Chinese Love Notes: Handbags, Facemasks And Other Pleasures

I hadn't planned to kick my China tale off with this particular post but it really is as good as any. I'm still trying to sort through all the stories and adventures in my head to bring some sort of logic into it, though I'm not so sure trying to make sense of it all will actually work. Also, I really can't decide where to start, there's so much to tell and so little time to write. Particularly because I've picked up a new hobby. It's called sleeping. I tell you 10 hours plus of sleep is absolutely delightful, just thinking about it makes me want to stop writing and go to bed, which is strange because the writer in me has always picked writing over sleep. It seems that habits do change. Occasionally.

Here's a thought. I may as well ditch all the China stories and just write about sleeping...

Enough of the sarcasm and back to the actual subject of this post. In my previous posts I've often mentioned how different my fish and I actually are. My fish is Chinese through and through, he's never been abroad (unless you count Hong Kong), he doesn't speak much English (though he's trying very hard to change that) and he's never had a foreign girlfriend before, let alone a foreign friend. He has friends who went abroad to study, etc. but that's about it.

I on the other hand have a slight advantage over him. I've met a lot of Chinese people through my Mandarin studies and I've had the chance to learn some interesting aspects of the culture though there are many things that I still don't understand. There's only so much reading you can do, some things you need to actually experience for them to make sense.

More often than not the fish is trying to make sense of me and failing miserably (I think) but that may be because I sometimes can't even make sense of myself. I feel the same way though. The fish will often do something or say something that leaves me wondering what the heck is going on.

Strangely enough we don't get frustrated about all of our differences, well maybe a little bit, but that's perfectly normal for any couple. Sure we quarrel, in fact if I was to tell you that we don't you'd stop reading this post right about now. My fish and I quarrel about everything and nothing. Most of the time we're like an old married couple and my parents-in-law consider us both to be more entertaining than the television. I guess that's a compliment? They've never seen their son quarrel with a girl. I'm the first girlfriend he's ever bothered to bring home so they find it quite entertaining. Mind you, if we were to have an actual shouting match complete with throwing things and all they probably wouldn't find that entertaining and I'm dead-certain that my mother-in-law would intervene. The things the fish and I bicker about are quite entertaining though, in hindsight away.

I have given out to my fish more than once for giving me about three minutes notice to let me know we were going out to meet family/friends/acquaintances for dinner. The first time he gave me a baffled look and said: "But you're beautiful just the way you are, what do you want to change?" Aww, how sweet, thank you very much, but in case it slipped your mind, I'm a woman.

When I continued to insist on a change of clothes and a little bit of make-up, he groaned and mumbled something about me being that kind of woman (I don't really know what he meant by that but I'm convinced it was yet another compliment.) before wandering off for a smoke. The next time we went out, he graciously gave me 15 minutes notice and I gave him a snog for his consideration. He certainly appreciated that! I think... ;-) You see, if you get you have to give.

So how do the fish and I cope with being different on just about every level?

We compromise! It's that easy...or not. Admittedly, more often than not I end up making the first compromise before my fish relents and changes his ways but I don't mind that. One thing my fish really cares about is that I learn as much as possible about Chinese culture and if making a couple of compromises here and there make him happy and help me to archive that goal then so be it. One thing I love about my fish's character is that it's never "No, it's either my way or no way.". He will actually listen to what I have to say and try to understand where I come from. Sometimes that may be a difficult because our cultures are a million miles apart but you've got to give a guy credit for trying!

It's one trait I value above all. Despite having been set in his ways, with no-one forcing him to change, for all his life, he's willing to look at things from a different angle. "You influence me," he once told me quietly with a thoughtful look in his eyes while strolling through the People's Park in Shanghai, holding hands. Those three words were almost as sweet to hear as "I love you". To have someone say that to you, to hear them outright admit that you're leaving an impression on them, changing them a little. There ain't nothing sweeter.

But let me explain explain. Most young couples in China don't seem to hold hands, even in big cities. More often than not you will see the girl holding on to her man's arm. You do see couples holding hands but it's more of an exception to the rule. I like holding on to my fish's arm too but I like holding my fish's hand more. You know, skin on skin and all.

I once asked the fish whether he'd ever planned to date a foreign girl when we first started talking/met or whether us falling in love did just happen. He didn't, though he likes to tease me and tell me that he wishes he could have known in advance that we Western ladies are so very difficult (I honestly don't know what he's talking about, I'm very easy to handle thank you very much!). I like to remind him that he doesn't have any experience with Western ladies, that he's only ever dated one Western lady and since he has already decided to marry said Western lady he won't be getting the chance to try out any other Western ladies.

