When Jane fell in love with a Kuwaiti,
the embassy warned him against Chinese
girls. We’ll revoke your scholarship,
they said. He was a student
who ignored the rules
for love (to hear Jane tell it)
and traveled with her that summer,
eating sunflower seeds. Unfamiliar
language rose and broke from their
throats. She calls him
Old Ma still, a leftover
nickname for Madallah.
The sky in Beijing is bland
the day Jane talks
about her love. We said I was his
guide, she laughs, because they were
caught in a hotel with no marriage
or money. In seven months
of self-criticism at school, she never
confessed that she loved him. Anyway,
she says, he went home for American war,
so no one cares about this love anymore.
Every day of 1995 Jane writes a letter
to Lao Ma. He does not write her
because he’s a diplomat and isn’t
allowed to write to Chinese girls.
She and I work in an American
office advising on foreign
investment in China. Jane does not like
the translation our firm has given
General Motors. It means mediocre
motors in Chinese, she tells me. So we
write a report recommending revision.
But GM says it’s too late to change
their name no matter what.
When I meet Madallah in 1997,
Jane has already loved
three other boys and warned me:
Lao Ma is not the same anymore.
Now, she says, he is a successful
career and a failed personality.
Per our personal free trade language
arrangement, we leave each other’s sentences
alone. Madallah has married an
arranged woman and come back
to Beijing to polish his Chinese
without her. We meet in “Uncle Sam’s”
fast food. He and I have only Chinese
in common so when I ask what
it’s like to be married
to him, he cannot gauge my tone
and gives me the straight answer
I want: In my country
women are like queens; No one
disrespects you on the streets.
Jane and I have an emergency
dinner at “Three Four Man,” our
favorite Japanese restaurant. Her eyes
are wide and tired. Our dream of love
is over, she confirms. Madallah’s new
wife has to sit in the back of the house
with a cloth over her face when
men come to play cards
(five nights a week). I am surprised
he isn’t busier with matters of the state.
Jane says: when he told me this I
shouted. I think her life must be terrible.
But over dessert she asks me do I
think his wife is pretty. I know this
is a terrible question, she says. And I
know what’s coming: But if she has to
wear a cloth over her head anyway,
then why couldn’t she have been Chinese?
First published by the Grolier Poetry Prize