My first impression of Kaifeng, one that immediately convinced me to write home and tell my friends it might not be such a good idea for them to visit after all, was of a construction zone gone mad. From the steps of my train to the door of the station house, loose boards, pipes, and pieces of jagged-edged concrete lay scattered across the ground, left there by workers renovating the Kaifeng train station. Work areas and passenger areas blended together, with nothing to separate the two.
Unable to find the liaison who had been assigned to pick me up, I waded through piles of broken glass and shattered brick on my way to what I hoped was the exit. I followed a group of people over a board that connected opposite sides of a wide, deep trough. Below me, passengers heading for departing trains climbed into the trough, then up and out the other side, hurrying to beat other passengers to their trains.
The front courtyard was swarming with people. Along the concrete steps that led to the front door, people sat beside burlap bags stuffed so full they looked as if they were about to burst. People hurried away from the station in all directions, toward rows of shops across the street, toward buses, toward a concrete parking lot where hundreds of black bicycles were lined up in long rows.
I looked across the street, at the shops that filled the blocks around the train station, hoping that Kaifeng would soon begin to look like something I had seen before. But everywhere I looked the first thing I saw was dirt, on the streets, on the sidewalks, on the faces of most of the people nearby. Coal dust suspended in the air made the sky look overcast, foggy, and forebodingly dark, even at midday.
Then I saw the liaison who had been sent to pick me up, Wan Fan, the secretary of the Foreign Affairs Office of my college. She was easy to find. Her clothes were completely out of place – a dark red dress, black heels – and she was carrying a sign with my name written on it. She appeared to be about my age, maybe a few years older, and she smiled easily, although she covered her mouth each time she laughed. Her modern clothes and pleasant demeanor were encouraging.
“Welcome to Kaifeng,” she said. “You must be Philip.”
As our car pulled away from the station, I did my best to make casual conversation, but I continued to be distracted by the chaos of activity. It wasn’t just the sheer number of people in the street, or even the steady ambush of sound. What overwhelmed me was the way the people of Kaifeng moved from one place to another. Bicycle riders darted in and out of traffic, dodging concrete blocks and iron rails at the edges of bicycle lanes, passing perilously close to the bumpers of buses and taxis that traveled on the wrong side of the road as often as they did on the right. Pedestrians walked on crowded sidewalks, along the inside edges of curbs, or in the center of the street, wherever they could find open space to move. From what I could see, nothing like a right-of-way existed: not for pedestrians, not for bicycle riders, not for buses, taxis, hand-pulled carts, or wagons towed by mules. The street scene in Kaifeng reminded me of an enormous and complex game of chicken, in which people moved where they could, when they could, following the only rule of traffic that seemed to apply: Get there if you can.
My liaison, however, was doing her best to be pleasant, and I did not want her to notice how surprised I was, so I asked her about the places we drove past. She answered by telling me what each place was, who lived there, or what business was located there.
“You will have many opportunities to visit all these places. And my husband and I will show you where all the best shops are.”
When we reached the college, Wan Fan pointed back and forth from one side of the street to the other, saying That’s where you’ll get your mail; that’s where some of the other teachers live. When I looked to my left, I saw brick buildings, each of them three to five stories tall, each of them perfectly rectangular. When I looked to my right, I saw the same brick buildings. I looked for distinguishing features, but aside from small signs above the buildings’ doors the buildings looked identical to me. When our car stopped, and Wan Fan pointed to her right and said This is where your room is, I had no idea if we had stopped in front of a hotel, an apartment building, or a restaurant.
Wan Fan led me inside, then stepped into an office near the back of the lobby. When she returned a few moments later, she had a stack of papers in her left hand, a room key in her right.
“Your room is through these doors,” she said. “I’m sure you want to have a look. Go ahead and I will meet you inside in a few minutes. I must complete these papers anyway.”
I had been told I would have the nicest apartment at our college, but because I had nothing to compare to I did not know what to expect. I took a deep breath outside the double doors that would separate me from the other people who lived in the building. This was my moment of truth, the moment when China would become my home for the next year.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped inside was a living room overflowing with furniture: a sofa, a desk, several chairs, a dresser, a table with a bright red thermos on it, a coffee table, an end table. The room’s concrete walls were green from the floor to a waist-high line, then white to the ceiling, a color scheme I would see in many Chinese apartments and businesses. The carpet, one of only a few I would see in China, was nice, but was covered with what looked like cigarette burns, black holes I would later learn had been caused by wax dripping off candles that were needed during the city’s frequent power outages.
In the middle of the bedroom, a large bed was surrounded by blue mosquito netting that had been rolled down from the top of a thin metal frame to the floor. The bottom half of the bedroom window was filled with a combination air conditioning and heating unit, although the unit, like the small refrigerator in the corner of the room, would never work.
