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I was once set up on a secret blind date.

I was in China and had been invited, along with the other English teachers, to a secretary’s house for dinner. Eileen worked in the foreign affairs office, or the waiban. Her taciturn husband went around the room, snapping pictures of me and Judy and Ron, a fiftyish couple from Oregon. Beside me sat Eileen’s nineteen-year old son.

I was 27 and secretly engaged. My mother had never liked my fiance, and his Korean parents were only beginning to accept my non-Koreanness. Because my engagement was hush-hush, I had no ring yet. “Pretend that’s your engagement ring,” Judy suggested, nodding at the star sapphire I wore on my right hand. I wouldn’t understand why till later.

At some point, I suddenly noticed Eileen’s husband was taking photos of just me and his son. From the corner of my eye, I saw the son remove his glasses and smooth down his hair. What was going on here?

“Are you accustomed to China?” the son asked.

He seemed to know a few English phrases, but when I answered too quickly, his face blanked. “I’m adjusting slowly,” I told him. “I’m still homesick.”

He looked confused. “How can you be homesick in China?”

Like many natives, he thought that since I looked Chinese, China was like a second home, no matter that I had been born and brought up in America.

“You’re lonely,” he murmured to me. “I’m lonely. We should be lonely together.”

“Um,” I said. “I’m kinda busy.” I wasn’t. Even teaching four classes, I had more time on my hands than I knew what to do with. Snap! Flash! More pictures. Here’s when my son met his American wife! She looks just like a Chinese, doesn’t she?

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” asked Maggie, another secretary from the waiban.

“Yes, a younger brother,” I said.

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Your younger brother is 24?”

I nodded. She repeated this tidbit in Mandarin to the others. “Her didi is 24.”

Murmurs resounded around the room. Eileen’s husband lowered his camera.

Later when I told my cousin Huang Lei what happened, she was furious. “They just set you up like that without even asking?” she said. “Who do they think they are?”

Chinese people setting each other up was okay. That’s how my cousin met her husband Guochen. But setting me up, especially without telling me, wasn’t. I may have looked Chinese, but I was more than that. I had a weird accent, perfect English, and most of all, a blue passport.

* * *

China’s one child policy, established in 1979 and due to expire this year, was mainly aimed at cities to curb a booming population. Families in sparsely populated areas were often allowed a second child after five years, especially if the first child was a girl, since it was thought that daughters would marry and leave to care for their husbands’ families, while sons would remain and carry on the family name.

An unintended consequence of the policy is a huge gender gap. According to a 2009 New York Times article, there are “32 million more boys under the age of 20 than girls” in China, which means thirty two million bachelors, or guang gun, as the Chinese call them, literally “bare sticks.”

Where are all the missing Chinese girls? Sex selective abortions are one cause, as well as non-registration of female births. Abandonment is surely another. In 2006, a whopping 91% of children adopted from China were girls, though recently some Chinese parents have stepped forward to say that their daughters were actually stolen and sold into the lucrative business of foreign adoptions.

* * *

On my campus, male students clearly outnumbered females. I remember most of my female students because they were fewer and more vocal, while the back rows of my classes were filled with nameless young men I didn’t hear speak once all semester. “The boys in the back,” we called them. The shy ones who wanted to be anywhere but English class.

Ben was a handsome Chinese English teacher. I met him once, and never knew his Chinese name. Elizabeth (not her real name) was from Canada and taught English the year before me. The rumor was shortly after Elizabeth arrived, she and Ben had lunch, and the next thing everyone knew, they were engaged.

People didn’t believe it was love. How could it happen that quickly? Besides Elizabeth was fat. Obese, really. How could handsome Ben fall in love with her? He must have wanted a feiji piao, everyone concluded. A plane ticket straight out of China.

“He’s a dalu mei,” I joked to my cousin. A dalu mei, or china doll, was a young Chinese woman who married a foreigner, usually older and rich, for a green card.

Perhaps to Ben there were so few Chinese women to choose from anyway, why not go for a foreigner?

