Friday, November 11, 2011

Ninna Sun and the Strong List

Ninna Sun (Sun Xiaomin)

I’ve been thinking lately about Ninna Sun.

Ninna was one of my only two true friends in China who was not an expat. I have a tendency to befriend older women – especially in Asia - so my other friend was Zhang Fangshan, who was in her 70s, retired and was a volunteer in the Guanyin shrine at the nicest temple in town.

Ninna is about my age, but our lives and experiences couldn’t have been more different. Her father was a factory worker from Jiangsu, and her mother a Sichuanese woman who died fairly early in Ninna’s life. When the Chinese government moved many of the factories of Jiangsu to Guizhou, where they hoped they’d be less detectable by US surveillance, Mr. Sun moved with the jobs, and Ninna was born in Kaili, which boasts a large Miao ethnic minority population. As a Han Chinese, Ninna received better treatment in school and life, and managed to learn good standard Chinese unaffected by regional accents as well as become strong in English. While I was growing up in middle class rural America, she was growing up in working class rural China. She is, of course, an only child. She worked a poorly paid secretarial job at the school where I was a well-paid teacher.  While I was placated, she was fired for being “too friendly” with the foreign teachers, when her job was to be nice to us and then report back on our goings-on to the school.

I mention this – and Ninna – because she really was one of my only non-expat friends in China. I didn’t trust any of the other local workers at the school, and while plenty of other Zunyi residents invited me around, it was clearly a status symbol, a “look at this foreigner who is my friend! I am so cool that I have a foreign friend!” It was a pleasure to have the company of someone who genuinely liked me for me, and not for the status I provided when invited over for dinner.

It’s still a matter of great…what’s the word? Consternation? Sadness?...that when, after we became Friends For Real, the school asked Ninna about what I was up to in my spare time (which was nothing threatening, weird or illicit, mind you, just normal foreigner exploring China stuff). She refused to tell them, because she realized it was unfair to me to be my friend one minute, and spy on me the next.

She got fired for that.

Ninna, like most women – like most people – wanted to meet someone nice, fall in love, get married and all that fun stuff, and when I met her, she had a boyfriend. I never met him, because they broke up not long after I moved to China. He ended it because he felt Ninna was “too fat” and “not feminine enough” - she had a normal build for a Chinese girl, a facial structure and body type that would be considered classically beautiful by those standards. I think she wore what in the USA would be a size four. She was heartbroken, despite the fact that the guy was clearly a loser.

Zhang Fangshan, my friend from
Xiangshan (Fragrant Mountain) Temple
I’ve been thinking about it because recently, in my favorite advice column as well as other places, there’s been something of a related, ongoing discussion of the qualities of a good man and good mate, and what one’s dealbreakers should be. As a woman, a liberal and a feminist (WOOOOOO!) I would say that I don’t have a Long List, but I do have a Strong List. As in, I feel very strongly about everything that’s on it.

My list, in no particular order and probably with something forgotten because I’ve never actually written this out before, rather had it as a nebulous  set of ideals in my head:

-       He’s got to be kind and good
-       We have to find each other attractive and have a strong emotional connection
-       He’s got to be honest
-       He’s got to get my sense of humor and other elements of my personality (maybe not everything, but you know, enough)
-       He’s got to be a feminist, which includes pitching in with housework and no expectations of typical gender roles
-       We’ve got to have strong communication skills
-       We’ve got to love each other
-       He’s got to be intelligent and open-minded
-       No addictions, no hard drugs, no emotional or mental problems
-       He’s got to love, or at least like, travel and be OK with the sort of lifestyle I crave
-       We’ve got to be able to be ourselves around each other
-       Being religious is fine as long as he doesn’t try to convert me
-       He doesn’t have to be a high earner or provider, but NO SLACKERS
I’d say I did pretty well with Brendan, who slam dunks all those criteria (sometimes there are communication gaps but we both sincerely work on bridging them and are doing a great job) plus I get some bonuses: great sense of humor and a hottie to boot, who peels chick peas when I want to make hummus and de-eyeballs squid when I want to make seafood.

