From Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love, by Xinran
“Waiter” is twenty-five, and she has been going out with her boyfriend for two years. He has proposed marriage, but she doesn’t dare accept him. She’s too scared to face the pre-marriage gynecological examination, or even to be honest with her boyfriend about her past. She hardly dares to hope that one day she may be a mother, let alone a grandmother, and is even frightened that the man she loves will hear her crying in her sleep. Because this woman has not just lost her virginity, she’s had a baby.
Five years ago, Waiter was accepted for a course in Western culture and languages in the Department of Foreign Languages of a telecommunications college. The college was in the provincial capital far from her hometown, so Waiter left home to study. Her parents had brought her up strictly, but now she could come and go as she wanted. She read the romantic stories in her textbooks, and talked and joked with male students as well as with the girls.
In a few short months, these freedoms had gone to her head like wine. Her parents wrote often, the college rules were posted up everywhere and “worker and peasant cadres” monitored the students’ behavior, but she quickly grew fed up with them. She rejected socially accepted norms of behavior, especially after she made the shocking discovery that, in order to become Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, each of her parents had dropped the people that they truly loved; instead, they had obeyed their leaders and married each other, and subsequently aborted a baby, all for the sake of the revolution.
She simply could not believe that the parents she had idolized had been so cynical and cowardly. She vowed that she would be like Zhu Yingtai in the old tale “Butterfly Lovers” and find love for herself. Then she would, like Jane Eyre, sacrifice everything to defend her love, and would become a girl who lived for love.
Then an enthusiastic young man in his final year began to help her with her English pronunciation and talked to her about great literary masterpieces of the world. Being with him made her pulse race with excitement. Just hearing him breathe felt intoxicating. She was overcome by uncontrollable longings she had never felt before. It was not long before she felt his hand on her shoulder and turned her face up to his. They kissed passionately, over and over, in the corner of the library.
She was awake most of that night in her dormitory bed. As day broke, she fell into an exhausted sleep, and dreamed that a deep voice boomed from the sky: “You are a bad woman, stealing forbidden fruit.” She woke up but smiled to herself. What was wrong with being a “bad woman” if she was as lucky as this?
Any Chinese born in the mid-twentieth century knows that most of us were the product of a society where sexual ignorance was rife. We lumped affection, sex, and love together as if they were the same thing, we lost our animal instincts and became “domesticated”, there were no accepted standards of right and wrong, and we had no way of knowing what love was or what it meant. In our homes, schools, and in society at large, sex education was a dirty word, and was even seen as a family disgrace.
On a cold winter’s evening that year, the young lovers took refuge in a kitchen next to the library and, beside the warm crock of bread dough, the girl became a woman and gave her virginity to the first man who had touched her. She wasn’t shocked by the blood from her broken hymen – she knew from the dictionary that sacrifice meant giving one’s life and one’s blood. She was proud and excited to bleed for her lover.
For the next two winter months, they “proved” the strength of their love next to the warm crock of rising dough over and over again. Their classmates all said they were the hardest working students in the school because they got back to their dorms so late every night. They were never down on the out-of-school-students list, though their names appeared often on the library book borrowing cards.
Heaven must have been smiling on them, allowing them to get away with stealing these forbidden fruits, at a time when boys and girls were not allowed to spend time in each other’s company.
They were forbidden, nonetheless, and when, two months later, she went home for the Chinese New Year holiday, her period hadn’t come. She didn’t know what this meant – her parents had not allowed her to have any sex education as she grew up. They lived their lives around her as if they were two work machines. For as long as she could remember, the only way they loved her, the only thing they wanted from her, was that she should study. They didn’t even think it was natural that, as a teenager, she should want to look pretty! They constantly warned her that she should “be strong, have self-respect, and live a hardworking, simple life.”
The two weeks of the Chinese New Year holidays seemed like as many years. The first day back at school, she and her boyfriend met beside the dough crock.
After they had made love, her boyfriend held her in his arms and whispered, “Next time your period comes, let’s meet here anyway and hold each other tight. Biology shouldn’t get in the way of our love. I’m about to graduate, who knows where I’ll be sent to work? I don’t want to miss a single evening of our time together.”
She felt overwhelmed with happiness at his words. “Darling, don’t worry,” she murmured. “I’ve got a lucky illness, I haven’t had a period for two months….”
“What? Two months? Aren’t you worried?” He pushed himself away from her, held her face, and asked urgently.
Her boyfriend seemed so concerned that she felt very emotional, and pressed her lips to his. “It’s nothing,” she said gently. “It’s just that I’ve been missing you so much, I can’t eat or sleep. It’s just the kind of lovesickness the Butterfly Lovers had.”