My Chinese Marriage
MY CHINESE MARRIAGE
By M. T. F.
JOHN LANE THE BODLEY HEAD LIMITED
Printed in Great Britain by Butler & Tanner, Frome and London
TO MY CHINESE FATHER AND MOTHER
WITH THE GRATITUDE AND AFFECTION
OF THEIR AMERICAN DAUGHTER THIS
VOLUME IS DEDICATED
|IV||The Eternal Hills||141|
I IN AMERICA
I saw Chan-King Liang for the first time on a certain Monday morning inOctober. It was the opening day of college, and the preceding week hadbeen filled with the excitement incidental to the arrival of manystudents in a small town given over to family life. Every householdpossessed of a spare room was impressed with the fact that goodcitizenship demanded that it harbour a student. Therefore, when I sawtrunks and boxes and bags being tumbled upon the front porch of ournext-door neighbour, I said to Mother, "Mrs. James has succumbed!"[Pg 4] andset out for my first class with Celia, an old friend.
As we crossed the campus, we noticed a group of boys, gathered on thesteps of College Hall and talking among themselves. Celia turned to me."Do you see the one with very black hair, his face turned away alittle—the one in the grey suit, Margaret? Well, that is the newChinese student, and the boys all say he is a wonder. My cousin knew himlast year in Chicago, where he was a freshman. Going in forinternational law and political science—imagine!"
I turned and glanced with a faint interest at the foreign student, onwhose black hair the sun was shining. My first impression was of a veryyoung, smiling lad. "Looks well enough," I said rather ungraciously, andwe passed on.
I was a busy student, eagerly beginning my freshman year's work, and Ithought no more of the young Chinese. But a[Pg 5] day or so later Idiscovered him to be the owner of those trunks and bags I had seenassembled on Mrs. James's porch. Chan-King was my next-door neighbour.
We were never introduced to each other, as it happened, and, though weshared studies in German and French, we did not exchange a word for sometime. Later I found myself admiring his feat of learning two foreignlanguages through the medium of English, a third, and doing it so verywell. At the same time, though I was not then aware of the fact, he wasalso admiring me for proficiency in these subjects, in which I wasworking hard, because I intended to teach languages.
The progress of my interest in him was gradual and founded on a sense ofhis complete remoteness, an utter failure to regard him as a human beinglike the rest of us. He was the first of his race I had ever seen. Butfinally we spoke to one another by some chance, and, after[Pg 6] that, itseemed unnecessary to refuse to walk to class with him on a certainmorning when we came out of our houses at the same moment.
We parted at College Hall door with an exchange of informal little nods.I was happily impressed, but my impulse to friendship suffered a quickreaction from all that Chan-King was, when viewed against the backgroundof his race as I saw it. I had no intention whatever of continuing ourassociation.
Naturally, Chan-King knew nothing of this. I think I was probably atrifle more courteous to him than was necessary. I remember being uneasyfor fear of wounding him by some thoughtless remark that would reveal mytrue state of mind about China. I lost sight of the race in theindividual. I even pretended not to notice that he was waiting for memorning after morning when I emerged, always a trifle late, hurrying[Pg 7] toclasses. By the close of the first semester, we were making the triptogether almost daily as a matter of course.
He was gay and friendly, with a sort of frank joyousness that was hisown special endowment for living. I enjoyed his companionship, his talk,his splendid spirit. His cheerfulness was a continual stimulant to mymoody, introspective, static temperament. I used to study his face,which in repose had the true Oriental impassivity—a stillness thatsuggested an inner silence or brooding. But this mood was rare in thosedays, and I remember best his laughter, his shining eyes that nevermissed the merriment to be had from the day's routine events.
For a while we were merely two very conventional young students walkingsedately together, talking with eagerness on what now seem amusinglysober and carefully chosen subjects. We were both determined to bedignified and impersonal.[Pg 8] I was nineteen, and Chan-King was two yearsolder.
Finally, Chan-King asked to call and he appeared at the door thatevening, laden with an enormous, irregular package, a collection oftreasures that he thought might interest us. We all gathered about thelibrary table, where he spread a flaming array of embroidered silks,carved ivory and sandalwood and curious little images in bronze andblackwood. They gave out a delicious fragrance, spicy and warm andsweet, with a bitter tang to it, a mingling of oils and lacquers anddust of incense.
He was very proud of half a dozen neckties his mother had made him,patterned carefully after the American one he had sent her as asouvenir. "She sews a great deal, and everything she does is beautiful,"he said, stroking one of the ties, fashioned of wine-coloured silk andembroidered in a thin gold thread.
