The edited version was published as ‘Expat Matchmaker’ in the Telegraph at the following link ;
For the full unedited version, see below….
Just 2 months after our arrival in Shanghai, my father came to visit. I had felt a little guilty about leaving my Dad. My mother had died only 18 months before and I knew he needed company. I reassured myself however that with two of my sisters living nearby to his Warwickshire home, he should, even in my absence, continue to get the support he needed. The warning signs had been there however. A couple of days before we left he’d said to me …”You’re leaving me here to die…” to which in a panic I’d replied “oh come on Dad. You can come stay with us any time you want….you know that….”
Well in February 2004, my father duly arrived for his stay with us. It all started so well. He was clearly energised by seeing his grandchildren and excited by the prospect of exploring the endless attractions of Shanghai. After a few weeks however it became clear that he was so enamoured with his new circumstances that he had no plans to return home. My father is intelligent, interesting and charming. He is however quite a strong personality. Quite controlling even and consequently frictions lay ahead….
“Heather, we really need to change these curtains ! They clash with OUR furniture. We really need to find something that matches….” Was just one of the utterances that would set my wife on edge. “He thinks he lives here” she’d complain “and he thinks it’s his house !”. “I love your Dad but he’s taking over…”
What to do ? Worried by our deteriorating domestic situation I put my mind to finding a solution. My eureka moment followed shortly after. I could hardly contain my smug satisfaction as I declared… “All we have to do is find him a wife…. Well, maybe not a wife ….but you know, a companion. An interest, a distraction, to occupy him and in doing so, give us some air !….”
My wife, in desperation, agreed and so we set the wheels in motion. Being expats in China, we were lucky enough to have an Ayi (a maid) and so our first tack was to ask whether she could help. In spite of her 4’8” stature, young Chun Xia (Twin Sha) was a big, positive personality. Always beaming from ear to ear. Always had the answers to the seemingly intractable problems, Chuin Xia offered immediate encouragement …
“ Sure ! Back in Henan, family always arrange marriages ! ” She then sucked her breath in and looked intensely thoughtful for a good 30 seconds before following up with ….” I know this lady….. she is wher, wher, wher elejant lady ! “ which we soon understood to mean a very, very elegant lady. Chun Xia went on to explain that this lady had had a successful career in the Chinese Airforce and was now looking for love.
Bouyed by Qun Xia’s seemingly easy fix, we proceeded to arrange an introduction. On being informed of scheme, my father was initially very doubtful but the idea steadily grew on him. Nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that. In any case, what could go wrong ?
Come the day, my father sat nervously on the settee. “I wonder what she’ll be like ? Will she speak English ? I hope she’s not too young…”
My father was 68 at the time. He didn’t want a wife of his own age but on the other hand he certainly didn’t want some young 20 something. He certainly didn’t want to end up in one of those couples that promotes stifled giggles. Those couples that people can’t help but stare at. It must be respectable, acceptable…yet have some excitement all the same……
After what seemed to be an interminable wait, Qun Xia finally arrived with the “wher, wher, wher elejant lady”. The following 15 minutes felt like the longest 15 minutes in recorded history. How to describe her without being rude ? I believe that some would say that she had a face made for radio. I did remark to my Dad later on that with the benefit of a shave she’d probably wouldn’t look too bad. To be fair, from what we could glean (she didn’t speak much English), she was a very nice lady who had led an interesting life. It was just a little hard to get past the Richard Nixon 5 o clock shadow.
Anyway, after 15 minutes of awkward silences, my Dad, being a gentleman, showed no resistance to the idea of taking the lady on a short date. I still recall with shame, shutting the door after them, turning to my wife and exploding into uncontrolled laughter for a good 5 minutes. How to excuse our behaviour ? Was it the comical idea of my Dad going out with a bearded female ex pilot from the Chinese airforce ?
Or was it just that pleasure you get, or utter relief more like, when an excruciatingly embarrassing situation is experienced by someone other than yourself. Either way, as I look back, I’m not proud….
My father finally returned home around 2 hours later. I’d like to elaborate further on the date but perhaps understandably, he had very little to say. As I recall the conversation went something along the lines of….. “Where’s Chun Xia ?”. …… “She’s gone home Dad”. To which my father replied “I could bloody kill Qun Xia !!!”.
Although my father was left discouraged by the whole experience, Heather and I were undeterred. Our first attempt at matchmaking had been a baptism of fire for my father, granted, but surely, what didn’t kill him would make him stronger ? After the effort we’d put in, we couldn’t just walk away. It was agreed. We should push on with our objective. Yes, some might get hurt along the way but “find him a wife, reclaim our private life” was still the mantra.
The following week I gathered my staff around me and explained that I had a special project of a more personal nature. “My father needs a companion. Someone to spend time with”. My P.A., Yanqiu, not one to go around the houses replied…. “So he wants a wife ?”.
“Well, not exactly” I equivocated. “ I suppose it could end in marriage but let’s just say that for now, he is looking for a companion….” Serious, thoughtful faces greeted this pronouncement but there were no further comments.
