Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

Complicit in a Secret Beijing Romance

December 14, 2012

Well it’s certainly been a while since I’ve updated this—in my defense, spending my 9-6 in front of computer writing grant proposals is a significant disincentive to writing at a computer in my spare time. In any case, I’ve spent the year and a half since returning to Beijing in the same apartment in Dongcheng, and in that time have fielded a rotation of roommates. The shortest-lived of these paid two months rent and didn’t spend a single night in the apartment.

This summer, after Cousin Katie moved out, I posted another ad on the Peking University bulletin board (bbs) for a new roommate. One girl who responded had gotten the ad from her boyfriend, an impending Beida graduate. Having met in high school and endured a long-distance romance throughout college, they found themselves triumphantly reunited as she prepared to move to Beijing for work. Amanda (my potential roommate’s chosen English pseudonym) visited the apartment and, after just a quick glance around, announced that it suited her. “I just moved to Beijing and I’m staying with my boyfriend for a few days while I get settled, but then I’ll move in here,” she said as she handed me two month’s rent.

After three weeks went by without any sign of her moving in, I called her to see what the deal was. Rather sheepishly, she explained that, in fact, after living in separate cities for the past few years she and her boyfriend had grown quite accustomed to living together and maybe she would just stay with him after all. This left me in a rather frustrating position—my next installment of rent was due to the landlord the following week, and I had been counting on Amanda to pay a third of that rent. She was understanding, though, and as the change of plans had been short notice she agreed to pay another month’s rent while I looked for a replacement. We settled the logistics of a rendezvous to hand-off the rent, at the end of which she said:

“Great, and when I come by to hand you the rent can you give me the spare set of keys to the apartment?”

“What? Why do you need the keys if you’re not moving in after all?”

“Right, but as long as I’m paying another month’s rent I’d like to store some things in the apartment for the next month.”

“What?”

“Right, I am staying with my boyfriend but actually I’d like to stay over at the apartment one day next month, just on October 8th.”

“…What?”

This was definitely one of the weirder phone conversations I’ve had. It took some wheedling, but finally I managed to get the back story out of her. Amanda’s parents were coming to visit her in Beijing for October Holiday. And she couldn’t simply receive them at the apartment where she was secretly living together with boyfriend, now could she? So my apartment had been drafted to serve as her alibi, which she would take her parents to in order to convince them that she was living alone and not in sin.

I’d certainly heard before of Chinese friends having to hide their romantic endeavors from conservative parents, but this was the first time that I’d actually been complicit in one. My other roommate was skeptical, but we worked out an arrangement where Amanda came by a week before, dropped off a couple sets of clothes and borrowed an apartment key. She didn’t even end up staying over, just taking her parents to see it one morning while I and my other roommate were at work. The bedroom must have looked pretty sparse, but as far as I know they were convinced.

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Why is Inter-cultural Dating Hard? Watch a Chinese Romantic Comedy

January 8, 2012

I’m not quite sure when I decided to turn this blog into media/cultural commentary, but the inspiration’s been striking me recently so I might as well go with it. I went to see the new Taiwanese romantic comedy “那些年, 我们一起追的女孩” with a friend this weekend. The title literally translates to something like “The Girl We All Pursued All Those Years,” which, admittedly, doesn’t translate well. However, I think it’s a far sight better than “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” the bland English title they decided to go with instead. The movie was already out in Hong Kong when I was there for a Teach For China trip in October, and has only recently made it to the Mainland–as I discovered recently, the version I saw here had already been thoroughly scrubbed of the racy bits.

Censorship-induced indignation aside, the movie is quite funny, and, in my opinion, raises some really interesting questions about contemporary views of romance, relationships, and innocence among young Chinese. I’m going to attempt to breeze through crucial plot elements as quickly as possible to get to the interesting part.

