I’m a visitor here. That cannot be disputed. The fact that I have a Chinese wife, have lived here more than half a decade, and put some time into learning about the culture and language means nothing when certain topics come up.
People can go from hearty to homicidal in about 1.5 seconds when politics comes out to play.
That doesn’t surprise me.
Avoiding political discussions that have a chance of touching sore spots is like crossing a mine field blind-folded with your shirt on fire. Hell, not just here, either. Facebook looks just as much like a dogmatic stream-of-conscious conveyor belt as any of the big names with talking heads out there. A part of me thinks that soon videos of cats will be tapped to perpetuate nefarious hidden agendas of “Deep State” shadow men.
It seems so much of our identity these days gets wrapped up in defining who someone else is instead of deciding who we are. So often that definition begins and ends with a border. I guess that makes some sort of sense. Civilization did spring up from family groups that then morphed into villages, city-states, and then nations. They knew who others were because they didn’t recognize something about them – language, clothes, religion, color.
Instead of riding this thought into the metaphorical, I want to keep it concrete.
You don’t have to be an angry nationalist to be a patriot. There. I said it.
Right now America – as seen from my Facebook feed and news source front pages – is dealing with an identity crisis itself. All kinds of redefining going on over there. Pretty ugly. China isn’t one to be showed up, though. The country has put its 1.3 billion feet down with regards to South Korea and that THAAD missile crap. Beijing isn’t even letting Chinese citizens travel there! Tour agencies are being strong-armed into cancelling their packages to the county, and Korean-owned businesses are being boycotted. Just like at the height of the South China Sea Island dispute with the Japanese, the Chinese people are ready and willing to point their collective wrath any direction the Party says. This is hardly a Chinese issue nor is it an American arrogance problem. Nationalistic bullshit like this crops up everywhere.
But since I’m an American living in China, I’ll focus on what I have experience with.
Concrete: My father-in-law loves China (a bit nationalistic at times). My mother-in-law also loves China (more of a pragmatist, though).
Discussions about Japanese, Russians, Koreans, and even Americans with my father-in-law can escalate into ideological talks that resemble cross-examinations. These same chats with my mother-in-law have a tendency to revolve around the newest product that she finds useful and of a good quality. She sifts through what the world has to offer based on her needs regardless of the origin of what she’s buying. If it’s good quality, cheap, and helps her help her family, she’s game.
I’ve got family and friends Stateside that served in the military. I also know people who take that experience and twist it so they somehow come out as a superior human being, much more American than others who have not worn Dress Blues. Suddenly they are a Citizen and everyone else is a weak, entitled Civilian. Again, not just an American phenomenon.
Xiao Ming has friends and family that fit the same mold. One of her closest friends is a soldier currently, and when they all met last for dinner the topic of patriotism got brought up. Turns out that serving in the military doesn’t just improve your combat skills, give you knew clothes and a job, no, it also just makes you a BETTER HUMAN BEING. Xiao Ming’s friend spent an inordinate amount of time talking at the table about how not only are he and his comrades more patriotic than other Chinese people, they are in fact more worthy of being Chinese citizens, and should be viewed as saviors. To be a soldier is the Best Thing You Can Ever Do, Ever. For Real. I’m paraphrasing his message.
I’m not a soldier, I haven’t served. But that mentality – the one that goes: I am better than you, so be in awe – feels wrong. Doesn’t matter if it’s directed at your own countrymen or those outside your borders. There are men and women who deserve our gratitude and respect, no doubt, but that doesn’t make them better humans or even more worthy of being a citizen of the country.
Once the soldier proves his value to the country, he turns his righteousness toward other places. Mainly, every country not China/America. Regardless of where you’re from, listening to someone rail on and on about another person (or nation of people) can churn your stomach. At some point the urge to raise your hand for permission to speak cuts in and you want to ask if the lecturer is aware that We’re all human. Our commonalities outweigh our differences.
Just the other day on WeChat another childhood friend of Xiao Ming’s who lives in Germany posted a message decrying the boycotting of Korean products by Chinese people. His opinion was that the specific targeting of other countries by Beijing was just a way to control people by giving them a monster at which to aim their anger. Xiao Ming agreed, liking the post. Instantly, another old friend responded by saying they were both wrong and that it is right for the Chinese to be against the Koreans. After all, he said, what would you do if the convenient store in the neighboring complex had better, cheaper products than your own, but then had a guard dog that barks at you every time you go there to shop (but doesn’t stop you). This was the example he gave to drive his point home.
Am I the only one that sees this as a ridiculously insufficient analogy?
Eventually Xiao Ming ended the debate by going above it. Nationalism may be a natural inclination for civilization, she told her friends. Building a strong country probably requires a bit of it, and it’s been around for a long time. But accepting the idea that we’re all people working toward similar goals, though, would better benefit the whole of humanity more instead of just a few of the wealthiest nations. Seeing past the insignia on a passport to the person carrying it is an ideal we can still strive toward.