* * *

One of my students took a cue from Ben and decided to put the moves on me. Richard was a PhD candidate with excellent English. He was also skinny, smoked, and had terrible teeth.

One winter night, Huang Lei and I attended a dance on campus. Many of my students were there, and a few innocently took me for a turn on the dance floor. I was friendly with everyone, including Richard, who, I guessed, interpreted my American friendliness as something more.

He started trying to hang out with me during class breaks. Every class we had a fifteen minute intermission, during which I’d read or work on my lesson plans. Most students, still shy around a foreigner, kept a wide berth. Some asked me questions but kept a respectful distance. Richard would stand right beside me. Once he sidled up behind me while I was reading at my lectern. During free writing, while everyone bowed their heads over their notebooks, he’d peek up at me with little smiles.

The last straw was that December. During a break, as I pretended to be busy with my notes, he sauntered up into my peripheral vision. I tried to ignore him, but then he approached me.

“There’s a concert on Friday,” he said. “Did you hear? An American pianist.”

“Yes,” I said. “Very nice.”

“Maybe we could go. Together.”

I gave him a teacherly smile. “I’m already going with my cousin. Have fun!”

When I told Huang Lei, she shrugged. “It’s very common,” she said.

“It’s not right!” I cried. I knew teachers and students dated all the time, but I still felt violated.

I didn’t have to worry. Somehow I’d made my coldness known, and now instead of little smiles, Richard gave me narrow-eyed stares, as though I’d broken some silent promise.

* * *

After Huang Lei’s husband Guochen left for his sabbatical in Moscow, she missed him terribly. They’d been together eight years, since she was 22. They seemed like a good match. Guochen’s seriousness complemented Huang Lei’s more fun-loving nature. They were comfortably affectionate with each other. Guochen liked to tug gently on his wife’s long braid. As they watched TV, Huang Lei would prop her feet on Guochen’s thigh.

The only time I sensed any tension between them was right before he left for his sabbatical. Guochen was stressed while Huang Lei still wanted to socialize. She made him attend more than one hot pot dinner he’d have preferred to skip.

“I haven’t relaxed with a newspaper in more than a week,” I heard him complain once.

But after he was gone, Huang Lei was desperately lonely. We clung to each other even as she drove me crazy with her bossiness and I annoyed her with my constant complaining about China. She worried about Guochen.

“Are Russian women very beautiful?” she asked.

I assured her Guochen would never do such a thing. Not the bespectacled professor with his piles of books and papers, who reminded me so much of my father. Little did I know that he already had.

Huang Lei wouldn’t tell me this till much later, after she had left Guochen for Shane, Judy and Ron’s son who’d come to visit that New Year, after my own marriage had fallen apart from my husband’s infidelity. “Guochen did the same thing,” she’d tell me.

Before then we’d assume she was a dalu mei. Why else had she taken up with a foreigner she barely knew, although he wasn’t exactly rich and was actually younger than she was? He didn’t speak Chinese, and she barely spoke English – how did they even communicate? She just wanted to come to America, we said. Once she got here, she’d meet someone better and leave Shane too.

* * *

She didn’t. She stayed, and had her first American Christmas, her first American New Year, her first Valentine’s Day. She learned English and how to drive. She had a child, a girl. She and Shane can have more if they want, but their daughter may be all they need.

* * *

Of course I didn’t know any of this while I was in China, while at the Peking Opera, where I first saw Shane and Huang Lei together, Huang Lei so embarrassed to be near a young foreign man, I thought she’d fold into herself. Nor when I hugged her goodbye – “Ai ya,” she said, “don’t go – and watched her scurry to the road to catch a taxi. Nor when I called her from one of my stops home.

“Everyone misses you,” she kept saying.

I didn’t know as I returned to my American life, as easy as slipping back in line, and saw everything through Huang Lei’s eyes. The streets like a grid, the tall and shiny buildings – see, Huang Lei, this is America. (See Ben, see Richard.) See me in my small apartment, riding the same subway every day, sitting in the same cubicle, see as I can’t stop remembering – the vast and blue Gobi desert sky, the sun as red as a blood on frigid winter mornings, the twisted Chinese stars – see how my life is so small.

