In my recent past as an undergraduate student in Canada, I knew a guy whose relationship came to represent the Proper Love Lives of All Chinese Men to me. Or, to be more specific, the Proper Love Lives of All Well-Educated Chinese Men Age 25-29 from Good Families Possessing Comfortable Life Prospects. I will refer to him here as Guy, my closest male friend in Shanghai.
Guy and I were thrown together as housemates during my final year of college. Although we’d met 4 years before that and had continued to be casually acquainted since, he was a silent, stoic stranger at the year’s start, usually closed up in his room, popping into the kitchen at odd hours to stir-fry “delicious Chinese smelling food” (as our other housemates put it), like his signature spicy beef and pepper dish. Guy had the habit of escaping to his room with his stir-fry, which I presumed he ate in front of his laptop while playing World of Warcraft. I couldn’t cook worth a damn, so I was determined to take advantage of every housemate who could, including this reclusive, elusive Chinese man.
It took a while, but like good Asian people, we eventually developed a great friendship based on our love for stir-fried meat. While searching for food, cooking food (always him), eating food, Guy told me about his childhood in Xi’an and Shanghai and the 5 years he’d spent studying in Ontario. I assumed that he, like many Chinese students I knew, planned to remain in Canada after graduation, becoming an engineer in a small town, earning Canadian dollars to buy big homes and cars and eventually becoming a citizen of this great, vast nation, setting down permanent roots and producing Chinese-Canadian kids with Western names who would soon enough complain that their Asian parents were so weird and didn’t “get” them.
Anyway, Guy surprised me by telling me his future was in China, specifically Shanghai. “If I came from anywhere else but Shanghai, I wouldn’t go back to China,” he said, solemn as always. “But Shanghai is so modern, and it’s developing so quickly. I’d prefer life there to life in small-town Canada.” So it’s work that’s bringing you back to China? I asked. “No… my girlfriend is there too.”
Ah. So Guy, like many other Chinese men at my university, had left a girl behind, a high school friend he’d starting dating on one of his trips home. However, Guy was one of the rare ones I knew who (despite living with 5 rather attractive ladies) remained singularly devoted to his long-distance lover, returning at least once a year to see her, spending the rest of the time communicating via MSN or Skype to keep the relationship alive. I became someone with whom he could share news of his girlfriend; her graduation, her new job, her friends’ marriages, her new haircut, her presents in the mail.
Aren’t you ever tempted to explore? I asked him once. You’ve been in a long-distance relationship for what, 3 years? Don’t you want to date Canadian girls?
For someone so seemingly shy and quiet, Guy had his fair share of female friends bringing giggles and groceries over to our house. “Of course I look,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be with anyone else. I’m not going to cheat on her, or break up with her after all these years. Our families know each other, she’s good to me. We’re going to get married eventually, maybe a year after I go home.”
I loved his seriousness, the earnestness on Guy’s face. To me, it was the Ideal Love, one that wasn’t solely about Love. It was a serious, grown-up, traditional sort of Love, I thought — compatibility, respect, family, duty, obligation. Guy was a Proper Man. As is often noted on Speaking of China (one of my favorite blogs), most Chinese men date to marry, and that was Guy. I was jealous of his certainty, and wished him the best of luck with his girl.
Fast forward 2 years. I ended up moving to Shanghai around the same time Guy returned to China, and met this girlfriend I had heard so much about. He acted like a good boyfriend that day, holding her hand, caressing her shoulders, smiling at her when she glanced up at him. They had just moved in together, and had plans to marry within a year; she had recently moved on to a better job, and he’d found work at the Shanghai Expo. Their families celebrated their reunion. As the year passed, I saw him less and less as we moved in separate directions, our university/housemate bond fading as those connections tend to do. The less we communicated, the more I idealized Guy and his relationship, the stability that overcame everything else.
Then, Guy betrayed me.
Or, he betrayed his girlfriend. But I didn’t think much about her when he texted me two months ago to say that he’d left her because he’d met someone else. I was the one with shattered illusions; furious, I met up with him a few days later, demanding an explanation.
The simple truth was that, in his 27th year, Guy chose happiness over obligation, love over duty. Not to go into too much detail here, he told me how caged in he’d been by demands from his ex-girlfriend and both sets of parents, how the relationship had fallen apart under this strain. Things had been unravelling for months, but like a Proper Man, Guy had held on. “We were supposed to get married this October, but I couldn’t do it. I asked to postpone it, but I was still going to stay with her, and marry her after a while longer… I didn’t see any point in breaking up after all those years together. But then I met her.”
Her was someone with similar interests and a calm disposition, the complete opposite of his now ex-girlfriend who, by his account, had become a moody woman prone to public temper tantrums, needing constant attention and assurance. The new woman was a breath of fresh air. The friendship and attraction that grew between them over a mere few weeks gave him enough resolve to leave almost 6 years of history and expectations.
“I feel terrible about it, and always will,” Guy said, real regret on his face. “I wronged her. I didn’t physically cheat, but perhaps doing it emotionally is worse. But although I feel bad, I don’t owe her anymore. I owed her for 5 years. I thought I was happy, but now I really feel it.”
So now what, I asked. You’re going to move in with this new one? Have her replace the old one, just like that? Marry her? Live happily ever after?
“No,” he said, surprising me. “We’re taking it slow. I just want to spend time with her. Not going to think about marriage, or the future. We like each other a lot. She might be the one, but we’ll wait and see. No promises.”
Funnily enough, only then did I realize that my dear friend Guy had truly become a sensible, serious, Proper Man. And it really is good to see him so darn happy for the first time since I’ve known him.