Idealistic? Certainly. Doesn’t make it wrong.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by headlines and rhetoric in bold print, but there are ways to counter the barrage of one-liner philosophies that paint the world in primary colors.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” Mark Twain once wrote. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Don’t get me wrong. More and more I believe that mandatory military service might actually be a good thing for all young people, but all that What makes the grass grow? Blood, blood, blood! propaganda needs to be tempered by affordable opportunities for education and travel experiences afterward.
Loving your country is not the same as hating other countries.
Ironically, today Xiao Ming and I ate at a Korean restaurant and spent time in a Korean café. This was not a statement. Other places were just not as convenient. We were happy, however, to see that the media hadn’t absolutely brain-washed everyone. Both places were packed.
You can tell the good girls from the bad girls here by gathering a few basic facts, I was told about five years ago. The facts may be closer to stereotypes than reflections of real people, but who doesn’t listen to stereotypes once in a while?
A young Chinese woman who smokes – bad egg.
Tattoos – Watch out!
If she admits to visiting Five Color City frequently – Oh, boy!
FCC is about two or three blocks of bars, restaurants, massage parlors, and a few random civil service offices. Tucked between the Qing Gui (Light Rail Train) on the north and a large public square used by retirees at night for their Square Dancing on its south side, Five Color has a way of feeling like the center of Kai Fa Qu when you’re standing in the midst of it all.
Growing up in America where smoking, tattoos, and drinking with friends out at night are just common, none of these “Bad Egg” traits stood out to me as indicative of moral depravity. China, for all its robust growth and headlines touting progress across the board, is still a nation of very traditional values – that’s what most people say when you ask them.
Really, it’s a country playing tug-of-war with itself. One side yearning for a wide open field of complete and utter modernity and the moral ambiguity that goes with it while the other tries to anchor their end of rope in place to something like good old-fashioned Confucian principles with Mao’s flavor of Communism laced in there for good measure. Enter the wide-ranging foreign influence along with humanity’s natural inclination to make a buck and you’ll see why a place like Five Color exists.
Advertised in the late eighties as a tourist spot in Dalian, Five Color City drew crowds of families because of its trippy architecture and wholesome vibe. They even had a Western Restaurant! In time, though, the neighborhood-sized attraction lost its appeal, and it shut down in the late 90s.
When the doors began to open again in the 2000s it was for a different clientele. International companies and their foreign workforce needed a watering hole, and FCC provided it. Bars and restaurants opened, and soon the ridiculous facades of the buildings resembling something Disney or Tim Burton might see during a particularly rough trip on LSD became the backdrop of many, many drunken shenanigans.
Every few months a bar closes and another one takes its place – often just a name change marks this event. Painting, remodeling, cleaning are not requirements. In my time in Dalian I’ve seen at least a dozen new bars come and go. Only a handful seem to have any staying power.
Anchorage, Cafe Vienna, Holmes, The Nagging Wife, The Lazy Hog, Gold Bar, Memories – These are basically the only ones still around from more than five years ago. A few Japanese bars may make the cut, but even they turn over just as often (And they don’t like non-Japanese speakers). The bartenders working these joints are often young girls in their early twenties. In the summer you’ve got your college kids looking to either improve their English or up for some partying. Throughout the rest of the year, though, the girls tend to be a bit more worldly.
The shelf-life of a Five Color City employee is about 1-2 years. Anymore and the place works its evil, toxic poison on even the sweetest, bright-eyed cutie. Those in the life much longer than that have a way of aging physically and mentally much faster than they should. Some names come to mind, but I won’t call them out here. A few girls play the seasonal game where they pick up shifts strictly around the holidays, not totally succumbing to the effects of being a full-time bargirl. Probably the best route if you’re going to be a part of it, I suppose.
Start making friends with some of the owners and it becomes apparent that there is a network of power and influence that runs through the entire place. Some bosses command more respect than others while still others form alliances that benefit their bars. I have a friend who does shows. He’s played all throughout Dalian, but early on in FCC one particular bar owner sunk her claws into him and claimed him. He is unable to work in any other bar in Five Color without serious consequences – a threat he feels would actually be enforced. Girls jump ship occasionally, pulling the clients they’ve befriended (or bewitched) along with them. Behind the scenes, however, they all have a common foe.
All the bars give the local cops red envelopes in order to be left alone. A few bar owners have complained that around this time of the year the money gets hard to pull together because many of their foreign customers are traveling for the holidays and the police want bigger slices of the pie. Despite this overhead, bars keep opening all the time.
Sometimes the “Bosses” aren’t the owners, and figuring that out adds another layer.
Turns out, a lot of Japanese or Chinese business men like to be the money behind some bars, but they pick a pretty girl to be the face. Flower, the “boss” of Rainbow Bar a few years ago swore up and down that she owned the bar. Bubbly, charismatic, and just suggestive enough to keep folks coming back, Flower played her role well. She had that ditz thing down pat, but come closing time she could tally tabs and offer advice to her girls like a pro. She almost had me believing she was the sole proprietor until she closed down the place to do some remodeling one day and I caught sight of a shady looking Japanese guy paying the workers.
Sugar Daddy, of course.
