The day I went looking for the ring, large, tumescent clouds rose above Beijing. They rolled into town the day before, loess clouds in truth being dust storms and not sandstorms. Only a fool would be out in these conditions; but, I had an impulse that demanded my urgent attention – I needed an engagement ring, and I needed it quickly. It was Wednesday afternoon, and I knew that I couldn’t take any time off before the clock trickled down to five in the afternoon on Friday when I’d be off work at the American Embassy. Then, at dinner, I’d propose to Wen Wen.
For three years I’d been working in Beijing at the American Embassy. There I applied my knowledge of the Middle Kingdom in the commerce department greasing the wheels of commerce. Exhausting were the exiguous and exacting were the porous laws that business generated in the Middle Kingdom. But it was in the chambers of the commerce department that providence allowed me to meet Wen Wen. Working as one of the commercial department’s assistants, I was immediately drawn to her. Wen Wen originally from Fujian, had a Fujian hukao. That might cause problems when we were married. Over the last few months we truly became serious.
The road to the American Embassy in Beijing was neither a short nor a straight one. As an undergraduate, I matriculated through the Chinese Studies Department at Yale. Upon graduation, anxious to see the world, while at the same time hoping to leave it a better place, I joined the Peace Corps. They sent me to an impoverished rural town in southern Taiwan. There I fell in love with the Far East. I spent two years in the Peace Corps, then I stayed on in Taiwan, enrolling in a Taiwanese law school. Successfully having sat for the bar in Taiwan, I took a post in the Diplomatic Corps, who sent me to Beijing.
Though I discovered Beijing delightfully different than most of China, I found the Chinese friendly, but wary. The Opium Wars were not that distant in people’s minds. When people seemed skittish, when they seemed to keep me at arm’s length, and were reluctant to invite me out to eat or come over to their apartment, I remembered that it had only been a little more than a generation since the Cultural Revolution.
I remember the first day that Wen Wen came to our department. Her English was excellent, even if it wasn’t the King’s English. Her fiery eyes, dark as mica, flashed when her long locks hung down. No less did they set off her precious teeth and fair complexion. I was a good ten years older than she was, with the beginnings of a small paunch and sandy hair that was starting to recede like the hoarfrost on a windowpane in the middle of winter as the sun comes up. In her eyes, she must have seen me as a tall, gangly lao wei (foreigner) that I was. But to my surprise – almost to my consternation – she seemed to take an interest in me. She was genuinely amused by most of my offhand remarks and my dry humor. Soon she was putting her hand on my shoulder and letting it linger there when she brought me documents to peruse and sign. For months we spent more and more time in each other’s presence, becoming more and more familiar with each other, and, at least on my part, lusting for her unlike I had felt for any woman I’d met since I’d been in mainland China. And I found the women of China, in their offhand elegance, the most beautiful I’d ever encountered. When I finally got my courage up, I took Wen Wen to The Metro, an upscale Italian Restaurant that specialized not only in pastas, but also in finely grilled steaks. Besides, the Metro was an out-of-the-way place to go in order not to be seen by colleagues. I didn’t know how my superiors would look upon any romantic entanglement with a Chinese national, but I didn’t think it would be good. While I held up the conversation most of the night, she didn’t seem bashful about telling me about her family and her life outside the embassy. Every few minutes she would smile and laugh like a little girl, something I found very charming. At work, her eyes seemed to dart my way. We were intimate by the fourth date. That night I told her I loved her.
“Sometimes I think I love you, Robert. Sometimes I don’t.”
I never knew how to respond to this, though we seemed to grow closer.
Then one night, she said to me: “You know in China it is the man’s job to make the money and it is the woman’s job to spend it.”
“If I gave you that idea, then I gave you the wrong one,” I said. I chided her as if she was someone years younger than she was. For the rest of the night she seemed to pout. I think it was that night that I became more aware of her propensity to withdraw into a late adolescence. I bought her an iPhone. For weeks, she hinted that she wanted one. Finally, when I bought her one, she spent so much time talking to her friends she had to carry her recharger with her. Money matters often sparked small arguments between us. When I told her I couldn’t afford something she’d become petulant, just like some of my college girlfriends. But that phase appeared to have passed. She’d tell me how she missed me the nights I wasn’t with her; she’d tell me how she looked forward to having my children. This gave me some pause, but I was thirty-two; I was not opposed to settling down; I was not opposed to having a family. After I’d been seeing her for a year, she was hinting too that she wanted to settle down.
So it was not quite an unexpected act on my part to buy her a ring and become officially engaged. The ring would signify my true love of Wen Wen. Thus, it was with love that I departed the taxi in the raging dust storm in front of Oriental Plaza in Wangfujing. The jewelry store that I had in mind was located on the first floor of Oriental Plaza next to the Hyatt Regency. In Xiao Wu’s store, there were two jewelry display cases forming two squares within each other. Giving Wu’s assistant a rough idea of how much I wanted to spend, she took me to the very back counter, showing me platinum, silver, and gold bands, encrusted with diamonds, sapphires, rubies or other semiprecious stones. I settled on a platinum band with a ruby. Setting me back about one paycheck, the dark red would appear quite elegant with her black hair. I shook my head when asked if I wanted to see any others. I paid with my credit card and had her wrap the ring as a gift.
Friday couldn’t come soon enough for me. So far, I had never mentioned marriage to Wen Wen, so I knew that tonight’s solicitation would come as quite a surprise. But I did tell her that there was something I had to tell her. Again, I took her to the Metro. Inside, most of the tables were vacant. Marvin, who was the manager and a friend of mine, found us an especially private table. I ordered a steak while she ordered penne with clam sauce. The wine I ordered wasn’t the finest that the Metro carried, but it was still quite dear. From the moment we sat down, until the food arrived, Wen Wen was on her iPhone conversing with friends. While I slowly cut and ate my steak, and vigorously drank the wine, she barely recognized that I was there. She giggled at jokes I couldn’t hear; she hushed as I assumed one of her friends told her a secret. I started to say something to her, but she held her hand up as if to wave me off. I looked across the restaurant. Sitting at another table was a Chinese couple. The woman was on her smartphone too as her husband continued to put his meal away. He looked so bored with it all. I fingered the wrapped gift box sitting in my suit coat pocket. Then she dialed another friend. All the while I finished my steak and the rest of the wine. Finally, while I had taken the last sip of the wine, she hung up with her last friend and turned to me. “So what was it that you wanted to tell me?”
“I don’t know how to put it, Wen Wen, so I’ll just say it. I think we should start seeing other people.”
By Joseph Dylan