I saw her by the river.
I was with her parents at an outdoor market, overlooking the Pearl River. Below us was a terrace. A group of young men and women were walking and laughing and talking, looking at the river. Professor Wu spotted her and shouted, “Xiao Ling!” He turned to me and said, “There is our daughter!” and shouted again. She turned around and scanned the people standing on the terrace above her; when she saw her parents, she smiled and waved happily. At that moment she noticed me standing with them. At first her smile faded and a brief puzzled look took its place. Then she looked straight at me and gave me a big smile and waved. It’s hard to describe how that made me feel, but in my mind I imprinted that image of her smiling like a Polaroid photo. After that, she turned back to her friends. They all seemed very happy and lighthearted. Several of them turned around to glance at me. Professor Wu gestured for her to come to him, but either she didn’t see it, or she ignored it.
But that look!
There are thousands of attractive girls in this city. But when she smiled at me, she seemed to me the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen. I know she is not really that remarkable. A pretty face, straight black, shoulder-length hair, thin. Like thousands of others. But her face stayed embossed in my memory. Later that day, I closed my eyes and tried to see that image, because it gave me a buzz to visualize her. I thought about her all that day and all that night. I wondered if she had a boyfriend. If she did, it probably meant she was virtually engaged, because I’ve heard that Chinese girls and boys usually stay with their first boyfriend or girlfriend and eventually marry them.
I thought I’d have a good chance of meeting her if I visited her parents at their apartment. But then I’d been with them twice and didn’t meet her. She might be out every time I’d go there. Or she might live in a student dormitory. I wondered if I could keep her attention with my pitiful level of Chinese.
The next day I met Wu Jing Chen at 12:15 outside the gate to his university. He’d offered to show me around and introduce me to some waiguoren [foreigner] English teachers. We went to his classroom and to the staffroom where he had a desk. We walked over to the English department, but couldn’t find any teachers. So then we ate lunch together in the Staff Canteen.
I asked Professor Wu about his daughter and he told me she is studying journalism and English. He suggested she could practice speaking English with me. I told him I’d be glad to help out. I thought to myself -- I’d love to contribute to the education of China’s youth.
I had complained that I couldn’t find anything written in English in a couple of bookshops I’d been to, and I wanted to read a newspaper. Professor Wu suggested I go to the university library to find a newspaper. I did that after lunch. However, the English newspapers there were at least a week old. So I found some copies of Time and read them for about an hour.
On the way out of the library I had to walk through a narrow entryway. A big crowd of students was coming into the library just at that time. Suddenly I saw her face about one yard away, approaching, smiling at me. I smiled back at her, but then she was passing. I quickly tried to think of something to say to her. As she was next to me, apparently someone bumped into her, because she bumped into me and leaned rather heavily against me for a moment. The people behind me were surging forward; I moved ahead, and the moment had passed.
Outside the library I stopped still and thought about what had just occurred. That smile was certainly encouraging. And her leaning against me when she lost her balance – that was far from discouraging. Was it possible she did that on purpose? No -- I thought -- I couldn’t be that lucky.
I kicked myself. Why didn’t I say something? When would I have another chance to meet her?
I decided I had to go back into the library and find her.
I started to search all over the library, floor by floor, starting in the basement. I looked down every aisle and between all the rows of books. On the third floor I saw her walking towards me again. I tightened up – what would I say? “I met your parents.”? That sounded lame. “You are incredibly beautiful.”? That would surely scare her off.
She saw me from a distance, but didn’t smile at me this time. She didn’t even look at me. She kept walking with her books clutched in front of her chest and her eyes fixed to the floor. I stared at her and smiled, and she darted right past me. I stopped and stared after her, completely shaken. At the same time I noticed her figure and the clothes she was wearing: a white blouse with long, puffy sleeves (too hot today for long sleeves – I thought), a short black skirt and low heels. Elegant compared to most of the girls at UC Santa Cruz.
I just stood there, totally puzzled, and watched her walk down the stairs. Why the change? From an inviting smile and physical contact to embarrassed avoidance. Did she intentionally bump into me before, and later regret it and feel ashamed about it? I stood there, lost in my ponderings for a few minutes, while students walked past. I started to notice that some were staring at me, no doubt wondering why I was gawking at the staircase like an idiot.
