I’ve gotten used to answering a lot of mildly personal questions in China. Sometimes, they’re pretty easy—where am I from? have I ever had this food before? what have I enjoyed about China so far? Sometimes, they’re a little less intuitive and reveal a little more about what the questioner thinks about me— do I have a girlfriend? why did I learn Chinese instead of Spanish, like my brother, or German, the language of my grandfather? is this my real hair, or do I dye and style it? Sometimes, they’re more suited to a poorly-scripted movie about Americans than real life— is there fog in America? have I ever shot anyone? did I ever use heroin back home?
I’ve been asked all these questions and more during this trip, but the one I expected least was when my host brother asked: “Do you want to meet my girlfriend?”
I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect from my second host brother. I had had a host brother before when I lived in Beijing, but he was a relatively straightforward case— a strong swimmer, a little clueless at working the rice cooker in our kitchen, a fearsome elementary student, obsessed with Korean barbecue and Mr. Bean movies— and in any case, I had exchanged a quick handful of emails with my host mom prior to arriving and moving in with them. When we got to Kunming, I was ready for just about anything— I knew that my host family would know what I looked like, that they would pick me up at the program house, that they had a 16-year-old son, that our instructor Tindy was a friend of the family, but that was about all I knew. I had also learned from Tindy that I was considered a good match for my host brother in particular because I was already in college and a responsible student; a good role model for him— a bit of a challenging name to live up to, but doable, for sure. She also told me that my host brother was considered to be a bit of a loner and perhaps challenging to make friends with, which gave me a bit more hesitation. Still, I was up for a challenge, and I gladly went with him to the car that would take me to my home for the next few weeks.
Over the next few days, I got to know him a lot better. I learned that he was considered a troublemaker in his class because he had long hair— hair that, incidentally, he styled in such a way that it looked almost exactly like mine, only shorter. He took me to visit his elementary and middle schools, telling me about how much of his childhood he spent in these buildings now sandwiched between a multistory parking lot, a handful of halal restaurants, and one of downtown Kunming’s main shopping areas. He told me about why else he was considered to be his class’s troublemaker: His uncertainty about his future and his close relationships with his friends that occasionally made studying much harder on him. We got fairly close, spending slightly unreasonable amounts of time at a slightly expensive Western restaurant— that’s the charge for ¥62 on the credit card you gave me, dad, in case you get a call about that— and watching a movie where the plot seemed to revolve around Will Smith being cloned and being in long, multimodal chase scenes.
Eventually, we were close enough that he came to me with problems he had. He came home one night and immediately grabbed me, telling his mom that we would be going for a walk. Once we were in a downtown park safely out of earshot of his mom, he started his story. His girlfriend, he said, had gotten angry with him over text after he called her 幼稚(childish) for getting in a fight with another girl at their school. I took a deep breath and asked him, “吵架还是打架呢?” (a verbal fight or a physical one?) after he used the word for physical fight one too many times for me to ignore it. I felt a similar sort of almost protective feelings towards him as I do to my actual brother— let him make his choices and let them be what they may, but God forbid anyone should act out against him— and I swear he could feel the concern radiating off of me. He told me that this was unusual for her: She might get into fights, he would call her out on it, she would get angry for a bit but then calm down, wash, rinse, repeat ad infinitum, but she never stayed angry. I was being summoned to break the deadlock, the new older brother who was supposed to understand how relationships worked and how to get through to her.
I was stuck. We sat in the darkened park for a few hours, me trying to suss out their relationship, him checking his phone every few seconds to see if she left him any messages, a crowd of older people smoking heavily and loudly playing cards. I tried to apply the few bits of generic relationship wisdom I knew, but nothing fit the situation. The next day, before dinner, he came to me and told me that they had made up— the pressure of being the wiser older brother had passed, and I was free again. Then he asked me if I wanted to meet her that weekend. I froze for a half-second. I thought about how my Chinese teacher had said earlier that day how it was unheard of for a 16-year-old to be dating and how chaotic his schoolwork must be with such a relationship. I thought about what I’d do if my actual brother came to me with the same story and the same question. I thought about what my host mom would do if she was invited to meet her son’s girlfriend. I thought about how I’d feel if someone I was dating brought a foreign exchange student to dinner with me. I thought about it and remembered that I didn’t come to Kunming for a vacation but to challenge myself and my understandings of the world I interact with.
I told him yes, that I’d love to go to barbecue with him, his girlfriend, and some family friends. At one dinner, I learned more about my host brother, and Chinese dating conventions, than I thought I would learn in weeks; we blew past the conversations about how his week had been and if I wanted to go to Tibet to conversations about what he expected in life and where we saw ourselves when we were both older. I learned to adapt myself to situations outside of any of the norms I had internalized, and I can only feel that both me, and my host brother, should he ever need romantic advice again, gained from it.
Now, for my actual brother, I just want to say: Don’t ask me for relationship advice unless you at least take me and some of my friends out to barbecue and pay for us, because that’s how you’ll actually get the good stuff.