All this, and I’m far from perfect.

It’s occurred to me, though, that I have this list and managed to marry someone who hits it out of the ballpark in part because, culturally, I have the luxury of having this list.

No, no, wait, hear me out.

The sexism I encountered in China was staggering. The director of the school (a woman) basically hid behind her boyfriend, who was the director in name only because “businesses need a man at the head”. This same woman, when she did the unthinkable in rural China in the ‘90s and got divorced, had to threaten to kill herself right there in court – she brought in a bottle, smashed it against the judge’s podium, put it to her wrist and said she’d kill herself immediately – in order to gain custody of her son, and in the process lost everything else. One of my coworkers was married to a local woman who married her first husband only because he said he’d kill her if she left him, and when she told her father, he said “well that means he must really love you”. Of course it was an abusive marriage, she left, and the entire town blamed her. My drunken slob of a coworker was the only man in town who’d look at her, and she couldn’t get a job.

These are anecdotes, but they describe a culture that was deeply engrained and deeply disturbing in Guizhou and, one can presume, other parts of rural China, at the turn of the millennium.

If Ninna, living in Guizhou - at least I assume she is still living in Guizhou - wanted to get married and perhaps have children, she certainly could have. She was an attractive girl with a lovely disposition and strong moral principles. She quit her next job after the language school, at a medical testing center, because to save money they weren’t actually testing patients’ blood and instead just telling everyone who had blood taken that the results were positive. For serious.

And yet, does Ninna have the luxury of my Strong List?  How much choice will she have – or has she had – in Kaili, Guizhou, China? Could she dump a boyfriend who showed a tendency to expect traditional gender roles? Could she leave a fiancé who made it clear that she was responsible for all of the housework and future child rearing, and reasonably hope to find another? Did she have the luxury of leaving a man for being a bit of a dimwit, for being a stick in the mud, for not adequately respecting her or acknowledging her equal part in their relationship? Could she simply walk away, as I did, from an otherwise great guy simply because a.) I didn’t feel a spark and b.) my traveling, expat lifestyle wouldn’t have worked out with his career as a US-based lawyer?

Maybe she could, and certainly if faced with these guys I hope she did – I use past tense because it’s been years since we’ve been in touch, and I like to think that she did meet that nice guy and get married. I hope she stayed true to herself and found a man who loved and respected her for it.

It’s an interesting question, though, because, let’s be brutally honest. Not that many women realistically have the luxury of a Strong List as we Western women and women in developed countries do (I could argue that Taiwanese women and some urban Chinese women have the luxury of such a list, whereas many rural Chinese women do not). Plenty of women face the choice of either having high expectations and demanding respect as an equal and equal help in the home…and getting married. They can’t necessarily have both.

That’s not right, but it is honest. It’s not fair, but it is true.

A favorite story of mine about the escapades of Jenna and Ninna in Zunyi: one day on the street an old vendor had a children's game where you would spin an arm on a wheel (like Wheel of Fortune) and it would land on an animal from the Chinese Zodiac. Me: "How does this work?" Ninna: "Whatever animal you get, he will make you a sugar sucker of that animal!" - so basically whatever Zodiac animal you got, he'd use hot sugarcane syrup to make you a candy pop of that animal. So we played (Ninna: "Normally they'd say I'm too old for this, but because I'm with a foreigner we can play, because they think you are strange anyway!"). I got a dragon. Ninna: "Oh, that's the luckiest one! You will be very lucky in life. You got a dragon sucker!" Then she spun the wheel. She got a rooster. "Oh, I have a cock," she said, "so he'll make me a cock sucker. It's not as good as a dragon."


And I sincerely hope that, as we churn slowly and painfully towards the future, that the women’s rights movement takes hold in more and more countries and more women can realistically demand respect and other good qualities in a mate and not have to sacrifice chances at partnership and marriage for lack of suitable prospects.

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