All was not in vain however. Later that afternoon, Mr Deng, the manufacturing co-ordinator, sidled up to me and whispered in hushed tones…..”I might be able to help you. My wife works in a hospital and she knows a lady who is a very respected match maker…….” I wondered if there was any other kind and if so, how could you safely steer clear of them. Was there may be a Michelin guide to matchmakers and if so, where could I get a copy ? I quickly dragged my thoughts back to the here and now and told Mr Deng that we’d be delighted to meet any suitable candidates that this matchmaker friend was prepared to put forward.
Further to our hushed conversation at the office, Mr Deng had quickly come back with details of the matchmaker’s approved candidate. Her name was Fong, she was 49 years old and worked for Shanghai’s textile bureau. She had a daughter, Jie, who was 19 years old and they lived together in an apartment near Renmin square. On her marital status Mr Deng was a little more sketchy. He proclaimed that she was married though her husband had left to go to Japan many years ago. Troubled by the marriage element, we pushed Deng for further clarification.
He repeated that the husband had gone to Japan but reading the concern in my face he added emphatically “but he will NEVER be coming back”. I hoped this meant that he had found happiness there and so had no wish to return to Shanghai. I couldn’t help thinking however it sounded very much like a Sopranos type of “never coming back” i.e. he’s in the foundations of a pavilion overlooking a pleasant jade garden somewhere just outside Kyoto….
The following Saturday, we gathered at my house, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the next candidate for my father’s affections. In the reception team, were my father, my wife, my 2 children and most importantly my P.A. Yanqui. Yanqiu was there to translate in the likely event that the woman’s English was not adequate for keeping a conversation flowing.
In any case, the tension was finally broken by the arrival of Fong and what appeared to be a delegation of around 9 people whose identities were at that point unknown to us. I wondered if I was in some sort of quasi Jane Austen meets 21st century Asia dating game. After all, why should two people come seamlessly together of their own accord when 10 to 15 other people could be needlessly involved in the process ?
The standard of the visiting delegation’s English was not great though I’ll admit, a darn site better than our grasp of Chinese. As such, Yanqiu did an invaluable job in translation. Fong was charming and my father appeared quite taken with her. She explained in broken English how she had learned English many years back but was finding it hard to remember the words.
Her sister, Ding- Yu was also proving to be quite a thought provoking character. She exclaimed to Heather …. “You are just like a beautiful octopus”. We clearly needed more clarification here and when pressed, Ding Yu followed up with “ Yes, I have watched many film and yes you are, like the beautiful octopus”. Not sure whether to feel flattered or not, my wife decided to let it go and just accept the “compliment” for what it was….confusing.
A few months later we discovered that Ding Yu had been trying to say that Heather looked like a beautiful actress. Heather was pleased but I couldn’t help feel a little disappointed. Many women must have been flattered with the spiel that they looked like beautiful actresses but how many can boast, hand on heart, that they had been likened to a beautiful octopus ?
Anyway, it was agreed that the introduction had gone well and that the relationship should be taken further. A date was suggested but it was felt that to leave the couple unchaperoned was too risky. My father was only 68 and his girlfriend a mere 49 so they were clearly too young to be trusted on a one to one basis. It was decided therefore that her sister should accompany them on a trip to a nearby restaurant a few days later.
Come date night, my anxious father rushed to the door on the first sound of the bell. On opening he found an immaculately dressed Fong accompanied by a somewhat dapper middle aged man.
“Who’s this ?” asked my father. “He is my husband”, replied Fong. My father was aghast. I wouldn’t say he was an overly conventional type but he clearly baulked at going on a first date with both Fong and her husband. Call him old fashioned but I think for him that idea was clearly beyond the pale.
Thankfully it turned out to be yet another language led misunderstanding. The man was actually Fong’s brother in law. Not being great at English, Fong had asked her sister, Ding Yu, how to explain her brother in law’s presence if asked. Her sister had told her to just to say he’s my husband. So naturally Fong, taking the advice literally, when asked, simply repeated the phrase “he is my husband” verbatim.
In any case, in spite of the chaperones, the date was a success. Fong was clearly very interested in my Dad and my Dad appeared smitten with Fong and Heather and I found that we were getting a whole lot more time to ourselves.
Our roles however seemed to mutate into that of the parents of a love sick teenager. Watching tv late at night we’d find ourselves speculating as to what time my father would be getting home…..should one of us stay up for him…..…did he have his key with him etc etc ?
For a while Fong became his sole topic of conversation. “I wonder what Fong would think of British football”….”I wonder what Fong would make of fish and chips”…..”I wonder what Fong thinks of Hong Kong…..” are just a few examples.
Time passed, the relationship grew more and more serious and plans were made for them to move in together. My father returned to the UK to put his affairs in order and in his absence I was instructed to find a good apartment for them in a nice area. A stylish pied a terre was duly found for them in a lovely part of the French Concession and on his return to Shanghai they started their new lives together.
It was win win. Heather and I had our home back to ourselves and Fong and my father were clearly very happy together at their new downtown apartment.
Their relationship was clearly flourishing and my Dad was experiencing a new found gusto. Confident, reinvigorated, he could clearly do anything, or at least, he felt that way.