The foreigners – those that stick around a while – become personalities around Five Color, too. The obnoxious Australian Seaman Jimmy ran Anchorage with his “wife” Summer when I arrived, but has since disappeared. Jolly enough, the guy never had a shirt on and could bullshit with the best of them. He cut off mid-story once to leap into a fight that had broken out between some Russians and Chinese in the bar. Barely got out of there alive myself. Turns out that was a common occurrence for Jimmy. Probably why he’s not around still. Tall, charming, English Dean and Summer got together shortly after that. He had a hell of background and an ex, though–don’t we all? He told me about it a few times. The owner of a local restaurant, she would fight with him in other bars, often breaking windows and glasses. That ran its course and he finally managed to reinvent himself as an entrepreneur without needing to set up shop in some high-rise office . He helped Summer remodel the bar, got back into shape, and stopped punching people. He’s still here keeping Anchorage afloat. Love running into that guy!
No more picking on fellow foreigners…
Then there was that one period of time with all the “Nanas.” For a while it felt like every other girl had the name! “Lily” had the same thing going on for a while. The odd names – Flower, Apple, Seven – never get old. They may be attractive in the right lighting, but tread carefully, friends.
Of course there was a stretch of time where I walked into several classic traps.
Flashy, sexy Eva flirting with the whole bar, but secretly giving eyes “only to me.” Drank like a sailor throughout her shift, and then balled her eyes out when I walked her home. Oh, how I wished there was more beneath that coarse exterior. For a while, I thought so, but in the end, her stories of wanting to spend a year in a different city, not getting along with other women, and the jaded heart just got pathetic and transparent.
Aggressive, worldly, and direct – Jess seemed like she could be fun to get to know. Turns out she just wanted a new wardrobe and her last victim had finished a contract with one of the multinationals around Dalian. Ah, so many of the women actually fit this mold. Sad, but true.
If you’re looking for a relationship you’re better off picking a coffee shop or even the cold approach in a mall. Go the Chinese route and have someone introduce you to a single friend, why don’t ya? Pepper in some Mandarin if you can, and good luck. Bars – though I technically met my wife in one – are not going to be harems of the best China has to offer. And likewise, if you’re always at the bar you’re putting yourself in the stereotypical foreigner category yourself. Been there, so I know. My life in China got so much better after my year of drinking five nights a week.
Brothels don’t really exist here like they may have back in the day, but there are of course a number of ways people get what they want. Shady massage joints litter every Chinese city. You know you’re in trouble when you walk by their front doors and a smiling face peaks out and says, “Massageeee.” The more discreet girls will doll themselves up and sit in one of the bars I mentioned above, waiting for their Mr. Tonight. They’re the ones at the corners, nursing a cocktail for hours or a hot water with a lemon in it just to keep them alert for business opportunities. Unfortunately, these ladies tend to pick up the lonely foreigner around midnight whereas the Chinese businessman will arrange his girl before even commencing on his night out. You can always tell. Much older man with a super young and flashy girl. They barely touch each other the whole time, but she never leaves his side. He ignores her completely, save for a place to rest his hand. She says not a word to him or his buddies, choosing instead to chat with the female bartenders. They leave together of course, but he’s so wasted it makes you wonder if he’s going to seal the deal or if it was all for show, for mian zi, in the first place.
The whole place is that way – one big show.
At night the lights come on, the actors assume their roles, and the performances begin. The cracks in the paint and the ramshackle jimmying of doors or tables is overlooked. Vomit on the street is sidestepped, and the sound of someone voiding their bladder on the side of a building is ignored. Lies are told and swallowed, conversations long memorized like bad scripts get recited, and the motto of every bar in the country rings out ad nauseum – gan bei!
For a long time Five Color City was my hangout. I’d work, hit Starbucks, and then grab a few drinks at one of the bars. Much of my Mandarin foundation came from bartenders or random Chinese drinking partners. Some of my strangest, most entertaining, and loneliest nights happened in FCC. Backflips off a dais at a dance club, cutting my hand open doing a roundoff in the street, bar fights, getting swept up in crowds of Japanese business men out for the night, feuding bars, and, of course, meeting my wife through the machinations of a mutual friend trying to set me up with another girl.
And Five Color almost ruined that relationship from day one. Walking down the main drag with Xiao Ming on our first date at least half a dozen bargirls leaned out their doors and called out to me using either my English name or my Chinese name at the time. Luckily Xiao Ming laughed it off and chose to think of me as a “Five Color City Star,” a reputation I’ve since tried my absolute best to squash and bury. With the turn-over rate of most places working to my advantage, I’ve almost succeeded.
That advice I got more than five years ago may not be the Gospel Truth – hell, even if it was, I wouldn’t have listened completely, who would? – but there is a lot that can be said about moderation and a set of standards. If I’d had either of those five years ago I’m sure I’d have bypassed a lot of trouble, but I’d also have nothing I can shake my head and smile about.
On the heels of Duan Wu Jie—Dragon Boat Festival—this past June, my cousin-in-law got married in Harbin, Heilongjiang’s rusted, cramped, forgotten Russian outpost that’s served as the province’s capital forever. More well-known for hosting the winter snow and ice festival that gets national attention in the colder months, the city is stuck between what was surely its heyday during the birth of Chinese industrialization and marching into the modern stage of economic development. There are stretches of city where chains of crumbling, derelict one-story homes stand sentry in front of glass and steel monuments freshly minted and opened for business as if their purpose is to guard against the rushing tide of modernity that will render them piles of rubble in the near future.
