The old woman, whom Ma Lei didn't know, told her she'd seen "your boyfriend" out with the dogs. Though that might seem like an innocent mistake, Ma Lei's fierce indignancy was instantly activated.
When a Chinese person, especially of the unworldly class (including all of the elder generation and the rural population, as well as many others), sees a foreign man with a Chinese woman, she makes many assumptions. None of them are good, but the worse burden of those assumptions is borne by the Chinese woman. The foreign man isn't seen with great moral admiration, but nothing like the low status of his Chinese partner.
When the man is my age and carries himself with an air of prosperity or class, chief among these assumptions is that he's surely got a wife and family in his foreign country. The Chinese woman is surely the foreigner's xiao san — "little #3" — i.e., mistress.
But "mistress" doesn't fully capture it, because this type of mistress expects payment for her regular love-service, and for the fact that she is forgoing her own family prospects and completely losing "face" with her own family and friends. Hence, xiao san is really a species of prostitute, albeit a long-term, single-customer prostitute.
Automatically assuming that Ma Lei is my xiao san implies a not-very-flattering view of this woman's fellow Chinese woman, but that's how it is in this country. China, like all collectivist societies, carves its people into disharmonious factions who struggle for money and social status. Then they pile on the propaganda about "social harmony," hoping to avoid the inevitable consequences of their own socially-corrosive collectivism.
Ma Lei quickly corrected the woman: "He's not my boyfriend, he's my husband. We married almost a year ago."
The old woman's crocodile smile didn't break a bit as she responded, "Oh, how come he didn't take you to America to meet his parents?"
Note: Ma Lei hadn't told the woman that I haven't taken her to America, as in fact I have. The woman assumed it, because of course I haven't, because of course I'm hiding my Chinese wife from my American family.
Ma Lei, hating it, smiled just as broadly as the old woman. She told her "he did take me to America for more than two months at New Year time. His parents had already come over to China for our wedding, so I knew them well."
The old woman was adroit. She found the next vulnerability, and complimented Ma Lei on her English. That might be a legitimate compliment, but in this context it was a stab at her as a traitor.
Ma Lei responded that she has no English. "My husband speaks excellent Chinese," she exaggerated.
"Oh, that's great," the woman came back. "Did he buy you a condo?"
Damn! This woman was fuckin' good!
To the uninitiated, this seems like an innocuous question, indeed an irrelevant one. To the Chinese, however, it's a twist of the knife. You see, it's the mark of a well-intentioned husband that he buy a home for his fiancé before they tie the knot. Without your own home, however humble it may be, to the Chinese you are not tied down; not grounded; not real. You could take off at any moment, leaving your wife and presumably your children destitute. Pianzi — "faker" — is the term for a man who tries to get a woman to marry him without first buying his own home. Sadly, there have been more than a few pianzi in this country.
Ma Lei feels the cultural impetus to buy a condo as well, and many times she has tried to convince me to do so. It's not that she doesn't trust me — her trust in me has been tested too many times for me to doubt it — but she would feel more viscerally stable if we were living in our own condo. Not to mention, in her very Chinese way she sees only two things as valid stores of value: bank deposits and real estate.
It doesn't make good financial sense to buy a condo, though, because I don't know how long I'm going to be in Dalian. I don't have much confidence in the Chinese real estate market, but it's impossible to convince a Chinese person that housing prices could tumble here as they've tumbled in the States. I haven't convinced Ma Lei of any of these concerns, so we're in a state of truce on the issue of buying a condo. Fortunately, she owns her own condo out in the Development Zone, so she doesn't feel rootless.
Ma Lei's standard answer to strangers' questions about why we haven't bought our condo is that we will probably be going to America soon, and anyway she already owns her apartment in the Development Zone. That makes people shut up, but it doesn't make them agree. She knows, and is maddened by the fact that, people talk about her behind her back. She's the dumb Chinese xiao san whose foreign boyfriend won't even buy her a home, and whose ill-intentions are made conclusive by the fact that...
"Your husband is very handsome," said the old woman slyly. "You would have a very beautiful baby."
Beautiful babies are the summum bonum for the Chinese. Not "intelligent babies," though excelling at studies is also essential to the Chinese. The Chinese still assume that beauty is a sign of virtue and future success, and they also believe that Chinese/Western hybrids are automatically more beautiful than uniracial babies.
Ma Lei accepted the compliment, knowing the hammer would fall: "Why haven't you gotten pregnant yet?"
That's a clincher for traditional Chinese people. We've been married for almost a year, yet Ma Lei isn't pregnant, as far as we know. To most Chinese elders, that's inconceivable (so to speak). What's the point of getting married, if you're not going to start popping out puppies?
Then the woman truly nailed it, when she asked Ma Lei whether I, or my mother, would demand a divorce if Ma Lei "can't give me a baby." And by the way, like the wives of Henry III, that imperative mostly demands a male baby.
Let's pull back and note the progression here, all of it connoted by indirection, none of it denoted by direct assertions.
First: Hello, Ma Lei, allow me to introduce myself and tell you I think you're a whore.
Second: Oh, you think he doesn't have an American family, what a pity you're so deluded.
Third: It's a shame that your husband doesn't care to take care of you in the only reasonable way, by buying you a condo.
Fourth: in two mutually-exclusive parts. A) If none of the rest of this has convinced you that your husband is a pianzi, the fact that he hasn't given you a baby proves that he is. B) Your husband will surely dump you like yesterday's trash if you can't give him a baby.
We foreign teachers sometimes bitch about our Chinese students, because they seem to have no ability at logical thinking. On the contrary, I think, the rank-and-file Chinese have an acute facility for a certain type of highly corrosive reasoning. It's a form of reasoning with a foregone conclusion, such as "Foreign men are evil," which seems to have been supported by some degree of evidence, whether or not it integrates with all the relevant evidence. If it fails to fit, then the evidence must be adjusted, perhaps repeatedly, to fit with the foregone conclusion.