Filipino girls like Chinese men
His grandmother was disappointed that her beloved eldest grandson had fallen in love. She would rather have found a wife for him herself. A Chinese love story
Y. was shorter than me, slimmer, different. How would it feel to kiss him?
It's raining in Olten, this misty little town that everyone just drives past. I drink green tea and I want to be right here. I recently returned to Switzerland. I lived in Beijing, in Shanghai, in Paris. Ten years ago, when I was not 20, I fled from the other side of the Jura Mountains into the world. This is how my love for China began. So began the adventure of my life.
Before my little brother and I started school, my parents had bought a piece of land on the edge of a tiny village in the Basel area. My mother grew up in a suburb of Basel, my father in the city of Zurich. Here, in the midst of the soft hills, they wanted to give us a sheltered childhood. The two-family house was turquoise and made of wood, from the living room we looked out over the fields and meadows.
My mother took care of us children and the house, later she took care of the administration of a small business in the village. My father was a nurse and headed a department in a clinic. In the evenings he came home early and played with us children. I made friends with the neighboring girls, we roamed through the woods and rode donkeys through the village.
At school, I was the last of six children to learn to read. When I finally could, I didn't do anything else. Soon I was talking about distant lands and using strange words that didn't even exist in the world of my classmates. They laughed at me. I asked a lot of questions and got on the teacher's nerves.
When I was 15, I switched to grammar school in the canton's capital, to a class that was taught in German and English. My classmates came to school on foot or by bike and said sentences like “I was in Key West, Florida, over the summer” and “The Fiji Islands are absolutely stunning”. I came by post bus and had spent the holidays with my parents in Graubünden. I was angry with them for taking me to this remote village without a train station, where I was called “s Büchebacher Katrin” and everyone knew what I was doing.
I wanted to go far away and applied for a position as a flight attendant while I was still taking my school-leaving exams. Soon I was buying makeup and learning to apply red lipstick and bronzer according to the instructions on YouTube. I ordered a “Cosmopolitan” in expensive hotel bars, drove a taxi, bought a fitness subscription. The men turned to look at us when we strutted through the airport as a crew in our uniforms. In a few weeks I had gone from being a hillbilly to a jet setter, traveling to Cuba, Alaska, South Africa, the Maldives and finally, in late summer 2011, to China for the first time.
There are nine million bicycles in Beijing, Katie Melua sings, but all I saw was cars. The air smelled slightly burnt, and the heat covered the five-lane highways and skyscrapers like a blanket. I wanted to leave immediately for this ugly, noisy, strange city. But the crew only withdrew to the five-star hotel after the flight. The "Crowne Plaza" had hired young women to press the elevator button for the guests. There was a swimming pool on the 56th floor, but the view only extended to the next skyscraper, then the sky turned gray and blurry.
I went off alone. I wanted to go to the Lama Temple in the center of the city. I had discovered it in the travel guide; it reminded me of the stories of my Latin teacher. I didn't speak a word of Chinese at the time, showed passers-by my destination, stumbled into the next bus. There, little black-haired men in faded shirts smiled at me. They eyed me curiously. I looked down at myself and realized how different I looked: 1 meter 80 tall, light hair, bare skin. Near the Lama Temple, my fellow passengers gently pushed me out and showed me the way. I saw them straight away, the purple walls and golden tile roofs.
I pulled out my iPhone 4, which I had bought from one of my first salaries as a flight attendant. I took a picture and posted it on Instagram. It didn't need a filter, the dust had long since robbed the temple of its bright color. The picture said: I am at the other end of the world, a completely strange, auspicious place.
China felt like a promise to me. The country was the opposite of the small village in which I grew up. But we didn't fly back to Beijing afterwards. Years later, I would return under very different circumstances.
I quit my job as a flight attendant to go to the University of Freiburg i. Ü. Study media studies, history and law. I wanted to be a journalist, but first I had to learn better French. I went to a language school in Brittany for a month. It was there that I met Y.