Our over-night train from Dalian deposited us right in the heart of the city at the tail end of a storm. At 4:25 am. Working on about three hours of rough and dreamless sleep, I struggled to carry on conversations with my Chinese family in my usual upbeat manner as the train slid into the station and we alighted. My male cousin, who Xiao Ming calls Ge, or big brother, a short, tanned guy who shares the same national addiction to nicotine as most other Chinese men, also nursed a hangover headache as we all pushed our way out into the rainy morning. When he showed up at the train station with the rest of the Liu clan he was already pretty toasted. He had spent most of the previous night chatting away with me in broken English and Mandarin; convinced that a friend of mine in America could help him get his hands on industrial machines that he could turn around and sell to his customers, Ge boisterously lectured me on the merits of American, German, and Japanese technology and how the Chinese admired their craftsmanship.
With the exception of me—the one lao wai in the group—we were a fairly average group of travelers, considering our destination and purpose. The roster included Xiao Ming and I, her parents, the two aunts and their husbands, and the cousins Ge, and Zhao Jing.
The cousin getting married—Wang Lulu—was already in her husband’s hometown of FangZhang, three hours outside of Harbin. Her parents, my Xiao Yi and her husband, whom I referred to as Xiao Yi Fu (Each and EVERY member of a Chinese family has a specific title they are known by: as the youngest blood-related aunt, Xiao Yi, or “little aunt” and Xiao Yi Fu “Little aunt’s husband”), seemed excited for the occasion, but they’d already had their moment, really. Lulu and her groom/husband, Ni Ji, had already held a ceremony down in Dalian two weeks before, but this one was for his side of the family. Only his mom and dad could make it the first time, so Lulu and Ni Ji got two wedding ceremonies. The big difference was that this one would be a traditional Chinese wedding, something I’d read about, but never participated in. When we got married, Xiao Ming and I only had the Gan Xie dinner with the family where a few toasts were made, red envelopes got handed out, and Bai Jiu imbibed.
An older uncle on Lulu’s side picked our troupe up at the Harbin West Station, and walked us to a local hotel a few blocks away where we all—eleven of us—hung out for five hours in one room. It was about as fun as it sounds. After changing and cleaning some of the sweat and travel off, we all sat around and chatted. Unable to nurse the migraine that had developed while everyone rattled on about raising children, methods of education, and family stories I had no context for, I took a walk.
Harbin at six am is quiet, wet, and full of taxis. The cool air and brisk morning breeze woke me up a bit as I wandered around. After a while I found myself in a park watching older couples run through their exercise routines—walking backwards, patting their heads, speed-walking, and Tai Ji Quan sets. I’d heard that Harbin had once been considered chic and westernized. I wondered how long ago that was.
The building across from the hotel had broken windows and boards nailed to others without glass altogether. I’d thought the place vacant and abandoned until a man pushed his way out of the crooked front door. The Russianesque architecture couldn’t be original, either. Imitation has become another Chinese national custom, and it didn’t surprise me to see official office buildings that looked built within the last ten years topped with rounded domes and eaves sporting archangels as though commissioned by Russian patrons themselves. Sure, there had to be authentic bits thrown in throughout the city, but I didn’t see many that morning.
At approximately nine am we headed back to the train station and picked up even more family members. After shaking hands, snapping a few photos for posterity, and standing around, we hopped into a large van and drove out of the city just as it was beginning to fully wake up.
I slept. I tried to sleep.
Then, in a daze, I came to around two pm as we pulled into a small town about one traffic light removed from a village. A big family lunch got underway when all I wanted to do was shower and stretch out on a flat surface big enough so that my feet didn’t hang off the edges. Xiao Ming could tell I was in a bad mood. I get cranky when I have to do things in a big group, especially when it deviates from the plan. I was told we’d be checking into a room where we’d be left alone for the rest of the afternoon until dinner. An impromptu lunch with forty people was cramping my style.
But as soon as we began eating I also began to wake up and my bad attitude drifted away.
Mandarin chitchat rolled off my tongue as red whine imported from Australia loosened my lips. I filled up on fish, chicken, turkey, greens, and rice. Ge and I began joking with one another, parlaying his Japanese with my English and Xiao Ming’s French in funny ways, using Mandarin as the lingo de franco when communications got cluttered. The whole round table consisted of cousins and friends of the bride and groom—all under forty years old. We were at the “kiddie table” while the adults sat on the other side of the wall laughing and eating.
As is usually the case at a Chinese meal, toasts began to be made. It always starts with one of the Big Wigs holding up a glass of Bai Jiu and the whole table standing as the speaker gives a hearty welcome full of gushing sentiment and red-faced cheer. This goes on for a few turns, each speaker putting their own flare to the toast, until finally the toasting does one of two things: it either breaks off and becomes about toasting those you’re sitting next to or, in the case where the party is big enough to have more than one room (our situation), the tables begin to mix and toast one another.
