You can’t help it, it’s deep and it’s bleeding, and it’s all we need; it’s love. Living in Xizhou, PiA fellows May and Vero see the navigations and mechanisms of Chinese love everywhere we go. In honor of this Valentine’s Day, we decided to venture into the lives and loves of our friends and coworkers and interviewed those we believed could give us a new lease on young, Chinese romance. In many ways it’s a different world from the one we’re used to. Cultural norms, stigmas, and societal pressures serve to widen the chasm of understanding between our Chinese coworkers and ourselves, and yet every conversation underlined the fact that love is hard, it is funny, and it is fundamental to their engagement with the world. And that is something we can all understand.
There’s fiancée love. Every day on my way to work I walk past couples posing for a 23-year old in joggers crouching with his DSLR, while an unhappy assistant holds up a light reflector. They’re engaged, and they will stop at nothing to have the world know of their undying affection for the other. Their garb ranges from traditional Chinese wedding attire to bedazzled matching sweat suits. Half the time the bride is dressed to the nines, hair extensions flapping in the wind, while the groom smokes a cigarette in a sports coat and adidas. I’ve seen a woman clamber atop her man, makeup sweating off in the sun while he holds two thumbs up to the camera, a cigar jauntily perched upon his lower lip. This all the while holding up an elderly farmer sitting in a truck he’s had since ’62 (coincidentally, the last year he had any patience to suffer fools). Rain or shine, there they are. China’s lucky in love, frolicking in a rice field, and to hell to those who care enough to stand around and judge.
There are Chinese boyfriends and their unique brand of chivalry. Patience beyond belief as they take photo after photo of their beloved, each pose more absurd than the last. And they’ll hold your bag. It’s as ubiquitous in Xizhou as it was when I saw it in Beijing. Walk down any street in China and you’ll see half the men sporting everything from Longchamp to Louis Vuitton. But these unspoken rules of behavior reveal a truth, and it’s that Chinese boyfriends are attentive, and they are kind. I’ve sat down at a restaurant and seen my friends’ boyfriend immediately grab her bowl to serve her some rice. Her tea is replenished without her even noticing, and her bill is paid at the end.
My first week here I was caught in the rain and met M for the first time. He saw I didn’t have an umbrella and insisted I stand beneath his. Throughout my walk home, he pointed out every little puddle and grabbed my arm to make sure I wouldn’t fall in, slip, or get run over by a motorbike. I was still getting accustomed to using my Chinese, but he was patient and funny. We ended up stuck underneath the tents of the Xizhou market for twenty minutes because the rain was too heavy to leave, the two of us holed up next to an asparagus farmer, whispering and giggling. I haven’t forgotten the feeling of being cared for like that, but I don’t think he gave it a second thought. I saw it again when I met his girlfriend. He carries her things, and they always share food. They’re neither loud nor quiet; they just are. They orbit each other and laugh at each other’s expense, and he is always as caring with her as he was with me that day. Lately I’ve been hearing that his girlfriend is feeling insecure as she is from a minority ethnic group and her skin is naturally darker than most Han-Chinese women. M, who is Han-Chinese, began to consider a tanning regimen to become darker himself and ease her mind.
There’s young lesbian love, where the phone rings and I know my friend is talking to her girlfriend because she lowers her head and smiles, shushing us with a simple “it’s my baby.” They talk about the dog and two cats they have adopted together. There’s talk of when the new girl (me) is going to find love herself. “Why not him!” my friend points to a young man walking past us on the street. “He is so tall. That’s all you need, really”. China is a country with a dramatic and tragic history and it is headed in countless directions no one could have expected. But amid this grand, historic, transcendent, phenomenal growth, I see pure and simple love, in all of its forms.
There’s an underbelly to Chinese acts of love, don’t get me wrong. Apparently once someone marries, they cannot interact alone with single people of the opposite sex regardless of whether they were friends prior to the marriage. The fear of cheating is present in the minds of many. Very Mrs. Mike Pence of them.
Oh, but I see all kinds of love, not just romantic. Young girls in China are very physically affectionate with each other, always walking side-by-side, chatting rapidly with fingers interlaced. My friends come up to me and lean their heads on my shoulder; it’s gentle love. There’s families living in the same courtyard home kind of love. Eating, sleeping, and washing together. There are grandparents holding their grandchildren love.
There’s so much love here I can’t escape it. Holding each other on an electric motorbike love, getting your bus fare paid for love, and of course, welcoming the big-nosed, curly-haired, stuttering foreigner into your fold, kind of love.