Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Tirade on the Train

Yesterday on the light rail train, an old lady asked Ma Lei if she was my translator. No, she explained, she's my wife.

The woman smiled the sort of crocodile-smile that the elderly Chinese are best at, and asked why Ma Lei wanted "one of those" — meaning foreigners — rather than a proper Chinese husband.

I'm pretty casual about such prying questions, but they really piss Ma Lei off. So with a big, good-natured smile on her face, she lit into a tirade about Chinese husbands. Here's the part I understood, loosely translated:

"You really think I want a Chinese husband? If I married a Chinese man, within a year or two he'd have a mistress to go play with while leaving me stuck at home with a baby. And if he had any money, there would certainly be some terrible little Chinese woman waiting to be his mistress."

(By this point, everyone was listening to her with expressions that ranged from amusement, to shock, to intense curiosity from a young woman who was dressed like she might have been some rich man's mistress.)

"And if I had a Chinese husband, I would have a terrible mother-in-law to control and criticize me for everything. The American's family loves me." (That's me, "The American," serving at that moment as a stand-in for an entire nation. One gets that a lot, living here.)

Then she started in on the beatings. "A Chinese husband would hit me," she said. "Foreigners don't beat their wives."

That's painting with a pretty broad stroke, I realize, but beatings are nowhere near as prevalent or as accepted in America as they are in China.

Once when I first got to China I saw a man and a woman engaged in a very violent shouting match while the man was dragging the woman somewhere, clearly against her will. I asked my companions, students of mine, why someone doesn't go fetch the police to calm the situation down before it becomes real violence. "If the police saw," one of the students explained, "they would just assume they are married." Period, end of story, as if "they're married" explains and validates violence, carte blanche.

Back on the light rail, the old woman who'd unwittingly launched Ma Lei's tirade had gone from squirming uncomfortably to laughing good-naturedly. As we got off at our stop, the woman gave me a big, genuine smile and a thumbs-up. Ma Lei has an uncanny knack for upbraiding people in long rants that are so over-the-top that their recipients can only laugh. This she does when she isn't too angry at the person who's set her off. Other times, it's a different story.

A few weeks ago at a bus stop a middle-aged, swaggering man challenged her directly: "How dare you go with a foreigner when there are Chinese men who can't find wives?" This time, a humorless fire lit in her eyes, and the man instantly startled. Ma Lei pointed to his fat, featureless belly, which was exposed under a dirty shirt that had been rolled up to his chest, a common practice among Chinese men during the hot months. "You're so polite," she said sarcastically, "I definitely want a Chinese man so he can spit on the sidewalk and piss in public and disrespect my family." Then she used a Chinese expression that I can never remember, but I know it when I hear it, basically meaning "go fuck yourself."

That man was not laughing, smiling, or giving me the thumbs-up when we got on our bus.

The really absurd thing is that Ma Lei is not a foreigner-chaser like some Chinese women. She knows she's painting the Chinese with a broad brush in these moments, just as she is foreigners. Her own little brother, for example, is a great kid and a real catch for his new wife. If Ma Lei had met a good Chinese man, she would undoubtedly chosen him over a foreigner. Chinese men are seemingly binary: the good ones are moral heroes, great friends, trustworthy partners, and honest husbands; the bad ones are the antithesis. The trouble is, there are precious few of the former and far too many of the latter.

China is notoriously facing a shortage of women relative to men, but China's deeper problem is the opposite: there are far too few good men in this country.

The men of China are largely reacting to the growing shortage of women in their characteristic way. Rather than think logically and adapt themselves and their culture to the changing circumstances, they do the opposite. They withdraw within themselves, become increasingly macho and authoritarian, and try to apply coercion to the situation by shaming and assaulting women who don't comply. Then — again in characteristic fashion — they raid nearby countries for their women.

Then there's Ma Lei, waiting to put them in their place if they dare breathe the wrong sort of word to her. And I'll be there laughing, loving the show, and taking notes.

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