Ni Ji’s uncle, a barrel-chested man with a shiny dome and a wide face was first. The Biggest Wig present, he owns (somehow) one of the most popular food streets in Dalian, and is a successful import/export man. I didn’t understand all of his words, but his speech was more of a performance to watch than simply a toast to be heard. Dramatic volume changes, varying shades of red cheeks, and sweeping hand gestures made me wonder if he’d missed his calling as a Shakespearean stage actor.
Eventually, though, Lulu and Ge stood up. Then they looked at me. Waving me up from my seat, they said that they were going to the other room to give a toast and to represent the Liu side of the family and our room. They joked that they wanted me to be the English translator, but it was clear from the apprehension on Lulu’s face that she needed to surround herself with supporters. Why she didn’t ask anyone else around the table besides me, I have no idea. Maybe it was that she and I have always been on good terms. Maybe it was that Ge and I were the “men” on her side of the family. Hell, maybe my white face was a distraction that took the focus off her.
Whatever the reason, I didn’t hesitate. I’m fairly certain that the wine played a part in my lack of inhibition, but at that point it wasn’t about me.
The three of us entered the other room, the “adult room,” and, as expected, we caught everyone’s attention. Lulu held out her glass and in her quiet but clear voice thanked everyone for coming to celebrate her and Ni Ji’s wedding, expressed her gratitude, and then nodded toward Ge. He glanced at me and asked me to translate. Jokingly referring to something he and I had said earlier, I used my announcer voice to say, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.” Everyone laughed, and then he began his toast.
As he spoke, I zoned out.
At my own wedding dinner, I’d given a brief, frankly childish speech. The crowd had been deeply forgiving and open. No one faulted me, I knew. But I also knew that mian zi played a big part in moments like these. Playing the token lao wai in China is easy. The role is made just for us foreigners. Everyone knows the lines we should speak and the faces we should make. I’ve played that role before. But as Ge spoke, I looked at my mother and father-in-law. They’d never treated me that way. I’ve always been a part of their family, not some comic relief.
I had to try.
As the toast ended and the glasses rose to peoples’ lips, I lifted mine and added in slow, careful Mandarin, “I’d like to say something.”
I wanted to make sure I was understood. Chinese people give me the benefit of the doubt occasionally, but older generations tend to struggle to comprehend more complicated sentences from me. As the table clapped and then fell quiet to listen, I ignored my pounding heart and hoped my face wasn’t as red as it felt.
“I’ve been in China four and a half years,” I continued. “And I know that China has a long culture and history that I cannot ever understand. But what I have discovered is that the most valuable part of Chinese culture is family.” And with a lift of my glass, I turned to Lulu beside me and added, “I am so happy to be here now to take part in Lulu and Ni Ji’s wedding. Gan bei!”
When it was over and my glass empty, I noticed that Xiao Ming had snuck into the room. No doubt planning on coming to my rescue. Instead of translating any mistake I made, though, she beamed with obvious pride. She took my arm and led me out of the room as everyone clapped and carried on. When I asked her if what I said was okay she smiled and said it was perfect. When we returned to our table everyone clapped for me, and it was only then that I realized that the entire group of people from both sides had heard every word.
It wasn’t something that was going to end up in the papers (although in that town maybe it was the first toast delivered in Mandarin by an American), but I’d made Xiao Ming proud, and, as cliché as it sounds, I did bring honor to the family.
When we finally did make it to the motel, I was impressed. Despite being a small town, the accommodations were great. We had a large room, bigger than my first apartment in China, with tan oak walls and a fantastic shower. The rest of that afternoon was blissfully free of any family obligations. In the evening the younger members all ate together again, and then most of them went out for barbecue afterward. Xiao Ming went with them, but the lack of sleep had finally whittled away my second and third winds. Was I on a fourth wind? I stayed in the room and got a good night’s sleep.
The next day, “The Wedding” started early. Xiao Ming’s folks knocked on our door around seven, and we were dressed and outside before eight.
The Groom, Ni Ji, was not on site. He and his Groom’s Men would show up in a convoy of black Mercedes Benz later, but the Bride’s side had work to do first.
Aunts and Uncles, Cousins, and family friends all piled into one motel room – even with the cabinesque feel and size to it, the guests filled the room out. Standing room only, along the perimeter. I got the usual questions and comments, but some were present the day before for my spontaneous toast and I thought maybe they showed me a bit more consideration beyond open curiosity.
Dumplings got made, rolled and stuffed and then boiled, steamed, and baked. One aunt took a butcher knife to half a cow. The little tank of a lady worked at the task with incredible focus. Xiao Ming, watching her, began to cry.
“Li Niang Rou,” she tells me. Leaving the Mother Meat. It’s a custom of cutting the meat from the bone, a symbol of the child leaving the mother forever.
Soon after that the younger women, Xiao Ming and the other cousins, barricaded themselves in the back room with Lulu, the Bride. Ni Ji had arrived. Climbing out of the first Benz, he and two friends strutted up to the hotel room decked out in Tuxes, Red Envelopes in hand.
Without warning, everyone is rushing around in the motel room. The door is slammed closed, the male cousins press themselves against it, and pull me along with them. We’re blocking the door so Ni Ji can’t get in? Yes, yes, we are.
