CHRISTINA YAO was born and raised in Shanghai, China. She came to the United States to pursue an education in science. She graduated from Columbia University with a doctoral degree in Genetics and now works as an investigator at the National Institutes of Health. While she was studying at Columbia, she enrolled in a writer’s program and focused on poetry and short fiction writing. Her literary work has appeared in Columbia Journal and The Baltimore Review. Her short story “Defection” was included in an anthology, On a Bed of Rice: An Asian American Erotic Feast (Ed. Geraldine Kudaka. New York: Anchor Books, 1995). She also published creative writing in Chinese. Her short stories appeared in literary journals such as Shanghai Literature and The Literary World based in Shanghai.
VACANCES À PARIS
by Christina Yao
Only one of us could attend the annual cancer genetics meeting in Paris due to limited traveling funds in our research lab. My boss, Franklin Richard, picked me because he thought I needed a vacation. My colleague, Nancy, was happy that I could leave my family and work behind for a short break.
“Ping, you don’t have a life.” She had been saying the same stuff over and over again to me for four years. “Do all Chinese people work so hard?” she smiled, with a hint of teasing.
I answered in a matter-of-fact way, “Yes.” I knew I wasn’t a person who was fun to be around, but who cares?
I took a cab from the airport to my hotel. I looked out the taxi window and saw beautiful Parisian greenery everywhere. I realized that green was something I was missing in New York City. Is that why New Yorkers look so pale? I thought. I got paler every day. Now, I began to understand Nancy’s comment, “Ping, you don’t have a life.” She meant that my life was so crowded with things-to-do that I did not have a moment to myself.
Everything is fine with me, especially my career. I finished my Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University and spent two years working on my postdoc at Yale. Afterward, I moved to New York to work at a medical center. Realizing that the only way to get respect was to excel in my work, I hadn’t seen a movie or read a novel in four years. I have a family—a husband and a daughter. If I am not in the office or laboratory, I am commuting in a smelly subway or doing housework at home. I have no time or energy to desire anything else. Still, when Nancy asked me whether I had a life, she made me upset.
“Where are you from?” the pleasant, chubby driver suddenly asked me.
“China.” Even after I received my U.S. citizenship, I still had trouble claiming that I was as an American. I was afraid I would be asked, “Why don’t you go back to China?”
Xue-Fei, my husband, wanted to return to China. He was getting more and more upset that our daughter, Xiao-Jie, spoke perfect English, but very little Chinese. I think the real reason why he felt unsettled was that he couldn’t find his place in the States.
“China? My wife, Chinese, too.” The driver stared at me for a few seconds then commented, “Chinese women, beautiful. Good cooks, too.”
I hate being stereotyped. Yet, I understood that he said it as a compliment. I remained silent.
Xue-Fei and I met at Beijing Medical University. I was eighteen and he was nineteen. The first time we met, I was attracted to him. His dark eyes stole my heart. I waited for a signal from him, but it never came. Xue-Fei was too shy to express his emotions, probably because I was one of the best students in the class. One day, I organized a group trip to the Xiang-Shan Park to see the maple trees. Xue-Fei and some of his friends refused to go. I went to his dormitory and asked, “Xue-Fei, why don’t you want to go? Wouldn’t you like to do something with your classmates?”
“I would rather play volleyball with my friends,” Xue-Fei answered, innocently. “Plus, I hardly speak with any girls in our class.”
“Okay. If I invite you as a friend, would you go?” I asked.
“A friend?” Xue-Fei looked into my eyes for the first time and then asked, “Are you being sincere?”
“Yes,” I said.
Xue-Fei smiled slyly.
We went to the park and saw the autumn maple trees. Xue-Fei asked me whether I thought the leaves looked like blood, fire, or sunsets. I did not like any of his similes. I’d rather be silently thrown into its fiery brilliance. After a long discussion, we finally agreed that the autumn leaves could be a symbol for love.
