My first days at Nanjing’s Number One Elementary School were a blast. I loved the kids, they loved me, and we had some extraordinary lessons singing, dancing, playing games, and learning how to have basic English conversations. It was springtime, the air was fresh, and each weekend I would reward my week of hard work with some beers and fun at the local expat bar. Saturdays were often spent chatting with the neighbors and playing guitar out front of my building, and mornings before school were started off with a vigorous workout to get me jazzed for the day. I would also sometimes bring my guitar to school, just to play a song or two for the kids, or impress some of my cute coworkers. Life was a breeze!
Then one day, I decided to ask Zhao Zhao out to a movie. Why her? Well, she was pretty with kind eyes, had a charming and intelligent presence in the classroom, and she was single – rare for girls at our school. Truth be told, I had been growing a crush on her for some time (she was my teaching assistant for class 4, grade 1), and something about her made me think we could probably have a lot of fun together, maybe even become a couple. My good friend Jenny, a Chinese English teacher at the school, already knew I was interested in Zhao Zhao, information that didn’t take long to find the ears of the other teachers in the English department.
Zhao Zhao agreed to have dinner with me, and so I took her to one of the most famous and exceptional hot pot restaurant chains in the whole city. Little did I know, hot pot was Zhao Zhao’s favorite. One thing led to another, and over the course of several dates during a month’s time we became an official couple. Then Zhao Zhao broke the news to me: I couldn’t tell anyone at the school, NO ONE! Why? Rumors, gossip, workplace drama… all that good stuff that is best avoided in the office. But the biggest reason? Because if anyone knew Zhao Zhao was with the school’s foreign teacher, they would all assume we were sleeping together, and that was not OK for them to think since we were unmarried.
For me, it didn’t matter since Chinese know Western culture is more open about sex, which is why they would assume we were having sex. But for her, this kind of reputation would be hugely damaging. I agreed to keep it a secret. I really liked her, and I certainly didn’t want to hurt anyone, especially this girl I was growing feelings for.
During the next year and a half that I worked at the school, Zhao Zhao and I maintained the tightest lid on our relationship. We would go out and stay together plenty, but since I lived only a five-minute walk from the school, any time spent at my home or in my neighborhood had to be particularly clandestine. Walks in the park near my home together were rare. I wasn’t terribly fond of having to tame our outings so much, but I loved her, so I was fine with doing what we needed to keep her safe from societal embarrassment and keep her job secure. When we went out in her neighborhood, far from the school, our time together outside was much more relaxed, but even then occasions happened when we found ourselves ducking down an alley at the sight of one of our coworkers coming from down the block.
Days at school were particularly interesting. I told Zhao Zhao that before I had asked her out, I had spilled the beans about my crush on her, and so she knew that some people had suspicions about us. Occasionally she would need school documents translated into English, which I of course helped her with, and though her English was quite good, those native-level translations always aroused a smirk and a raised eyebrow from Suzie, our department leader. Suzie and the other girls in the English department had actually been supportive of me asking Zhao Zhao out when they first learned of my feelings, and even as our relationship continued covertly, Suzie would pair me with Zhao Zhao any time we had a partnered activity at school, smiling and saying, “I think you two must work well together!”
In fact, the department knew; there had been too many instances of teachers seeing Zhao Zhao in the neighborhood around the school when she should have been far away at home – weekends, after or before school, times like these. Her home was a 30-minute bus ride away, and there was no reason for her to be in this area outside of work hours, save for possibly spending time with someone special.
In the end, though, they had no conclusive proof of our relationship, and any time Zhao Zhao was asked, she would earnestly deny it. Zhao Zhao and I were both friends with all the Chinese English teachers in our department, and I quite liked them. They were comfortable enough with me that they would sometimes ask, “So, do you have a girlfriend?” Other times, Suzie would get clever with a question like, “Wow, your Chinese is really getting better, do you practice with your girlfriend?” They all tried their best to squeeze an admission out of us, but Zhao Zhao and I were ready for all of it.
In the workplace, she and I would send each other texts, and I would do things like help fill her coffee when she was too busy – so long as no other teachers were in the office. But in terms of anything that the other teachers could see, we were nothing but coworkers, doing our jobs to the best of our abilities. It was actually kind of fun. I used to tell Zhao Zhao we were like spies on a really long mission together.
One summer break (we had two months off in summer), Zhao Zhao and I arranged for us to head to the USA together to visit my family. Part of her visa arrangements included getting a note from her employer – our school, of course – saying that she planned to return to work after her trip in the US. However, the school knew I was taking a trip home as well, since I had to renew my visa immediately upon returning, and this obviously aroused suspicions further. Before Zhao Zhao and I were to leave for the US, Suzie and another Chinese coworker, Tina, took us out to dinner.
“Did you realize Zhao Zhao is going to America too??” Suzie asked me.
“Really? I had no idea. That’s so cool!” I told her and Zhao Zhao.
“It’s really a big coincidence, don’t you think?” she playfully prodded me.
“I suppose so,” I replied, “you’ll have a great time Zhao Zhao.”
“Hey! You should go visit him!” Suzie chirped to Zhao Zhao, “how about that?”
“I don’t know, we will see.”
Our Chinese English teacher friends were pretty nice about knowing what we wouldn’t admit to them. And truth be told, it wasn’t necessarily their opinions we would have needed to worry about, since the teachers were already somewhat Western-minded. Plus they were young and part of a new Chinese generation that is far more open-minded than their parents. Really, it was the opinions of other teachers at the school (those less in-tune with Western mindsets), not to mention those of the administration, the parents, the students, and the neighborhood, that would really have caused a mess for us if word had gotten out. And as playfully supportive as our English department coworkers were, if they had received the confirmation they so badly desired, word of our relationship would’ve spread faster than wildfire.
Eventually, I left the school for a job in another city, and the questioning at school toward Zhao Zhao regarding our relationship mellowed. Soon I asked her to marry me, and after she said yes and we signed our marriage license, the cat slowly began to creep out of the bag. Zhao Zhao didn’t mind if they knew from then on since we were married; traditional Chinese society would finally accept (and actually encourage) cohabitation and sexual relations after marriage. The Chinese always encourage this to new couples under the euphemisms of “have a lot of babies soon,” which is actually what they explicitly hope will happen.
My wife wasn’t running to make the announcement to the school, but since we were officially a family, she was fine with the information coming out naturally. When our English department friends finally got word, they erupted, “We knew it! How impressive you kept this a secret from us for so long!”
It wasn’t always easy keeping our relationship a secret while working at the same school, with a bunch of people who pretty much knew anyway, but it was the best thing for us. If something had happened and our relationship had ended, it would have been even more humiliating for Zhao Zhao if the school knew. Fortunately, we persevered, and honestly had a pretty good time doing it. My recollections of sneaking a smile to her in between classes, denying students and teachers asking me if I had a girlfriend (while secretly sending a cutesy text to Zhao Zhao), and working with the love of my life in a very special situation, are some of my favorite memories – memories I’ll cherish my whole life.
When you think about it, keeping our relationship a secret at school made it even more special, because in that sense, it was just ours. Days watching her confidently and kindly speak to the students – one of her traits that originally attracted me to her – while I silently held my love for her in my heart, are to this day remembrances that only she and I fully share.