During a Chinese wedding the Groom has to overcome multiple obstacles to prove he’s determined to marry and provide for his new Bride. The first of these obstacles is getting through the front door.
Ni Ji arrives, yells to his Bride, “Lao Po! Wo Lai Le!” Wife! I’m here! We press ourselves against the door as he and his friends try to push it open. We hold.
Second obstacle: the third degree. Suddenly everyone starts shouting questions at him. Why are you here? What do you want? Who are you? And then the long line of Who am I? Followed by Ni Ji referring to everyone with the familial title specific to his position – I’m Er Jie Fu.
Third: The Payoffs. We don’t open, yet. Instead, people start asking for money. Seriously. Ni Ji starts sliding those red envelopes under the door. I collect two. Others get more. Later, when I look inside, I find 150 RMB!
Finally, we let him in. But it’s not over. He has to convince the girls to open their door. Another round of questions and payoffs.
Another task is left, though, before he can kiss or even look at Lulu. He must find her shoes.
Hidden around the room are the shoes she’ll wear at the ceremony later, and he must find them before he can claim his Bride. It takes him a while, too.
When he does succeed and the family relents in their attempts at keeping Lulu, Ni Ji whisks her away in the Benz. We all follow after in the other half a dozen Mercedes Benz! We pull up in front of an apartment complex I’m told is where Ni Ji’s parents live. Up to the apartment we go for pictures. A ceremonial wedding bed is made and the Bride and Groom sit on it while a professional photographer snaps shots of them and family members around them.
A large, thick, highly decorated wedding blanket is stretched over the bed, and in the shape of a heart are different nuts and seeds, all Chinese homophones representing marital hopes for the family. Dates, peanuts, lotus seeds, and dragon eyes “Zao Sheng Gui Zi” – Give birth to a boy quickly, is the phrase you hear when all the ingredients are said together. Subtle.
After the photo shoot, it’s off to the dining hall.
This is the most familiar part of the whole event. Dozens of big round tables, beer, food, an MC who tells jokes and gets the Bride and Groom to make speeches, balloons, music, slide show of the relationship, more pictures, and a little bit of dancing.
And then it’s over.
Getting back to Dalian seems to take forever as we retrace our steps back through Harbin city, to the train station, the over-night ride south to Dalian, and then the drive back to our home. Despite the rush and the moments of exhaustion during the weekend, I realize how lucky I am to have been along for the ride. Everyone made me feel welcome, a part of the family.
We all parted at the Dalian train station. Saying goodbye, I noticed that the apprehension of being with the whole family the entire weekend had been replaced by a stronger emotion, one harder to name.
Every time we eat at Xiao Ming’s parents’ her mother tries to elicit a promise that we will eat there at least once a week. She believes that all the wai mai de fan, food we order from restaurants, is trash and unhealthy. She loves to spend hours preparing good meals for us, taking pains to include all the Chinese dishes that I enjoy–even skinless, leg less, headless shrimp and nearly boneless fish. It’s ridiculous, the amount of pleasure she derives from having us over.
She is a short, portly woman in her early sixties with a mind trained on family and any path that leads that family to wealth and health. The former is generally the focus of her attention. Absurdly practical and frugal, she simmers for days right after nearly every store purchase, lying in bed weighing the benefits and cost of buying even the simplest of household products. Face is important to her, and this cultural obsession with it hasn’t always made her the warmest of mothers to Xiao Ming. Performance, achievement, and filial piety are her virtues, making her a tough but simple woman.
Xiao Ming’s father, on the other hand, quietly helps boil, fry, or bake the dishes, never insisting on anything other than me studying more and more Chinese. Infinitely patient, he only ever shows his disappointment or concern by calling his daughter by her family nickname, his voice dropping low and grave as he says, “Ming Ming ah.” He is an incredibly unassuming man,full of limitless curiosity and interests that he discreetly pursues and cultivates without the slightest hint of ego or need to influence others. Unfortunately, none of his hobbies stand a chance of making him or his family rich, and his wife has spent years lamenting this fact not-so discreetly. Almost a complete Yang to his wife’s Yin, he seems to have resigned himself to a constant tug-of-war within his marriage.
In order to make sure they get all the ingredients, her parents wake up early on the days we’re expected and go to the markets together. I imagine their conversations are a series of grunts, criticisms about one another, and questions about what their wai guo de son-in-law will and will not eat.
Products of a generation that saw Chairman Mao as a savior and cruel task master, both of Xiao Ming’s parents felt the full effects of the Cultural Revolution. When the college entrance exam Gao Kao was suspended due to the chaos of the time, her mother and aunts were placed in reeducation camps in villages, and Xiao Ming’s father, unable to enter college the normal way, entered the citizen’s army where he did a lot of farming. Afterward, he received a recommendation for college and went, but by then his youthful ambition had been dulled, and only a meek persistence remained.
They didn’t have a whirlwind romance, but they shared a lot of love. Even after getting married and they had to live with relatives, Xiao Ming’s father doted on his young wife. He caught a lot of flak from cousin-in-laws for not being able to afford his own place, but eventually they moved out and had Xiao Ming. But by then the trend of criticism and let downs had already been established.