He was shorter than me and much slimmer
I noticed Y. because I recognized him as the only one among all the Chinese at the language school with his watchful gaze behind his black horn-rimmed glasses. He was a class above me. I spoke to him at the bus stop on the Place de Strasbourg in Brest, after a concert in the port. The next day we met by chance on the beach. I went into the water, he hesitated, then swam a few puffs of the dolphin. From then on we organized excursions together, they often ended in the bar with beer and tequila. Y. later showed me his diary from back then: «Zhe haizi zhen shenle. " - "Still waters run deep." I had impressed him with the fact that I could drink more than he could. Once we had an appointment with friends in a café, but only the two of us came. We heard Chinese pop songs, he wore headphones in his left ear and I had headphones in my right ear. He translated the text, they were love songs. As we waited outside for the bus, it began to rain, he opened his umbrella over me, his arm touched mine.
After this summer of 2012 in Brittany, Y. began his studies in Paris and I started my studies in Freiburg. Every day we sent each other messages on Whatsapp, «Good morning», «How are you?», «What are you doing?», «Good night». We let each other take part in everyday life, he knew when I was going out, I when he had an exam. I started to learn Chinese, go shopping at the Chinese grocery store. In November he visited me in Switzerland, we drove to the village where I grew up, to Lucerne, Schaffhausen, Interlaken. When he got on the train, I cried. In February we walked through Paris together: Sacré-Cœur, Louvre, Eiffel Tower. When I left, he pressed a letter into my hand, he had written it the night before when I slept in his single bed while he was on the floor. After reading the last line, I sat stiffly in the TGV to Basel, my heart was racing, this one sentence was circling in my head. "J’osais pas de t’embrasser sous la tour Eiffel." - "I didn't dare kiss you under the Eiffel Tower."
I had a boyfriend at the time, we had been a couple for four years, my mother liked him. Y. came from China, from a culture that was alien to me. At some point he would return to his homeland. He was shorter than me and much slimmer. How would it feel to kiss him? I could only know when I tried it. I broke up with my boyfriend. A few months later, Y. and I went on vacation to Nice together. We held hands on the plane and he sang Chinese songs before going to sleep. After all, it was Y. who kissed me first, it had long been dark, only the street lights shone into the room. That same night he asked me if we wanted to enter into a "serious relationship" with one another. What sounded like a marriage proposal to me was the normal next step for him. Did I really want a relationship with a Chinese?
When we walked hand in hand down the streets in Switzerland, I felt the eyes of people on me. When we showed up at a party people would think he was an exchange student and I was his language teacher. I tried to lose weight while he was trying to work muscles. We both failed.
When Y.'s aunt and uncle found out in Paris that he was dating a Swiss woman, they immediately summoned him to their home. His aunt said he should concentrate on studying. She had doubts about Western European women: “They are related to themselves. Sooner or later she will leave you », she prophesied to my friend. I was angry. What did his aunt think of? I asked my mother if she wanted to meet Y. "No," she said. She was still attached to my ex, everything was going too fast for her.
Sunday braid with pig's foot?
At the time, Y. shared his apartment in the Paris dormitory with a Chinese roommate who did poorly clean and cook spicy food. In his room, Y. had a bed, a desk, a chair and even a mini-TV on which he watched "The Voice of France" so that he could learn French better. When I woke up on a Sunday morning - I was visiting for a weekend - I saw the postcards on the wall that I had sent him. I was awakened by a pungent smell in my nose.
It smelled of pork, aniseed, cloves and spices that I didn't know. I stumbled into the kitchen. Y. wore an apron, in his right hand he was stirring a deep pot with a wooden spoon. "You have to try," he said. I peered into the pan. Whole star anise was floating in a brown liquid, I saw cloves, and suddenly something shimmering with glass appeared between them. Skin, a few toes. They were pig's feet. Pig feet for breakfast. I swallowed hard, back then I was eating purely plant-based. How should this go on with us, on Sundays braid with pig's foot?
He took one foot out and the knife went through the meat like butter. There is no meat to it, he told me, that this is skin and fat. I put the bite in my mouth, closed my eyes, winced at the strange consistency. The taste was salty, tangy and, if I wasn't thinking too much about my toes, not bad at all.
