I need to begin by saying that it’s always been more or less understood in mine and Ellen’s relationship that crushes happen, and that, as long as no action is taken, they’re not the end of the world. This perhaps explains why Ellen insists we watch every movie in which David Straitharn appears, no matter how minor his role. It might also explain Ellen’s willingness to support my assertion that Jennifer Anniston is one of the greatest actresses of our age, a claim most of my friends fail to understand, and which I can only support with these five words: “perfect comic timing,” and “perky butt.”
But the occasional crush on a real live person is acknowledged in a good-humored way as well, as long as it lasts no longer than, say, two hours—and again, as long as no action is taken. So Ellen tolerates my kind words about a certain brilliantly geeky kindergarten teacher, and I don’t get stressed over Ellen’s affection for a particular local artisan with strong hands, a talent with tools, and horrifyingly thick hair. We both understand, of course, that he is married, and Ellen is married, and that this is the way it will remain, barring a bizarre automobile accident involving me, the artist’s wife, butane torches, a tank full of gasoline, and a severed brake line—at which point I would except that said artist would be more likely to be invited to our house for lasagna than, say, Marvin, who lives across the street, mows his lawn twice a day, and regularly sends a portion of his social security check to an organization in Nigeria claiming to have found the original Noah’s Ark.
All of which is simply a precursor to saying that when we were in China, I fell in love with and proposed marriage to all three of our Chinese guides.
Now, I know this maybe sounds “kooky” or “weird,” a little “wrong,” or “sick,” or even just flat-out “inappropriate” and “immoral.”
But it’s worth pointing out that we are in Asia, after all, and Asia is, as many people (some of them Asians) have noted, full of Asian people. And Asian people are as a race--as many people (some of them Asians) have noted--not unattractive.
Such a view is particularly common among people from Wisconsin, a state known for its cheese, its beer, and its big butts. It’s also a place filled with people who are blonde-haired and blue-eyed, although I did once meet someone who claimed to be “Italian,” or some such thing, and who got rather angry when I laughed and said, “Oh sure, like those are real. What next? Your mother’s an elf?”
Actually, to be frank, I didn’t really propose to all three of our guides, though I did like them each a great deal. Bing, our first guide, who met us in Beijing and stayed with us throughout the trip, was smart as hell, with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. She was also perfectly calibrated to handle a bus full of children, joking with them and asking them questions that made them think, but also putting the hammer down and getting serious at the appropriate moments. Jing, our guide in Xi’An, was statuesque and broad-faced, the daughter of a successful basketball player. She wore cool glasses and could talk about Chinese pop culture for hours. She too, was great with kids and great with adults, and didn’t take us to crappy souvenir shops where people tried to sell us polyester shadow puppets for 300 RMB.
And then there was Ling.
How can I describe Ling?
Her hair was like clouds of coal dust, floating over a Dickensian city; her eyes were like two black gumdrops with all the sugar licked off; her lips were—
Well, okay, so I’m not Shakespeare. Suffice to say that Ling was very pretty, yes, and very smart, indeed, and kind to all of us, even this one, dumb, white guy who kept following her around and asking her questions like, “Is the sky always blue in China?” just so he could be in her company.
But the thing about Ling? Really? Besides the fact that that would make a great name for a musical? The thing about Ling was that she was amazing with kids.
And I don’t mean amazing, amazing: I mean amazing.
Keep in mind that this is a woman who glows in any circumstance: she has these dimples, see, and this broad smile, and these Kilroy/jack-o-lantern eyes (that’s a compliment, trust me) that seem to be lit under the worst of circumstances. There’s just something about Ling that makes people want to be in her company.
Around kids, all of this gains extra wattage: her grin becomes ear to ear, her eyes become more animated, her hands dance. She tells them jokes, she listens to their stories, she holds their hands while crossing the street, she peels their oranges. The afternoon we went to the People’s Park in Cheng Du, she warned us there would be fortune tellers, then gave us a brief lesson on reading palms. After that, of course, all of the children were checking out each others’ hands, discovering they would all live to 106 and become billionaires. Eventually, most of the them wandered to Bing for an expert reading. There were 7 kids on the trip at the point, and my guess is she read at least 6 palms in the next hour, some of them twice.
