It used to happen all the time:
“So what’s your major?”
“Chinese. Well, Asian Studies, with a concentration in Chinese.”
“Oh, you like Asian chicks, huh?”
I usually replied by asking the other person’s major. “Pre-med? So you’re into cadavers?” Sometimes I’d reply that, yes, I had spent the last four years studying Chinese and working harder at it than I ever had at anything else in my life because goddamnit, there just wasn’t any easier way to get an Asian girlfriend. Sometimes, if I didn’t feel like talking, I just said “not really.”
I mean, look, someone majoring in, say, Russian literature doesn’t get knowing looks, isn’t asked if he’s got a thing for European girls. Someone majoring in English isn’t accused of having a thing for ladies with bad teeth. The only reason Asian Studies majors get grief is because of the whole white-guys-with-Asian-fetishes thing.
And, you know, look, whatever. I really don’t care what people are into. The Asian-fetish thing irritates me only because it leads people to make assumptions about why I’m studying what I’m studying, and why I’m living where I’m living. It makes people assume that I’m studying Chinese not because I love it, but because I’m taking some incredibly roundabout way of finding an Asian girlfriend – that maybe once I find a Chinese girlfriend, mission accomplished, I’ll just take up some nice reasonable major, like pre-med or econ. It cheapens the language I love (or is it my love for the language?), the literature I love, the history I love. That’s what bothers me.
So for a while I was dead-set against ever having a Chinese girlfriend. I wanted to prove people wrong. It’s such a sordid clich?– white guy studies Chinese, goes to China, finds a girl who wants a green card, and lives happily ever after.
Besides that, to be honest, I wasn’t really that impressed by most of the girls I met here. The whole “sense of humour” thing was a big point; sarcasm flat-out doesn’t work in China, and judging from a lot of things in daily life here – such as Fendou Lu, “Revolutionary-Strife Road,” being a major shopping street lined with KFCs, McDonald’s, and Motorola cellphone retailers – irony isn’t a big thing either. Then there was the question of language: in my experience, most Chinese outside Beijing and Shanghai generally don’t speak English very well (even if they’re teaching it for a living), and I’m not at all confident in my ability to have a meaningful relationship in Chinese. So I really more or less decided that it was out of the question.
And then I met Kun.
We met on MSN Messenger, actually, while I was at home in America for the Spring Festival vacation. At the time, my MSN profile was entirely in Chinese, identified me as “an English teacher at a private primary school in Harbin,” and had no picture of me. So Kun assumed that I was Chinese – after all, come on – surely no primary school would be insane enough to waste a foreign English teacher on primary-school students.
We started chatting, mostly in English, and it was actually about a week before she found out that I wasn’t Chinese. In the meantime, I found out that she wsa a dentistry student at Harbin Medical University, hated it, wanted to move to a small town in Yunnan after graduation, and spoke absolutely amazing English.*
We became wangyou – ‘net buddies – and talked to each other pretty regularly. Then, one night – April 18 – I came home to find that she’d sent me an IM while I was away: it was her birthday the next day, and all her friends were either at home or studying or otherwise unavailable. She wanted to go out to a bar with someone, and wondered if I was available.
In point of fact, I wasn’t, really; that was the night of my friend Ceire’s birthday party, for which I was already running late. But what the hell – there would be lots of people there anyway, so I wouldn’t be missed. And besides, I was kind of curious to meet Kun.
So we agreed to meet up at the Diaoke Shiguang* bar on the bar street behind the Harbin Institute of Technology about 20 minutes later. I called Kerry, who was already at Ceire’s party, to say that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the party, but that I’d probably meet up with them at Blue’s Disco later on. He asked why I wasn’t coming, and I explained the situation to him.
“Dating girls off the net?” he said. “That’s more than a bit shady.”
“It’s not a date! She just wants to hang out with someone.”
“Yeah, well, whatever. Don’t come crying to me if the date ends with you cut up and dumped in a trash bag.”
I arrived at the bar about five minutes late, as per my modus operandi of constant tardiness. Kun was already there – she recognised me before I recognised her, probably because my self-description (“I’ll be the one who’s not Chinese”) left little room for misidentification. We started talking, and since we’d already known each other for almost three months, there was hardly any awkwardness. After a few minutes, we went on to the Dan Xing Dao* bar around the corner, which I liked better. We sat there for an hour or so. My friend Chen Weijun* came in – he’d been at Ceire’s party, and had heard from Kerry that I was on a date with a girl I’d met online, and wanted to make sure everything was OK. Kun and he chatted for a few minutes, and then he left.
“He’s a very nice guy,” Kun said, and I agreed. “I can tell just from talking to him,” she said.
We decided to go on to Blue’s to meet up with Ceire and Kerry and anyone else who might be there. Kun had never been there before, so I tried to describe the place to her: “It’s a large club. A lot of the people – maybe half – who go there are foreigners, and they mostly play foreign dance music instead of the Chinese stuff.*”
“Great,” she said. “I prefer Western music anyway.”
So we went, and then the next day she and I went out to get ice cream for her birthday.
We saw a lot of each other in the following days, and more in the following weeks, and more and more and more. She proved to be brilliant – smarter than I am, that’s for goddamn sure – and funny, and wonderful in every way I could think of. And somewhere in there, the L-word got uttered – the one beginning in “l” and ending in “ove.”
And I began to wonder: what if I really did have an Asian fetish? What if the years of work I’d put into Chinese were all directed towards the subconscious goal of getting an Asian girlfriend?
As a writer, or someone who harbours pretensions of being a writer, I’ve long been convinced of both the power and the limitations of words. I think of writing as being a process like carpentry or masonry, of taking an idea and shaping it just right with whatever imperfect tools you have. I’m picky with words; they’re like stones on a beach. Some are beautiful and bright, and some are rounded with wear, and some are jagged, but all have their right place.
“Love” is not a word I use lightly of people. There are probably less than fifteen people in the world of whom I would use it. And yet, when it comes to inanimate objects and abstract concepts, I’ll employ it capriciously: I love Indian food. I love bagels with cream cheese and lox. I love movies. I love New York.
And I want to keep studying in the hope that one day, I’ll find a word – in English or Chinese – to describe how right it feels when Kun and I are talking, how well we suit each other.
To describe, when we hug and her neck nestles into the space between my chin and my shoulder, how perfectly it fits.