When I moved to Shanghai for the first time in 2015, I did so with the intention of starting my long solo journey of the world. But then I fell in love with China, Chinese language, Chinese culture, and a Chinese man… My life plan changed from never wanting to get married or settle down, to finding my place in rural China and the person I wanted to share life with. Here is the story of me and Yong Hong.
I got an invitation to an event in Shanghai
When I moved to Shanghai as an exchange student in February 2015, I took my first steps on Chinese ground. I had no expectations for what I thought would be my one semester in China, but I was open for the new experiences that were awaiting me. When I found myself more an more curious about China, I decided to extend my exchange for another year to learn Chinese. During the second semester a good Chinese friend of mine, Ya Ting, and her husband invited me to attend an event in Shanghai. It was a market and lectures about organic food and small scale farming. Ya Ting and her husband were there selling their wild honey, and that would be enough good reason to go. So of course I said yes.
At this time my Chinese was limited to counting from one to ten, asking for someone’s name, and saying that I was Swedish. Luckily I went with a friend. He did the talking and I did the tasting. It was food heaven – there were fruits, berries, coconut rice, different types of honey, different flavours of tea, and the nicest rice wine I’ve ever tried.
Meeting him for the first time
Yong Hong was one of the first persons I saw when I got in. His table was at the very beginning of a U-setup of stands. I began at the other end, of course, and saved him for last. Although I did take my time tasting my way around the tables, I eventually reach him and his berries. Yong Hong was vibrant, shining. Actually I’m not the only one who thinks this – as long as you catch him in a good mood Yong Hong radiates kindness. I’ve heard this from several people. He simply just looks like such a good person.
When we finally met, we smiled and said “hello”, and that was as far as our conversation reached that afternoon. He and his partner gave me a cup of black goji berry tea, and were very keen on me adding them on Wechat. I tagged them both ”blue berries” and left. I don’t think I actually uttered a single word apart from “hello” directly to Yong Hong, but for some reason I couldn’t forget about him.
Messages and black goji berries on the post
Later that evening I looked through my new contacts, and thought I’d send him a message and ask where I could buy the berries. I convinced myself it was just the thing I needed to buy, when actually it was probably the thing at the food market that left the smallest impression on me. (But now I realy like it, and it’s also healthy and very pretty to look at). His response to me asking where I could buy it was “you don’t have to buy it, just send me your address and I’ll send a jar over for free”. Said and done, and a week later I was sitting in my room drinking black goji berry tea, curious to know more about this guy,
This is when we started messaging intensively – sometimes hours at the time. He would tell me all about the berries and about his home province Qinghai where the berries came from. I told him about Sweden in return. We messaged every day – long messages about life, about environmental problems, about farming, about lifestyles, about freedom, about the future. He would tease me and say that maybe I would eventually find a Chinese boyfriend, and I would reply that I didn’t want to find one. I wanted to be single forever, never marry and have kids. And so we began to explore each other’s similarities and each other’s differences. I wrote in English and he translated all my messages into Chinese – he wrote in Chinese and I translated all his messages into English.
Meeting Yong Hong for the second time
At the time, I lived and studied in Shanghai. I had just extended my exchange semester, and begun studying Chinese language full time. He was in his hometown 30-50 hours away from Shanghai (by train), and only came for work. After a month of texting he send the message “I’m coming to Shanghai next week”, and the butterflies were all awake again. I decided I would go and visit him at the local food market he was going to attend.
I went with two Korean friends, and spotted him easily. I went up to him – and it was extremely awkward… Not in the “we’ll laugh at the silence and that breaks the ice” awkward, but it was actually really, really awkward the whole time. We couldn’t communicate. I tried saying something in English, and he would just look at me and laugh awkwardly. He would say something in Chinese, and I would look at him and laugh awkwardly. The other sellers and visitors gave us strange looks. So there the two of us were, not really knowing how to behave, what to do or what to say. Luckily my Korean friend picked up on the awkwardness and gestured for me and Yong Hong to pose for a picture. His friend also jumped in. We all got one Instax picture each, and with that I just said “bye” and left.
