I arrived in Canada from China in 1955 as a five-year-old. Fifty years later when I returned to China for the first time, it was as someone with no memory of her homeland; it was as someone raised in the West. However, because I am Chinese and lived with Chinese parents, I had some innate understanding of Chinese culture—nothing that I am able to explain in concrete terms, but rather something that had been bred in the bone, learned through a process of osmosis. If not adept, I was at least familiar with the indirect way in which Chinese people will often communicate. My husband frequently refers to the Chinese “no” that really means “yes.” And heaven help the poor person who takes the Chinese “no” at face value. And yet even I who had grown up with some sense of this oblique style of interaction experienced an East–West divide when I landed in China as an adult and found myself dealing with relatives there. At times it was hard to interpret what was really expected; other times the questioning was so direct that by western standards it would have been considered intrusive. In China, people whom I had just met would ask me how much money I made, how many bathrooms were in my house … Needless to say, this line of questioning raised my hackles and it took me a while to realize that such interrogation was considered routine and just a display of general interest on the part of your new acquaintance. On the other hand, ask someone at the dinner table if he or she wants another bowl of rice and get ready for the Chinese no that might mean yes. If you do not read the situation right, you just might end up offending someone. These are just a couple of minor examples of the social quagmire that awaits anyone who becomes more than superficially involved with Chinese culture.
So you can imagine what it must have been like for Jeff Mott, the protagonist in It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away. Jeff, let’s face it, is a lost soul. It is 1997 and he is fast approaching 40, divorced, with a young daughter, aimless and broke. When a friend offers him a place to stay at his apartment in Beijing, Jeff, with his life in Canada going nowhere, decides to accept. After several weeks in China he finds a job teaching English to Chinese adults at a school in the small town of San Tiao, just north of Beijing.
Jeff is fascinated by China: the crowds, traffic, food, smells, noise, the Beijing neighbourhoods and, most of all, the women. At the same time he seems to operate in a fog, struggling with a new language, befuddled by unspoken rules of social conduct. The first meeting he has with his Chinese teaching colleagues ends in an awkward silence, leaving him totally perplexed. There is not a single name exchanged. Did he say something wrong? The poor man. I could not help smiling as I read—if only I had been there to explain. In Chinese society, unless two people are on intimate terms, names are rarely exchanged. It is your position in the family, the workplace, the social gathering that counts. You are older uncle on mother’s side, doctor Fong, teacher Lee, lawyer Chan, mother of … Whenever I visited with my relatives in China, I was never called by my name. It was either younger aunt on father’s side or younger aunt on mother’s side, and, in some cases, ancient aunt on mother’s side.
In addition to never completely understanding the often cryptic codes of behaviour, Jeff finds himself in a country where there are strict rules for everything and there are people on guard to make sure the rules are observed. Jeff discovers that something as routine as inviting a friend to visit his apartment is fraught with tension. The presence of his guest suddenly gives the security guard the right to ask personal questions and check identity cards. This can be nerve-racking, even more so if the person, unbeknownst to Jeff, is living illegally in Beijing.
A few weeks into his teaching assignment, while Jeff is riding the bus to Beijing, he meets a young woman dressed in a halter top and a yellow mini skirt, reading an English text. Bian Fu is irresistible, with her beautiful face, slim waist and pouting lips. Jeff strikes up a conversation and, before she gets off, he scribbles his phone number on a piece of paper and hands it to her. To his surprise, she phones the following day. And so begins a courtship between a vulnerable guy from the West and a needy, yet complex, girl from China.
It is obvious from the beginning that Jeff is deeply attracted to Bian Fu and would like to have a serious relationship. He would like her to be his girlfriend and, if things work out, get married. But it is not that simple. As Jeff gradually realizes, nothing in China is that simple. For one thing, after they have been dating for a while, she reveals to him that she is living with her boyfriend and his mother; she tells Jeff that she is unhappy and about to end the relationship. With Bian Fu convincing him that she will leave her boyfriend and marry him, Jeff promises to return when he departs for Canada at the finish of his teaching contract.
A few months later, Jeff does indeed return, this time on a teaching assignment in Beijing. Bian Fu is now living with her mother. Her parents live apart and when she takes him to her mother’s home, he feels out of place, at best tolerated. The only person who seems to genuinely like him is Bian Fu’s two-and-a-half year-old niece, who likes to play with knives. And because of his lack of fluency in Chinese, he wonders what they are saying about him. He would like to meet Bian Fu’s father in order to request the letter of permission that Jeff as a foreigner requires to marry his daughter. But she remains evasive. Jeff becomes more and more suspicious; his relationship with her begins to feel treacherous. Then he discovers something more about Bian Fu, and the extent of her deception is revealed. Nevertheless, she insists on her love for him and affirms her desire to marry him. When he leaves for Canada at the close of his second teaching contract, the future he has hoped for with her remains in limbo.
Once in Canada, Jeff continues to correspond with Bian Fu and encourages her to seek a resolution to their problems. But her letters remain elliptical and he wonders if he can ever truly trust the woman he loves, or indeed if he truly loves her.
Steve Noyes paints an affectionate portrait of China that is honest, intimate and layered. Through Jeff Mott, the reader moves beyond the tourist highlights into the schools, streets, parks and into the home of a particular family, experiencing the joys, frustrations and disappointments that come with exploring a country beyond its surface. But even more, this first novel shines a light on the complexities of love between a foreign man and a Chinese woman in China during the late 1990s and the vast cultural divide that separates them. It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away is a journey into the labyrinth of the human heart where logic has no place. But if you are like Jeff Mott and stay there long enough, you just might learn something about yourself.