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Thursday, 07 January 2010

My Chinese Boyfriends

By Johna Ferguson

When I first came to China to work in ‘85-‘86, I wanted to be as far away from men as possible after having just survived a divorce. At that point I didn’t care if I ever saw another man or not. But then, of course, that isn’t a normal way for a woman to act. Therefore, when my Chinese friends suggested I should get out and meet more people, especially men, I thought why not give it a try?

The first man introduced to me was a friend of the doctor that got me my first job in Beijing. When I arrived in China I often spent time on the weekends at his and his wife’s “hutong” house. He said he had a man friend about my age who spoke good English and would I like to meet him?

Sounded innocuous enough, so a dinner was arranged at their house on a Sunday afternoon. I dressed a little more carefully and rode my bike to their home. The man previously had made it clear to my friend that he wasn’t interested in marriage, just thought it would be nice to have an occasional dinner out or the like with an English-speaking woman.

What can I say about him? Well yes, he was a man and he could speak very good English and I’m sure he was highly educated, but as far as any kind of appeal went, zilch. He wore a black pork-pie hat, like a missionary and he didn’t ever take it off. He really preached more than spoke to me, telling me how important spiritual things were in his life, and he wanted to know how I felt about all that.

I really was at a loss for words and was so happy when that lunch finally ended. My friend of course wanted to know my reaction, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but still I felt I must confess that I didn’t think his friend and I had enough in common to even carry on a conversation ever.

Obviously, that experience again put men on the back burner for awhile. But then one day, I got a letter from a woman friend in Seattle saying one of her friends, a long time widower my age was going to be in Beijing for four days and perhaps I’d like to meet him and perhaps show him some of the sights. Well, I was always willing to act as a guide, and if something more came of it fine, and if not, okay.

I took a taxi to meet him at his hotel for dinner. If nothing else it was a fancy foreign hotel and I knew I’d get a good meal for a change from my dull dormitory fare. He was very nice looking, trim, tall and a little older than I. He was retired from a successful business and now acted as a consultant for them. He was mannerly, considerate, but oh so rigid in his ideas and thoughts, perhaps from living alone for many years.

He didn’t have a spontaneous idea or a single bit of humor. But the meal was great and luckily for me, he had signed up with various tours during the next few days to see all of Beijing so I was let off the hook easily.

Then came another American businessman about my age. He was in Beijing looking over some joint-venture building he was the architect for. His Chinese partner knew of me through a friend and thought I might enjoy meeting the man. He called me and told me to take a taxi to his hotel for dinner that night. Ah, another good, free meal I thought.

He was a big man, gregarious, outgoing but very self-centered. All he could talk about was what he did, where he’d been and the like. He was divorced but talked about his daughters some. After dinner he invited me up to his room to see the plans for his building. He might have said to see his etchings for it was just to see if he could get a quick tumble in the bed, but my puritanical way said no and I left as quickly as possible.

Again, that rather soured me for awhile, but my Chinese friends keep pressuring me to meet some of their friends. They felt I must be lonely, whatever that meant in their eyes. They felt I should spread my wings. I agreed, but first I laid down some perameters. The men could be any nationality, but they must be near my age, speak good English and be educated.

After that, some of the most interesting men were paraded before me. I went to lunch with some, out to dinner with others and a couple I just met at their homes. One was a Buddhist, training to be a monk; no thanks. Another was unable to speak a word of English without first looking in his dictionary. Another was so fat he could hardly walk and another was over 80. They, plus others, all became a blur and I decided I didn’t mind leading a nun’s life after all.

Then in 1994, UNESCO hired me to go to Qingdao to teach a summer course to that city’s middle school teachers. I had just finished my contract at the Geology University in Beijing so it sounded good. I stored my goods at a friend's, knowing after the four-week course I’d be heading back to Seattle for the rest of the summer break before returning to Beijing. I was given plane tickets and headed off on a new journey.

I had originally ridden my bike from Beijing to Qingdao in 1983, and had fallen in love with the city which was full of beautiful German architecture so this sounded like a wonderful return visit. I was met by two men, one the head of the program for Qingdao, but he spoke no English. The other man was an English teacher in one of the middle schools and he spoke quite clear English and told me he would be our go-between; if problems developed of any kind, we could call on him.

They took me to the hotel where I was to stay and also to meet Susan, the other teacher from Wales. We were then taken to a big banquet with all the higher-ups in the school system. I luckily was seated next to the English teacher so we chatted all through dinner. He was married, had three children, the youngest a boy just graduating from high school. I felt that probably put him about 15 years my junior. He said he would ride his bike to the school we were to teach in each day, about a 20 minute ride away and help us in any way possible.

Classes started the next day, and Xin, true to his word came and showed us the way to school, explained which classrooms we were to use, our class schedules and a list of our students. He also sat in our classrooms to take his attendance records, bring us hot water to drink and to make sure everything ran smoothly.

Our first request was for bicycles so we could more easily tour the city. We were just a few blocks from the waterfront, so Susan and I soon found a rather deserted beach where we could swim daily. She liked to shop in the afternoons but I’d rather find a quiet place to sit and read. I decided the school yard, just a block from our hotel was a nice quiet place, even with some grass and trees to sit under.

