“Everyone in this entire teahouse is staring at you,” giggled my Chinese tutor Mandy, as she clutched my arm on the way to the restroom.
We were at the Good Moon, a teahouse near Hangzhou University, celebrating my birthday with friends. As I scanned the people we passed in the teahouse, I saw Mandy was right. And, later, my friend Joshua would say the same. “You commanded the casual glances of almost everyone in the teahouse.”
I wore a tailored burgundy qipao, glittering with golden plum blossoms, my hair folded upon my head like a wreath of curls, and my face perfectly made up with the help of Swallow, one of the translators in our company.
But it wasn’t just my hair or clothes or makeup. There was something else about me — a certain intangible radiance. The radiance of someone in love.
The West Lake, framed by a glittering night sky and the willow tendrils hanging over our bench, could probably turn any young couple into lovers on such an evening. Especially this Western woman and Chinese man sitting beside its taciturn waters, watching the bats dip and sway to catch mosquitoes to the tune of the humming cicadas in the trees and bushes.
The shroud of night is like a blanket around us, giving us warmth and protection to take the next step, as we sit on a bench along the Su Causeway. We still live in a China where our presence together — as lovers — is a spectacle. But in the forgiving crepuscular light, no one can see that I am a Western woman and he is a Chinese man. For once, we are just another young couple, inexorably inching towards love.
But that does not pacify my mind or heart. I’m not sure anything could on this night, a night that has built up with fervor from the first friendly flirtations John and I had during our trip to Yiwu. A night that has turned me, a young woman who has loved before, into a high school girl on her first date all over again, dressed in a long black flowery skirt and lavender shirt, with a row of tiny clips across my head like a tiara. Continue reading “Chapter 8: John is My Chinese Boyfriend”
It’s not every day I walk out of work with three heaping bouquets — two of roses, and one of carnations. But this day, where I feel as if on the brink of living out a girlhood princess dream, is not not any day. It is Friday, July 26, 2002 — my birthday, and the day after John’s last day of work.
I could never get used to how people in China look so curiously at me, as a foreigner. I was always a shy girl growing up, nervous about public speaking, worried about a public mistake that would be the talk of the school. It’s not any easier with two bouquets of flowers cradled between my arms. Everyone in the office seems to have stopped their work to get a glance at me, craning their necks from even the farthest corners, as if I am a visiting Miss America. While I flush with embarrassment, I find it hard to admit the truth — that, as anxious as I am before my coworkers, I revel in the attention on my birthday. Sometimes, even shy girls like a little attention.
There stood John, my Chinese coworker, in front of our office building, just as he promised moments ago. “I’ll be watching you in the bus.”
Would he really still be there after I boarded the bus downtown, the bus that took me to the gym where I exercised many evenings? It was a thoughtful sentiment, but one I’d never heard before. Was this just another joke, the same jokes I’d heard before when sitting with the translators? I turned the corner before the intersection, and walked north a few meters to the bus station, wondering who I would see before our office building.
But there he was, motionless, and awaiting my safe passage, as if I had just boarded the slow boat for North America. It was as though John had all of the time in the world, as long as it was for me. The John I came to know was not just any Chinese man.
Frank, my ex-Chinese boyfriend, may never love again, the way we loved. This is what I learn when he and I have dinner one evening in early July, 2002.
Frank and I had began to talk once again in the first week of July, after he sent me a series of text messages in Chinese demystifying some of his feelings:
“I regret what happened between us.”
“I was unfit for relationships.”
“This was a failure of mine.”
Frank’s words released me from the emotional purgatory I suffered in after our breakup — a breakup I had to shoulder silently and painfully each day, because my desk sat next to Frank’s. Soon, we became friendly again, every warm smile a relieving reminder that we were moving towards a friendship.
One night, I was moved to send him a text message in Chinese: “I am so glad to see your smile again.”
“I sincerely appreciate your understanding,” he wrote back. “You are my best friend.” I clutched my chest again because his words brought me back to our courtship. Did Frank really break my heart? I began to wonder if our parting was a mistake.
“That’s too nauseating!” Caroline reproached me the morning after spending the night at her house in Yiwu — for a rather nauseating gesture towards John.
Since I’d overslept that morning, I rushed out the door without putting on sunscreen, and had to do it in front of Caroline and John. Just as I massaged the lotion into my face and arms, John spoke up. “Could you give me some?” I don’t know why, but instead of handing him the container, I applied it directly to his face. That’s when Caroline groans — at this mere insinuation of affection.
The last time I heard anything like “that’s nauseating” about my love life was in high school. But I’m not surprised by Caroline. When I taught freshman college students in Henan Province, girls and boys sat on different sides of the room, and never spoke publicly with the opposite sex, afraid of the mere perception — and, in some cases, stigma — of romance. Their high schools and parents prohibited dating. I’m sure Caroline’s and John’s schools and parents did the same. Yet, Caroline and John are in their early twenties, and, to them, love is still an embarrassing, strange thing. They make me feel embarrassed all over again, as if I am 12 and afraid to hold hands in the school hallway with my so-called boyfriend.
Still, while I flirt fearlessly, I fear the words Caroline spoke to me freely, a week after we return from Yiwu: I think he would make a great husband.
I’ve only begun to know John, and now Caroline wants me to think about him in marital terms. Now I’m the one embarrassed, sitting on the opposite side of the classroom, and afraid to make a move.
But putting lotion on John’s face, and getting ridiculed by Caroline? I think, secretly, I love it. Now, that’s too nauseating.
Have you experienced the embarrassment of love in China? Did your friends laugh at you when you flirted with someone, or held hands, or even tried to kiss?
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.
I had never stood next to John before the day we rode the “green skinned” train to Yiwu. I asked John out for lunch before we rode the train, and, as he stood up from his chair, there he was — more than two inches below me, and many pounds lighter.
Caroline’s mother doesn’t believe me when I say I’m full. She is a typical Chinese hostess, deciding that I am being polite, even as I’m being truthful every time I tell her chibaole — I’ve eaten enough. “Eat, eat, eat” is her mantra as we sit around the dinner table at this home in Yiwu, feasting on eggplant, fried pumpkin, and — for Caroline and John — chicken feet and shrimp.
Our “green-skinned” train to Yiwu had no air conditioning on this sultry evening of July 13, 2002. My two translator friends, Caroline and John, were with me on the hard-seat section of this train. The three of us sat on the same seat — with upholstery in the same dark green color as the train — across from two soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army. I borrowed Caroline’s plastic fan from time to time, and sometimes caught a breeze through the open window. But mostly, the humidity loitered painfully around us, and we hoped, in vain, that it would go away.
There is a word for this weather in Chinese: 闷热 or menre, meaning muggy. The first character, men, is made up of the character for heart (心) contained within the character for door (门) — as if to say your heart is shut away or contained.
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