I don’t remember my first conversation with Li so clearly as the conversation that followed.
It cast such a new light on our first talk that my memory of that first time has almost entirely faded.
Have you ever had this sort of experience? Where you remember the follow-up more than the original event? It happens when a second interaction casts back a new revelation on the first. The memories you initially came away with dwindle, because you’ve just lit on someone else’s entirely different set of assumptions about the same event.
The whole time you were creating your original, quiet memory of that event, someone else was creating theirs.
My surprise at Li’s assumptions about our first conversation displaced my first memory. I mostly remember that conversation now in terms of what I later learned about how he viewed it.
I do know, a little from memory, a little from inference, some of the points that must have been established in the first conversation. Most importantly, that I was American-born, that my parents were Chinese, and that my father was from Henan province.
This is a key point. Because my father was from Zhengzhou, Henan, and Li was also from that area, this made us akin to kinsfolk. Even though I’d only been to Zhengzhou twice in my life at that point, I was a member of the club.
I don’t remember much else of the conversation. But I do remember being slightly surprised at how unreserved Li was. At one point he offered to take me around on his moped to have some fun around the city. Perhaps, he said, he could even show me around Zhengzhou the next time I went back.
I never did end up spending time with Li, though, and we never had as relaxed an interaction as we did that first day. The next time we spoke, he was sheepish.
“You see, I thought you were a boy,” he explained. “If we were go to the Bund on my moped…it would be a little inconvenient.”
By inconvenient, I think Li meant “awkward” or “unsuitable”. He was a thirty-nine year old security guard and I was a twenty-something student. If I had actually been male, we could have scootered together all over Shanghai without problem. Is that what people call “just bros being bros”?
Since I had been discovered to be female, however, the joys of that brotherhood were denied to me. I almost wanted to ask Li, “Well, if I look like a boy, and you thought I was a boy, can’t I just pretend to be a boy when we go out?” I had come so close to penetrating the mysteries of that elusive phenomenon, the male-male friendship.
I think there was something iron, however, in Li’s grasp on sex and gender. Nothing I did could change the fact of my femaleness, and if there was a world where maleness and femaleness truly didn’t matter, it wasn’t this one.
“Sorry,” Li said. “Maybe I’m a little feudalistic.”
I still think fondly of Li. For that one–now faint–intoxicating moment that was our first conversation, I got to be on the other side.
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