It’s been 39 years since I first met him
back when we both worked on that enormous state farm
up in northern Manchuria.
He was a bright, dreamy student back then
– and we fell in love.
In the early 1970’s, government policy allowed one child of each family to either remain or return to Beijing, So my boyfriend, as an only child, was allowed to move back to Beijing after 4 years in the countryside – but I had to go somewhere else to work (in a county hospital – in another part of Manchuria)
I remember that last trip I made to Mom’s village to pick up my belonging to move them to my new assignment. He was there to help me – and we put everything on the top of a tractor, and he accompanied me to the train station. Since we were all sitting on top of the luggage, we had to hold each other tightly in order not to fall off, and I was so happy to have his arms around me the entire trip! When we got to the station, we finally said goodbye.
Then he went to work at a shoe factory in Beijing and I started my new career as a nurse in Manchuria. For the next year or so , we kept writing to each other, but as time went by, fewer and fewer letters arrived. I thought maybe things would get better after I moved to Beijing, but it took me 2 years to get there, and by then it was too late. He had already met a girl at his factory, she got pregnant – and we broke up our relationship.
. The last time I met him was a few days before I left China for the USA. That was 21 years ago – after he had become a lawyer by taking the entrance examinations in 1978 – the first year that universities had returned to normal. After graduation, he stayed at that university for seven years as an instructor himself – but then what happened to him ?
I just had to know – so while I was in Beijing last November, waiting for my mother’s funeral, I decided to do a little investigating.
I knew he was a lawyer, so I asked my cousin, a judge in Beijing, if he could help me. At first the answer was no – but when I tried an alternative spelling of his name – the answer was yes – so soon I had my old boyfriend on the telephone – and we were making a date to meet each other at a very popular restaurant in my sister’s neighborhood. (as it turned out , his firm handles the legal affairs of this restaurant, all the waitresses knew him, and he never has to pay for his meals)
And when we both got to the restaurant -- we couldn’t recognize each other !
He had called, telling me that he’d be late – so I got there first – took a table facing the front door – and waited for him to appear. But he never did – until he phoned me again – and turned out to be the man who was walking right past my table.
Had I really changed that much ? I just think he never saw me among all the other people. But I had seen him – and he truly had changed completely.
Where was that tall skinny boy with a shock of black hair and a narrow, dreamy face ?
Now – he was just as tall – but somewhat wider as well – his hair was mostly gone – and his face had puffed out like a big, pale balloon.
He wore a polo shirt and a pair of jeans which had been washed so many times its grey color looked like an unwashed rag. That was a surprise too, because when we were dating, he paid a lot of attention to his appearance. Now, he didn’t seem to care at all. His attitude towards to me was as if we had just seen each other last month. There was no surprise in either his face or his tone of voice.
But Oh my goodness ! I was completely surprised. He even asked me “are you sure that I’m the person you’re looking for ?” – but then he smiled – and when I saw that smile – I knew it was him.
Well --- it had been a long time – and we had a lot to catch up on.
But curiously – he wasn’t all that interested in what had happened to me. No questions about my life in America – no questions even about my mother who had just died the previous week. The only question he really had was “what is your salary?” -- and after I told him (I hide nothing) – he then told me all about himself – his career, his father, and especially his daughter – his first and only daughter – whose conception had sent us in different directions all those years ago. And the more he talked – the more I doubted – that even if we had married 30 years ago – we would still be together.
I asked him about his mother (also an attorney) , and he told me that she is 86 years old now, still very independent, and living with a maid.
He was now on wife #3 – and the pride of life was his tall, athletic daughter – who had been a professional volleyball player and was now living in America. His proudest moment had been standing on the Golden Gate Bridge with her in San Francisco –and realizing that both of them had finally “made it”.
After graduating from law school, he was a professor for several years. before finally opening his own practice. He assured me that he was very good at courtroom advocacy – and he had won many cases – but he had lost many too – because, as he put it, he refused to pay off any judges. Was he really exceptionally honest – or was he only making excuses – I really couldn’t tell.
He also told me that he had great plans to write a novel. He had always been a good writer – that’s how I fell in love with him – indeed, since we hardly ever got to see each other back when we worked in the countryside – all that I really saw were his wonderful, imaginative letters. He hadn’t actually begun to write this great, new novel yet – but he assured me that it would win a Nobel prize and be turned into a popular movie. But honestly – I have my doubts about all this, too.
And he told me – that had developed some special skill -- that no matter what he does, he can do it well.
He also told me more about his father – who had been on track to becoming a very high official – when he was black-listed and sent to live in a remote, western province. That’s why his mother had to divorce his father – and ended up raising her son by herself. In the seventies -- his father was finally reprieved - and now is retired, enjoying what life he has left.
During the 2-3 hour meeting, his cell phone rang off the hook. One time he got up walked away to talk with the caller, who turned out to be his mother. Finally, as we were about to leave, his phone rang again, we walked to his car. I told him that my sister’s apartment was about 5 minutes away and I did not need a ride. I said goodbye – as he was still holding his cell phone, and waving back at me.
So … I’m not sure how much I want to see him again – he seems like such a different person.
But he’s been organizing a reunion among all the kids who went up to that northern farm 40 years ago – and maybe I’ll join them all when it finally happens. So much has happened to all of us – and our country – since those sad and difficult years.