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If you work at a Chinese university and live on campus, you must get used to a certain lack of privacy. As a native English speaker, you learn quickly that you are a commodity, and the students and staff are not at all shy about exploiting you. Since your class schedule and contact information are posted for all to see, you often receive phone calls or knocks on your door inviting you to some event which has been conveniently scheduled on your day off. It doesn't take long to realize that these events to which you have been "invited" are based entirely on your presence. You come for a party or a hike, but the Chinese come for the chance to meet a foreigner and practice their English skills. Needless to say, it can be quite difficult to decline one of these invitations, and the person calling is usually hard pressed to get you to commit. After all, he's promised several people the chance to spend time with you. He may have even charged them for it. So, unless you put your foot down, you'll spend all your free time answering questions like "How much money do you make?" or "Why are you so fat?"
This is why I hesitated before answering the phone on one particular Saturday morning. There was a woman on the other end who said she wanted to meet me. She had, in fact, asked for Paul, the guy (also a foreigner) who lived in the apartment before me, but when I told her that he no longer lived there, she settled on me as an adequate substitute. Specifically, she said she wanted to meet a foreign man, and asked if I was married. Mistakenly, I said I wasn't, and she suggested we meet that day. She seemed unfazed by the fact that I was a total stranger and insisted that we should get to know each other. My usual strategy for avoiding these kinds of situations was to ask for a phone number with the false promise of calling back when I have time. It seemed to work in this case, and I thought I was free to plan the rest of my day.
An hour later, the buzzer for my apartment went off. It was she, and she was now outside the building. That made me a bit uneasy as well as a bit angry. Talking through the intercom, we picked up the conversation where we had left off on the phone. Eventually, it turned into a debate. "I don't know you," I kept saying again and again over her perseverance, but it seemed she had no intention of going away unmet. With her still in mid-sentence, I switched off the speaker and went back to my lunch.
I sat down at my computer to write an email, but found it hard to concentrate. The absurdity of this woman's approach, the ridiculous feeling of having a stranger wait for me outside my apartment building, and my now undeniable curiosity all came together to make me regret my reluctance. I started to feel gutless. I mean, after all, what did I have to lose? Didn't I come to China for new experiences? What if my common sense was keeping me from living some kind of fantasy? I was thirty minutes down this line of thinking when the buzzer rang again. Although her request was still coupled with the misgivings I had when she called the first time, my curiosity won out over my common sense. I found myself saying yes, and she came up.
She was wearing the stock winter coat that all Chinese women seem to wear: puffy down rolls with a fur lined hood. Hers was white. She had on a short dark blue skirt that fit tight around her thick wool leggings. Her pink cotton blouse was bulked up with presumably several layers of undershirts. She looked young, maybe 27, and I was surprised how pretty she was. I began to appreciate the wisdom of my decision. Her high heels knocked loudly against the parquet flooring, as she walked in bright eyed. "Wow! So clean!" was her first comment on the university housing.
She eyed my apartment, the sparse pieces of house wares, work related material, and travel memorabilia scattered around the place like a tourist observes his destination; highly interested in the ordinary. I couldn't help but get the sense that she was sizing things up. Still, I was surprised how disarming she was even though she carried herself with this distinct air of confidence and expectation.
Sitting across from her on the rock hard furniture, the mental battle between my demons and my common sense raged on. Meanwhile, I struggled to find something to say to her. It wasn't long, however, before she decided to break the silence.
"Please may I ask, How old you?" She asked.
"San Shi San (thirty-three)," was my answer. She seemed to like this number because she smiled, nodded and even bounced a little in her seat.
"You are from Scotland?" She asked presumptively.
"No. No. Meiguoren (American)."
"Ahhh. Meiguoren!" She really liked this one. "I say Scotland because Paul from Scotland. Meiguo hen hao (America is great)."
"Yes it is." Coming to China had created a swell of patriotism inside me, but that's another story.
We settled into this routine of speaking in each other's language. She'd asked me a question in English and I'd answer in Chinese and vice versa.
"So, why you not get married?" She asked.
This was a question I, and all the other single foreigners around the age of thirty, have to field each time we meet a Chinese person. Unfortunately, I have found that the truth, I don't believe in marriage, doesn't jive too well over here, so I am forced to resort to answers like the one I gave her.
