Was it the smell of the sweet osmanthus flowers blossoming all around us in vibrant color, or the months of secretly adoring her and impatience of keeping these feelings bottled up that made my stomach feel so tense, and yet so light as if I were on a roller coaster? I couldn’t place my finger on it, but something told me that the time had come. We had shared countless romantic moments together in some of the most romantic spots within the paradise on Earth –Hangzhou – and the barriers which had previously complicated my expressions of love for her were now removed from the picture. The time was right. It seemed like everything around us was waiting for me to finally say what had been on my mind for so long, but I couldn’t.
I took her to Manjuelong Village on that chilly afternoon which would forever be frozen in my memories. Even two years later I can still see us both dodging tour buses and other bicycles as we rode on my e-bike, our hair flailing about in the cool winter breeze. As we sat on the patio of one of the stores there sipping on osmanthus and Longjing tea, her eating osmanthus pudding, I remember talking about how our lives would change once we graduated. She, a Chinese girl from another province, was worried that she would have to go back home because her parents needed one of their daughters nearby. I, an expat, still wondered how I could stay in this beautiful city to do something I loved, the least of which was teaching English.
After our fill of osmanthus, we took a stroll to the Manlong Guiyu Park located around the corner from the village to see all of the different species of osmanthus trees that grew there. The park is usually a place for children to play about in, but most of the rides were closed for the winter, so we had the park nearly to ourselves. Osmanthus was her second favorite type of flower, magnolias being the first, but we had to make do since they wouldn’t be blooming for another six months. And if I didn’t act today, there would be no chance later. Or at least that’s what I told myself. As we walked, I glanced at her open palm and thought about what might happen if I finally took her hand. But thoughts led to doubts, and I held back again. I was scared of rejection.
As we got back on my bike to return home, I realized that the regret of not acting that day would be many times worse than a “no” that I had been so afraid of hearing from her. I pulled together my best excuse in the moment and told her my hands were cold. As we were dashing past West Lake and Su Causeway on Yanggong Di, I finally felt a glimmer of hope. It was at that moment that I felt her wrap her hands around mine, which had nearly become frozen popsicles. The warm feeling that then filled my body with excitement coupled with the bright yellows, oranges, and greens of the trees around us gave way to a slight buzz, similar to the feeling after one has had a few drinks. Then I felt a wave of confusion and my buzz turned into dread.
“What did it mean?”
We only had a few blocks to go before reaching the gates of Zhejiang University, where we would return to our student lives and those feelings might be lost forever, when I made up my mind: I would tell her for sure. So I took her to the usual place for college-age men in China to express their love for their female classmates – her dormitory – and made my move. My face wore a hesitant expression as I barely managed to muffle out those three words: “I like you”. She looked at me and responded with a swiftness which could only have meant that she had also been waiting for this moment quite some time, rehearsing those words in her head over and over.
“We can’t be together,” she said. “My parents would never approve. I like you as a friend, but I don’t think we should date,” her words came out with a slight hint of regret to them. I tried to plead otherwise, but it was no use. We turned our separate ways and I made my way back to the dormitory.
While I slowly walked back through Yuquan Campus, the narrow roads lined with low hanging trees, their roots which have fractured nearly all of the sidewalks, I thought to myself – my first time being rejected in China wasn’t so bad. It was also quite an experience learning through the trials and errors one could make when trying to date someone from a different country, who considers different things when choosing a soulmate. I took a deep breath and kept moving, because life goes on.
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