When it was time to go home, Xue-Fei put me on the back of his bicycle. No words could describe my happiness. It had been my dream to be close to him. As Xue-Fei made a sharp turn, I put my hands around his waist.
“That’s the way it should be,” he said.
I felt encouraged and asked him if he would like to watch a movie with me. We went to a film called Tess. It was an adaptation of a novel written by a British writer, Thomas Hardy. I read some of his poems and truly liked them. It was the 1980s. Chinese people didn’t watch a lot of movies with lovers kissing on the screen. It was definitely the first time I saw a man seduce a woman in a film. During the sex scene, Xue-Fei started breathing heavily and my heart began beating fast. That night, in my diary, I declared that I was in love with a man.
What had happened to Xue-Fei? Could this overweight, middle-aged man who drank beers and watched TV most of the time be the same boy I fell in love with fifteen years ago?
Xue-Fei was annoyed by the fact that our daughter, Xiao-Jie, did well in school, but refused to learn our Chinese culture. We often argued about this with each other. Xiao-Jie was born in America, on the Fourth of July. We had no right to force her to live in a traditional Chinese manner. At the end of our fights, Xue-Fei often concluded that we should one day send Xiao-Jie back to China.
“Madame, here is your hotel,” the driver informed me. He said goodbye and warned, “Be careful, young lady, Frenchmen are all bad. Don’t give them a chance.”
What did he mean by “bad?” Was Xue-Fei a bad man? He came to the U.S. for my sake, but he refused to adapt. He had no friends and wished that I wouldn’t have any American friends as well. Did he know how disappointed I felt about our marriage? For a long time, I had no desire for sex. Xue-Fei usually ended his orgasm in a minute or two. He then asked, “Are you done? I will get you a clean towel.”
I replied to him every time that I was done, like it was a job. I knew we were not doing it right ever since we were married, but I couldn’t say for sure what was missing between us. Physically speaking, we did all the right things, but I anticipated more in terms of mood, mutual feelings, urge, and…in short, added enjoyment. And deep down in my heart, I knew that my longing for the added enjoyment was my true desire. But I didn’t dare start this discussion with Xue-Fei. He seemed to think that a wife’s duty was to accept whatever her husband handed down to her. When Nancy spoke about her sexual life during lunch, I was painfully jealous. Sometimes I wondered what life would have been like if I had married some other guy. Then I warned myself: Who would put up with you, a frigid middle-aged woman who knows nothing apart from your work?
I went straight to my hotel room. During my shower, I continued thinking about my life. I had always thought Xue-Fei was intelligent and able to achieve anything he wanted. But it turned out that he was not an achiever. He dropped out of the Ph.D. program. “Ping, I don’t like writing papers. My brain hurts when I sit in a seminar. The professors bore me. Aren’t these good enough reasons?” While he failed academically, Xue-Fei learned to cook and agreed to do the dishes. I knew that for him, it was a big compromise and sacrifice. He did his fair share in the marriage. I couldn’t complain. He pretended to be content with his easy life —playing football, being a lab technician, and taking care of the house. Deep down, he knew that he wasn’t the man I used to love and look up to. Maybe that’s why he didn’t give me sexual satisfaction. He wasn’t in the mood to please me. Or even worse, he meant to punish me, in the bedroom.
I murmured to myself, “Xue-Fei, I know we have stopped loving each other a long time ago. Why should we stay together?” Then I stirred, as if I had been struck by lightning. I looked around and saw the bright city lights through the windows. I realized that I was in Paris. It must have been the effect of Paris that made my mind derail. I had never thought of leaving Xue-Fei. Even our daughter, Xiao-Jie, wondered why we still stayed together. Last Valentine’s Day, Xiao-Jie drew two pink hearts on a card and asked me to give it to Xue-Fei. I said “sure” without thinking. Xiao-Jie then went on to ask me what I saw in her dad. I answered that he cooked delicious food. Twelve-year-old Xiao-Jie looked relieved and left me alone. I turned around and tears rolled down my cheeks.
Check out The Strangers for the whole story.