Summary of university anthropology course assignment: imagine you are married from your culture into rural China. Write a 1-2 page personal essay about the pressures of different marital, social, and sexual expectations you will experience.
So. Now you can all read my homework and judge me for it.
Soft morning light pools across the grey, wool blanket. I blink. Once. Twice. The window is dirty, and a mixture of guilt and resentment reminds me that I have fallen behind in my chores. The muted clutter of bowls stirs from the other room, and I know, without turning, that my husband’s side of the bed is empty. By the time the sun rises over Longsheng’s quiet mountain village, he is ankle-deep in the family’s rice paddy fields.
A jab between my ribs draws a short gasp. You must not burden the family with a girl. My mother-in-law’s words bite through my thoughts as I instinctively reach for my growing stomach. In America, I’d always wanted a girl. Raised with four brothers, my dreams were tangled with images of braiding hair and teaching my daughter the value of being a strong female. Now, tired bones sinking into a thin mattress in rural China, I feel the pressure of giving birth to a male. Someone to carry on the family name and to work in the fields. The familiar ache of homesickness grasps at my feet, washing over my body and clawing at my throat. Lying under the weight of all that was left behind, my ears ring and my heart beats slowly, sickly, against my chest.
Gnarled knuckles knock against the door sharply. Always three short taps. Air rushes back to my lungs and the ringing fades. Rice. I imagine the black ceramic bowl on the worn, wooden table. “Coming!” Slippered feet shuffle away. A spoon raps dully against a pot, and a door opens and shuts; it opens and shuts again. Wet boots slap against the floor. The men have come in to eat before going back out to work.
Easing my body to the edge the bed, I pull on an oversized shirt and a floor length skirt gifted by a neighbour who had seen my clothes grow tighter each month. I’d left Chicago with one suitcase, crammed full of notepads, yoga pants, t-shirts, and flip flops. 21 years old, I had no way of knowing that I’d be married, pregnant, and wearing a tie-dye skirt, two years after that first long plane ride. I was supposed to teach English for one year, to rows of eager young students, and then return home.
My mother cried when I told her my visa had been extended. “A farmer? A Chinese farmer, Mia? You’re not coming back because of him?”
“I love him!” My words sounded naive as they hovered in the static between us. I had picked at the chipped pay phone box with a dirty thumbnail, listening to my mother sob on her kitchen floor.
The rice is cold by the time the first mouthful presses against my tongue. Growing up, meals had been a loud affair. Orchestrated by a single mom, red hair perpetually tamed by a yellow pencil with a chewed end, five kids laughed, fought, and clamoured recklessly around the predictable spread of leftovers. The Six Amigos. We called ourselves that the first time the electricity was shut off and we huddled under a blanket fort in mom’s bedroom. We’re pioneers, she’d told us, green eyes dancing in the candlelight. We can get through any adventure together.
Here, we are quiet. The chopsticks sink into the rice quietly. We chew quietly. My husband touches my hand quietly. My mother-in-law glares at his hand and at my belly quietly before taking another bite. My father-in-law sips his tea quietly and we all quietly feel the presence of myself as an intruder in their ritual.
The first week I arrived, her son had caught me exploring his land with the wide-eyed curiosity of a foreigner. He was disarming. Waved me over. “Lost?” I shook my head. Asked him what he was doing and if he could show me. Over the next few months, he patiently let me practice my jilted Younuo with him. In exchange, I taught him the English words for the things we saw around us. Sky. Tree. Water. After the classroom had been swept, I’d skip dinner so I could run to his field and help him work. I’d ask him what his dreams were and he’d chuckle at the idea. He’d ask me why I wanted to come here, and I’d shrug and tell him I wanted change. When the broken sentences turned into slow kisses, I thought I could do it. The rolling green landscape, the village community, and the colourful textiles had been taking root, begging me to stay. The children were accepting me, the language was coming more easily, and I was telling my first jokes shyly to the delight of my students. Sharing a home with his parents seemed a fair trade for the simple life I could lead with him here. He would farm; I would teach. We would have one child, and raise it together.
My warning should have been the bitterness with which she spoke about her husband’s late mother. Her words were quick and close: trails of Younuo that I tried to piece together. She had felt the critical eye of another woman on her for over twenty years. Now, the house was hers. It was my turn to be the tip-toeing daughter-in-law. Her small frame seemed to fill each room with disproval. Every crack in every floorboard was smothered with the thick resentment of her son’s failures and my existence.
She reprimands him behind closed doors in her throaty voice – rushed, angry, hot spit spraying his chin: that one is lazy. Bad luck for the family. You have cursed us by bringing her here. I’d hear her muttering in the early mornings, asking the cool mountain air why her son didn’t marry the sweet, wide-faced daughter of her neighbour. Asking what she did wrong to deserve this.
It’s his silence after her criticism that hurts more than the cold words. Yesterday, after dinner, he walked back into our bedroom to find me sitting on the floor, tears sliding down my cheeks. “Now. There.” Rough fingers wiped under my eyes and he kissed my forehead. We had sex that night. I stared at the ceiling, my pregnant belly swaying, his salty sweat dripping onto my lips. When he finished, he rolled over and fell into thick, rhythmic snores. I turned on my side and watched his chest rise and fall with each breath. I heard the echo of my mother’s broken voice: You’re not coming back because of him?
The ghost of my reply danced around in my head – multiplying, warping, chasing, climbing, falling – laughing at me, trapping me in like a wall of mirrors at a fun house.
“I love him.”