The central story, of high school first love–is an archetype in the popular Chinese youth imagination that a friend (博哥, for loyal readers) emailed me in a tizzy at how simply streaming the trailer from the US made him overflow with nostalgia for his lost youth. The movie follows Ke Jingteng 柯景腾 (called “Keteng), his gang of high school chums, and Shen Jiayi 沈佳宜 the pretty, studious girl that they all simultaneously have crushes on. Near the beginning of the movie, Jiayi forgets her textbook in class and Keteng, a notoriously terrible student, takes the rap for her, stoically accepting her punishment. Their friendship blossoms from this act of chivalry, with Jiayi diligently tutoring Keteng in an attempt to overcome his lack of interest in school. Jiayi spends all of high school thwarting would-be male suitors, and though Keteng is the last of his friends to declare his love for her, on their graduation day, she is unresponsive to him as well.

Added bonus to the movie: A look at some of the weird corporal punishment systems at work in Taiwanese high schools

When the friends graduate high school and go off to separate colleges, Keteng and Jiayi remain close friends, but romantically never make it beyond one awkward date, which of course begins with him asking her if it’s a date.  As the two of them walk balancing along a railroad track, their pseudo-romantic history hangs heavy in the air. “I’m afraid for you to date me,” Jiayi says, “because I’m afraid that I couldn’t live up to the girl in your imagination. I make mistakes sometimes, I have bad breath in the morning and I bicker with my sister. I’m quite ordinary.” Later that afternoon, when the topic of their courtship comes up again, Keteng declares, “Well I never officially asked you out.” Jiayi replies, “would you like to know my answer if you did?” “Don’t tell me,” Keteng retorts, “I haven’t asked you, so you can’t reject me yet.”

Keteng’s immaturity is a consistent theme of the movie, beginning with his poor

"I have morning breath"

grades and frequent disciplinary problems in high school. Emotional frustration spurs him to act out–in a rather unexpected plot twist, he organizes a Fight Club-esque boxing competition in the basement of his college dorm, and when Jiayi catches wind, she is furious with him. They fight, and as he storms off, she calls him 幼稚, “childish,” her chosen flirtatious insult for him while in high school, now a serious judgement of character. After the fight, they don’t speak for two years. They are seniors in college when a big earthquake hits Taibei, where Jiayi is studying. Keteng calls her frantic with worry and, when he finds that she is safe, the conversation turns to their romantic past. He casually asks why they never ended up together, to which she responds, “The most beautiful part of a relationship is the very beginning. Once you’re really together, a lot of the real feeling disappears. So I thought, why not let you chase me a little longer?” They fall back out of touch again, but Keteng seems to have finally overcome some of his 幼稚-ness. He starts working on a novel (granted, not always the most mature of career choices), applying himself for the first time in his life. The next time he hears from Jiayi, though, it is to tell him that she is getting married to someone else. In the last scene, he flashes through their relationship, imagining that if he had overcome his immaturity earlier, he could have made up during their big fight and they might actually have been together. In the end, though, all he can do is wish her well in her new life.

I would argue that the crux of the movie can be summed up in Jiayi’s statement–that the most beautiful part of a relationship is the very beginning, before you get to know a person and learn that they’re not as perfect as you would imagine. The first half of the movie hovers in this phase, packed to the brim with adorable high school-crush cliches. However, as the protagonists grow older, neither is willing to part with this idealized vision. Keteng refuses to risk outright rejection, and Jiayi is too scared to expose her own personal flaws to him. This is where I would argue the movie diverges from the majority of American romantic comedies. In an American romcom, the protagonists would confront one another’s flaws and learn how to love one another, warts and all. In this movie, the protagonists learn from their mistakes too late. As such, their relationship remains in the realm of Chinese high-school folklore, a pure archetype unsullied by the unpleasant details of a real adult relationship.

I’ve written in this blog before about some of the ways in which notions of relationships here can vary greatly from in the US. In my conversations with friends here I’ve become aware of a very different hierarchy of value with respect to different stages of a relationship. A lot of weight is often placed on the courtship phase–in the archetype at least, the boy becomes a close friend as he pursues the girl before finally biaobai 表白-ing, or dramatically expressing his love. Many people disagree with the American notion that one should date, and cross several bases, before feeling certain about one’s emotions. I found the movie fascinating because it deals with, and to some degree challenges, these notions. At the very least it draws a clear link between these romantic ideals and emotional maturity more generally.