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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