It will be more beautiful that any garment I’ve ever owned. When I was ten years old, I thought my shiny flowery dress with the purple velvet sash was unsurpassable in terms of beauty. It, however, is but a memory and the time has come to find something that will better suit a forty year old curvy body.
I stand in the crowded shop, the humble laneway frontage belying its sumptuous contents. Against the walls on wooden shelves are stacked piles and piles of luxurious silks, each reflecting different colours as the lights hit them at various angles. Angles are something I’ve lots of. Not sharp angles but softly flowing sweeping arcs. The dress will be a gorgeous shapely traditional Chinese dress – a ‘qipao’. I am afraid, however. On me, it may resemble a gift-wrapped bag of potatoes.
A traditional wedding dress should be red. As much as my dear friend is refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer to her generous gift of a tailor-made qipao as a going away present, it is not going to be bright red. I turn my attention to the more subdued colours … as much as magnificent silk can do anything but proclaim ‘Look at me!’.
Leaving. That’s what started all this. I told my friends and colleagues that I had sensed God’s leading back to my home country. Little could I have predicted their reaction. Almost every one of my local friends sadly agreed that I should go, and be gone as soon as possible. As several friends have explained, I’ve left it awfully late to find a husband and have a child. There are few options in my age bracket here in China, but if God is generous, it is not yet impossible to find someone in my home country. And surely my family will arrange a match, even if I’m too reticent to make the first move.
Which is why my kind friend is paying for me to have a snugly fitted wedding dress made. This is her statement of faith. Of course, she reasons, God will provide the suit to complement the dress.
This same friend has, in the past, gifted non-suspecting nice young men a vase. The matching vase has been given to me. Her intention was that the pair of vases would one day be reunited. I call my vases by the names of the owners of their partners.
I’m not even sure I want a husband. Life is lovely just the way it is, thank you very much. I can enjoy the children in my extended family, hand them back at the end of the day tired, dirty and hungry, and hope that they’ll have fond memories of me when I’m old and in need of their kindness. ‘Thou dost protest too much,’ my friends say. Maybe, but really, in my culture, it isn’t such a big deal.
In this culture, to advance beyond the great age of thirty and remain single is literally a shame. Obviously, there is something wrong or even socially warped in a person who chooses to hold out for an ideal life partner or settle for singleness. Ask the church people here what a single Christian woman should do in a community where Christian men are few and far between. The answer almost without fail is that she should find a man sympathetic to her faith. In the same way that many western Christians can quote Scriptures to justify marrying only a believer, so Christians here will quote Scriptures about men being saved through the godliness of their wives. Clearly, they reason, short of an extraordinary and lofty divine call on one’s life, God couldn’t expect a girl to remain single.
“I will not take ‘no’ for an answer!” My friend’s voice on the other end of the telephone had been unwavering. She has decided on a farewell gift which is more special than one matching vase. So it is that I find myself drooling over a range of fabrics more beautiful than anything I have ever owned.
I will treasure her gift.
My qipao will be hung in a wardrobe in the country of my passport, my former and future home. Yet part of my heart will remain here, in the country where older women who have always been single are an anomaly.
And if God listens to the prayers of my well-meaning friends here, then just maybe, one day, I will wear that dress ‘for real’.
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