He would assert ..”You know. She understands every word I say !” and follow it up with “yes, we understand each other completely”. I was a little sceptical about this as my Dad could speak no Mandarin and Fong’s English, though improving, was still very hit and miss. My scepticism was occasionally borne out. I recall phoning him one morning ;
“Dad ….where are you ? I thought you were coming round for a late breakfast ?”
“Er… yes. I was……… but I found a woman trying on a wedding dress in our lounge…… I think I’m going to a wedding.”
“What ? You think you’re going to a wedding ? What does Fang say ?”
“Er …I’m not sure….Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be round today after all…… Looks like I’m probably going to a wedding….Speak to you later…..”
Not to worry. My new revitalised, positive Dad understood that he could fix anything. “I’m going to learn Chinese ” he told me. “Are you sure ?” I replied. “that’s a big ask for any westerner, never mind one in his late 60’s..”.
“Just a question of applying yourself” he said.
To give moral support (or did I just detect that there was going to be some entertainment in this ?) I enrolled on the beginners mandarin course with him. The teacher, Xiao Gan was a bright and friendly 20 year old undergraduate student who was funding her way through college by helping the likes of us learn Chinese. Hansi, or Chinese characters as we call them were clearly far too difficult for novices like us so we commenced the tasks of mastering basic Chinese vocabulary in pinyin. Pinyin basically being Chinese expressed in roman alphabet text.
Much of the lesson consisted of students in turn being asked to read out a couple of paragraphs of Chinese text. All fairly straight forward till it would come to my father’s turn. His performance was something akin to Les Dawson’s playing of the piano where he masterfully produces every note slightly out of key. Maybe a better analogy is that of Crabtree, the English undercover officer with the appalling French in the sitcom Allo Allo. I am no Mandarin expert though I can confidently say that every thing that could be mis pronounced was mis pronounced by my father.
As often is the way of those with unerring self belief, he was clearly oblivious to just how truly clueless his pinyin readings were. On the plus side, I could feel the widespread relief in the class that here was a person who was clearly miles worse than they were. Pressure off !
But what of our teacher ? Strangely she appeared to have changed her stance. The sheet of text that she usually held lower down for her to study was now held up high, in front of her face. Was she hiding ? Was that the top of her head regularly bobbing up over the top of the sheet. The sheet momentarily slipped down. Oh my God ! She was crying ! Then relief. She was in fact sobbing uncontrollable tears of laughter.
Hats off to my Dad ! After 3,000 years of stoic self control, millennia of inscrutability, my father’s Allo Allo Mandarin performance had single handedly brought China, or at least it’s 20 year old student representative, to tears….
My Dad has never been one to let reality get in the way of his dreams so he persisted with his goal of acquiring fluent Mandarin with undiminished vigour. The company driver was called Xiao Chuan which translates as ‘little boat”. My father would repeatedly greet him however as Xiao Zhu which translates as ‘little pig’. The driver bore this with good grace but I believe things finally reached breaking point when I introduced my father to some Chinese suppliers who were visiting our Shanghai office.
“I love Chinese people” he confidently asserted in Chinese. The delegation looked unnerved and their leader shunned my father’s outstretched hand. Of course he had not said “Wo ai zhongguoren” as intended but had rather said “wo hai zhongguoren” which more dramatically translates as “I hurt Chinese people”….
Fong had been tolerant up till now but enough was enough. “No Blian. No ! I sink you speaking Chinese is no good. In fact, you speaking Chinese is bad for China….You stop now”.
As entertaining as my father’s efforts had been, I supported Fong’s edict and this is something that my father resents me for to this day. He recently told me ..”I’d be speaking fluent mandarin by now if you and Fong hadn’t stopped me…..”
Fong’s English by contrast went from strength to strength. In fact she has introduced some interesting new terms into the family parlance. For example, I think we all now refer to shopping in “marks and spensive” rather than marks and spencer. With much of her language being downloaded straight from my father, she is not however always au fait with when it is appropriate to use a phrase and whether it is in polite use or not. At a family wedding in Wales she was once asked if she was going to let herself go with the food or restrain herself. She replied quite loudly “As Blian says, ‘f*ck it !’ We can diet when we go home….”
On another occasion when desperately trying to describe an Obstetrics Gynaecology hospital (I sympathise with her there), she finally ran out of patience saying “you know ! the born de baby pussy titty hospital !”. You have to admire the simple economy of language. Once familiar with the latter description, who in their right mind would use the former ?
Anyway, the endless language disasters can wait for another chapter. Fong and Brian’s relationship continued to prosper and after a year’s cohabitation, my father decided to make an honest woman of her. They married and celebrated with a big reception at the Rui Jin Hotel in downtown Shanghai in the Summer of 2005.
In China, the individual is of lesser importance than in the west. The collective rules. A wedding, like in older European times, is more a union of families. In short, the Fowler family had acquired a new family. The fantastic celebration at the Rui Jin was an opportunity therefore for my family, to get to know the very large, very friendly, Chinese family that we’d just married in to !
So, Heather and I got our lives back and my father got a new life ! 10 years on, Fong and Brian are still married and live happily in Shanghai to this day.