The Huang He is not China’s longest river, but it is certainly China’s most notorious one. The ever-shifting channel bed of the Huang He has made it a flood controller’s nightmare. Throughout history, the river has repeatedly jumped its channel, destroying farm land, temples, and entire cities, while also taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Every year, over forty percent of China’s farmland is ravaged by typhoons, floods, and earthquakes, disasters that leave more than three million Chinese farmers without homes. Even in the early autumn months, when China’s weather is relatively mild, disaster looms perilously close, especially for those living just south of the Huang He.
Kaifeng, located just ten miles south of the river, has had more than its share of bad luck. In what certainly qualifies as one of the worst civic blunders in history, the elders of Kaifeng ordered the floodgates of the Huang He opened in 1644 to slow the attack of Manchu invaders: that blunder cost Kaifeng one of its most beautiful monasteries, the Xiangguo Si, as well as the lives of more than a quarter million of its people.
The Huang He continues to punish the people of Kaifeng today. Annually, two billion tons of soil slip from northern China’s loess plateaus into the river, forcing the level of the water higher and higher. At the southern end of the Huang He, engineers do their best to keep up with the rising water, adding one meter to the tops of concrete dams and dikes every ten years. But despite the high-rise barricades, no one living south of the Huang He is entirely safe; directly to the north of their homes and towns flows a torrid river with a history of jumping its channels.
Even when restrained, the Huang He causes problems for the people of Kaifeng. North winds blow a continuous stream of airborne silt from the river into the city. Kaifeng’s air is so filled with silt, and with pollutants from the refineries and mines scattered across Henan Province, that many of the city’s residents wear cloth covers across their mouths to keep the silt and pollutants from building up in their lungs.
But there is no keeping the dirt and dust at bay. It finds it way into your lungs, into your water, even into the cracks between your teeth. The dirty air in Kaifeng made me cough until my lungs ached, until I found myself spitting in the streets even though I had vowed to avoid that particular Chinese custom. I had to hand-pick Huang He silt from my socks and underwear every time I finished washing my clothes, and the basin of my bathtub had become indelibly stained by the silt-filled water that poured through its faucet.
Considering the quality of the air and water in Kaifeng, my body did a remarkable job of defending itself, but after months of fighting dirt and dust, and eating street food cooked by vendors who didn’t always worry about health regulations, my body finally broke down, and I got sick.
I spent most of the first few days of my illness alone, playing hands of one-man bridge and reading back issues of the China Daily. Even if I had wanted company, I wouldn’t have been able to have any: Anna was out of town, filming a television commercial.
Before Anna had left, she had told me she would be gone two days, but when I called her apartment the morning she was scheduled to return I learned she still wasn’t back. Ta bu ji, her sister-in-law told me. She isn’t home. I didn’t know how to ask a follow-up question. Her sister-in-law didn’t know how to provide additional detail.
I called again twice the following day, then gave up. At first I was concerned, as anyone is when they are waiting for someone to arrive and that person doesn’t show up. Then I became irritated, and finally I felt guilty for being irritated when I realized something might be wrong. In the end, there was nothing I could do but wait.
As I began to feel a bit better, I started working on some of the interviews I had conducted. I also started taking more time to enjoy the meals the school’s chefs prepared for me each day. One day after lunch, the head chef, Shurfu, started pressing his hands against his cheeks and vigorously shaking his head. When I didn’t get his message, he changed his facial expression to show grave concern, then began to mime as if he were feeding himself bite after bite of food.
“You’re worried that I’m getting too thin,” I said, and then I did my best to mimic the message I thought Shurfu was acting out for me. Like two charade players, we smiled proudly when we realized we understood each other. Later that year, Shurfu and I would share a second language breakthrough when I figured out how to use the few Chinese words I knew to tell him my father had recently died. Woda ba shr ling ling, I would tell him. My father is zero years old.
I was back to full strength, and was out one morning buying fruits and vegetables from the produce sellers who assembled every morning not far from our campus, when I looked up and saw Anna standing across the street. She was haggling with a young man about the price of oranges.
