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A Failed Relationship, A Lesson in Xenophobia

What you do can be secondary to what you are. I never grasped that.

Base image courtesy of D Johnston, CC BY-SA

Sammy Li, at three years old, had already learned to ask when he wanted to speak with me. He never asked for me by name, though, always identifying me by something that I’d called him — “buddy.” Every so often his mother, Li You, would pick him up after work and hear him say “Wanna talk to buddy.” And shortly thereafter, I’d hear the funny little WeChat tone in my apartment a thousand miles away.

It wasn’t always Sammy who instigated the call, though. While she’d never admit it, Li You occasionally wanted to speak to me out of simple loneliness, usually on one of those long nights when Sammy was with his father, her ex. She’d talk about her life through unsteady English, discussing developments in work, asking about my parents, querying about aspects of American culture that she didn’t quite understand. Very often, we discussed the next time I’d come to visit them in Sacramento.

My most recent visit was on the weekend of Sammy’s third birthday. I sweated over the cost of the trip for a while — I’m a laborer, travel is not exactly in my budget — but there was no question as to whether or not I’d make the trip. Li You had decked out her apartment for the occasion, with birthday banners and favors and a fancy cake. It was overkill, given that only the three of us were there, but it was important to her that she properly capture the moment. Li You took pictures of positively everything, creating a visual timeline of her life.

When it was my turn to take pictures, though, there were rules. I’m not to show pictures of Sammy or Li You to anyone. Putting them online is totally unacceptable. When she shoots video footage, I am not to speak or make any sound that would give away my presence. And under no circumstances am I to appear in any pictures with Li You.

Most of you probably guessed from that last statement that Li You and Sammy are not real names. Neither is mine, for that matter. What’s harder to explain is why this level of anonymity is required. Li You is no longer married or in any sort of relationship. She isn’t hiding from anyone. She isn’t in any sort of legal trouble. I have to stay hidden because she can’t bear to explain who I am to anyone she knows. I can never officially be a part of Sammy’s life or hers, and none of the things I’ve done for them changes that.

Li You was born under an inauspicious sign. She’s a Fire Tiger, and in the more traditionally-minded parts of the greater Sinosphere this is considered a uniquely bad birth sign for a girl. It speaks to something that she was born at all, something that couldn’t be said for some daughters in more superstitious quarters. In this regard, she was lucky to be born to educated parents in an urban area — one of those places that the locals might laughably refer to as a “small city.”

The Li family was what, in mainland China, is considered a middle-class family. Her parents were attentive but by no means gentle, and their relationship was volatile though not abusive. Arguments were common — the parents would yell at each other, though Li You was spared the worst of it. On the other hand, she wasn’t spared the social pressures that fell on any girl born into the early years of the One Child Policy. The worst of it came from the paternal side of the family, which treated Li You’s father’s failure to produce a son as a personal failing. Despite this, Li You’s childhood was a reasonably happy one, and she emerged into adulthood with an unshakably optimistic outlook on life.

While she came from a “traditional” family that absolutely expected her to become a homemaker, Li You’s family insisted on an education and put her through college-level courses. She bounced around for a while before settling on the very practical subject of business English, a common area of study for young women from non-connected families. This was enough to secure work in some banks and, eventually, a local branch of a large US-based corporation. This didn’t sit well with some members of her family. Those old enough to recall the Korean War held open animus toward the Western world in general and the United States in particular.

Their main concern, however, was of a more personal nature. Now in her mid-20s, Li You was still unmarried. That’s hardly a scandal in this part of the world, but in her family it was a problem in need of correction, and they opted to do “fix” her on their own terms.

In 2015, I received an anonymous email from an unfamiliar address with only the phrase “How are u?” and a set of initials. It took me a day to work out that it was Li You, and I wasn’t pleased.

I’ve known Li You for nearly a decade. I worked overseas on and off starting in 2008, and Li You and I had corresponded for a brief period during my first year. She was certainly friendly and I enjoyed hearing about her life, but she came across as very immature and seemed to harbor some sort of crush on me. Eventually she stopped responding. I figured that the novelty of talking with a Westerner had worn off and she’d moved on.

Two years later, she reached out to me again. It was unexpected but welcome — I was back in the United States contemplating my future, I was lonely and certainly appreciated the conversation. She’d changed a lot in so short a time, shedding the juvenile dramatics and unsubtle damsel-in-distress flirting I’d remembered, but she remained far more caring than most people I’d met on my last excursion. I decided that it was time we met, so I began seeking a job close to Shanghai where she was living at the time.