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Angela Tung A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

30 Responses to “Love, Chinese Style”

  1. Anon says:

    I read this once, here at my office, anticipating a lightly humorous cross-cultural story. My first impression is simple: beautiful. Now I feel that I need to read it two, three or four more times to fully take it in and figure out why it makes my heart ache. Thank you, Angela.

  2. jmb says:

    In college I met a girl named
    Lin
    I just wanted to have fun
    I had lots of friendgirls
    I was flirty
    she would come to the rink
    with her friends
    I asked her to skate.
    She said I am no good
    I said trust me
    she was feather-light & lithe
    and as I glided her over the floor
    like ice
    she held tight & looked at the
    flashing lights &
    spinning shimmy spheres
    and laughed like we were in the stars
    but her friends stood near & whispered
    & they would catch her eye & scowl
    & she would grow distant & cold

    After reading this I sort of understand why.

    • angela says:

      yes, in china, from the little i saw at least, dating was serious business. people entered dating with marriage in mind, with the idea of is this person a match for me for life? not that people who were set up had to get married, but they were at least be in that mindset.

  3. Matt says:

    Nice, evocative little piece, Angela. I’ve always found these kind of cross-cultural stories compelling.

    I remember reading somewhere (National Geographic, I think, though it might have been Scientific American) that in a worst-case scenario, China’s one-child policy coupled with the severely imbalanced male/female ratio would lead to catastrophic population decline during this century. It’s a solution to the population boom, for sure, but not likely the one that was intended.

    • Matt says:

      Damn your eyes, HTML!

    • angela says:

      thanks, matt!

      there seem to be all sorts of possible catastrophic consequences of extreme gender inequality, such as widespread uprising and rebellion. i had included – then deleted – a whole section in my essay on how china is supposed to deal with 32 million unmarried, unhappy men from the lower socio-economic classes (since in a market where women are scarce, women will tend to marry “up,” leaving the “dregs of society”)? either ship them out, enlist them, or let them kill each other seem to be the only choices.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Hey Matt!

    I thought my mother coined that phrase!
    I’m not kidding, I thought she made that one up.
    She used it all the time on me.
    I really worried about my eyes, too.
    (She sent me, didn’t attend, to a church whose Sunday school used to tell me every Sunday before church that I was going to Hell. My EYES!)

    • Matt says:

      To the best of my knowledge that sayign goes back at least into the mid-1800s. I’ll leave it to you to say whether or not your mother did as well.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Nope. She was born either in 1907 or 1906. She claimed to have two birth certificates. She was also born in both Canada and California, which, back then, must have been hard for her mother.

  5. Irene Zion says:

    You were teaching in China and they thought you were a teenager? You should thank your parents for your genes!

    I have a son that’s a bare stick. I plan to use that phrase with him as soon as possible.
    Is there a similar term for an unmarried daughter? I have one of those too and would love to call her names. (She totally deserves it, anyone here will tell you, cause they know what she says about me, which is ALL totally unfounded.)

    How long were you in China?

  6. angela says:

    irene, your comment made me laugh.

    i taught for 6 months. i was supposed to stay for a year, but was too homesick!

    i looked much younger than my age till i hit 35. then my face totally caught up. :( my ass too.

    haha, i’m not sure of a term for a young unmarried woman. i know the chinese use a similar term for old maid, lao cu niu, literally “old sour maid.”

    the term “bare stick” sounds dirty somehow, doesn’t it? totally phallic.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, what a beautiful way to close the piece, Angela.

    Heh. I had to go back and re-read ‘bare stick’. I was like ‘Wait. No, wait. That can’t be what it means…’

    My high school had a high number of Chinese exchange students, one of whom wrote an attractive young French teacher a letter asking her out. The simple fact that he would was amazing to the rest of us.