When Xiao Ming first began telling me about her family, it felt natural to see the dad as the hero and the mom as the bad guy. While the mean mom complained and demanded perfection, the gentle dad provided support and unconditional love. There were the stories about how the mom berated the dad for building a large birdhouse on their small balcony to take care of pigeons, the times the mom sided with her sisters against the dad, tales from when they slept on the large table at her dad’s work because they hadn’t found an apartment yet, and even when she yelled at Xiao Ming, complaining that her own daughter wasn’t being a good, filial daughter. These and so many more stories I heard prepared me for a formidable, frustrated old woman, but that is not the lady I’ve come to care about.
Likewise, the memories set Xiao Ming’s father up as some sort of unsung saint, but that was a bit exaggerated, too. Too quiet sometimes, he will slip in and out of the house without telling anyone where he’s going, and when asked, responds only, “out.” The pigeons that he loved so much and gave so much space to, took up serious amounts of real estate in a one-room apartment too small for two people let alone three and a flock of birds—and they stank. He bought the place they live now without consulting his wife at all, based solely on the fact that it was ground level and he could have a garden in the back yard. He repeated the move recently when he put 20,000 non-refundable RMB down on a 32nd floor apartment for Xiao Ming and me without telling anyone. We tried to be gracious, but in the end really could not make ourselves like it. After an inordinate amount of irritation that included meetings with landlords, agencies, and talks of getting lawyers involved, her folks decided to go all out and buy the place for themselves while giving us their big apartment in which they still currently live. After getting the details and looking at some of the stories objectively, I can see a bit more how Xiao Ming’s mother might feel that without constant supervision and redirection, her husband might do something illogical and costly.
Through the Mao era, their own poverty, personal differences that have nearly led to divorce, family emergencies like Xiao Ming’s mother getting stabbed by a serial killer, big family moves, and a lifetime of hardships, the two of them have remained husband and wife. They raised a brilliant daughter, love their family, and have even accepted into their midst a Lao wai like me.
Watching them as we sit at their small square table and eat together, I can’t help wonder how they see me. No, that’s not quite true. My curiosity isn’t that egotistical. I wonder how they, after living through all that they have, view the two of us–their daughter and an American–being married, what they think of their future grand babies being both Chinese and American, about what they’d like to say to me if I were totally fluent, and I wonder if they genuinely bless our union. I’ve been given answers to all of these questions and more, and they’re all overwhelmingly positive. My in-laws love me, or at least tolerate me in good spirits. But I always wonder what my difference, my not being Chinese, truly means to them.
Tonight we’re going over to have dinner with them, and I know the food will be great, the conversation will border ontopics I can contribute to and others that will pass me right on by, and I know that my mother-in-law will sit across from me and smile, ask me when I’m coming next, and pack all the left overs into a plastic tub for us to take. My father-in-law will try to include me in talks about cultural differences, offer me home-made Bai jiu, and encourage me to keep on studying so that I can become a Zhongguo Tong, a China Hand–expert on Chinese customs. For the Chinese, sharing a meal together as a family is one of the most important ways for them to spend time. I count myself immensely blessed that they have opened their kitchen, home, and hearts to me, expanding my family from all over America and reaching into the Far East.
We ate a lot of street food in Sanya. Aside from the barbecued tarantulas and crickets in Thailand, I generally enjoy a place’s local street food. For the first few months after I got to China more than three years ago I hesitated before the karts and kiosks that the locals gathered around for their lunch and dinners-on-the-go, afraid to accidentally ingest something that’d anchor me to the toilet hours later. I passed them up until the weather turned cold. For some reason, my strange logic theorized that the meat would remain edible longer in the winters. Forget for the moment that the meat eaten in the chilly evening hours was the same meat getting insufficiently baked by the sun during the afternoons–I sure did.
Regardless, once I began eating I only rarely had occasion to hover around the toilet.
Being right next to the water, Dalian has a ton of aquatically inspired street food, and so did Sanya. I personally don’t like it, but I’ve eaten it enough, I suppose. I’ve always liked shrimp and fish, but if you’ve had either the Chinese way, you’d understand why I don’t often get it here. Eyes, head, skin, legs…all still there. I get the need for balance with nature, existing in it without messing with it–fengshui, and all–but I don’t need to stare my meal in the eyes to feel that I’ve communed with Mother Earth in a meaningful way, thanks.
It was in Sanya, though, that I nearly had a panic attack watching a shrimp fight for it’s freedom. And not only one shrimp, but also a crab that crawled off the kart and tried to scuttle away, and a fish that leapt from the holding box and onto the cement ground in an effort to escape. It was that shrimp, frantically flicking itself across the kart top, popping from one tray to the next, skipping over the clams, black-eyed fish, and others of its own kind, that bothered me the most.
I stood there, next to this round Russian guy with a thick beard, and stared at the shrimp while I waited for my barbecued chicken, lamb, bread and veggies to finish cooking. Watching the thing curl it’s body up and, with a lightning fast jolt of its tail, shoot across the tray, I couldn’t help feel a strange sort of empathy.