Li You met me at the airport and it was an all too perfect moment, the kind of thing that seems unrealistic when it happens in the movies. It’s not that beautiful, passionate moments like that never happen in real life, it’s that no one ever sees what transpires in the weeks and months that follow.

For a young Chinese woman, the Western boyfriend can be a major status marker or a terrible stigma. I was already familiar with the first — the women and girls at my first job had fawned over me and my girlfriend was almost proud to introduce me to friends and family. I learned about the second through Li You. She wouldn’t let me meet anyone, wouldn’t so much as let me know the location of her apartment, and even seemed to resist a little when I suggested that I wanted to visit her rather than the other way around.

Though our relationship was going well, there were a few incidents. Li You once got into an argument with a woman from my office who — in so many words — called her a slut for dating me. She was strong enough to deal with it, at least as long as I was there.

I wasn’t with Li You for very long, as I became very ill and had to return to the States prematurely. It was a blow to her — she was separated from her family, some of her friends had already departed to other parts of the country, and now I was going away. I didn’t feel much better, but I’d always planned on going home, and I presumed that Li You would join me.

This was a terrible mistake in judgment.

We had plans for Li You to visit me in the United States for my birthday. This never happened. As best as I can tell, Li You’s parents learned about me for the first time during my absence, warned by some of her friends that a foreigner was planning to “steal” their daughter. She was going to have to choose between me and her family, and that was not a challenge I was ever going to win.

Li You opted to end the relationship in that quintessentially Chinese way — cutting off all contact. There were weeks of silence before I received one final message, a terse remark that she was strong enough and didn’t need me anymore. My final response was an angry one. By all accounts, this should have been the end of it.

It must have been difficult for Li You to reach out to me. She knew that I wouldn’t be happy, especially after she told me that she was married with a son and living in the United States. She kept all of this a secret for the first few weeks, letting me think that this was strictly social, but time was too short to play those games for long. Li You was in the middle of a crisis and didn’t have a lot of help. Mine was the only name she could think of.

I didn’t get the story all at once — it came out in dribs and drabs over the course of the following month as she sent me images of whatever semi-relevant documents she could find and struggled to put words to what had happened.

Li You’s marriage hadn’t exactly been a romantic one. She described her meeting with her future husband as a “blind date” arranged by her parents, but it was a heavier deal than that term implies. Her parents had decided that it was time she was wed and if she couldn’t manage it on her own, they were going to do it for her. This kind of thing isn’t as common as it once was — as young people in Sinitic cultures have become more modern and worldly, they’ve tended to resist this sort of direct intervention in their personal lives. But among more “traditional” families, old habits die hard.

Wang Peng, the “blind date,” was the son of a family friend and was exactly the suitor Li You’s parents wanted. Close to a decade her senior, he came from a much more affluent family and his means had enabled him to attend high school and college in the United States — a rare sign of privilege. While he was employed overseas, he made regular return visits which enabled him to maintain ties back with the old country. Li You was introduced to her suitor on one of these visits and the relationship proceeded with great speed.

There wasn’t much romance in Li You’s courtship. She had barely met Wang Peng when he gave her an ultimatum — agree to a marriage or the relationship was done. Li You could never quite explain to me why she agreed to this, but it wasn’t hard to figure out. Wang Peng may have delivered the ultimatum but the pressure was coming from the families, and she wasn’t going to refuse. Wang Peng returned a few months later for the wedding, returning to the States immediately following the ceremony. She wouldn’t see him again for almost half a year.

One of the first lessons I learned from dealing with Li You was that pictures can tell an extremely compelling lie. By the time I saw her in person, I’d seen photographs of what looked to me and the world like a pleasant life. There were the photos of Li You and Wang Peng in Western wedding attire, looking as happy as any couple I’d ever seen. There were the pictures of Wang Peng, having flown back home in great haste, holding his newborn son.

What made it a lie — to Li You, the families, and the world at large — was what wasn’t there. The pictures of Wang Peng and his girlfriend, for example. As it turns out, Wang Peng was leading a double life, and Li You didn’t figure out the worst of it until the worst possible time.