The last room I stepped into, the bathroom, was, and there really is no nice way to say this, an abomination. The room was equipped with a sink, and even a Western toilet (Chinese toilets are of the squat-and-aim variety, no stalls, no toilet paper, just concrete channels cut into concrete floors) but everything looked as it were about to fall apart. Entire pieces of plaster were missing from the walls, and other parts of the walls looked as if they would tumble if I touched them. The bathtub was covered with deep orange stains and indelible footprints, as if someone had crushed grapes there. The tub was equipped with a shower head, but later that evening, during the brief period when the hot water in the building was turned on each night, I would learn that the water pressure in my building was insufficient to force water through it.
My inability to shower, however, would soon prove inconsequential. No matter how often I might bathe, my skin would always feel as if it were covered in a layer of dust, and I would never be able to get my hair completely clean. Dirt would find its way into everything: my clothes, my shoes, even the bristles of my toothbrush.
When I walked out of the bathroom, back into the living room, Wan Fan was sitting on the sofa, waiting.
“What do you think?”
“It’s very nice. I know I’ll enjoy living here.”
I knew my hosts had done everything they could to make me comfortable. They had supplied me with a solid desk, a large comfortable bed, and a dressing bureau to hang my clothes in. They also had hired a man to clean my apartment and to deliver thermoses of freshly boiled water each day. While Wan Fan and I sat and talked, I learned that my meals would be provided by a team of cooks who also prepared meals for local soldiers in a dining hall nearby. In fact, my setup appeared perfect. I didn’t have to cook, I didn’t have to clean, I didn’t have to worry about grocery shopping or other household duties. I would, in fact, have plenty of time to do whatever I wanted to do after finishing my teaching duties for the college.
And that is exactly what I had hoped China would give me: Time. From what Wan Fan had told me about my teaching duties, three classes each semester, an occasional presentation to the faculty, I would have an entire year to conduct interviews for a book I planned to write called Silent Dragons – China Speaks After Tiananmen. I would not have to worry about faculty committee work, or about student advising, or about getting ready for tenure review. Instead, I would have an entire year to prove that I could do more than write lesson plans and assign writing projects.
For my interview plan to work, I had to meet Chinese people, and at first it looked as if I would meet plenty of them. The day after I moved into my new apartment, one of the teachers in my department stopped by to let me know he would be willing to teach me how to speak Chinese. He told me he had done so with many American teachers in Kaifeng, and that each of them had left China able to speak Chinese very well. Another colleague, a female teacher in my department, stopped by to ask if I would like her to take me to the foreign language bookstore downtown.
But almost immediately something went wrong. Although I had made plans to begin my Chinese lessons immediately, I would eventually leave China without ever having received a lesson. I would also never make it to the foreign language bookstore. That trip was cancelled the day before we were scheduled to go there.
While I was trying to figure out what to make of my colleagues’ changes of heart, I began running into problems with my students. My older students, engineers who were hard-working and genuinely interested in learning, spoke only a few words of English, and my complete inability to speak Chinese made it almost impossible for us to communicate. I don’t know what I had expected, but we spent the first two weeks of class teaching each other how to say I don’t understand, speak slowly, and please repeat yourself.
And then I ran into serious motivation problems with my younger students, who I had been counting on not just to keep our classroom interesting, but who I had been hoping would harbor enough resentment about what had happened the previous year to introduce me to student rebels, and, if I got extremely lucky, to people who actually had been in Tiananmen Square during the demonstrations.
But after only a few weeks of class I discovered that only a few of my younger students had any real interest in learning, and that even that interest had been dampened by a schedule that forces college students to attend classes more than twenty hours a week. In letters to friends and family I continued to describe China as a fascinating place, but in truth I was quickly becoming disinterested in a country I had spent an entire year looking forward to living in.
Then, very slowly, during casual conversations with Wan Fan and her husband, the only company I could muster on a regular basis, I began to get a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding me, which led to a better understanding of why people had been acting the way they had: I began to learn about Chinese work units.
My college was a perfect example of a Chinese work unit, serving as both a living compound and a business. My work unit happened to be an educational facility; others operated as factories, service facilities, government agencies. I learned that there is no mixture of people behind the brick walls and iron gates that surround Chinese work units. No school teachers live next door to cotton mill workers, no tax agency employees live next to tool makers. Whatever you do for a living determines who your neighbors are, who you meet, who you become friends with, even who your children play with.
I also learned that work units control almost every aspect of Chinese life. Food, heating oil, and other basic necessities are rationed by the work units, with each member being allotted so many coupons for each type of good. Even the number of baths that people may take in China’s public bathhouses – very few Chinese have their own tubs or showers – is regulated by rationing.
Every member of every work unit is also assigned a collection of papers that are controlled by the authorities of his or her work unit: ration papers, identity papers, work papers, even a printed family history. Those papers make it almost impossible for the Chinese to move, change jobs, marry, or divorce without the written permission of their work units’ leaders. Although it is theoretically possible for a Chinese person to act without the approval of those leaders, it is, as the Chinese say about many freedoms that Westerners take for granted, very difficult to do so.