When I said that, he pulled a face, gave me a puppy dog eyes and said: "I thought you'll let me go out and play when we go to Germany to visit your dad." I tell you the fish's humour is his best asset. And his worst. He manages to fool me each and every time. He will tell me some ridiculous story about something that doesn't even exist/makes sense but he makes it so damn believable that I fall for it every time and only realise I've been fooled when everyone around us starts laughing. It's just little things, mind you, my fish isn't the type of guy who jokes about things that matter, which again I really appreciate.

You want flowers? Okay, no problem. (His favourite English sentence, by the way. The "Okay, no problem." part, I mean.)

I picked out my top three favourite fish traits for this post and I'm going to sweeten them with some hopefully amusing stories to give you a laugh or two. Three?

1) Attentiveness.

Finally, warm hands! No, the fish's not laughing about my hand warmer, he's winning at Mah-jong, which is a bit of a miracle because he's playing against his grandpa.

This is one thing truly heart about the fish and have from day one. It's really just a lot of little things the fish does that show me he does listen to what I say, even if he claims not to. He's a man after all. He therefore likes to tell me that not listening to women is just what men do. If I didn't know any better, I would actually doubt whether my fish is a man.

His attentiveness ranges from simple things like handing me my jacket (he did try to open the car door for me but I'm not used to this so I got out faster than my fish could get around the car, which left him disgruntled and me laughing) or grabbing my handbag on the way out (be that home or a restaurant or a family member's house).

When we go out for food he makes sure to order things I will actually eat and if someone else is ordering, he will tell them to order some things I like or that he knows I will try. Let's not count the one time he tried to get me to eat a fish's eye, let's just say that didn't go down so well, much to the amusement of my family-in-law. The fish always - without fail - makes sure that I have a bowl of rice to eat and hot water or tea to drink. When I struggle with my chopsticks (I absolutely despise short chopsticks, especially those single use ones, and just can't handle them, well I can but it's awkward) he gives me a helping hand as though it's second nature to him. He even picks out pieces of fish for me and checks that there's no bones in them because he knows I'm terrified of swallowing one. There's no frown, no grumbling or snapping, he just does it. When I'm cold he gets me a hot cup of water, a hand warmer, puts the air-con on, finds a heater or gives me a big hug...whatever will sweeten the deal.

He will tell me to get some sleep or have a nap, not because he has enough of me but because he can see I'm tired and that the rest would do me good. Hell, he even insisted that we go to the hospital for an IV, and the shielded me from prying eyes, when I woke up as sick as a dog one morning but more about that in a separate post. In the true spirit of "You Aren't Accustomed To China Air" he checks the level of PM2.5 several times every day (and then vents about the "fog") to make sure going out will be enjoyable and not followed by a two-hour coughing fit. At one point (see photo below) that meant handing me face-mask. I was stunned by the fact that he'd even thought of buying one, I certainly hadn't even though I'd planned to. If that ain't love, people, well then I don't know.

Tasty China Air.

2) What's mine is yours and a strange conversation.

His attentiveness is by no means one-sided though, which leads me right to another pretty cool fish trait. I do my part too. I grab his bag (no that's not the only thing I do) on the way out of the car or carry it when he's busy doing something else. It means that he doesn't have to worry about it because he knows I'll take care of it. Also, I figure it's only fair since I usually hand my handbag over to him "for safe-keeping".

I have to say (and don't kill me for this), I love the fact that my Chinese boyfriend carries a bag with him. It is handy, stylish and not at all girlish or gay. I really don't get what all the fuss is about and why some people are so vehemently against it. Hell, my dad carries a bag with him and he's 85! My fish carrying a bag also means that I can just put a couple of my things into my fish's bag and don't even need to bother to bring my own handbag. In return for letting me rent his bag, I will, like I said, carry/mind it just like he minds mine, though it took a while before my fish agreed to this. It was only after I insisted that his bag could also be a sporty woman's handbag that he agreed to let me carry it. The first time I walked off with it, he had a big frown on his face and was convinced everyone was whispering about that unmannered young man who needs his girlfriend to carry his bag.

To distract him I took his hand and we continued to walk to the subway station. Two minutes later the fish had forgotten all about me carrying his bag and was doubled over laughing about a woman on an e-bike who had crashed into a fruit supermarket's fruit display because she was too busy staring at that Chinese guy holding his Laowai girlfriend's hand. I must admit, I laughed too. The fact that she was staring at us was just so damn obvious and yes I know it's mean to laugh but the woman was fine, nothing happened to her, the e-bike or any of the fruits for that matter.

