no matter how inconvenient, and that just wasn’t what Zhong was used to. He came from a family that had very regimented expectations, and very exacting ways in which behavior was measured. And while I think that is not uncommon in general throughout China, the way in which his family acted is surely not the norm. The failure of our relationship thankfully did not dampen my respect for the rich Chinese culture and generous people that I met, but I knew I could not be happy with a man who placed so much importance on appearance.
My bond with Asia remains unbroken, though in an admittedly very different way. About ten years after parting ways with Zhong, I met a wonderful man from Bangalore, India. We spent time getting to know each other and eventually I moved to India and we married. We have now been married for nearly seven years, have a beautiful daughter, and chop our vegetables into any shape we wish.
We’re looking for a few good stories from Chinese men and Western women in love — or out of love — to share on Fridays. Submit your original story or a published blog post today.