What, Exactly, Is a Relationship?




I decided to leave the farm to give me a few days in Chengdu to see around the city and also to visit Jiaxin. Even thought I have two days to spend with her and another two to wrap things up on the farm, I feel deep down that I’m missing something very important.

During this past month on the farm, I got to know the only other family member who’s around my generation. First, I met Linzhao (but we just called him Lin, their family name) who I was in contact with about staying on the farm and who had been my main source of communication and connection with the family back in October. In October I also met Linxi, the other one around my age, who is the daughter of one of the other Uncles. She left the same day I got there, but my Italian friend talked about her a bit, so I got to know a few things about her. Now I’m back at the farm, and she is back from vacation and she is also the main organizer of the volunteers. After meeting her, it took a matter of minutes for us to start feeling comfortable with each other. I think it’s fascinating how a very few people I meet skip right past all the rigidity that comes with getting to know someone, as if we had been childhood friends being reunited after some years of separation. She and I are still getting to know each other from scratch, but there’s a part of me that feels already so connected to her. When I’m with her I feel the same as when I’m teasing with my family. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will continue to be close friends for a long time to come.

Okay, back to this feeling of missing something, despite my set plans to leave the farm. I realized that when Linxi left a day ago, I didn’t feel like I gave her a proper goodbye. We were all in a big group and I’m bad at goodbyes in general, especially when in a group setting. I don’t know how long it will be until I’m back on this farm or I get to see her again, so I want to try my best to see her again. I’m having this realization just before lunch and I make the decision to leave tomorrow, instead of the following day. With a new wind at my back, I throw my stuff in the washing machine and begin to scramble to get everything ready to leave tomorrow morning.

Before the end of the night, Nik gives me a bracelet that his wife normally makes for everyone before they leave the farm. I feel really special getting it from Nik and when he puts it on my wrist his wife asks what in the hell that black thing is in the middle. He looks at it for a second and then says “I dont know”, almost as if that part of the design fell from the ceiling and he didn’t notice it before. That perfectly describes Nik and I’m glad to get one more laugh with them before leaving the farm. Later that night they invite me to come anytime to their home in Russia which sounds like a whole new adventure.IMG_0174.JPG

The next morning Lin and I set out at 7:30, before any of the other volunteers are awake yet. My perfect plan of escape. Like I said, I really don’t like group goodbyes, especially when I’m the one leaving and we all already said what we wanted to last night. Nik has a good tradition of never saying goodbye to friends, just to have a good trip and that we’ll meet soon. I like that kind of parting.

On our way through town I pick up Stephane’s passport and get on the next train to Chengdu. In the middle of the trip, I find out that the day’s plan with Linxi has now extended to including Stephane as well. I like Stephane and the three of us together had a lot of good teasing time, but hanging out in a group pales in comparison to when I’m with someone one-on-one. With any of my good friends or family there’s something special about having just time between us two, I’m able to express myself more genuinely and it is my favorite way to spend time before or after a long time apart. I’m also disappointed because Stephane takes the teasing too far and ends up ruining the vulnerability that makes deep friendship so special. Just as I expected, that’s how the day went, but of course we still had a lot of fun. Still though, I didn’t feel like I got to part well with Linxi. I’m not sure there’s much I can do since my next two days are busy and then I only have a few hours in the morning before my train.

Stephane and I, after taking her back to her college, get out of the taxi early to race to the subway to find out that the last train already left and there are no buses left. (I have to add a funny note here that in Chinese you always put the subject and then the time frame directly following. For example you would say “I tomorrow will leave”. When I read this past sentence I thought wait having “Stephane and I” first sounds weird, but also correct, at least with Chinese. I manage to mix things up and be wrong with both the languages…) We’re 15km away and neither of us want to give in to taking a taxi that far. Finally, I met someone who will travel in the same stubborn way I travel! We walk a bit before it starts to rain, so we decide to hitchhike. We find an absolutely perfect spot with no foot traffic, protection from the rain, and plenty of room for the cars to stop for us. One minute later, a guy pulls over and we’re sitting inside a warm car on our way back to the hostel. Okay, the ride isn’t so perfect, he lets us out about 7 kilometers short, so we get out and end up walking the rest of the way. Good way to spend our last night together before parting.

The next day I’m up early and at Walmart to find a bottle of California wine to bring to Jiaxin’s parents. She told me to be there at 11 to be able to eat lunch with her parents. I get there and meet her at her mom’s office before her dad joins us across the street for lunch. I try to break the ice, but her parents seem really shy. I even use some of their local dialect that I picked up while on the farm. I get them to laugh a few times, but am not as successful as I’m used to being with being the only foreigner in a group of locals. I find out that this is the first time they’ve ever met a foreigner, so it makes a bit more sense now. After lunch, we go back to her mom’s office and not knowing when or how to give them the bottle of wine I give it to them then. Her mom races out of the office to get some local snack she brought back from her home town.