The authorities in charge of Chinese work units have virtually unlimited power. In addition to managing the commerce of their work units, they also manage the lives of their employees. The authorities have the right to openly criticize any action taken by any member of their work unit. Leaders may criticize employees on the job, or they may go into employees’ homes any time of the day or night to criticize them. People can be criticized for poor work performance, for having poor attitudes, or for doing anything that the authorities do not approve of, including, as I would soon find out, getting to know foreigners better than the authorities want them to. People who resist the authorities’ wisdom are often forced to undergo political training, a euphemistic description of classes that force people to practice what the authorities call correct thinking. The year before I arrived in China, a student at my college had been forced to take an extra year of political science class because he had made the mistake of refusing to sign a document stating that the Chinese government had acted without fault when it had used force to clear student protestors from Tiananmen Square.
Work units control the daily lives of Chinese people, but work units are only one part of a larger, all-encompassing policy that the Chinese government uses to control and manage the lives of its people: the Iron Bowl policy. The term iron bowl refers to a rice bowl that cannot be broken, a bowl that will always have food in it, but in literal terms the Iron Bowl policy – a policy which came into being shortly after the Communists assumed control of China in 1949 – guarantees workers that their jobs will be secure regardless of their performance. In a country wracked by poverty, and in its recent history by famine, the Iron Bowl policy guarantees the Chinese people what they need most: economic stability.
But the Iron Bowl policy does much more than that. In order to guarantee stability, the Chinese government must issue and enforce rules that keep the average person from complicating the government’s task of managing the lives of more than one billion people. Because the Iron Bowl policy places a premium on manageability, it also places a premium on conformity. Rules are born, then those rules give birth to new rules, until rules begin to proliferate like kudzu overtaking a Georgia hillside.
Ultimately, the government’s runaway rules produce absurd contradictions. While it is perfectly proper for Chinese people to hold whatever opinions they choose to hold, it is against the rules for them to express those opinions if they contradict government-sanctioned wisdom. It is also against the rules for Chinese college students to fall in love; according to the Chinese government, love distracts students from their studies. Young lovers who choose to flaunt that particular rule take a very large risk, the risk of being assigned to work units in opposite ends of the country upon graduation, a penalty that is carried out with great regularity.
It would be several months before I learned how creative Chinese students can be when it comes to getting around rules about love. I would learn through conversations with my own students, always while walking in the countryside where no one could overhear us, that many college couples enter into an agreement called contract love, an arrangement based on undying devotion and absolute fidelity until the day the lovers graduate and are forced to go their separate ways, never to see each other again. Other young couples opt to have lunch together, meeting each afternoon to make love, then going on with the rest of their lives as if nothing had ever happened between them. These arrangements, painful for most Western college students to imagine, are as much an accepted part of Chinese student life as is their living eight to a dormitory room.
The lives of Chinese college students are controlled by the government from the day the students enter college until the day they die. Although the Chinese government pays for the education of all its college students, the price the government extracts for its financial support is staggering. To repay their debt to the government, college graduates must work for the work units they are assigned to for five years. While college graduates receive salaries for their work, they are actually nothing more than the indentured servants of their work units. The graduates are not free to choose which work unit they will work for or which part of the country they will live in. Rather, graduates are assigned jobs by the government, oftentimes jobs that have nothing to do with a student’s area of expertise.
Even after graduates have completed their five year service to the government, they remain the servants of their work units, falling under the same restrictions that bind all members of all Chinese work units: the inability to move, change jobs, or marry without the written permission of their work units’ leaders.
The Chinese are given little room in which to experiment with their lives. Because so little is left up to chance, and because the Chinese are penalized if they choose to be different, Chinese people have little reason to take risks. I soon realized that what I had taken to be indifference and apathy from my colleagues and students actually had been nothing more than the cautious behavior of consistently repressed people. It made no sense for a Chinese woman to risk taking an American to the foreign language bookstore, even if the two were colleagues, not when other teachers at their college might say of her the next day, You know, she spends an awful lot of time with the foreign teacher.
I had come to China intending to play along, to follow the When In Rome philosophy I had tucked in my bag before leaving the United States, but I had already had enough. Despite the justifiable reasons for the cautious behavior of my colleagues and students, I knew I would not be able to endure an entire year of indifference and apathy.
I was also beginning to think that teaching in China might be better left to a younger man, someone more willing to rough out the challenging living conditions without complaint. I was tired of finding dirt in my bath water, dirt in clothes I had just finished washing, dirt everywhere, and I wanted to go home.
I was not proud of what my leaving China after having just gotten there would say about me, but I had made up my mind to climb onto a plane and fly home, and would have done exactly that, if I had not met someone the next day who would change my mind about everything.
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
“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.