This was also the first time ever that the fish actually realised that a Chinese guy dating a Western girl isn't really a common sight. I'd been complaining to him about all the stares we were getting and he politely told me to stop imagining things. Once he noticed for himself, I was subjected to a three hour quiz on why Western women don't appear to like dating Chinese men and if there was something wrong with Chinese men. Bless the fish's little heart! 

When I mentioned that some women may think Chinese/Asian men aren't man enough in the bedroom department, the fish looked outraged. With his male pride so blatantly put into question he bluntly asked: "Are you saying I'm not adequate enough?" I may be paraphrasing here. ;-)

Of course I was implying no such thing and after a lot of reassuring and a couple of distracting kisses, the fish relented and forgot all about it. About an hour later, he suddenly and completely out of the blue piped up: "I'll have you know, we Chinese are very good in bed." His determined face still has me in stitches when I think about it.

The fish's stance on cross-cultural dating is pretty simple, it's not a big deal for him. He told me many times that love doesn't care about gender, race, sex or anything else for that matter and his statement couldn't be more true. I think in the West we make a much bigger deal out of this whole cross-cultural dating than there actually is. We spend so much time pointing out differences and finding reasons why some cross-cultural relationships are not as common as others that it almost takes the fun out of it. Just enjoy the ride, be ready to change and embrace the unique chance to experience something different. That's how the fish sees it and I find myself agreeing with him.

None of my fish's family, his friends or any family friends we visited batted an eyelid about the fact that the girl the family's only son's brought home for Chinese New Year is not a slim, pretty Chinese girl with brown eyes and long, black hair who knows her way around a Chinese kitchen and doesn't question Chinese culture and traditions. They were more enamoured by the fact that I speak and understand Mandarin and many of the questions I was asked were directed to test my Mandarin and talk about possible ways for me to continue to improve my Mandarin.

Fish Quote: "There are two women in his world I love above else: My wife and my mother."

The mention of the fish's family brings me to another interesting aspect of what's mine is yours. From day one my fish's mum was my mum, his dad my dad and so on and so forth. I was made part of the family so quick and so lovingly that it felt like I'd always been there. It was the warmest and best welcome I have ever received apart from the welcome I receive from my dad whenever I come home. I doubt this will ever change. Everyone in the fish's family is very busy so they mostly only manage to get together for Chinese New Year, and it's always a very happy occasion. This is also the reason why I cancelled my plans to travel to Beijing and told the fish not to bother to take me to Chengdu. This is also why we stayed in Wuhan up until I had to return back to Ireland. The fish hadn't seen his dad in nearly four years and I didn't have the heart to break them apart.

3) Chinese family customs...sort of.

It's kind of odd when you're a couple and you hang out with your boyfriend's parents all of the time but you get used to it pretty quickly. Also, it's damn cool when you fool around and do some sit ups for the fun of it and then your mother-in-law suddenly joins in, followed by your father-in-law who naturally tries to outdo his wife and daughter-in-law. The fish really didn't want to do any sit-ups, or push-ups for that matter, but the three of us ganged up on him until he didn't have a choice. Filial piety and all. I kid. It was a fun evening. It's also fun when your parents-in-law laugh about you quarrelling with your future husband and two hours later, in the middle of the supermarket, you get to pay them back because they're having a stupid quarrel about breakfast buns of all things.

My other boyfriend.

I wouldn't want to change a thing about this. I've always wanted a big family and with my Chinese family I have just that. There are so many uncles and aunts, cousins (brothers and sisters) and little folk plus a couple of pets, that there's never a dull moment. We took my fish's grandpa to a KTV bar and my mother-in-law danced Gangnam Style, followed by my father-in-law singing a classic Mongolian song that almost moved me to tears. Young and old, all together having fun. To finish it all off my fish dedicated a love song - aptly titled "I love you" (喜歡你) - to me and that in front of his entire family. Yes, this is the same man who claims that he's very shy. I have a very special blog post in the pipeline to refute that.

Of course my fish and I also wanted time alone together, me probably more so than the fish. He was far too ecstatic about all the family finally being together again and I don't blame him. It took a while getting used to but looking back I wouldn't want to change a thing. We did get some time alone in the evenings and whenever we went out for a date or two, I probably just need to get used to the fact that I really can give out to my fish in front of his parents without them suddenly taking his side. Privileges of a future wife I guess... 

My handyman hard at work. My dad is impressed, it was actually his first question. "Does your boyfriend know what a screwdriver is?"