My Chinese Girlfriend Really Wants to Come to America
"Is there a 50-50 chance?"
We are on the bus heading out to the country when Daisy, my Chinese girlfriend, asks me to set odds on the future of our relationship. She bites her thumbnail, revealing the slight gap between her two front teeth. Daisy is 22, but her teeth make her seem younger. When she smiles, she reminds me of a rabbit-faced middle-school student.
“Sixty-forty?” she asks, hopefully.
We have been seeing each other since I arrived in Hunan Province nine months ago. I care deeply for her, but in three months, I will leave to attend graduate school in the States. She touches my wrist.
“Please answer me.”
I stare out at the rice paddies, which look just like the photographs I saw before coming to China. Bright green grass shoots out of the swampy water. Farmers with wide-brimmed hats drag hoes over the mud.
“Are you sure you want to talk about this now?” I ask. Our bus, which is about the size of a Dodge Caravan, is packed full of loud, sweaty passengers. People are staring at us.
“Yes,” she says. “Tell me, how possible is it?”
A bead of sweat forms on the back of my neck.
“It’s possible,” I say. “But the States are different.”
“Thanks for telling me,” she replies. “I’m not stupid, you know.”
“What I mean is, our relationship would be different. It wouldn’t be like it is here.”
Back home, I have an entire life history she hardly knows about. Plus, financial pressures would weigh more heavily on us than they do now. Daisy’s family is not rich, and as a student, I would not earn enough to support two people.
“It would be tough,” I say.
“I know, I know.” Daisy turns her head away. “But couldn’t we give it a try?”
Someone must have brought some dirty laundry on board because the air around us smells like a rancid gym locker.
“Well, there’s another thing,” I say. “If you were to come live with me, we would probably need to get married.”
Daisy is silent.
“That’s a big step,” I say, putting my hand on her knee. “I don’t know if we’re ready for it yet.”
Up ahead, a group of giant hogs blocks the road. Our bus slows. Across the field of paddies, I see an aimless-looking ox shaking his tail in the mud.
“Fifty percent,” I say.
We transfer from bus to taxi and head down a series of unpaved roads, straying farther and farther from civilization with each turn. We are on our way to visit Daisy’s friend, Chen Yuan, who lives with her family in rural Hunan Province.
We arrive at the house around dinnertime and see two golden-haired dogs waiting outside. Chen Yuan appears at the door and greets us with a warm smile. She introduces us to the dogs, Little Yellow and Big Yellow.
"Big Yellow is the more lovely one,” she says.
Chen Yuan shows us around her home, which is unlike any house I have ever seen. It reminds me of a dwelling from ancient times: part house, part barn. It wraps around an outdoor atrium, and in the center is a dark rectangular pond that provides her family with a steady supply of fresh fish. Pig stalls line the back wall, but most are empty, except for some decaying bales of hay and an old plywood ping pong table. There is a chicken coop to the left of the stalls. I look out the window and see ten or twenty brown hens shuffling around the dirt yard. When I was growing up, my father raised foul-smelling Rhode Island Red hens in a coop in our backyard. Standing here, taking short breaths through my mouth, I notice that Chinese chickens smell just like American ones.
I am introduced to Chen Yuan’s parents, who have just come in from the garden. They both wear simple work clothes, and their shoes are caked with orange mud. Chen Yuan’s mother is taller and heavier than her husband. She smiles nervously at me before retreating to the kitchen.
Chen Yuan invites us to sit on tiny wooden chairs while her mother prepares dinner. Soon pork and steaming vegetables appear before us.
Her father pours me a tall glass of clear alcohol—a sort of moonshine, it seems—which I’m told contains over 40 kinds of traditional medicine. He stands over me, grinning with interest, as I take a sizable sip. It tastes like a mixture of vodka and eucalyptus cough drops. I raise my glass toward the man and say. “Good drink."
“Good drink, good drink, good drink,” he says, nodding proudly.
During dinner, Daisy informs me that Chen Yuan’s parents are very excited to have an American guest in their home. As we continue eating, Chen Yuan’s father begins to speak in loud, animated tones. He is a small man, but he has a fiery presence. Daisy and Chen Yuan translate for me as he talks at length about life in the United States and about his aunt, a former Harvard professor, who has been living in the United States since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Now she is 93 years old and lives in a mansion in California.
“My father says she won the Nobel Prize for economics,” Chen Yuan tells me. “I don’t believe it, though.”
Her father disappears and returns with a photo album. He removes one of the photos from its sleeve and hands it to me. It shows a group of Chinese people standing on a sunny street in front of a giant pink home. The house has an unusual futuristic design: It is shaped like a flying saucer and looks more like a planetarium than a private residence.
“Los Angeles,” he tells me.
I have some affluent friends in the United States, but I have never set foot inside such an extravagant home. It must be worth millions of dollars. Mr. Chen’s house does not even have indoor plumbing. I wonder how he feels about his aunt’s incredible wealth.
“I see your aunt is very successful,” I say.
He smiles and places a firm hand on my shoulder.
Later that night, we sit around the dining room table. I notice two posters on the wall. One is a photograph of Deng Xiaoping, the former leader of the People's Republic of China who developed China’s state-run market economy, a revolutionary economic reform. The second poster is a map of the world.
I ask Chen Yuan about the picture of Deng, which seems a little unusual. Most propaganda posters in China still celebrate Chairman Mao. Chen Yuan tells me that her father prefers Deng to Mao because Deng opened China to the global marketplace. Her father’s family, she explains, had been wealthy landholders until the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, when Mao’s socialist government seized their property and redistributed it among local farmers. Like many Chinese citizens, his aunt managed to flee to the United States. Over time, she helped most of her relatives immigrate as well, but because of complex family politics, she never helped Mr. Chen. He watched as his own family trickled across the Pacific.
“My father dreamed of being a professor,” Chen Yuan says. “But now he teaches at a middle school in the village.”
“Your father would have made a great professor,” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “He had a good dream, I think.”
At noon the next day, we sit down for our last meal with the Chen family: a lunch of fresh fish, eggs, spinach-like greens, and medicinal moonshine, all locally grown or produced. Little Yellow and Big Yellow hover around the table begging for scraps. Today’s conversation picks up where yesterday’s left off. Mr. Chen has more good things to say about the United States, especially its strong economy. He remarks on its famous universities, and tells me he hopes that his daughter can someday attend one.
Then, Mr. Chen begins to speak excitedly. Daisy and Chen Yuan stop translating and I have no idea what he is saying. After a while he stands up and walks to the map. He points at China, then America, then traces his finger across the Pacific Ocean.
“He wants to know if you will take Daisy back to the United States,” Chen Yuan says.
I am unprepared for this question. I glance at Daisy, but she does not look up. She tosses fish bones to the dogs. I notice a fish rib stuck in the matted fur behind Da Huang’s ear.
Not knowing what else to do, I say the only word that seems appropriate.
The man stands at the map, smiling at me in a way that’s warm, but also somehow fierce. I smile back.