"I just haven't met the right girl, yet." I said, unable to keep the insinuation out of my voice. She took my mischief as a sign of hope and smiled knowingly.
"You like Chinese girls?" I could see a bit of insecurity quiver into her smile as she asked this question. Given the awkward nature of our meeting, it suited her to show a bit of nerves, but overall she seemed gently determined and frank in her manner.
"Yes, I like Chinese girls." I could see I was filling her checklist with all the right answers. That is until her next question.
"Do you want to have baby?" She asked.
The devil on my shoulder spoke up. I found myself looking at her in a certain kind of way but then checked my stare.
"Yes. I want to have a baby but I don't want to get married." I had exhausted my Chinese by this point, so this last answer was given in English.
"You want baby?" She asked elated.
"Yes, but I don't want to get married." I said it slow and deliberate to make sure she understood.
She gasped. "You want baby…but…no want married?...How can..er…you want baby…er…you must to be married!" Her eyes bounced in confusion.
"Not necessarily," was my response, but it went right over her head. The devil rapped on.
I asked her about herself. She said she was from Anhui province, which is one of the poorest provinces in China. She was an office worker here in Beijing and lived by herself in an apartment downtown. This last fact made me wonder. As far as I've observed, Chinese people almost never live alone. They stay with their parents until they get married. If they do live by themselves, there is usually some special reason why they didn't follow the same path as their contemporaries. I wondered what her reason was. She seemed mentally and physically sound. She was attractive and still young. Why did she need to resort to such desperate measures to find a husband? It was on this thought that my common sense won big points, prompting me to turn the tables on her.
"So, why did you never get married?" I asked. I guess it was an inappropriate question to ask a woman, but in this moment of frankness, it came out without hesitation.
She didn't even blink. "My family is too poor." I'll never forget the look of shame on her face when she said this. "My father die when I was eight years old, so I and my mother live with my Uncle. I come to Beijing to meet a foreign man and get married. I want to have baby." As she said this last part, a faraway look came over her.
It is in moments like this when I become acutely aware of my surroundings. Sitting in my rent-free apartment, wearing Italian leather hiking boots with gadgets like a laptop computer, Ipod, and digital camera at the ready, a familiar feeling sprang up inside me. I felt caught. It's a sensation which comes from being on the winning side of the reality that life is simply unfair: a fact that one is often reminded of in this part of the world.
In a way, she was one up on me for knowing exactly what she wanted. I almost envied her for that. I had been living moment to moment ever since I finished school. I've always been impulsive, never able to settle on just one dream. However, I knew that the open-endedness of my future and the variety of my past were really just more luxuries to add to the pile. I had choices. She didn't.
These feelings stuck, and I even began to consider her proposal. My demons and my common sense seemed to be coming to some sort of truce negotiated by guilt. After all, if I did marry her, her gratitude would most likely carry through the rest of our lives. I'd have a wife who made few demands. It's every man's dream, right? Then again, I thought, "fat chance."
"You don't like Chinese men?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Chinese man no good. Chinese man won't marry me. My family is too poor. I like foreign man very much." She smiled. "Do you like me?"
"You seem very nice." I had given up on speaking Chinese. Somehow I sensed there was no room for error.
"Do you want to marry me?" She asked it as if she had run out of patience. It was like she had been waiting for me to ask. I can still see the way her eyes recoiled slightly, anticipating the inevitable rejection.
Hearing her ask the question was like waking from a dream. I asked myself what the hell I was doing. My common sense dropped the A-Bomb.
"Hey, I'm sorry," I said, "but I don't want to get married. You are very pretty, but I don't want a wife. Sorry"
"OK, OK," She said. She seemed to detect what was going through my mind.
Her voiced had dropped to a whisper as she nodded in defeat.
Originally, I thought that I would have to put up a fight in order to get her to leave. As it turned out, I felt inclined to have her stay. I wanted to give her some sort of compensation. I could see, though, that her mind was so bent on a single course that any further time spent together would only serve to get her hopes up again. The devil fell silent. I was a bit stunned after she left and I could feel the cold air that entered the room with her departure dissipate against the warmth of my apartment.