The simple words, the tangle of the[Pg 9] exotic things lying on the table,in that moment set the whole world between us. I saw him as alien, farremoved and unknowable; I realized how utterly transplanted he must be,moving as he did in a country whose ideals, manners and customs mustappear, at times, grotesquely fantastic to him. "How queer we must seemto you!" I exclaimed impulsively, lifting a solid, fat little idol in myhand.
"Queer? Not at all—but wonderfully interesting in everything. You see,to me it is all one world!" Our eyes met for a second. Then he offeredme a small embroidered Chinese flag. I hesitated, looking at thewrithing, fire-breathing dragon done in many-coloured silks. Again theold prejudice swept over me. I was about to refuse. But I saw in hiseyes an expression of hesitating, half-anxious pleading, which touchedme. I took the flag, puzzled a trifle over that look I had surprised.
Chan-King became a frequent visitor at our home in the evenings, makingfriends with my father and mother, with true Chinese deference. I liketo remember those times, with all of us sitting around the big table,the shaded lamp casting a clear circle of light on the books and papers,the rest of the room in pleasant dimness. It was during these eveningsthat Chan-King told us about his father, typical Chinese product of hisclan and time, who had early perceived the limitations of a toonationalistic point of view and had planned Western education for hissons, of whom Chan-King was the eldest. From his talk I reconstructed ahalf-picture of his home in southern China. It was a large household ofbrothers and relatives and servants ruled over by his mother during theprolonged absences of his father, whose business interests lay in afar-away island port.
Once he brought a faded photograph[Pg 11] of a small boy formally arrayed inthe Chinese velvets and satins of an earlier period. "Myself at the ageof six," he explained.
I examined the picture closely. "Why, Mr. Liang," I said, in wonder,"you are wearing a—wearing a—queue!"
He smiled, delighted at my confusion. "Yes, a very nice queue it was,"he declared, "bound with a scarlet silk cord. I remember how it waved inthe wind when I flew my kite on the hills!"
"You wore a black queue yourself, Margaret," interposed my mother, hereyes twinkling, "shorter than this, but often tied with a red silkribbon."
"You see, we had that in common, at least," said Chan-King. And heflashed a grateful smile at Mother. There was a well-establishedfriendship between my kindly, understanding mother and Chan-King whilemy feeling for him was still uncertain.
Yet, in spite of all these reasons for close sympathy with Chan-King, Ifelt towards him at times something amounting almost to dislike. Againstsuch states of mind my sense of personal justice, a trait I had directlyfrom my Scotch inheritance, instantly rebelled. I was careful in no wayto reveal my feelings, though I probably should have done so had I evenremotely realized that friendship was verging upon love. As it was, Ihad an ideal of genuine comradeship, of a pleasant interlude destined toend with our college days.
Towards the end of the winter, as our acquaintance advanced, there cameto me a series of those revulsions. I assured myself that so ephemeral arelation as ours must be was hardly worth the time I was giving to it. Iremembered that, fine as Chan-King was, he belonged to the Chinese race.I decided to put an end to the entire episode at once. The[Pg 13] way in whichI carried out this plan was unnecessarily abrupt. I avoided himunmistakably, going to class and returning home by a roundabout way, andrefusing to see him either in class or on the campus.
Then, one afternoon at the end of two weeks, he was waiting for mebefore the main door of College Hall. I did not speak. He joined mewithout a word and walked in silence to the campus edge. I turnedsuddenly toward a side street. "Go that way if you like," I said rudely."I have an errand this way."
He came with me. "I wish to talk with you," he said, with an oddlyrestrained, patient tone of weariness. Our eyes met, and I saw in his agentle and touching determination to understand and be understood, whichwould have been more significant to me if I had been less engrossed inmy own emotions.
"Why do you wish to end our [Pg 14]friendship?" he asked quietly, with hischaracteristic frankness.
"I—because I thought it was best," I stammered, completely disarmed.
"It is never best to give up a friendship," he said. "But it happensthat our friendship may end soon after all. It is possible I shallreturn to China. To-day I received a cablegram from my father, saying mymother is dangerously ill. I shall know within a day or so whether I amto go or to stay."
Human sympathy triumphed over race prejudice. "Come home with me," Isaid, "and let Mother talk to you. She always knows what to say."
Another cablegram two days later brought the good news of his mother'simprovement. Chan-King's anxiety during those two days wrung me. He saidnothing, but his face was strained and lined. He walked and we talked agood deal of other things, and he gave me[Pg 15] definite outlines of his"life-plan," as he called it. He regarded the diplomatic service of hiscountry as his final goal, but, on the way to it, he wished to take partin constructive teaching and sociological work in China. He was keenlyenthusiastic about the ancient arts and natural beauties of China andvenerated many of her old customs. "I hope