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?”
“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.