Huang was sipping a Devil’s Peak lager in Johannesburg’s trendy art district and Meilin was clasping a cup of Longjing tea in her locked-down Shanghai apartment on the 17th floor when the couple started a difficult conversation about their long-distance relationship. “It’s become too much for me,” she said. “It is too much,” he agreed.
They had both been students at Shanghai’s Fudan University – Huang, a PhD candidate in African Studies, and Meilin a Master’s student in Education – when they became romantically involved. Her love for him had been passionate from the start and he had accepted it in his own nonchalant way. Never did he ever imagine that his heart would be broken one day. It had been clear to both of them all along that her feelings were far stronger than his. She liked to spoil him, and he accepted her affection without question.
Meilin had felt happy because she was with a man that she truly loved. It was just like her favourite writer had said: love is never asking whether it’s worth it or not. For a long time, she had tried not to ask herself whether this thing called love was worth it.
Love is never asking whether it’s worth it or not.
– Eileen Chang, Asian-American novelist
Things changed dramatically for the couple after their first year of dating. First, Covid and the complication of quarantine rules kept them apart, whenever the local government demanded it. Then, she graduated and kicked off her career as a teacher in Shanghai No.77 School, earning herself a new place in society, while he was ‘left behind’ as a student with an uncertain future. Finally, Huang won a scholarship to conduct two years of fieldwork research at the University of Johannesburg.
Now there was 7,000 miles and a six-hour time difference between them. It had been five months. Like every couple dealing with a long-distance relationship, they had tried their best to make it work.
Do the right things at the right time.
– A common Chinese saying
Huang looked at his troubled relationship with Meilin and asked himself how he got this far. He replayed the voices of the people around him, pushing him to be where he was.
“University is your last chance to take your time to arrive at something close enough to pure love,” one of Huang’s unhappily married friends had advised. “After that, it’s all speed-dating and match-making, so find yourself a nice girl, now”. And he had taken their advice. But where had it gotten him?
Huang recalled the simple life he had had before he fell in love. Even now, he wasn’t sure if he had actually fallen in love. He had always loved engaging with knowledge more than people, usually happier left alone. But one day, this girl had just shown up and told him she had feelings for him, and that she wanted to be with him.
For Meilin, the clock was ticking loudly. Her family had never allowed her to date when she was in high school; she needed to focus on her studies to get good exam results so she could get into a top university. But the minute she graduated, everyone in the family started asking: Who are you going to marry? In most parts of the Anglo-Saxon world, there’s an unspoken sense that, if you’re going to get married and start a family, you should do it before 35. In China, that number is significantly lower. In 2017, women in China were on average 25.7 years old when entering their first marriage. Meilin had always been a few steps ahead of everyone else in life, and when her 25th birthday arrived, she felt pressured to act fast.
“You must follow the timeline and do the right things at the right time,” her mother lectured, whenever she got the chance. “I can still help to look after your baby now. I’m not sure if I’ll be strong enough in a few years time. You must hurry up, for everyone’s sake!”
A relationship is like a dance, you must move forward but also backward.
– A Chinese Professor of Political Science
Once a very wise Professor of Political Science said to Huang’s class: treat your friends as a mirror and give as much as you take, and treat your lover as a dancing partner and move back and forth at the right moments. This was true in theory, he thought, but in reality things always went on different tracks.
Huang was a Libra – the horoscope represented by a pair of scales – and fairness was one of his highest values, but Meilin’s affection had made him drop this principle. She loved him deeply and didn’t mind adapting to his schedules, his plans, his tastes. Not only was he spoiled; he became addicted to being spoiled.
Huang didn’t want to change himself for the relationship, and he hadn’t altered any of the plans he’d made before he committed to the relationship, including the two years of field work in South Africa. He made her understand that what was good for him was good for them. She tried her best to understand. She liked the idea of ‘them’, and she truly believed that, together, they would overcome the long distance. Before long, Shanghai’s strictest citywide lockdown struck and she found herself quarantined at home all day, every day, and the distance began to feel like so much emptiness. China’s firm Zero Covid policy had no end in sight, so her lifestyle had no hope of changing any time soon. All interactions with her students were on-screen, and every parent’s complaint in a group chat became a crisis to be managed. Meilin was constantly giving her energy to everyone else, when no one was there to give her anything. Whenever she needed Huang, he was occupied with something on the other side of the world. She tried to video-call him but he was never available, and messages she sent in the morning were only answered in the evening: “Not now – I’m at a gallery opening. Not now – I’m having a beer with new friends. Not now – this neighbourhood isn’t safe enough for me to take out my phone.” No matter what the excuse was, there always seemed to be something going on in Johannesburg that was far more exciting than her life in Shanghai. She retreated so much that she could not dance any more.
Marriage should take place between families of equal social rank.
– A common Chinese saying
“You’re wasting your time with him, and do you think you have a lot of time? Think again!” Meilin was reminded of her stupidity by her family every day.
Time, indeed, was at the centre of the complications. She knew that Huang wouldn’t cut his South African programme short just to come back for her, and quitting her stable teaching job and joining him there wasn’t a financially viable option. With limited flights between China and South Africa and rigid Chinese quarantine restrictions, visiting each other wasn’t possible either.
Her family’s voices overwhelmed her. Her aunt’s words echoed loudest in her head: “I really don’t know what you see in him. You two aren’t financially balanced, which is the foundation of a marriage. You’re already working and financially independent, and he’s a poor student with an unpredictable future – not to mention that he abandoned you and where did he go, ‘Black Africa’?”
She understood well that the success of her marriage was not her own business, but a matter for the entire family. Under what anthropologist Yan Yunxiang observes as ‘neo-familism’, individual success is not enough in today’s China: there must be family-wide success, which is usually defined by material wealth. In 2010, an unemployed male suitor on If You Are the One, China’s most popular match-making TV programme, asked a female contestant if she’d go on a bike ride with him for a date. The lady famously replied that she would “rather weep in a BMW than laugh on a bike”.
She’d always believed that she wasn’t materialistic but, with the voices overwhelming her, she wasn’t so sure any more.
True love is an unalloyed love without mixture of pleasure and displeasure.
“It’s too much,”she finally told him. “I need time to think things through. Maybe this is not for me.”
Huang felt so much pain when hearing this, to the extent that he wondered if this was what it felt like to be emotionally collapsed. He had a paper due and tried to find respite in sociological theory. But none of those theories could help him sort out his emotions. He remembered that Foucault once said true love is an unalloyed love, without mixture of pleasure and displeasure. But all he had on his mind now were the memories of pleasure and the reality of displeasure. By now they both had a clear sense of love’s whole package. The complications of their relationship were always going to be there, with or without the 7000 miles and the time difference. Yet now, they had to look love in the face, in this unique covid-imposed time-space compression.
Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing, Huang thought. Perhaps time would tell, thought Meilin. Perhaps this was everyone else’s story.