Little did I realize that I was being observed out of the school windows by Xin. One afternoon he came out and asked me what I was doing. I told him I liked to sit under the trees and correct my students' daily work or read a book. He asked if I’d like to tour some of the different parts of the city so after that, we hopped on our bikes and rode everywhere.

A couple of times we rode for miles as he introduced me to the many swimming beaches in Qingdao. One day he took me to his home and introduced me to his wife and children. He had spoken very little about them but I found them nice even though we couldn’t talk to one another. I wondered what his wife must think about an American teacher spending so much time with her husband, but I decided she probably didn’t think anything about it; an old woman like me with her young handsome husband.

But one morning on arriving for class, I found that after just three-and-a-half weeks of teaching, I was being reassigned to another part of China. I was to teach teachers who were vacationing in southern China for two weeks. Seems my contract had been extended without my knowledge.

I would fly south to Wuhan, board a boat that would take me down the Yangtze River almost to Shanghai and then be driven to a mountain resort. All I could do was wave goodbye to Xin through the window of the van that was taking me to the airport. I thought I would never see his friendly infectious smile again.

But fate takes funny turns. When I returned to Beijing from Seattle in September, I found that I didn’t have the prearranged job I’d planned on taking. I needed a job to stay in China, so I asked a friend if he knew of any teaching positions. He said he had actually just heard of a job at Qingdao Medical College and if I was interested he would give them a call.

I was hired, sight unseen over the phone and took the plane there the next day. I started teaching the following day and spent the rest of the week organizing my room in the foreign teachers' hotel. The college had a bike for me, but Qingdao is hilly and this time, instead of being by the seaside, I was up and over a big hill.

The following week I decided to call Xin, my former helper and see if he remembered me. I tried calling his number and as luck would have it, he answered my call. When I told him I had a job in Qingdao he immediately rode his bike over to see me. He looked the same, a very happy, smiling man. He even hugged me (something Chinese men don’t do) and said how glad he was to see me again.

After than, he often called and dropped in to see me or we met somewhere near my school for lunch. Occasionally, when we both could get away from our schedules, we rode along the seashore, talking and laughing for an hour or so. It was a Platonic friendship, no kisses for sure, for we both understood a relationship of any kind could go nowhere but we were both happy to have each others companionship.

After working at the medical college for a year, I was heading to a new job in Weihai, north of Qingdao. I got very sick while there and the friend I was living with, Mrs. Zhang, had me hospitalized, but after a week I was no better so she suggested I go home for treatment.

Xin and my friend, Mr. He, came and got me and I stored all my things at Mr. He’s house and headed back to Seattle arriving the week before Christmas. As it turned out, I had e coli 57 and was in the hospital for two weeks and then recuperated for a month before returning to China.

When I arrived at Mr. He’s, I was shocked to learn that my friend Xin had taken advantage of Mr. He. I decided it was time to end that friendship while we were still on good terms so I wrote him a letter explaining all my feelings and he never called me again. So now what?

Of course I didn’t have a job but an English teacher, Zhou, at Qingdao Medical College whom I had once met when I was teaching there, worked as a consultant at a private primary/middle school. He said he could get me a part-time English teaching job there, which was what I wanted as my body was not well enough yet to work full-time at a university.

Zhou’s and my paths crossed occasionally at the private school for if there was any problem, he was called in to settle it. But then his wife died in November and he decided to head to Beijing to stay with his younger daughter. I was going home for Christmas break so I thought that was the end of that beginning friendship, but fate has a way of stepping in and changing plans.

After my Christmas break, I went back to the private school but was still living at Mr. He’s. I heard that Zhou was called back by the medical college to Qingdao at the beginning of the year. They were going to celebrate 100 years and they needed him to do some translation work for the affair.

Mr. He’s mother, on hearing he was back, felt a man in his situation shouldn’t eat alone every night, so she suggested he come to dinner frequently. For me it was a real break for no one in the family spoke English and I was starved not speaking it. Zhou also had gotten a new job translating into Chinese a new book about an American engineer. He asked at that time if I might be interested in helping him if he ran across any words he wasn’t familiar with and I of course agreed to help if needed.

Then, I also had to decide about my own life. My job at the private school would end in June. Should I then stay with Mr. He’s family, should I try to find a university teaching job elsewhere, should I return to the States for good or should I do as my Chinese friends said, look for a man to marry and stay in China. I wanted Zhou to translate my ideas to Mr. He so he knew what was in my mind.

Zhou and I talked seriously with each other about both of our situations and decided, why didn’t we marry? That would solve many problems for both of us. We had similar interests, both had been married and had grown children and both wanted companionship in our later lives.

I guess our marriage was just bound to happen, be it fate or whatever, so no need to look for a boy friend anymore. Now, ten years later, I know we made the best choice possible. Our life is so interesting, part of the time in China with his family and the other part in Seattle with mine.

Absolutely nothing could be better.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Terrific writing & a great read first thing in the morning, what could be better..great example about hanging in there and doing what you enjoy & life comes up with surprises most of the time..nice way to learn about people & places most of us never come in contact with...thanks..Mary Follett

What an interesting life you lead. I feel downright dowdy after reading of your many experiences.

I'm glad you found the right man.

What a wonderful world you live in.

I really enjoyed reading your story! and congratulations for finding your perfect mate.

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