    • angela says:

      thanks simon! i had some trouble with the ending. rewrote it a billion times.

      wow, so i guess my cousin was right about students asking teachers out being common! i actually didn’t really believe her. i’m wonder why that would be.

  8. Marni Grossman says:

    On the upside, at least they thought you were a good catch. Why else try and coerce you into getting with their son?

    This was so fascinating and such a good, well-written read. As always!

  9. A lot of that is very familiar to me… My girlfriend and many of my friends here are Korean-Americans. They don’t speak Korean and Korea certainly isn’t there home. The concept of being homesick here would confuse the natives. Blood, in this part of the world, has an importance that I will never understand. If you are raised and loved in America, you are an American. You might be lucky to have two heritages to look back upon, but you aren’t automatically a part of the culture because of blood. That’s silly.

    But it’s so ingrained in the culture that people don’t get it. My girlfriend gets a lot of “Oh, you poor thing!” when she says that she grew up in America. As though being away from the motherland was somehow bad… Korea has the highest rate of suicide in the developed world! If she grew up here there’s a staggeringly good chance she would have killed herself by now!

    As for the not being accepted for your lack of Koreanness… That’s familiar to me personally, but I think that’s a trait that is sadly common around the whole world. People in every country are stupid enough to think that “their own kind” is the best.

    • angela says:

      i’m not surprised koreans feel so strongly about the idea of “blood.” my ex-in-laws and even my ex were very keen on the idea of korean blood being superior.

      i got a lot of strange responses in china when i said i was from america. “welcome home!” for instance, although i’d never been the china before, and “wasn’t america any good?” as though i had come to china after a stint in the states.

  10. Joe Daly says:

    I had the same reaction as Anon- as the piece progressed, I saw that it was very different from what I expected from the title/first paragraph, which was a great surprise. I really enjoyed how you brought together your experiences between the cultures, and helped me understand a good bit of the events that informed each.

    I’ve already sent this link to some friends who will surely enjoy this fantastic cultural meditation. Well done!

  11. karyn says:

    All I can say is that I hope you find a publisher for Black Fish SOON!

  12. Gloria says:

    This is a lovely piece, Angela. Dating in China seems really stressful.

    I know a few Chinese phrases, but I’m sure they’d be largely useless to the getting-to-know-you process. I don’t even know which dialect they are. My friend Jay from Hong Kong taught me. I know (phonetically spelled): way (hello), Me ho ma (I don’t remember what this one means), Da ma (stoned), how cho (fart), and shay shin (thank you.) So, I guess if I ever find myself at a Chinese hash bar I’ll be set to go.

    • Erika Rae says:

      Me ho ma – should be pronounced “Nei ho ma” in Cantonese. You can just say, “Nei ho,” though. The version of “thank you” you have is Mandarin, though. Funny! Cantonese would be “M-goy” or “doh-jeh”.

      I adore the fact that you know how to say stoned and fart. I am going to hang out with you in that hash bar, for sure.

  13. Angela Tung says:

    gloria, i believe those are cantonese. “wei” is how one would answer the phone, “me ho ma” (i don’t know the correct spelling of that either) is the cantonese version of “ni hao ma,” or “how are you?” i think “da ma” is actually marijuana – a very useful term! :) “how cho” is “really smelly!” while “fang pi” (in mandarin) is to fart.

    i always found it more fun to learn the slang terms and curse words.

  14. this is a fascinating piece and I loved the ending too, the way the last paragraph started to sail off and then finally land on the powerful last line.

    Also, hopefully, the term “bare sticks” gets incorporated soon into everyday english usage.

  15. Uche Ogbuji says:

    This is a fascinating stroll through vignettes of cross-cultural romance, and un-romance. How do you say “Love, American Style” in Chinese, with “Chinese” rather than “American”? Actually never mind. Your piece is way too artful to even surface the thought.

  16. Erika Rae says:

    Angela – this is so very fabulous. I lived for a couple of years in HK, so I have a soft spot for all things Chinese. You are such a gifted writer and I love the way you tied all of this together. Crazy about the photo shoot for the happy, unwitting couple!

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