Through my confused jumble of thoughts, I concluded that if I approached her again, and actually started a conversation, she wouldn’t be displeased. Even if I got a rejecting response again, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. My chances of getting a positive response from her were still, I calculated, better than even.
But then it struck me –when would I have a chance to meet her again? I suddenly jumped like I was starting the 100 yard dash and flew down the stairs and out of the library.
Outside, at the top of the stairs I looked around frantically. White top, black skirt. Couldn’t see anyone wearing that. She must have gotten quite a head start while I was dithering. I raced down all the steps to a pavilion in the center of a park area, from which I could see in all directions. I ran around the pavilion, peering north, south, east and west. White top, black skirt. White top, black skirt. I spotted someone far ahead, walking behind the trees near a big fountain. Long white sleeves?
I jumped down and raced along the street, dodging around people, like they do in movie chase scenes. When I was about 10 yards behind her, I slowed to a walk and tried to catch my breath, so it wouldn’t be completely obvious I’d been frantically chasing her. I supposed I wanted it to seem like a complete coincidence that I just happened to be going past her again, for the third time in 10 minutes.
I finally worked up my courage. I told myself – you’ve got to do this now!
I caught up and walked beside her and asked, “Ni zai Zhongshan Daxue shangke ma?” [Do you go to Zhongshan University?]
She smiled at me, without showing any surprise, and said in English, “Yes, I do.”
I thought to myself – that didn’t go so bad. Uh, what do I say next?
So I blurted, “I met your parents.”
She smiled again, and nodded.
(Now what should I say? – I thought. To fill the hush between us, I came out with…)
“I saw you.” In the long silence that followed, that sentence seemed to take on a deeper meaning than I’d intended.
We continued strolling under the green and yellow leaves. Xiao Ling stopped and, half-turned towards me, with lowered eyes, she quietly confessed, “I saw you also.” Then without smiling, she looked into my eyes. What magic! Her eyelashes were mascaraed, so the lashes stuck straight up and down like the points of a star. I used to think too much mascara was repellent, but now I thought her starry eyes were just stunning. Her eyebrows had been plucked and painted to form a thin, perfect arch (-- like just about every Chinese girl I’ve seen).
I started to ask her questions about her university and her studies. She was an English major in her second year. She had to read Dickens and Jane Austen, whose writing, she said, was very hard to understand. We stood on the sidewalk, propped against a rail, as hundreds of people hurried past. As I memorized the dark, dark brown of her irises, I felt like I was seeing into her soul, and what was shining out was innocent and kind and strong. I just kept trying to think of questions to keep her talking, so she would keep looking at me, and not go away.
She said with a little laugh, “I am fortunate can conversation with you, to practice speaking English.”
I responded, “Wo hen gaoxing renshi ni.” [I am very happy to meet you.]
She answered, “I am truly happy to know you.”
I thought – I like the way she emphasized “truly”.
I was just about ready to declare my undying, everlasting love. But instead I said, “I hope I see you again. Maybe your parents will ask me to visit your home.”
“Oh, they will.”
“…and I hope you will be there.”
“Oh, I will.” She laughed. We both laughed.
We just kept staring at each other for a long time, and smiling like delirious fools.
Finally, I said, “Well…”
She concluded, “I will see you again.”
I replied, “Zai jian.” And she wandered down the street. After she’d gone about 20 yards, she turned to see if I was still watching. I was. She blushed slightly, and gave a little wave.
I thought – I think she is happy because she met me. That’s fantastic. As for myself, I am ecstatic!
I felt like dancing down the street. I pictured myself dancing up and down steps, dancing over parked cars. Then a troupe of brightly costumed dancers would appear out of nowhere and follow my steps in perfect coordination. And our explosive, joyous outburst would spill out onto the street and stop traffic. Motorists would get out of their cars and click their fingers as they beamed happily at the silly, crazy guy. Some of them would happen to have trombones, trumpets and drums sitting on the passenger seats, ready to play. And soon they’d all be playing a jazzy rendition of “On the Street Where You Live”. And all the passersby would join in the cheerful confusion, singing and dancing and smiling for the cameras.
Then I walked to the subway station.
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