Y. had taught himself to cook out of sheer necessity, because, in his opinion, European cuisine lacks taste and flavor. In China, all good feelings are associated with food: the mother shows love for her son through a steaming dish, an invitation cultivates friendship or promotes business. Eat, chi in Mandarin, is so important that there are innumerable idioms with the word. Chi ku, for example, “to eat bitter food” means to endure hardship.
Soon I shared my friend's passion for Chinese cuisine: crayfish with chilli and Sichuan pepper, jellyfish salad with cucumber, lamb Dutch oven with sesame sauce. That Sunday morning I got a taste for it. Then I got to know Y.'s family.
A goat does not go with a kite
Y.'s uncle and aunt in Paris wanted to get to know me. The grandparents from Beijing were visiting. I only wore subtle make-up because Y. had warned me: his grandmother thought that all women who put on make-up were sluts. I put on a short dress anyway, it was midsummer after all. I wanted to bribe her with a cream dish from Basel.
We sat down at the table, grandmother fetched a well-worn paperback in the room, wanted to know my date and time of birth. Then she predicted the future for me: "You will be successful and move up socially." Only afterwards did I find out that she had warned Y.'s mother for a long time: A goat like me in the Chinese zodiac doesn't go with a dragon like Y. is. I have a tendency to melancholy and would be too ambitious. The grandmother was disappointed that her beloved eldest grandson had fallen in love. She would rather have found a wife for him herself.
Before I moved to Y. in Paris, I did an internship at a local newspaper and completed my bachelor's degree. I had applied for a master's degree at Sciences Po, the famous university of social sciences, and had actually been accepted. The first year I would study in France, the second in China, at the journalism school at Fudan University in Shanghai.
When I finished the two semesters in Paris, I wanted to hitchhike around France. Y. was against it, he found it too dangerous. We argued in our tiny Parisian apartment. I was about to leave when the doorbell rang. The uncle was at the door. Y. had called him to stop me from going on a trip. He had also informed my parents, even his grandparents in Beijing already knew. What began as an intimate conflict between the two of us suddenly involved people from Paris to Basel to Beijing. It felt like treason. I really went traveling.
I later realized: I was part of this Chinese family before I realized it myself. What I did didn't just affect me, it affected the whole collective. I was infected with my European individualism. Y.'s relatives also found my decision to study in Shanghai strange: his parents lived in Beijing.
Free in China?
In Shanghai, Y. was looking for a ruffled princess studio in a traditional neighborhood for me. He would stay in Paris for the time being. For the first time in my life I was supposed to live all by myself in a city of 22 million people. «Why do you want to study journalism in China of all places? The universities in Europe are much better suited for this, ”said Y. And of course he was right. But I wanted to have my own experience.
I felt free when I drove around on my bike or in a scooter taxi. "Your Chinese is miserable," the drivers sometimes said to me when we could barely communicate. In fact, my language skills were very poor. In Freiburg I had practiced with a doctoral student from China, at Sciences Po I took lessons for the first time. At the same time, people in Shanghai spoke with heavy accents, something my Mandarin textbook hadn't prepared me for.
Sometimes it was lonely in my pastel blue room. In the evening I listened to the cicadas chirping in the trees, in the morning to the Chinese pop during the gymnastics class at the nearby school. I listened to the carton collectors and knife sharpeners who drove through the quarter and touted their services. But just: I was free. I was 24, a student and a foreigner. Unlike the Chinese women, nobody expected anything from me. The street vendor, my neighbors, my professor: the first thing they always asked me was where I came from. They were curious, not interested. They wanted to classify me. The reaction to the answer "Switzerland" was always an appreciative nod, a hao guojia, a "good country."
While I was still studying, I started an internship in Shanghai for the local edition of the English-language newspaper “Global Times”. After graduation, I wanted to stay in China. I had only just started to speak the language better and understand the country. Y., on the other hand, wanted to live in Europe, he had already finished his studies two years earlier and found a job as a computer engineer that he liked. He enjoyed life in Paris, met his friends there and saw a secure future. We liked to discuss politics, refugees, women's rights, marriage for all: he with his critical and analytical spirit, I with my idealistic views, we rarely agreed. That made arguments exciting. Would he still be able to honestly express his opinion in China?