It was an unseasonably clear morning. The night before, the farmers had cleared the road of damage done by recent rainstorms. The mound of dirt that had knocked Anna and me to the ground on our first date had been leveled. The concrete slab we had sat on to kiss one night had been dragged away. The road was completely clean, and as I made my way toward Anna I was surprised to find that the road was made not of dirt, as I had always thought, but of asphalt.
When I reached the vendor’s stand where Anna was buying her fruit, I picked up a handful of oranges and pretended to examine them.
“These look good.”
Anna turned around slowly. She looked as if she had not slept much the night before.
“Why don’t you buy some?” Anna asked, then she placed her bag of oranges in a basket attached to the handlebars of her bicycle.
“I think I’ll just buy some peanuts. I ate enough oranges for two people the last few days. How did the filming go?”
“Okay, good. Anything else?”
Anna glanced at her watch, then up the road ahead of her.
“I have no time to tell you more right now. I have to go to work.”
“But it’s almost noon. You’ll have to turn around and come right back home. Why don’t you bring your oranges to my apartment? We can eat lunch together and you can tell me about your trip.”
Anna leaned forward on her handlebars, pushing her bicycle slowly toward me, then rolling it back. She looked down at the road, then at the faces of the people assembled around us, the villagers who had come to buy vegetables, the vendors, the teachers on their way home to eat.
“I can only stay a few minutes,” she said.
When we reached my apartment, I sat next to the table where I kept the water thermoses that were delivered to my apartment each day. Anna plopped down on my sofa, dangled her feet over an end cushion, then leaned back and began to peel one of her oranges.
“It seems you feeling better,” she said.
“I started feeling better a couple of days after you left.”
“What you doing since you feeling better?”
“Mostly writing. A couple of my interviews are almost done.”
“And I’ve been waiting to hear from you, of course. Where have you been? You said you were going to be gone a couple of days.”
Anna sat up, reached across the table to take the cup of water I offered her, then leaned back again.
“I have something to tell you. Maybe when you hear what I have to say it will change the way you think about me.”
“There’s nothing you can tell me about why you were gone so long that I haven’t already imagined.”
“Are you sure?”
“Then why don’t you tell me what I want say?”
“No, I’ve done all the guessing I’m going to do. You’ll have to do this part yourself.”
“But this very hard for me.”
“Just try, please. I’ve been sitting in this stupid room for days trying to figure out what’s going on. Before you left everything was great. Now it seems like we have things to hide from each other.”
Anna lowered her head and covered her face with her hands. I waited for her, determined not to say anything more until I found out where she had been, but when she started to cry, quietly at first, then with conviction, I got up and moved beside her, wrapping my arm around her shoulder.
“There’s no reason to cry. No matter what you tell me, I’m not going to hate you.”
Before I could say anything, Anna got up and ran to my bathroom. I sat on my sofa, staring at Anna’s orange peels, feeling fairly certain that I knew what she needed to tell me. When Anna returned to my living room, her eyes were damp and puffy. I wanted to change the subject, to talk about basketball, music, anything.
“I don’t know just the right words to tell you.”
“Maybe it would help if I told you something that happened the morning you left. I was on my way home from the store when I ran into Ai Lin on the street. She told me she had received a phone call that morning from a foreigner, a man. It’s kind of a long story, but it turns out the man was really trying to call you. I didn’t say anything about it to you at the time because it didn’t seem important. I guess now maybe it is.”
Anna drank her water slowly, then placed her teacup on the table in front of her.
“All right, I’ll tell you what I have to say. You should know I didn’t go to do the commercial, like I told you I was. I came back on the day I said I would, two days after I left, but then I really did get a call to do a fashion show. I had to leave on the first train so I had no chance to call you. I didn’t get back until this morning, then I slept all day until you saw me on the road.”
“What else you want know?”
“How about where you went instead of traveling to film a commercial?”
“This very hard for me.”
“It’s hard for me, too.”
“You must know where I went.”
“I know that where you went has something to do with that phone call Ai Lin told me about, so I assume the guy who called her finally got hold of you and you went to see him.”
“I know that man last year, before you ever come to China. He from Canada. When he left China he said he would come back for me, but I never believe him. I got a phone call from him last week.”
“That must be the call Ai Lin told me about.”
“He never say nothing to me about that.”