That sounded absurd to me in that moment, too, but then again, as it continued to struggle against the confines of those tin trays, I kept feeling that I could empathize with it. I began to imagine what it would feel like to physically fight to free myself from a cell, to use every ounce of energy to escape, just to find I’d landed in another cell full of others like me, all dead, to see my immediate future all around me and to see the edge of the cells, the boundary that would grant me freedom, but to find out, upon finally reaching and surpassing that border that I thought separated life and death, that a sharp fall launching me into darkness and, eventually, my own tragic end was the only future I had, that scared the shit out of me.
Then the woman handed me the plastic bag with our food in it, and I left the shrimp to its fate.
Let’s be honest: I’ve neglected this blog since the summer, and even in the spring, I got skimpy with my updates.
I’m not here to give excuses, though I have to admit I did type a few before I decided on the moral high ground and deleted them. Let’s play catch up instead.
Last May I helped chaperone a trip to Beijing (not to be confused with the trip Xiao Ming and I took later in June to Beijing with the six high schoolers, although Xiao Ming did join me for the Lego trip, too. She helped out quite a bit when we needed to find a hospital for a student who somehow wound up with an infected insect bite of some sort, but more on that at a later time) with 23 middle schoolers for a Lego Competition at the British International School, Xiao Ming and I took the three-day weekend of Dragon Boat Festival to visit Nanjing and Hangzhou (West Lake and the storied Lei Feng Pagoda were inspirational for another novel idea), I travelled to Shanghai with a couple friends for a Guy’s Weekend in the middle of June, went back to Beijing for another chaperoning trip (wrote about that already), spent all of July in France (a few days in Paris then a train ride south to Nice where we camped in a one-hobbit sized hole in the wall for more than three weeks while we hung out on the oddly comfortable stony beach and wandered around ancient villages tucked away in mountains–all while also working on our tans), started work in August and welcomed new teachers, another Guy’s Weekend to South Korea to catch a baseball game, took part in some professional development, one of which sent me, along with three others, down to Shenzhen, a southern city next to Hong Kong for the weekend, and then…
I suppose the next thing I should mention is that Xiao Ming and I got married.
As I write this, the two of us are in Sanya, the only sunny, beach paradise that China has to offer, spending the winter break and our honeymoon soaking up some sun and enjoying the sand and water. It has been a very relaxing trip, and I’m incredibly glad that the cloudy,windy weather of the first few days passed by, letting the sun out for a measure of freedom that has made for gorgeous afternoons and cool evenings.
Now that we are officially fuqi (a married couple), it would be dishonest not to disclose a personal agenda of mine. Part of my master plan to indoctrinate Xiao Ming into American culture includes movies, and so, each evening leading up to and including Christmas, we watched well-known American Christmas flicks. We watched Scrooged, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and the list would have continued, but, unlike me, she has a hard time sitting still for extended periods of idleness. Last Christmas we watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation–my personal favorite, and next Christmas I intend on expanding the list to include all I’ve mentioned (because repetition ad nauseam is the key to any happy family tradition) and also A Christmas Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Home Alone, and even though it’s not a Christmas story, per se, and even though we’ve already watched it, my second favorite, Groundhog’s Day.
This idea occurred to my while we were in France. At some point we somehow stumbled into a conversation about the great American patriot, Rocky Balboa, and it became obvious to me that Xiao Ming did not know of his remarkable tale. I remedied that by downloading all six films and watching them with her over a week-long period. A lover of American music, mostly the Grammy winners CD collections from the nineties and early 2000s, Xiao Ming surprised me by having very limited knowledge of film. Through my detailed investigation I uncovered that she is not familiar with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and basically any Western that has Mr Badass Himself, The Man with No Name–Clint Freaking Eastwood.
This is actually all my fault. I should have guessed this alarming deficiency a long time ago when she and I watched all three Back to the Futures and she admitted having never seen them before. Yes, I dropped the ball, but I’ve since picked it up, dusted it off, and taken to carrying it around with me so much that people make their small children walk on the opposite side of the street as me.
My point is, as you can no doubt guess, I like swimming on vacations.
During New Year’s Eve, the two of us attempted to find a bar, but Sanya’s nightlife is a bit….local. I have no qualms with chillin’ in mostly Chinese bars, but these ones were not just bars, they were Disco Bars. Full of emotionless, talentless, techno schizophrenia and too many identically young nouveau riche, or as they call them in Mandarin, baofahu, toting around phones the size of my forearm, these places are just a jumble of noise and posturing egomania. So we ditched the effort, found a reasonably quiet patch of sand along the beach, and brought in 2015 holding each other, talking of our hopes for the year, and kissing.
And then they lit off an inordinate amount of fireworks because, you know, China.
We’re here for a few more days, and then we head back to Dalian and the Siberian winds that whip across the peninsula and force people into several layers of clothing, one of which usually being long, thick, fuzzy underwear. Can’t wait to get back.
Where to begin? France, Monaco? Back to Dalian and the start of the school year, or the weekends in South Korea and Shenzhen? A lot has happened during the silent interim, but I’ll get back to this blog shortly. School has kept me busy, but I’ve also been focusing on finishing a novel.
I’ll be breathing some new life into this site soon. This is just a pulse check.