It’s no secret that women in China worry about getting married. Sometimes it’s because she’s approaching 30 – China’s unofficial expiration date for single women. Sometimes it has to do with parents and relatives raining that “why don’t you have a boyfriend?” question on her over and over again like neverending debris from Chinese New Year fireworks. And sometimes, in the case of my 22-year-old cousin Mei, the problem isn’t age or being a chronic singleton, but marriage itself.
“I don’t really want to get married. I’m afraid!”
Moments before Mei confessed her fear of an institution as integral to Chinese life as chopsticks and rice, I had told her she looked beautiful. Her navy-striped ruffle-trimmed blouse and khaki mini shorts accentuated her lovely Pippi Longstocking freckles, and she had long, creamy legs that could have stopped even high speed trains, perched atop patent leather high heels. If she had told me she had a boyfriend, I would have started teasing her about some imaginary hot date she didn’t have that evening. But she had no boyfriend, and no desire to find one either.
“Everyone around me is getting divorced,” she sighed.
John brought me to Tonglu, his hometown in the Chinese countryside, to climb Daqi Mountain. If only I knew I’d have to do more than just climb the mountain — I’d have to climb out of the mess I created this morning.
John didn’t see the best of me on that bus, complaining about the indirect, circuitous route, the precipitous driving, the secondhand smoke, the unpredictable pickups and drop-offs. It was only a couple of hours — why did I say anything at all? After my display of intolerance and impatience with China, did John wonder if the girl he fell in love with — the girl who opened herself to China, who wanted to understand — was still there?
As we sat down at one of Tonglu’s restaurants, dining on a feast of vegetarian delicacies for lunch, I laid myself out — with all of my flaws — like the dishes before us. “I’m so sorry about this morning. I don’t know what I was thinking. I may have been here in China for two years, but I don’t understand everything. I should have been more understanding.” I exposed myself for what I behaved like: a foreigner who only saw the shadows of China. But all I seemed to eat during lunch was shame, and the deep, persistent feeling that I was pushing John away. Continue reading “Chapter 15: Climbing Back Into Love With John”
I really want to be on the new highway leading to Tonglu, John’s hometown in theÂ Chinese countryside. The smooth concrete is perfect, unblemished by potholes or cracks. Each side of the highway has a new guardrail, with newly transplanted trees beside it, propped up by four wooden supports and rope tied around the trunk. And on the highway, a bus cannot stop to pick up new passengers — it must go nonstop to its destination, so the passengers know when it will arrive. It is China’s future, right next to me.
I, however, am currently in the present on this Sunday in early September, 2002
The present is a rickety minibus on road etched with cracks and potholes — as the minibus hits them, the feeling becomes amplified through the floor and seats like a cacophonous sound in an auditorium. Everything on the bus, from the exterior to the furniture, is stained by a brown veneer, like the patina of a dirty teacup.
I am so far behind on my Christmas preparations, so I’m running another classic entry week, from the original Speaking of China. This is also pretty dark (am I dreaming of a “dark Christmas”?). After living with John for more than two years in Shanghai — and marrying him — I experienced the difficulties of an average Chinese through him. I was shocked. And so, I wrote this article. Enjoy!
They say the grass is greener on the other side. Or sometimes, on the other side of “the pond.” An odd repulsion to the familiar moves us to board planes for hours and battle fierce jetlag, all to experience a life different from our upbringing.
For some of us, it’s more than an occasional “flirt” with another country. We’re not interested in a one-night or one-week stand — we want the whole relationship. We want to dig deeper. We want to get to know what’s really under those covers.
That’s why I returned to China in 2001 — to get cozy with this ancient land across the Pacific. I learned from my many Chinese friends. I became fluent in Chinese.
At my inlaws’ home, I didn’t take much notice of the chicken habitually roosting in the corner of the room next to the kitchen. Chickens have free run of the first floor of the house (which means we have to watch where we walk) and even have their own sleeping corner.
But my Chinese mother-in-law did notice that chicken, and she didn’t like it one bit.
“It keeps sitting there in the corner, but it won’t lay eggs!” she exclaimed in her booming voice — a voice that is pretty normal out here in the countryside, but would border on argumentative if she were speaking in English.
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