“So this Canadian man came back to China and you went to spend the weekend with him.”
“That’s not all.”
Anna picked up her cup, then put it down when she saw it was empty.
“That man ask me marry him. I have four days to give him my answer.”
I tried not to let Anna see how surprised I was. I had assured her I was prepared to hear any bad news she might have to tell me. I didn’t want her to see how insufficient my imagination had been.
“Do you love this guy?”
“We used to be involved. His company send him here on business last year and we get to know each other.”
“That’s not what I asked you. I asked you if you love him.”
“I think maybe I could learn to love him.”
“That’s an interesting answer.”
“It’s the only answer I can give.”
“I feel ridiculous. I’ve been worrying about you for days, all for nothing.”
“Not for nothing. You the only reason I don’t tell that man I will marry him. He want me answer right away, but I tell him I need time to think. If I hadn’t met you I will probably tell him yes. But when I see you I can’t imagine leaving you.”
“You haven’t decided what you’re going to do?”
“I feel very confused. Right now I just want cry.”
It would have been easy for me to lecture Anna about the sanctity of love, about the importance of basing her decision on who her heart told her to be with, but I had never lived in a work unit that had the power to decide if I could change jobs, move, or marry, and I had never had to endure rationed cooking oil, bathing in public bathhouses, or winters without heat.
I wasn’t sure how living under those conditions had affected Anna’s thinking, but I had already told her how it had affected mine. On our first real date, I had told Anna that if I were a Chinese woman I would do anything to get out, that I would get to know as many foreigners as I could, until I made certain that one of them got me out of China. It had taken me only a month to conclude that any price would be worth paying to escape China. It seemed reasonable that Anna had reached the same conclusion after living there her entire life.
“It’s all right,” I said. “Go ahead and cry. Just go ahead and cry.”
The next night, after Anna had had time to catch up on her sleep, and I had had time to realize the seriousness of our situation, Anna I and decided to go out for dinner.
It was almost nine o’clock by the time we finished eating and starting walking home. Along the way, we walked down a side road that was lined on both sides by tall concrete apartment buildings. The opposing walls of the towering buildings made me feel as if Anna and I were walking across a stage at the bottom of an immense amphitheater. Hundreds of people were milling about in the street, enjoying a night under the starlit sky. Anna and I held hands, confident that we were far enough away from our college to act boldly.
Considering the seriousness of our situation, the two of us were in light spirits. During dinner, we had played with a young girl, the daughter of the restaurant’s owner. Anna had lured the girl to our table with playful whispers, then had shown the girl the hair on my arms and chest. The young girl had stared in wide-eyed disbelief before running off to tell her father what she had seen. By the time Anna and I had left the restaurant, it seemed as if everything was back to normal, as if our relationship had been tested and found worthy of remaining intact.
“I love walking in the dark,” I said. “People passing by can’t see me so they assume I’m Chinese. It’s the only time I can be sure no one will stop to stare at me.”
“Maybe they stare at you because you so handsome.”
“You’re the good-looking one.”
“You the one with the big nose.”
“Wait a minute – “
“The handsome big nose.”
I pushed Anna away from me, then wrapped my arm around her shoulder.
“I like joking with you, but I hope you know how I feel about you.”
“I do. And I feel the same way. You play the beautiful music. You can sing. I like everything about you. When I’m not with you, when I’m home alone, I always think ‘What’s he doing right now?’ I try imagine you writing at your desk, or playing my guitar on your sofa. Then I always want see you.”
Anna and I walked along a dark street until we reached a small shop that had closed for the night. Bicycle riders rode past in front of us. Anna looked up and down the street until she was certain that no one riding by would be able to see our faces, then she walked up the shop’s concrete steps and sat down. I stood at the bottom of the steps, looking up at Anna’s face in the moonlight, then slowly walked up the stairs and sat beside her.
“I want to tell you something I should have told you yesterday,” I said.
“What you want tell me?”
“I don’t want you to marry that Canadian.”
“I’m glad you tell me that.”
“I just don’t know if I can promise you anything right now. You said the other night that love is love no matter where you are, but we both know things aren’t that simple. This isn’t the United States. Living here has created all sorts of problems I’m not used to dealing with.”
