Dating and Romance in Rural China, part 2

(Continued from “Dating and Romance in Rural China, part 1)

Within just a week or two of dating, Jin had already begun to weigh the possibilities for their future life together; would Li commit to stay in Yilong with her, or would she have to come with him if he went to work for an NGO in Chengdu which had previously employed him? I was utterly baffled at the speed with which their relationship had progressed to this planning stage, and skeptical that Li, who had worked with a different NGO in a different city each of his four years since graduating from college, would agree to settle down so soon.

Nevertheless, these broader questions of the future were often forgotten in the early days of their relationship, as they often are. In the early days the two of them were as giddy as any young couple of Chinese high schoolers or university students I had ever seen—Li would grin broadly as the two of them held hands and sat next to one another at one of the restaurants that we often frequented (me always eager when one of Li’s other friends came along as well and I could be a less obvious third wheel—or, in Chinese, deng pao 灯泡, “lightbulb”); they would hold hands as they walked the streets of Jincheng together, even occasionally pecking one another on the cheek.

Despite this willingness for PDA, however, their traditional upbringing held strong. I don’t think the two of them spent the night together in the entire time I was there, even when the opportunity presented itself. Though Jin would sometimes visit the ARDY office and stay until late at night, Li would always walk her back to her aunt’s home. I remember one night in particular when the other ARDY volunteer who lived in the building with us, in the room adjacent to the one I shared with Li, went home for the weekend and left his room vacant. Jin had stayed over late that night, and I, hoping to be a good roommate, offered to sleep in the empty room and give the two of them some privacy. Not only did they refuse my generous offer of self-sexile, but I think Jin was even offended that I would suggest that she were that kind of woman.

Their relationship left its chaste honeymoon phase after only a couple of weeks. Though I never got many details about the first fight, I have little doubt that the fights started when Jin started talking about the marriage in more concrete terms. She had already discussed it with her parents, Li related to me; Li’s parents, who were public officials in Beijing, would come back to the homestead for Chinese New Year, giving them a chance to meet Jin’s parents. They could then be married soon after the spring festival. After that, they would settle down in Yilong. Li, however, who had spent the last eight years of his life moving about the country, was already getting restless. He had already contacted his close friends at an NGO in Chengdu the capital of Sichuan, and was already making preparations for when he would leave Yilong and go to work for them.

They were in the middle of one of their nightly hour-long phone conversations when the first fight took place. Li hung up on her in anger and returned to join me at the adjacent computer in the main office; within minutes I received first text messages, then a phone call from Jin in a desperate attempt to get a hold of Li. This put me in a rather awkward position. However, Li was by far my closest friend in Yilong, and to be honest I sympathized with his desire to stay unfettered far more than I did with Jin’s premature domestic instincts, so I respected his wishes to end the conversation for the night.

While I had refused to intervene, however, the family did not. The match had, of course, been originally conceived by Li’s aunt, who occupied the apartment adjacent to that of Jin’s aunt. Li received a phone call from his aunt the next day, asking him to come and have dinner with her; or more accurately, ordering him to come to dinner. I was, understandably, fascinated that his extended family would intervene into the relationship in such a pronounced way, and incredibly curious as to what role the aunt’s opinion would play. However, Lin returned from the dinner visibly drained and unwilling to talk about it in length. He did, however, tell me that the aunt had explained to him “how to deal with women.” I have to imagine that the aunt had in fact lectured him about the importance of bowing to the needs of his fiancée, and likely about the importance of settling down at his age. Li was, at 27, after all, quite old to still be a bachelor by rural Chinese standards. I had other friends in Sichuan (in particular, my friend Qi yukun the rabbit farmer) who were married by 23, my age.

Outside intervention proved to be only a temporary solution. Within a week, the two had gotten into another fight. I found myself more and more often put in the awkward position of having to take sides. Each time Li stormed out of our room, closed cell phone in hand, I knew it would be only minutes before my phone rang, either with a text or a call from Jin in desperate attempt to reach him. On one of my last days in Yilong, I was out to a farewell dinner with other friends when I received another phone call from Jin. Knowing what must have happened, I answered, and she launched into a heated diatribe about her unreliable boyfriend. “He’s so selfish,” she complained, “he only thinks about himself, and how he wants to go off to Chengdu again. I’m not so young anymore, you know. It’s not right for a girl my age to stay unmarried and alone. I can’t be expected to take care of my mother all by myself. She’s complexly alone since my father died last year, as you know. We need to move back to my village so that we can take care of her. He doesn’t think about what anyone else needs, though, he only cares about himself.”

I certainly sympathized with Jin’s dilemma. I was taken aback, though, by the complicated interconnected network of responsibilities within which she made her decisions. Li had only been dating her for a couple of months, and already he was expected to shoulder the burden of helping her care for family members. I tried my best to remain neutral, though the relationship seemed to have little hope at this point.

I’ve been staying in touch with Li since returning to the US, and the last I heard from him he is planning on going to Chengdu right after the New Year.

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