Then I had the chance for a job: The editor-in-chief of the Global Times in Shanghai recommended me to the main editorial office in Beijing. The newspaper is close to the state, but it was the only job I could get. I was allowed to write about social issues and was the only one in my class to get a work visa in China. Y. gave up his job in Paris for my sake. We moved in with his parents.
"We don't write about that anymore"
They both had lifelong jobs in a state work unit: the father drove a hundred kilometers to the office in his car every day, the mother was already retired, but still worked at the reception of a doctoral student dormitory and looked after her parents and her husband's.
The apartment had been allocated to Y.'s parents. It was beautiful and old and had high Russian-style ceilings. The sun shone through the lemon trees and jasmine bushes on the windowsill on the bed every morning and woke us up. The laundry room was between our bedroom and the kitchen. The wooden door had a large gap at the top so that the steam could escape. While I was taking a shower, I could smell father frying fish. In the evening my mother asked me if I would rather jianbing, Chinese crepes, wanted for breakfast or baozi, steamed rolls with meat filling.
But despite all the care, when I was brushing my teeth in the kitchen in the evening, this old song about plush came to mind, "Homesick for de Berge". I had to laugh at myself, but the feeling never let go of me. I had been a student in Shanghai and was able to study China with naive curiosity. Now I had to make my own money without betraying my ideals. As a beginner, getting through the opaque jungle of censorship and propaganda of the Chinese media required a lot of fighting spirit and calculation from me.
"Do you know that you can't write what you want in the Chinese media?" Y.'s grandfather asked me warningly. I knew, I wasn't naive, but curious. I soon realized how censorship was affecting my everyday life: every suggested topic was explored, the boundaries were constantly changing, I felt about it, tried it out. One day I researched #MeToo in China, the next it was taboo. "We don't write about that anymore," said the editor-in-chief.
I once wrote an article about the university entrance exam, it went in print and went online, but disappeared shortly afterwards. My young, ambitious editor explained to me that the text was too negative and did not correspond to reality. It was frustrating and fascinating at the same time to watch my boundaries tighten. Our edition was discontinued after two years. Now we should be shooting videos. I resigned.
I found a new job at the English-language state broadcaster CGTN. But my former boss had warned me that state television was a huge, slow, bureaucratic machine. I met three types of colleagues there: the journalists wanted to inform, criticize, and captivate with their stories. The patriots wanted to improve China's reputation in the country and in the world. The functionaries wanted an "iron rice bowl": a secure income and a residence permit in the capital - with access to the housing market, the health system, schools and social security.
The journalists had the most difficult time - and I wanted to count myself among them. The superiors expected me to edit articles that said the Hong Kong demonstrators were terrorists and that the Notre-Dame fire was a sign of European doom. I wanted to deal with China, instead I turned more and more to other countries such as the Philippines, Slovakia or Algeria so that I was less exposed to censorship. After all, I was working more and more as a freelance journalist for foreign media. I risked losing my job on state television if my superiors noticed.
After work, I needed a bath to wash off the stress of the day. I spent a lot of time in the mountains around Beijing, doing yoga, going to church every Sunday. Beijing seemed to me bigger, grayer, more ghostly. I was looking forward to the daily Chinese course - I was now fluent - than to my work. Was I a journalist at all? One day a work colleague of mine, an American, got on a plane without quitting and flew back home. Nothing had kept him in Beijing yet. But I had a second family here, my friends, two cats and my love. On New Year's Eve 2018 I proposed to Y.
The marriage crash course
"Are you sure?" My mother asked me. My parents were visiting China for the second time. The last time they left Europe was when they weren't even a couple.
On the big day, the four of us squeezed into a taxi. Seven years after Y. kissed me for the first time in Nice, we went to the registry office in Beijing. I was wearing a vermilion lace sheath dress, Y. a suit, and we were late. In Beijing you have to allow at least an hour for each way. You always get stuck in traffic jams that the authorities are unsuccessful in fighting. The city raffles and auctions licenses; it is only by chance or with a lot of money that drivers get a license plate. Y. and his father have been participating in the lottery for ten years without success. Finally, the father got a license plate for the neighboring province, which he has to re-register every week in Beijing. Some days even numbers are allowed on the street, some odd. Still, there are far too many cars. We were used to it a long time ago.