“I don’t want you promise anything.”
“Let me say that another way. If you want to go with me to the United States, I’ll take you with me. It’s just that we would have to spend some time away from China before we decided if we really wanted to be married.”
Anna wrapped her arms around her knees. She rocked back and forth on the steps for several minutes before she turned and looked at me.
“You mean you divorce me if we go to United States and you decide you don’t want be with me?”
“Not exactly. It’s just that we haven’t known each other very long. No matter how in love we may feel right now, we need more time together before we’re sure.”
Anna sat quietly for some time, carefully considering everything I had said. A young couple passed on a bicycle in front of us. A teenaged girl on the back of the bicycle leaned forward, clutching the waist of the boy who was steering in the direction of our college.
When Anna started to speak, I understood why she had taken her time formulating what she wanted to say. She spoke in rapid bursts, as if she were determined to get beyond our present situation to an explanation of her entire life, as if her words were being drawn from a well so deep that not even she knew where its bottom lay.
“I know you think it’s important to always be honest, but you can’t always be honest, one, two, three, in order. I couldn’t tell you I was going to see that man before I left, but I knew I had to tell you sometime. On my way home from work yesterday, while I’m walking, some girls laughing beside me. I had no mood for the laughing. All I could think was ‘Don’t worry, Phil. I’ll tell that other man I have someone else in Kaifeng.’ Then I start thinking about everything all over again and I don’t know what to do. You know, love not the only thing that matters. I have a lot of practical things to think about.”
“I know all about – “
“I want finish. You remember one day we talking? You say some people at this college tell you I like American men. All right, maybe I know some foreigners, but I’m not looking for someone to take me out of China. You say you will take me with you, even you don’t love me. A pretend marriage. I don’t want go with you that way. If we in love and we really get married, I go with you. But I won’t marry you to divorce later. That’s not my way. Let me tell you about Thomas, the teacher at this college before you here. He tell me he want date a Chinese girl. He say he maybe even want marry one. He ask me to find him some girls to date. I could have said ‘What about me?’ I’m bold enough to do that. But I didn’t. I won’t do that unless I love someone. Those people at the college tell you I will find you because you are American. All right, I admit it’s true, I don’t like the Chinese men. They have very few interests. They don’t want do nothing. They’re too shy. But you’re the first foreign teacher at this school I ever date. You’re the only one I ever care for. And you should know I’m not after your money. Do you know I make almost as much as you this month? It’s true. I work very hard, sometimes late at night. Those people all say bad things about me. You can’t help believing some of what they say.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. Except that I need to make up my own mind about you. The only way I can do that is if I have more time to get to know you. All I’m asking you to do is give me time. You have to tell this man no.”
Anna and I got up and began to make our way home in the dark. As we got closer to our college, I began to notice people in the street going about their business. Near the corner of an alley, a vendor was pulling pieces of steaming bread off a grill. A man on the other side of the alley was selling lamb kebobs to some teenagers on bicycles. Men and women rode by in front of us, others walked hurriedly along wide sidewalks. In many ways I envied the people around me, their certainty, their knowledge of a terrain that was still very foreign to me. They understood where they were, they knew the rules. They knew the difference between what was possible and what was impossible.
As Anna and I prepared to make our final turn, the one that would aim us in the direction of our college, I suddenly realized I might not know Anna much longer. She wasn’t trying to decide if she should accept a transfer to another city, she wasn’t trying to decide if she should accept a promotion that would make it harder for us to spend time together. She was trying to decide if she should marry another man, a man who would take her halfway around the world to make her his wife.
I kissed Anna good-night on a dark street corner in the middle of campus. As I watched her walk toward her apartment, I thought about the way she had laughed and shown my hairy arms to the restaurant owner’s daughter, about all our walks through the city’s streets, about all the time we had spent together laughing and talking about our lives. Just a few weeks earlier I had eaten dinner with a dozen of her friends, laughing and spitting fish bones on the floor beside our table, feeling for the first time that I really belonged in China. As I watched Anna make her final turn and disappear into the blackness of night, it didn’t seem possible that she could be on her way home to consider the possibility of becoming another man’s wife, not even in China, but for the next four days that was exactly what Anna would do.