“Wow,” I said to Ellen, watching all of this. “That woman needs to have some kids.”
Now I know this is a stupid thing to say—stupid, and sexist, and essentialist, and neandrathal-ish. In my own defense, I’ll point out that I say this—that X or Y needs to have kids—about men as well as women, and that most of my male friends are the kinds of guys who, like me, couldn’t wait to be a dad.
Additionally I’ll point out that I don’t buy the idea—propagated by the religious right, Tea Partiers, and lobotomy victims everywhere—that a woman’s natural function in the world is to walk around sweaty, uncomfortable, and easily annoyed for nine months until going to the hospital, screaming for 16 hours, and having a baby that she can then carry on her hip for the next two years as she makes me lasagna.
I know, of course, that there are plenty of people out there who don’t want kids. I know that there are folks who come home at the end of the day, pour themselves a glass of wine, curl up on the couch with a novel by Dostoyevsky, and thank God almighty they don’t have to listen to some kid screaming, “But I don’t want to watch Bugs Bunny!” and “If you touch my airplane one more time, Pooh Bear’s going to lose a finger!”
I know there are people like this. And I’m fine with this: I love these people. I admire these people. I respect these people.
I’m just not one of these people.
I’m the kind of guy who has to carry an oxygen tank at work, because I can’t breathe right until I’m home and lying on the living room floor, Lucy pretending she’s barfing every time she smells my breath and Will telling me about the submarine he wants to make out of a plastic bottle, two rubber bands, and three ounces of weapons-grade plutonium. I’m the guy who actually enjoys telling his three-year-old son, for the fifty-second time this week, that you need to pull your underpants up first, then your jeans. I’m the guy who thought that “love” was a myth created by Hallmark until the first time I had to change a diaper and said—out loud, to my friends—“It actually doesn’t smell that bad.”
Ling, in my mind, is one of the latter group of people. I don’t doubt it for a minute. Watching her reading Will’s palm that afternoon in the park, I leaned over to Ellen and said, “I’m going to take Ling home and marry her.”
Ellen nodded, giving me a pat on the shoulder. “You do that.”
And I would have, too. Then the next morning, when we’re at the airport, about to fly back to Hong Kong, I asked Ling when she and her husband were going to start having kids of their own.
“Oh,” she said, glancing up at me, a little startled. Her eyes had been following the random wanderings of the children, seven grounded flies buzzing around the airport. “I don’t want any kids.”
The only thing that kept me from falling over was the fact that everyone else in the group looked just as stunned.
“Really?” said one of the mothers, her jaw open.
Ling nodded, still glowing in that glowing way she had of glowing around children, particularly when she was glowing.
“It’s because your husband is so ugly, right?” I asked hopefully. “And short?”
Ling laughed (See? She loves my quirky sense of humor!). “He’s short,” she said, “but not ugly.”
“Still,” I said. “Short is bad. Very bad.”
“He agrees with me,” she said. “We want to concentrate on our careers. Children take too much time.”
“Your careers?” I echoed.
She looked up at me. Her eyes were a bit more serious now. “Yes.“
“But you love kids!” I said.
She nodded. “Lots of young people in China are thinking like this. We want to get ahead. We want to make a life.”
She turned, then, and led the group under an escalator and toward the ticket counters. She was holding the red flag of our tour company, the one with the face of the little girl returning to China on it. The irony of all of this—here was a woman who was great with kids, but didn’t want any, leading a tour full of people who’d spent buckets of money to adopt kids because they really wanted them—flew right past me at the moment. I was just that stunned.
When we got in line, I shoved a couple of old German ladies out of the way and squeezed up next to Ling. Tapping her on the shoulder, I waited until she looked up at me.
“But you love kids!” I said.
She smiled. “My generation, we want things to be perfect before we have children. If we can’t have it be perfect, then we don’t want to do it.”
I shook my head. “But you love kids!”
“But they’re very expensive,” she said. “If you want a good school, you must pay for that, and if you need help, you must pay for that.”
I tried to think of something to do other than stare, but I have to admit I’m not sure I succeeded.
She watched me, still smiling that glowing smile, still flashing those glowing dimples, still shining those glowing eyes. Then she gave a small shrug. “This is my generation. This is how we think.”