There were a few hints, some bigger than others. Among the documents Li You signed during the immigration process was what amounted to a prenuptial agreement. She signed it — she had no intention of ever seeking a divorce. It became clear that Wang Peng had a keen interest in protecting his property, but Li You had no desire for his possessions, so she took it all in stride. All she wanted was her happy family.

Li You was in the United States all of two weeks when Wang Peng told her he wanted a divorce. She initially attributed this to adjustment pains — owing to Wang Peng’s trans-Pacific life, they’d had only brief periods of personal time together prior to the move. That was when she learned about the other woman, the one Wang Peng had been dating at least since she became pregnant.

The whole thing was planned out well in advance. Wang Peng had no attachment to his wife — the marriage was a combination of family expectations and a cultural desire to produce a son. Li You had fulfilled her purpose, and Wang Peng was prepared to discard her. He’d play off her ignorance of American law, giving her false documents to sign while he waited for his lawyer to file what would legally be an uncontested divorce. After that, he could rely on ICE to send her back home without the boy, back to a family that in all likelihood would blame her for what had happened.

It was a despicable plan, and a brilliant one, but there was something Wang Peng didn’t anticipate. His scheme rested on Li You being alone in the United States. He didn’t know about the filthy laowei who had once tried to steal her away.

At first, I had no intention of helping Li You. I was too goddamn mad. Here was a woman I wanted to marry, one who had answered my pleas with silence, and now she was back only because she needed something. Eventually, after extensive conversations with the few people I trusted to keep my confidences, I informed her that I would help her find representation but that was as far as it would go.

A few months later I found myself on an extended stay in Sacramento, guiding her around town, helping her deal with rental agents and babysitting Sammy while she attended to legal matters.

Why the change of heart? Partially, it was sympathy. My own years abroad had not been especially pleasant — I had been briefly homeless, been harassed by the police and spent a good chunk of time avoiding all authorities because my legal status was unclear. I even had a particularly crooked employer steal my passport to prevent me from fleeing the city and had to get it back on my own, so I certainly understand that special terror that comes from having legal troubles in an unfamiliar place.

Beyond that, it was the full horror of Li You’s story. I have not and will not go into full details on what she endured except to say that it included verbal, financial and physical abuse. It was shocking, even given what I knew about Wang Peng. He was clearly a sociopath — the classic “little emperor,” oblivious to everyone else — but his cruelty could become unexpectedly hot. Any time his master plan hit a snag or delay, he’d take out his frustration on Li You, even if she was doing exactly what he wanted. His hatred was senseless even by the twisted standards of the abusive spouse.

And on some level, I still loved Li You. This, again, was a mistake in judgment.

I wish I could end this story on a positive note. It has all the flourishes of a Love Conquerors All story, and there’s little that Americans adore as much as a winsome ending to a grueling tale of star-crossed lovers. It’s encoded into our cultural DNA, this belief in the primacy of freedom and truth and their inevitable triumph over the petty tyranny of tradition. In real life, though, love just isn’t that strong. Tradition, duty, prejudice, history — these are forces more muscular and more durable than something as flighty and ephemeral as love.

It’s been close to a month since I heard anything from Li You and Sammy. There are explanations for this — rational, reasonable explanations that are surely true on some level. The problem is that at the start of the year, I was hearing from them at least once a week, often two or three times. That’s gone now.

Increasingly, I ask myself if Li You will ever feel comfortable enough to tell the people back home about me. Wang Peng is history, having moved out of state to be with the woman who was once his mistress. There are plenty of people in the community who’ve seen me out with Sammy. It’s a new phase in Li You’s life, and I’m still not allowed to be a part of it — not officially, and maybe not at all.

The only way I’ll ever know what’s truly going on is if Li You tells me, and that’s not likely to happen. All I can really do is guess. Her parents seem to blame her at least partially for the divorce — perhaps my presence would raise their suspicions. It would be worse still if the family, as steeped in purity culture as any American evangelical clique ever was, found out that Li You’s Western “friend” had once shared an intimate relationship with her. But it goes deeper than that, because even in private Li You is reluctant to acknowledge our past. It’s like I was some sort of shameful indiscretion that she can’t even admit to herself.

In truth, I can’t be sure about any of this. It’s all assumptions and speculation by an outsider, someone who can never understand all of the nuances and subtleties. The only thing I can say for sure is that “Buddy” will have to hide in the shadows for a while longer.

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