My coffee sits idly next to my laptop as my fingers jog across the keyboard. I’m doing what millennial gig-workers do—hustling away in Coffee Bean.
To be exact, I’m rushing two different deadlines, one of which is only four hours away—a text from Hong Kong made sure I remember.
After I rewrite a particularly lengthy sentence, I steal a break, glancing up from my screen at the greenery outside the glass window. A tai-tai is prancing across a manicured lawn with her dog.
At that moment…
In my peripheral, I spy an eerily familiar side profile. I risk a proper look.
The effeminate slide of his ass with his feet together. The wag of his hand when in conversation. I’m not sure at first. But then he turns around and I confirm: it’s my ex.
My first instinct is to turn away so that I don’t get trapped in an awkward conversation, but my curiosity gets the better of me.
My attention lingers on his scrawny figure as he lowers himself into a chair. Opposite him is a girl with a ponytail. I think she’s his wife? She seems like a nice girl.
Frankly, even if I did not waste precious work time on the tai-tai, I would have noticed the couple sooner or later, because they had launched a full-on call centre.
They must be in direct selling now. That’s good—direct selling is a great way to earn an honest living. The girl launches into a passionate pitch on speakerphone.
From what I (and probably the rest of the cafe) gather, she is promoting an education programme for kids aged 3-4.
“The curriculum is in English,” she enthused in Mandarin. The English curriculum is a selling point, I figure, based on the tone of her voice. The entire spiel, every word, is in flawless Chinese, so much so that I wonder for a moment if she is a Chinese national.
She does not taper in her vigour as she transitions to her next call, this one to advocate health supplements or something. She compares a damaged organ to a pail with leaking water. This product remedies the harm.
Throughout, her command of the Chinese language signals: by virtue of language alone, she is statistically more suitable for my ex than I ever was. At least they can have a heart-to-heart conversation without either one stammering.
Perhaps, you’ve seen me unpack the cultural challenges of dating a Chinese-speaking guy as a banana: HERE, HERE, and HERE. Not either culture is better than the other, but the chasm between the two is huge.
This guy sitting a distance from me now, his legs crossed in a way I never can, had shown me what I desire in a partner—by being the antithesis of my dream man.
There was a time when he tried to balance out his (more feminine) nature with toxic masculinity. An effeminate nature is not a character flaw at all, but I suppose, next to me, he appeared, well, girly.
Raised in a traditional Chinese household where the men rule over the women, it bothered him endlessly. He made that abundantly clear to me. The dynamics he had with me made him feel emasculated. I felt bad about it for some time, but I’m now over making myself small for a guy.
That was a long time ago. I choose to believe that he has self-actualised.
Back then, I did not have the language I do now to explain our discord, and that manifested in poor behaviour on my side. From his perspective, my dominant personality was a bad look. He was right. I hope that I have self-actualised too.
I admit I’m curious. Does the relationship dynamics he has now suit him?
Later in the day, I read Stephanie Land’s essay from 2015, titled “I spent 2 years cleaning houses. What I saw makes me never want to be rich“. Land concludes, “I vowed never to have a house bigger than I could clean myself”.
Still fresh from seeing my ex in the morning, the prose triggered a memory. One time I had an intense urge to bolt from him when he told me he’d buy me a big house and hire me a maid. That’s the kind of thing girls like to hear, he must have thought. (In the same way, he thought that opening my car door for me was a good idea.)
He sincerely wanted a big house and a maid, I could tell.
Except, the offer paralysed me. I hated every aspect of that proposition, so much that I wanted to drop the relationship like a hot potato.
Albeit clueless, he meant well. Nonetheless, my panic emphasised how severely our values were misaligned.
Hopefully, his wife wants a big house and a maid. Maybe they already have a big house and a maid.
Eventually, the couple wrap up their call-centre operation. They leave Coffee Bean and silence returns to the cafe.
I get another text from Hong Kong and I reply with an emoji.
Deadlines wait for nobody.
There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. — Nelson Mandela