As we’re digesting our food and chatting, I find out that Jiaxin is not available to do anything tomorrow and maybe even forgot about our conversation, a few days ago, telling me she would be free that day. She doesn’t say anything about that, just that she’ll be busy. At first it feels really strange, but I realize that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. When I first met her, I felt this connection I’ve never felt before after we both shared our unbelievably similar dreams for our future and her amazingly mature outlook on life. Besides those positives, I’ve been putting the resistance I feel from her in a box of “cultural differences”. I don’t even have the intention of dating her, I just simply want to be friends! This shouldn’t be so difficult… I have never experienced such complexity in friendships as I have since being in China. I don’t know why, but this day finally snapped me out of my idea of our friendship. I think it has to do with this comparative religion book I’ve been reading. I can’t help but think of the Daoist idea of going with “the flow” of life. In terms of growing our friendship, I’ve been swimming up stream. It’s time for me to turn down stream and just let things go. It’s much easier said then done because I still have my western upbringing yelling in my ear that if you want something you have to go out and make it happen and not to give up until the goal is realized. But, like I do so often with my lessons from abroad, I’m going to jump out of my comfort zone of thinking and into the opposite side to see how it feels. Even though I know the answer is somewhere in the middle, it helps me to look at it first from each of the perspectives. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise anyway because now I get to spend more time with Linxi and put my mind at rest with a better goodbye.

The whole rest of the day it’s raining, so Jiaxin and I stay inside and then her parents invite me to come back out with them to hotpot for dinner. This time it’s her mom, aunt, uncle, and two cousins. I can hear them asking questions about me, but can’t quite understand and instead of Jiaxin translating them to me, she must just be answering all of them for me. That’s either a good sign that she knows me well or that maybe she is just making things up. We go through the Chinese ritual of taking the best piece of food you find and giving it to someone else at the table. There are no thank you’s exchanged except for when I try to do the same. I guess they want me to feel comfortable. Well, I stick to their tradition and don’t use thank you. I learned it creates a distance between people and the act of generosity should just be done in return to show appreciation. At the end of dinner I thank them all again for the day and tell them it was great to meet them. Then Jiaxin and her two cousins drive me to the nearest subway to head back to the hostel.

The next day Linxi and I spend nearly 12 hours together and never did I feel like that wasn’t the exact place I should be. Again, it’s so rare and such a treasure that I found a connection like this coming back to the Lin farm. Her family is also quite traditional, so this is a good counterpoint to the difficulty I find in growing my relationships in Beijing. Near the end of our time together, she asked me about Beijing and I went on my routine of explaining the practical side of why I’m in that city. I talked about the opportunity it gave me to make connections with business professionals and other powerful people in the city in case I might need their help establishing myself later on in my journey through China. Sounds like networking 101 to me. Well, not to her. She gave me this strange look as if all of a sudden she didn’t recognize me anymore. That look was all I needed to completely stop me in my tracks. After some prodding, I finally got her to tell me that she didn’t like to hear that I would make relationships with people just for a possible benefit they might provide me in the future. She then questioned whether I was even interested in being her friend other than to learn Chinese. At first, I defended my position, but soon gave that up as her point hit me square in the middle of my heart. I explained to her that my entire education and professional experience has taught me about the importance of networking. I never thought twice about what the process looks like from the outside. I don’t know if either of our positions is 100% correct, but since I’ve been so rooted in my view, I’m going to jump to her side and try to justify why in the hell I would think that making relationships motivated by a potential benefit to me could be a good thing. I think it’s different if I’m in my line of work and meet people through the normal flow of things or if I want to get to know someone to see if there’s something we could share to make our work better. That networking seems more natural and rooted in good intention. However, I now see that pursuing a relationship with the main idea in my head that there could be a benefit to me is really sick in a way. That might very well be what I have to do to be the most successful, but it’s certainly not something I’m going to do as part of my path. I will try to keep looking at this issue from her perspective hopefully to uncover more of the nuances. I will be sure that any relationships I make are purely from the motivation in my heart that I want to help that person with what their doing or maybe just simply to see if that person would be suitable to share our lives as friends.

Back at her school we share noodles together and then she walks me out to the street to get home. Again, I’m bad at that moment of the goodbye, but I feel so much more relieved having spent the whole day together and going through a much slower process of sharing our “goodbye” all day long. In the taxi, I get to that awkward point of the goodbye and start to use Chinese because it feels more straightforward and really just because I have many less choices to be confused with using. Then, of course the car was just shifting forward and not leaving, so now we’re still just there in that moment that I’m so bad at handling. I catch a look from her that looks sort of like the beginning of crying, but then I become absorbed in a gaze with her where we don’t say anything, but just look at each other. I honestly have no idea how long we stayed in that locked gaze, but it seemed like time stopped as we communicated something to each other far deeper than words could attempt to convey. The taxi finally pulls away and as we go down the next street, the emotion hits me and I can feel the tears welling up inside of me.

Wow, I haven’t had that happen parting from someone, except for family of course, since I broke up with my girlfriend of two years. I never imagined when I made the decision to come back to the farm I would make a connection like this. A lot of really amazing things happened during my break, but I have to say that getting the chance to meet Linxi was by far the most meaningful. I feel so grateful for these experiences in my life. This is what life is all about.


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