Today is Valentine’s Day, at least in Western countries. It always falls on February 14th and so the marketing machines only take a few weeks to rest from Christmas before they gear up for the holiday of hearts, flowers, chocolates and lingerie. The colour red is ever-present. Everyone from children to old married couples celebrate this festival in the West. It embodies friendship, crushes, dating, lovers, romance, partnership, marriage, soul mates, etc. It’s for one and all.
Guo Jian and I fell in love in late 2007, but we started communicating regularly by telephone in early 2008. It’s hard to believe that this was just five years ago because now we wouldn’t dream of using something as expensive and one-dimensional as a telephone. Not when there’s Skype and WeChat and QQ to choose from! Oh how quickly time change!
So, I’m taking you back to February of 2008 when I was on tour with my band in the US. I gave Guo Jian a phone call that evening after the gig. I remember it well because I was feeling lonely on that tour. My Valentine’s Day was anything but red; I was bluer than blue. My ex-partner was on the tour as well—these were the worst six months of our career together because we were obligated to a stretch of prearranged concerts, which made us unable to negotiate our break-up away from the public eye. She had chosen to retreat and offered only frostbite in my direction. I was shivering. On a holiday meant to celebrate the joy and happiness of love, I felt myself surrounded by a dark lovelessness like never before.
I dialed the overseas number and was fiddling with my dog-eared phone card as I listened to it ringing, sitting with my feet tucked under me in the hotel desk chair. Guo Jian answered. He was happy to hear from me and we had a few nice words of greeting before I said, “情人节快乐 qíngrénjié kuàilè” or “Happy Valentine’s Day!” He was silent on the other end of the line. I repeated the words, thinking either the phone had cut out or I had mispronounced the Chinese words. After I said it the second time, a few more moments passed before I heard him say, with a stiff jaw, “Are we just 情人 to you then?”
情人 (qíngrén) means “sweetheart” or “lover” but it also has been known to mean “the lover to a married person,” as though I were saying he was as secondary as a “mistress” to me. (What is the male version of “mistress” anyway? The fact that I don’t know that is yet more proof of my queerness!) Of course, in that moment, I had only just looked up “Valentine’s Day” in my Chinese-English dictionary and had not analyzed the words before memorizing them. Also, with a lifetime of my cultural lens to look through, I thought of this as a fairly universal holiday anyway.
The other problem in that moment was Guo Jian’s seriousness about me. He had made his intentions clear—albeit over the telephone—and I had gently whisked those words aside more than once, insisting we take time to take things slowly, especially now that we were on separate sides of the globe. And then, layered with the crumbling of my former life in Canada resulting in my overall skepticism of love, I was simply unwilling to commit to him—especially only after a brief love affair in a whole other country!
I deflected with a stock phrase for a second language learner: “我不明白 wŏ bù míngbai” (I don’t understand). The truth is, I did. I knew what he was getting at but I just didn’t want to get into it with him. He softened, though, and explained that “情人qíngrén” is really just one step above “F*** buddy,” a word I learned quite early on in my experience of China because Guo Jian had really wanted to make sure he wasn’t that for me. I honestly wasn’t sure what he was for me. I had fallen in love with him and I could fully admit that, but I was too emotionally scattered to commit to anything more.
“I didn’t know that,” I said quietly, and then I added, “Anyway, it’s a holiday about love and we have love.”
When our brief conversation ended that night, I stared at the design of the suite’s wallpaper for a while, just thinking. The loneliness still clung to me the way the smell of bleach clings to hotel sheets. Until we’ve come to a place where we can feel peaceful and at ease in our own skin, it’s extremely difficult to offer love to another in a way that feels pure and without expectation. My life was already being tested on all levels—career, thinking, philosophies, identity, partnership, and culture. Travelling to China had beckoned forth bulldozers to start an overhaul. When the ground does its initial breaking, however, nothing feels stable under our feet. All we can do is hold on. Oh, and love ourselves. Tenderly. Yes, I needed to wish myself a Happy Valentine’s Day.
In August of that year, Guo Jian was in Canada for the first time. One evening, he turned to me and wished me a “Happy Valentine’s Day” in English. When I looked confused, he explained (in Chinese) that China’s original Valentine’s day happens on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month every year, a date that differs annually the way Chinese New Year does. Called the “Double Seventh Festival” or qīxījié 七夕节，it is based on a story dating back to around 200BC when a cowherd and weaving girl fell deeply in love but then were separated by a decree from heaven. Only once a year on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month did the heavens take pity on the two lovers. The world’s magpies formed a bridge across the milky way—the symbol of their distance apart—allowing them to finally meet for one night. This date always coincides with an annual astronomical phenomenon during which two particular stars are exceptionally bright in the night sky and shine until sunrise. One is considered the cowherd and the other the weaving girl.
On that day in late summer 2008, when I was much more steady and sure that I wanted to understand love with this creature named Guo Jian, we took a blanket out to my parent’s side yard. It was a clear, warm night and the sky was alive with light. Guo Jian wasn’t sure what we were doing but he joined in on the adventure. When I laid the blanket down on the night grass and suggested we lie down on top of it, he was hesitant. I insisted. I asked him to close his eyes and then I took him by the hand and we lay down on our backs side by side. I told him he could open his eyes. He gasped loudly. “Wow, Wow, Wow!” was all he could say, laughing, as we both gazed up into the heavens with jaws ajar. I always think that if I keep my mouth open while I’m staring at the stars, I might swallow a few like I’m drinking them in with each breath. They were magnificent. He agreed.
It was a much better Valentine’s Day.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!