Karena Andrusyshyn on behalf of her friend
This was circa 1996 and took place in a closed neighborhood in Haidian of six story walkups, called Dong Wang Zhuang, right across from Lin Ye Daxue and very near Bei Da.
I know that I noticed Yang more than once before I caught him noticing me. He was tall and lanky with an easy smile, and everyone in the neighborhood seemed to know him. Our eyes met and he smiled, so I smiled back. That was all. I was on my way to class, so I could not stop. Besides, this was China and a lady does not approach a gentleman. Even a flirty smile would be out of place, especially since I am a foreigner.
It must have been a week or two later when I asked my assistant who he was. “Oh that is Yang Yu Kuhn,” she said. “He has lived in this neighborhood forever. In fact, he has family in several of the houses.”
“Oh then he is married?” I asked. Miao said he was, but that his wife was very sick and had been for a very long time. I said that it figured he would be married, such a handsome man, and that was the last that was said until maybe a year later. I had seen him now and then, and we exchanged friendly smiles, but I said no more. He was married.
The next time the subject came up I had just finished lunch with a group of my students. I had been teaching at the local college for two years, and I really loved eating out with students. There is so much variety in the food, and I never have to eat alone in a restaurant, even if I go there alone. I can sit only a few minutes before somebody, even perfect strangers, will walk up and ask if they can sit with me. Everyone on Beijing wants to learn English, so they take any opportunity to speak with foreigners. They study for years in school, but they do not seem to learn to speak. They just memorize conversations. So foreigners never have to eat alone.
Anyway, Yang was sitting under a tree in the garden area when we passed by. He smiled at me and I smiled back, and one of the girls said she thought he liked me. I said that we were just smiling, and that he was married. The girls giggled and one spoke up, “No he is a widower. His wife died last year. His grandson is in my class.” I think I actually blushed.
He lived only two doors from me though we never seemed to meet by the doors. Between us, the ground floor flat was occupied by three Christian teachers. They were lovely and did not preach or proselytize, so they stayed out of trouble and they were good teachers. One of them approached me a few days later.
“Do you know Yang Yu Kuhn?” she asked. I said that I knew who he was, that he lived in the next flat over, and asked her why. “Well, Suchun Bai asked me about you. She is his housekeeper.”
“Really? Isn’t he married?” I asked, innocently.
“No his wife died last year.” she said. “Anyway, Bai asked me if you were available. So are you, and does he interest you?” That began six months of meeting in the courtyard and walking through the trees with Yang. We might sometimes have dinner at his place or mine. I do not cook, but my housekeeper was a good cook, though his was better. We went to a restaurant several times with different members of his family, sometimes in a huge happy, noisy group. I could see him talk about me, but I never knew what he said, only that it must have been nice, because they were all friendly. The favorite was hot pot, and they all seemed impressed that I not only knew what to do, but handled chopsticks as well as anyone. They were even more impressed that I was willing to eat whatever was served, chicken feet, fried scorpions and eggs with half developed chickens inside. (That one was a little disturbing, but I swallowed and smiled as if it was the best thing I had ever tried.) I actually like the chicken feet and scorpions. I think it was my early training about chicken and salmonella that influenced my hesitation. However, I did not like the texture either.
I think Yang’s family thought that because I could not speak Chinese, I could not do anything. I just have never been able to learn a foreign language, not any foreign language. I lived on Quebec, Canada for almost thirty years, and never learned more than a few words of French, even though I took lessons. I had tried Chinese lessons the second year in Beijing, but I could not learn more than a few spoken words, and writing was out of the question. So I hired an assistant who translated for me and helped me with lesson plans and grading lists. She came by for about four hours each day for 500 yuan and free English lessons. As a foreign teacher I made 100 yuan per hour, though I did not work more than twenty hours per week, so it was affordable.
Some of Yang’s family spoke English, so we had translators from time to time. However, we really did not need them, not even when he proposed. We used to walk through the little woods every day, just enjoying the trees and birds and the shared solitude. He brought me flowers on the first day of Chinese New Year along with lovely red cutouts for the windows, and again at the end of Spring Festival. Then at Easter, which like Christmas, has been adopted by the Chinese, who love festivals anyway, he brought me a lovely potted lily. In May he showed up in the park with a huge bouquet of red roses and blue cornflowers with some white carnations, and tiny delicate fronds of a lacy fern. It was bundled in layers of light pink tissue paper and tied up with rolls of red satin ribbon. Hanging from one of the roses was a card. Inside there was a very large question mark and a plain gold ring was attached to it with cellophane tape. I detached it and held it up for a moment. I made motions, pointing to myself, him, the ring and my left hand with a questioning look, but smiling. He nodded with a very shy smile. I smile back and nodded. He took both my hands in his and pressed them to his heart. No words were necessary.
We were married in June, and the wedding is something I will never forget. He has never learned English and I cannot learn Chinese, but we don’t mind. We have been interviewed until I think I know what celebrities go through. TV made a program about us, and there were reports in the newspapers and even on the Internet. It is not so much that the marriage between a Chinese man and a western woman is that rare, though it is not common, but that we are both seniors, of an age consider to be quite advanced. I am 64 and he is 67. Apparently we bring hope to many lonely older Chinese people that times have changed, and seniors do not have to sit around and sleep in the sun. We do that now and then, but Yang socializes all day long, and I still work. When the television interviewer asked me last time (after our first anniversary dinner) what I thought might be the secret. I jokingly said that we could not argue, because we do not share a language, and words are clumsy and inadequate. Perhaps it is not such a joke at all.