“Mary, I published a book about teaching foreigners in China and I wrote almost an entire chapter about you.”
My Chinese teacher from Tsinghua University suddenly e-mailed me with the news, and I was completely caught off guard.
Me? …..In a book?
Impatient, I opened up the attached word file and scanned through the chapters hurriedly.
When I turned to the chapter about me, I realized that she retold one of the bleaker moments during my stay in Shanghai about…
My First Roommate: The Leftover Woman
In Chinese, there’s a word for a woman over thirty and still single:
…which literally means, a leftover woman.
From a western perspective, I think the term “leftover woman” is offensive. Being over thirty and single is not a disease, nor should a phrase be coined to equate women to unwanted scraps. Often times being over thirty and single is a choice and it should be respected—a man over thirty is desirable, why can’t a woman be?
While I have no qualms with a woman being single and over thirty (which I will most likely be, by the way), many Chinese women develop a complex with the word. The stress from parents, friends and society become too heavy to mentally shoulder and they crash. After a certain time, some women cave under this monumental pressure and start to lose their sense of identity and mental well being. They become lost in the race to lead the perfect Chinese life of finding a stable husband, having a nice home, and starting a family.
This was my first roommate.
Ideally, I wanted a Chinese roommate—so when I found a 32-year-old woman named “Lin” looking for a foreigner to live with, I was elated. She could not only speak English—she completed her postgraduate studies in Japan and could speak English and Japanese fluently. After we exchanged a few messages, I thought I had finally found my perfect roommate. My match.
We cooked Chinese food together. Went shopping together. Stayed up late watching movies and TV shows in her room, laughing and giggling. I even met her parents.
Then, we started talking about love.
I found out that she had a tendency to like western men. She told me about all of her boyfriends and lovers, and this is when I started to worry about her well being—basically, she only liked western men that were using her for sex.
As the days went by, we grew closer and started to open up more about our love lives. She told me about how she lusted after a certain American man and how he continually pushed her away and continued to sleep with a slew of Chinese women. She admitted that in Japan she was engaged to a Frenchman, but days before the wedding he cancelled the ceremony, which brought shame upon her entire family.
“Please help my daughter find a good man,” her father told me when I went to her family’s home for dinner. “She likes American men—and since you’re a good American girl, I know you will help her find someone with a good heart.”
I was new to Shanghai and had yet to make any foreign friends—but I saw the desperate look in her father’s eyes, and I dearly wanted to help.
But after two weeks of living together, she began to grow cold.
“Don’t use my cooking oil,” she barked at me when I was whipping up fried rice one day. “Buy your own.”
Our nightly chats after work ended. She shut herself in her room. I heard her crying through the wall and I knocked on the door, asking if she needed to talk.
She told me to go away.
“Why are you so negative all the time,” she snapped at me. “Quit complaining about your job.”
“You take too much room in the fridge,” she yelled at me. “Stop buying so much food.”
Then, the comments started getting weird.
“What’s wrong with you!?” she screamed. “Why do you make Chinese food every night!? Why don’t you make steak or hamburgers or pasta?? Why do you continually make Chinese food?”
“Why are all your friends Asian?” she scoffed. “First your friend Chen, then your Japanese friend K. Where are all your white friends?”
She yelled at me on a daily basis. About my food. About my life. About how terrible my Chinese was and my awful choice in men.
Finally, she stormed into my room and said:
“Mary, you’re a disappointment.
I brought you into my home thinking that you would be a blonde haired, blue eyed American girl. I was excited to have a real westerner in my home, but instead I have you—you with your black hair and brown eyes. You cook Chinese food and you study Mandarin all the time—it’s boring, it’s tiring, and it’s not what I want.
I like western men—and I wanted you to find me a white husband.
Obviously, though, you can’t perform such a simple task. You have nothing to offer me and I want you to move out. I’m going to get a Russian roommate that’s tall, thin and has golden hair. She’ll help me get what I want.
Mary, you’re not a real westerner.
In my eyes, you’re a 小人.”
I don’t know how to translate the insult 小人—but it’s really, really bad. It was like she plunged a knife into my heart and turned the blade. These are two Chinese characters I will never forget for the rest of my life because she screamed them right into my face when I was most vulnerable.
I was emotionally struck by a crazed woman driven mad by the standards of modern Chinese society. Her fear of being alone, of letting down her family, of becoming a failure in the eyes of her friends and acquaintances had overruled all of her rationality and any sense of self-respect.
Instead of the strong and motivated 32-year-old woman I met during my first few days in Shanghai, I saw a shell of a woman that was now hollow and empty. Shallow and desolate.
The next day, K came over and helped me move out. Although she promised to return my deposit, she never did. I tried to report the incident to the police, but they wouldn’t listen. K clapped me on the shoulder with a sigh and told me to let it go.
“Forget about her, Mary” K commented as he handed me a Tsingdao beer—we had just finished moving all of my things into my new apartment. “It’s time for a new start to your Shanghai life.”
We clinked our beers together with a ‘ganbei’ (cheers). I looked up to the moon and took K’s words to heart:
Things can only get better from here.
When I retell this story to my American friends, many are appalled that I had the gall to trust Chinese people—especially women—ever again.
But shortly after my roommate incident, I met Z—my Shanghai soul mate.
Aside from Z, I met countless Chinese women with big hearts and even bigger smiles. They locked arms with me and took me shopping. They taught me how to cook Chinese dishes and bargain at the market. They patiently showed me me how to speak, and even swear, in proper Chinese.
So yes, I was kicked out of my first apartment for being Mary—
–but I met even more Chinese friends throughout my stay in Shanghai that loved me just for who I was.
If you can read Chinese and you’re interested, check out my teacher’s book on douban. Aside from the story about me, there are countless stories about foreign students in China and they’re highly entertaining. She also writes in simple and easy-to-understand Chinese, so it makes good practice! (e-mail me if you would like a free copy!)
Do you have any similar stories about horrific roommates or Chinese women desperate for marriage?