I sat there quietly, Y. even slept, only my father stared slightly annoyed at the line of cars in front of us. "Why isn't it moving forward?" He asked. I had to smile. My father had always hated traffic jams and discussed “density stress” and “overpopulation” with his friends. But the traffic in Beijing gave these terms a whole new meaning.
We made it to the registry office on time. My new in-laws were already waiting, mother beamed, father nervously stepped from one leg to the other. According to Chinese custom, I would do it after that day mummy and baba call. They had actually become my second parents in Beijing, and yet it felt too familiar to call them that. But in China it is disrespectful to call older family members by their first names. That's why Y. still doesn't know how to address my parents: Mom and Dad would be too strange for them to call them by their first names too rude for my husband.
We got married to a dozen other couples. They were younger than us, many wore white T-shirts and blue pants, and I felt a bit overdressed in my dress. We were the only ones who were accompanied by our parents, apparently that was unusual. "You are in luck," said the lady at the reception desk, who issued us a waiting number, "normally hundreds of couples get married." Some days even more wanted to get divorced.
A uniformed officer waved to us at the counter and checked our documents. It wasn't until she saw my passport that her mouth twisted into a crooked smile, and I breathed a sigh of relief. She was on vacation in Switzerland last year, she wanted to go back there, hao guojia, a good country. She asked us to dip our thumbs in red ink to sign the marriage document. Each of us held a red booklet confirming our marriage covenant. What followed was voluntary.
Together with a few other couples we huddled on the small stage in front of the red and gold emblem of the Communist Party. We were supposed to read the vows aloud, but it went way too fast for me, I just moved my lips. Finally we were allowed to kiss - but the others just hugged. Did I get something wrong? The officer took our cell phones and took a few pictures.
Now we could turn to the marriage crash course. It took place in a small cube at the exit of the official building. The inner walls were plastered with yellow, blue and pink post-its, on which the newlyweds' wishes for their future were written. The psychologist told us about mutual understanding, how important it was to respect your in-laws, and that now was the time to open a mutual account. "Who is the boss of the finances in the marriage?" He asked the group. "The ladies," said the brides, they agreed. The men exchanged looks but did not protest. At the end the gaunt man gave us a business card and said: "If you have any problems, call the state helpline, it's free."
For the celebration we had reserved a table in the courtyard of a traditional Beijing restaurant. I ordered crayfish with chili and sichuan pepper. After dinner we drove to the grandparents who handed us thick, red envelopes with money. Y. was the first of her grandchildren to marry. The fact that I was a foreigner had advantages for him: I made fewer demands. In China, it is common for the man to bring a condominium and a car into the marriage. I just wanted his love.
My duties came after the wedding. Y.'s grandmother took my hands, squeezed them tightly and said: “Now it's time for great-grandchildren. Preferably two. You will take one with you to Switzerland and leave one there for us! "
"So how was China?"
We didn't think about children, but I wanted to go back to Switzerland and asked myself: could the country also become Y.'s new home? The thought of starting over again worried him. But he wanted to try. Y. had observed how China had changed in the past few years. The climate had become rougher, the limits of what could be said ever narrower. Many of our foreign friends had already moved away. The China I loved was beyond the repressive newsrooms, beyond government, beyond politics, beyond the Communist Party. It was above my in-laws' lamb hot pot, in my Shanghai neighborhood, when I was talking to friends in a restaurant or with strangers in the park, where I tried to find out: What is it that concerns people in everyday life? What are you dreaming of? What do you fear? How do you love, what do you eat, what do you laugh at?
I wanted to write about this China. But to do that, I had to leave the country. At Christmas last year, Y. and I got on a plane heading for Europe. I returned to the turquoise wooden house in the small Baselbiet village. Y. came with me, first on vacation. The pandemic then forced him to stay entirely in Switzerland. We met friends from before, found an apartment in Olten and jobs in Zurich.
Once, while I was waiting for the post bus, a woman opened the window and called out to me: "So how was China?" China, I thought, is far from over.
Katrin Büchenbacher is a NZZ trainee.
You can find this article in the September issue of “NZZ Folio” (published on September 7, 2020). “NZZ Folio” is also available by subscription.
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