Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Waiting for Marriage

The theme of the last two stories was about a Chinese woman and an American woman who waited 14-45 years for their fiances.  Due to historical events, in the story "The Woman who Waited 45 Years," the Chinese woman waited for her true love and wasn't able to marry him after finding him because he had heard that she had died and had married another woman.  Set in the late 1800's, in the story "The New England Nun," while waiting for her fiance to return, the American woman became accustomed to her peaceful life of solitude doing the things she loved to do and decided not to marry, afraid that her life would change drastically in an unhappy way if she did get married.  Since she was loyal she would have kept her marriage promise to the man, but learned that he was in love with another woman; therefore, she was able to get out of the promise she had made to marry him.

I asked the students, "If the American woman had been Chinese in the late 1800's would the ending of the story "The New England Nun" have been the same?"

I expected a straightforward answer.  No it would not have been the same.  The Chinese woman would have decided to sacrifice her peaceful happy solitary life to get married.  Instead the students' detailed answers surprised me:

1.  The Chinese woman would choose marriage because if she had refused the younger fiance, she would have been forced to marry anyways probably an old man; therefore, the younger man was the safer choice even if she wanted to live alone.

2.  Since her fiance was in love with another woman, he would have kept his promise to his fiancee who had waited 14 years for him.  In addition he would have married the other woman.  Since Chinese men in the 1800's could have two wives, the three people could leave peacefully together, the two who were in love and the woman who wanted her peaceful life could just live separately from them but still married as the first wife.

3.  The woman who refused marriage would have died.  What?  Died?  If the woman didn't marry the man, society would assume that she was a bad woman because the man didn't marry her.  Society would assume that she had cheated on him or had done something scandalous.  The judgment and criticism of society would have driven her to death.

Learning the students' ideas made me realize how little I really know about China and its history.  I felt like I understood China, but have realized that I only know China in a big broad stereotypical way as a foreigner living in this culture for 2.5 years.  The subtleties? The more I live in this country, the more I realize how little I know about it.  On the surface, I see the China that doesn't want to lose face, but underneath is a huge hidden underworld of unspoken secrets and ideas.


M said...

have you read stuff by Robert van Gulik? He was from the Netherland and a big time sinophile in the 19th century, wrote a series of murder invistigation type of stories, except it's in China and under the Tang dynasty. It's pretty fun cuz you get to know a lot about every day life at that time in China and yet it's Agatha Christie type of reading. Maybe you would enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

Read Joy Luck Club, it might help you understand better