The Man from Earlier

Marriage, loss, and red tape – by Carl Setzer


I arrived at the US consulate in Shenyang at 8:15am. The handwritten sign on the window of the security office said citizen services would begin at 8:30. There didn't seem to be the threat of a line forming, so I figured I was safe to wander around a few minutes to see what the capital of Liaoning Province had to offer.

As I turned to leave, I bumped into something solid – it felt like a tree or a telephone poll, but turned out to be a person. Sometimes you can sense life in the dark, sometimes you can feel humanity without looking. He was a foreigner, older than me, but I didn’t notice much else that made an impression. I started to offer an apology, but he had already presented a half-raised right hand and a nod. I assumed no offence and he showed none, so I left without a word.

When I got back twenty minutes later, the line for visas had already formed. The security checkpoint took my phone, lockered my computer bag and handed me a bracelet. I took my manila folder, a book to read and left the rest behind. I read various hopes into the faces of the eager visa applicants I passed. The elderly, hoping to fulfill their familial duties of annoying their sons-in-law and spoiling their newborn grandchildren. Some students, hoping not to disappoint their parents by failing to study abroad. Businessmen, hoping all they had heard about foreign women was true. I moved past them, following the half-heartedly printed and taped signs that pointed the way for US citizens.

I concentrated on not rolling up the paperwork in my hand and checked for the thirteenth time that my passport hadn't fallen out of my pocket. I turned the corner, thinking about my own hopes when I ran into what I assumed was a cubicle divider. It was the man from earlier.

“Are you blind or just hoping for a dance?” he asked.

I could see in his eyes that he had probably been a funny person once. I noticed more about him, but that’s not saying much. He gave the impression of someone not wanting to be noticed. Embarrassed, I apologised and kept walking.

The waiting room was bleak. There were a few rows of plastic chairs and poorly designed posters reminding us to register to vote and pay our taxes. There was something that could have been mistaken for carpet on the floor. I presented myself at a window and asked the clerk where I needed to go to apply for an affidavit of marriageability. She motioned to window three. Bureaucrats never disappoint in the amount of energy they exert in the pursuit of inaction. I thanked her for her time and moved on to window number three. The attendant seated behind the exaggerated pane of glass squawked for my personal information and documents. I presented my passport and the paperwork I had pulled from the barely functioning consular website. The voice on the other side of the glass told me to have a seat and wait for my name to be called.

I found the only seat that caught a bit of sunshine through the solitary window. I opened my book and pretended to read. The clock ticked over to 9:05 and I heard a voice behind me ask me why I was visiting the consulate today.

I turned around. The man from earlier was a row behind, three seats to the left. I told him I was here to apply for some documents so I could get married.

“Is it the ‘proof of marriageability’?” he asked. I said yes.

“I had to do that once as well,” he said, adding a comment about the absurdity of saying you were marry-able. How could anyone know what would happen in the future, he wanted to know.

I asked him why he was here. He feigned a smile and said he was here to declare a loss in his family. My protestant upbringing kicked in and I apologised.

He broke a sympathetic smile. “I doubt you had anything to do with the death of my wife, so it’s not necessary to apologise.”

A voice called a name over the PA, and the man stood up and walked to window number six. When he got there, he didn't sit, but rather leaned forward, with both hands on the counter as if some weight would hurl him backward otherwise. I heard the attendant ask him for something, which he provided. Something else was said and the man came and sat down again, this time in my row, but still two or three seats away.

I've never been good with people, and the idea of being “chatty” never really appealed to me, but sometimes you only get one opportunity to be curious. When you know, most likely, that you will never see the person again. After running into the man three times already, I felt like this was one of those moments. Besides, I reasoned, people rarely talk to you if they don't want to be talked to.

So, I asked the man what happened to his wife. At first I thought he hadn’t heard me but he eventually said that she had been killed in an accident. I assumed it was a car accident and I asked him where it had happened.

He and his wife were at a market next to their apartment in the city of Jinzhou, he began. They liked to go as close to closing time as possible. The vendors would give them good prices on what was left, and the crowds were usually thinner. His wife was talking to a meat vendor that she was friendly with and he was picking out produce, examining the strawberries just in from California, supposedly. There were only five or six stalls left open. They were there a little later than was their habit, but it was late fall, the cool air was pleasant and the market was always fun.

Then the man hesitated. I waited in silence for him to continue, and for a moment worried he might not finish his story. His expression changed from one of reflection, to one that could be described as remorse.

"You know, young man, sometimes things aren't worth romanticising anymore. You get to a point in your life where the truth, as painful as it might be, is all you have left.

“We didn't go to the market later because we got better prices. The later you go, the worse the selection and the more impatient the vendors, actually. We went right before closing because my wife could see how hard it was for me to control my disappointment and anger. My disappointment and anger about the hateful way people saw us – a beautiful Chinese woman and a foreign man.

“It made it even harder that I clearly wasn't old and rich. We watched people’s reactions once they realised that we weren’t just a boss and a translator, or a playboy with a girlfriend, or even a john and a prostitute. Once they realised our love was permanent and that we had no plans to emigrate overseas – well, needless to say, it was a disgusting reality for most people to confront. Our only crime was being in love.

“People hated our love and hated my wife for flaunting it. We had stopped holding hands in public since our first month of marriage seven years ago. We didn't kiss goodbye at the airport and we certainly didn't dance anymore. China had extinguished our love in public a long time ago, and as with many things in this country, it didn't end with how we interacted in public. Eventually we stopped going out altogether, unless we were with friends or another couple. It wasn't worth the pain or the commentary. Looking back, I wish I had held her hand every second that we had together. I was a coward."

I thought about reassuring him that he wasn't a coward. I thought about telling him that he made the right decision. But I settled on saying nothing.

Another announcement came over the PA and the man got up again. He went back to window number six and resumed his old posture. The box squawked and the man's head hung lower.

The end of the story could have been anything, I suppose. His wife could have died for any number of reasons. I realised I wasn’t curious about his story anymore, though. All I wanted to do was hug my fiancé and apologise for what was about to happen to us. All I wanted to do was go home.

The man walked over to another window and picked up an envelope. He returned to his seat near me, gathering his coat and whatever else he had with him. Once he had his coat and gloves on, he put the envelope in his pocket and offered his hand. I shook it. He looked at me for another moment as though he wanted to say something.

“Good luck,” I said.

“You too.”

Carl Setzer has lived in China for a decade, and runs Great Leap Brewing