The same evening, we decided to have dinner together. Don’t ask me how I still thought it was a good idea after the awkward silence during the day, but I thought that maybe, when it was just the two of us, it would be somehow easier to communicate. However, to my surprise, it was not just the two of us. He came with his friend, and I got really confused, thinking that maybe I had just misinterpreted the whole situation. I didn’t know what to think, but there we sat, the three of us, nervously stuffing ourselves full with the vegetables that they had ordered in.
Proper dates every night of the week
I think that maybe he picked up on my surprise that his friend was there too, because the next day I received a text saying that if I wanted to have dinner with him alone, we could have dinner that night. To my surprise the communication worked better and better for every hour I spent with him. I was more relaxed and could use the little Chinese I knew. In addition we used online translation apps, hand gestures, and napkin drawings.
He was in Shanghai for a week that time, and we met every evening. We’d have dinner and go for walks around campus. Once I took him to my favourite spot at Fudan University – the 30th floor which has an amazing view of the city. Another night we biked around campus on a rusty bike that I had gotten for free from a friend. He was pedaling like crazy, while I sat on the back shouting the sentences I had learnt during the day: “turn right!”, “turn left!”, “at the next crossroads so straight ahead!”. It was one of the simplest, yet funniest dates I’ve ever been on.
I began to question my life choices…
When his last day in Shanghai came he reassured me he would be back in Shanghai in a few weeks’ time. This was in early November. However, not long after he left Shanghai he found out he wouldn’t be going back anytime soon. Instead he started going to Beijing for work. We continued to text, sometimes more, but mostly just less. When we texted, we were honest, also about feelings. I felt like I had nothing to lose, and told him how I felt. He replied that he felt the same, but how could we ever be a thing if I always wanted to be “free”?
That’s when I started to question my own plan, and what I wanted for my life. In short, I changed my mind. Something that played another big part in that decision was a month long trip I made to Sichuan. On this trip my Chinese improved, my curiosity for China increased, and my love for the Chinese countryside developed. I met people that made me question things down to my own existence. (Thanks to the people I met in Sichuan, I also got to go one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever been on, when visiting the buddhist monastery Larung Gar in Sertar).
… and so my life plans changed
After my Sichuan trip, me and Yong Hong started texting again. One night while messaging, I asked him “if I decided to stay in China, what would be your response?”He was a little taken aback, but from that day we both knew this was something serious. I told him that if he wanted this, he had to come to Shanghai, we had to meet soon. A few weeks later he showed up. We met at the train station, and spent the day walking around under an umbrella in a rainy Shanghai.
At this point we only had two months left before I was going back to Sweden – in other words very little time for two people who live so far apart. I had three more trips already booked before leaving, and he had work. But somehow we managed to find a week the beginning of June. He would clear everything in his calendar, and I would skip some classes in combination with a public holiday. We decided that this time I’d come to see him in Qinghai.
Visiting his hometown
Our initial plan was to go see all the “must sees” in Qinghai. He would book hotels and decide which sights, and we would spend one night and one day in his hometown. I was a little scared, knowing what a big thing it was to “meet the parents”. He assured me that he would only bring me there as a friend, and that I had nothing to worry about. Of course he was wrong, and after only a few hours the whole village knew about the foreign girl that Yong Hong had brought home. He ended up having to switch off his phone due to the excessive messages and calls he received. However, we liked hanging around in the village and ended up spending most of our time there, and only a couple of days seeing other parts of Qinghai.
After my visit in his hometown, the seriousness of our relationship was inevitable. I mean, it was all or nothing since I was going back to Sweden for more than half a year. Things might have gotten serious fast, but what does that matter when you’re in love? I went back to Sweden for almost eight months, during which we would video call almost every night. Then I moved to him and his family in Qinghai in February 2017, and one year after, he visited our Swedish family in my home town. Two years after we met for the first time, we were married and (sort of) settled down. But still no car, kid or apartment, haha.
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