Today’s guest post is by Hangzhou-based writer and blogger Jocelyn Eikenburg. Jocelyn muses about love, family and relationships in China (as well as Asian men and Western women in love) at speakingofchina.com. Her site has been featured on the BBC and The Wall Street Journal, and she has been published in The Huffington Post as well as the anthologies How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? and Unsavory Elements. Enjoy!
It was a dark, misty evening the other night when my husband John and I ventured out to our favorite vegan restaurant for dinner – the kind of evening where it feels like you’re walking through the clouds themselves. It was definitely not a night for people watching and surely not one where anyone would notice us. Especially as we strolled through the wetlands park on our way to the restaurant, a park that felt like an overgrown wet jungle with lots of shadows and hardly a streetlamp in sight. The two of us chattered away freely in English and Chinese, laughing with such abandon that I could have sworn we had the entire park to ourselves.
At least, until we heard that voice echo out towards us, just as we crossed the entrance to the wetlands park: “Is that your foreign friend?”
I turned around to see a squat middle-aged man standing under one of the few streetlights nearby. He was dressed in the navy blue uniform that all of the park guards happened to wear – the men who occupied that tiny booth that always glowed like a lighthouse at the entrance to the park.
John flashed the guard a polite smile. “Yes.”
“What country?” the guard shouted out.
“America,” said John. If the one-syllable answers hadn’t sent the message that John didn’t want to talk about it, then surely the fact that he hadn’t even looked back at the guard this time around would definitely do the trick.
“I’m your ‘foreign friend?’” I said to John with a cockeyed smile. What would that guard have thought if he knew we had a little red marriage license tucked in our desk drawer at home and an extra-large box of condoms on our bedside table? We both glanced at each other and the shared ridiculousness of me being “a friend” before the guard made us both break out in laughter.
Still, when the hilarity subsided, I understood the truth behind it – a truth I spoke to John. “It’s better if they don’t know, isn’t it?”
He smiled. “Of course. Did you hear what they said about us yesterday at the bus station?” When we disembarked from the bus, I had instinctively reached for John’s arm, never thinking anyone was actually watching us. As it turned out, we had an audience after all. “Someone said, ‘Wow, a foreign woman with a Chinese man!”
I tilted my head. “Really? Why didn’t I hear that?”
It’s funny I asked this question to John because the answer was obvious. I didn’t hear it because I was in my happy little bubble of marital bliss. I was so thrilled to be in the moment with John, completely ignoring the fact that Western women and Chinese men are such a rare sight in China. Even in a major city like Hangzhou.
Years before, I even wrote about how just holding John’s hand here in China could turn lots of heads for this very reason. How had I neglected all of this? Simple – I had become so comfortable with my own marriage that I forgot what it looked like to the rest of the world around me.
It’s only these moments out in public when someone spots us together that I’m suddenly reminded of how I’m not “normal” in China. That being the foreign wife of a Chinese man makes me something special – something worth talking about. Then the questions come, the seemingly endless cascade of curiosity from people who could hardly imagine that a white American woman from Ohio would ever say “I do” to a young Chinese man from the Hangzhou region.
John wanted to avoid all of that, questions that would have cut into our walk to the restaurant. That’s why he didn’t mind when the guard called me “foreign friend.” It’s easier for people to understand. Lots of Chinese know and spend time with foreigners as friends. It’s not the kind of thing you’d question in China.
It might seem crazy to hope that we could steer clear of people like that guard, with all of his curiosity, in a place like China. Here, I’m guaranteed to stand out for the rest of my life just because I’m a white American woman – and especially if I step out holding my husband’s hands. I know the people who ask about me usually mean no harm at all. But sometimes, there are moments when we want a reprieve from the attention or interruptions. Sometimes, we just want to be ourselves.
In the end, we didn’t run into anyone else during the rest of our walk to our favorite vegan restaurant. There, we spent a lovely evening clinking our teacups and savoring every last bite of the fantastic vegan dishes on our table (from a spicy “vegetarian fish” stew to a plate of sweet-and-sour “vegetarian ribs” made with Chinese yam). The attentive servers in the restaurant only took our orders politely, and stashed their questions away in the corners of their minds or the kitchens, instead of our table. Nobody stopped over to our table to ask about who I was and why I casually touched John’s hand more than once during the dinner.
While I knew it wouldn’t last, it was nice for once just to be John and Jocelyn. Just another happily married couple enjoying a nice dinner out.
Have you ever been in a similar situation? I’d love to hear your stories.