The man who would not stop writing to Min had, in a way, been responsible for her marriage, but whenever this thought occurred to her she would remind herself that nobody had forced her into marrying Rich.
Min was nineteen when she first met the man, who had been introduced to her as a potential father-in-law. He was a linguistics professor at a prominent university in Beijing, and he had three sons in America. The eldest, according to the matchmaker, worked for Microsoft, and he was the one the family had in mind for Min, but if that didn’t work out there were two other sons.
Min hadn’t shown much academic promise. She had attended a vocational school that trained girls to become secretaries. After graduation, she had worked in a department store. Why would any of those boys need to find a wife in China when they’re already in America? she asked her mother. You’re asking the blind for directions, her mother said, but I would say that they can’t possibly find someone as good as you in America.
America, Min could see, was alluring to her mother. Min’s father had died during her second year of middle school, in an accident at the steel plant where he had worked since he was eighteen. After his death, Min and her mother had lived frugally on the money her mother made running a newsstand. The compensation for her father’s accident had been saved by her mother as Min’s dowry.
Min had once had a brief schoolgirl crush, but she had never dated. She was good-looking—not in a striking way, but she had a classic look, like a figure in a Ming-dynasty painting or a period movie, her shoulders narrowing compliantly, her neck long, her complexion clear, her eyes and nose and mouth arranged in a pleasing manner.
Min had grown up thinking she was born into a role as a flawless daughter, and someday she would become a flawless daughter-in-law, wife, and mother. It turned out that she was none of these, yet she couldn’t see where she had fallen short. No one was perfect, she knew, but women in books and films often seemed flawed in a meaningful or attractive way. The other mothers at the school, when they were unhappy, had a sensible reason: a husband’s affair, a child’s diagnosis, a power shift on the school-auction committee.
Perhaps they all lived in giant doll houses. Some, like the dolls that belonged to Emmie and Deanna, had complicated life stories, with many plots and dramas and excitements. Others were like the only doll Min had had when she was young—a little creature made of hard plastic, with unbending arms and legs connected to a torso through ball sockets. Min had carried the doll around dutifully, but she had never made up a story for it. The only catastrophe that had befallen the doll had occurred on a winter night. Min had left it on a windowsill, and a power outage caused the temperature in the apartment to drop. For reasons that neither she nor her parents understood, one of the doll’s legs had disconnected from its socket and could not be put back.
The one-legged doll remained in her possession. Min did not remember ever feeling sad about the severed limb. A doll was a doll. She had not been a sentimental child.
Min had agreed with her mother that it wouldn’t hurt to meet the professor. At nineteen, she was the kind of girl some parents wanted for their sons: pretty, meek, experienced enough with hardship not to be dreamily naïve, yet not broody, either, even after losing her father.
Min and her mother met the man at the matchmaker’s apartment on a Sunday. They had tea together until the matchmaker suggested that she and Min’s mother take a walk in a nearby park. Left alone with the man, Min did not know what she was expected to do to earn his approval. He looked like a professor from a film, with his wire-rimmed glasses and impeccably parted silver hair. When he asked her questions, he used words her father would never have used. What’s your outlook on the world? What do you do to maximize your potential? When she did not know what to say, he said that the process of enlightening and perfecting oneself was like rowing a boat up a river. He then brought out a set of textbooks, called “New Concept English,” and asked which level Min thought she was. She had never heard of the textbooks, and the man, looking at her over his glasses, told her that if she wanted to go to America she should start studying English right away.
Min thought she had failed the interview. She didn’t much care.
The man moved next to her on the sofa and opened the second book in the series. He asked her to repeat after him the first lesson, titled “A Private Conversation.” Her body tensed at the closeness of their shoulders and thighs as they bent over the book.
Perhaps he had been acting only out of fatherliness, she tried to convince herself afterward. He had left the books with her and insisted that she call him the following weekend. He would arrange his schedule so that he could tutor her, he said, a plan he didn’t bring up with the matchmaker or Min’s mother. Instead, he told them that his son would come home for a summer visit, and then the two young people could properly meet.
Min never made the call. They did not have a telephone at home, and she hated to use public phones. Even when the professor expressed an urgent wish to talk with her through the matchmaker, she remained silent. The books he’d loaned to her she buried under old newspapers. After a few weeks, she was able to pretend that she had never met the man, whose fingers had lingered on her arm for a moment too long when he had said goodbye.
One day, Min’s mother told her that the professor had decided that she wasn’t a good choice. Not diligent or smart enough for his intellectual family. This verdict had been conveyed to her mother by the matchmaker.
“Did you see the photo he showed us?” Min’s mother said. “His son is not yet thirty and already going bald. If this professor worried that you would not give him intellectual grandchildren, I’d be equally concerned that his Microsoft son would give me ugly grandchildren.”
Known as “the orphan and the widow” to friends and neighbors, Min and her mother had maintained the solemnness required by their titles, but when nobody was around they had had many things to laugh about together.