It was incredibly hot. My mother had been bringing men over during dinner each night this week. She was trying to find me the perfect man. I had no interest in an arranged marriage. I wanted to marry whoever I wanted, but that was frowned upon. Many women just go along with what society comes up with. However, I am perfectly fine with working on the farm. I don’t need a man, because I never have. Each night before dinner, Jia, my older sister, my grandmother and mother would dress me up. They bathed me, powdered my face until it was sickly white, painted my lips, eyes and cheeks with cosmetics and they would pull hard at my hair, until it was to their liking. They would dress me in fine silks. I was tired of this nonsense.
“Mother. Why must I marry?” I asked, one day after breakfast. She looked at me, putting down her loom.
“Lan, my dear. I must give you something that my mother gave to me. It comes with a tale; you must listen hard and clear. Do you understand, girl?” She asked in a serious tone. I nodded. Mother raised her eyebrows at me. “Did I teach you to nod? Or did I teach you to say ‘Yes mother, I do understand.’ ?” I sigh and shake my head. She actually taught me to not speak unless spoken to, but mother is frightening when she is mad. So I do as she says.
“Yes, Mother, I do understand.” I said. She blinks at me, as if I said something offensive. She stands up and stomps off to her room. “All I did was repeat you.” I mutter to myself. I sit there, on the floor, for a few minutes. After a while, Mother comes down the hall, but with a box. It is wrapped in a blue silk. She hands me the box and sits on her chair.
“Open.” She said. I look at her and blink. “Open it.” She emphasized. I blink hard and shrug. I unwrap the silk and open the box. Inside, there is a fan. A peacock is painted on the black fabric. I gasp.
“Mother! It’s beautiful! Now, what do I use it for? The heat?” I ask, fanning myself. She rolled her eyes and snatched the fan from me.
“Lan. It is not used to lower your body temperature. It is used to hide your face. Your husband hits you? Use the fan. You aren’t covered in lavish creams and cosmetics? Use the fan. Do you feel any emotion that doesn’t involve a nice bubbly smile? Use the fan. It will help you get a husband.” She handed the fan back to me and nodded with a smile. I took the fan and bowed.
“Thank you, Mother.” I didn’t like the fan. It was gorgeous and all, but I didn’t need to have a husband. I want to marry for love, if I ever felt it. Not marry just to be a wife. Also known as a servant to some men. I am extremely glad that foot binding is not a thing anymore. Some families still practice it, but my grandmother doesn’t agree with the tradition. So she wouldn’t allow it for my mother, or me. I am quite thankful for that. I took my fan and sat at the preparation table. I stared at it and examined the careful art of the peacock.
“Hello, Lan. I see you have mother’s old fan.” I looked up at my father, as he entered the kitchen.
“Yes, I do. She said I can only use it to hide my face.” Father sat down in one of the chairs. He had a silk bag in his hand, and he had set it on the table as he sat down.
“My dear flower, why would you hide such a beautiful face. Don’t listen to your mother, that woman is too bitter. She revolves around beauty. Around fake beauty. You have real beauty on the inside.” He smiled at me. He was absolutely right. My mother was a very bitter woman.
“But Father, how am I to use this beautiful fan? If I have nothing to hide, and mother insists not to use it for cooling down.” Father laughed. He grinned ear to ear. This was a grin that I hadn’t seen in a while. This was the grin he flashed when he had an idea.
“What, Father? What are you thinking of?” I asked, feeling the excitement in my eyes.
“I can teach you how to defend yourself. With a single fan. Are the spines wooden?” I nod my head, knowing that Father wouldn't correct me for it. “Well then, I will begin to teach you after your chores tomorrow. You can practice on suitors that are too touchy. That’ll show them who's boss!” I nodded again. I got up to give my father a hug.
“Thank you, Father. I must start on today’s chores.” He grabs my arm and stops me before I leave.
“I have two things. One, I paid the stable boy to do your chores for today. Also here is a lovely gift. You can go out to town today and meet someone. Go fall in love, Lan. I love you!” I smile and give Father a big hug.
“Thank you so much, Father! I love you too!” I rush to my room to brush my hair. I opened the gift. It was a beautiful jade and pearl necklace! I put it on. I stick my fan into the folds of fabric of my plain cotton dress.
“LAN! Get out and do your chores!” Mother yelled.
“Yes, Mother, I will!” I yelled back. I rush to the door and outside. I run to the gate at the edge of our property, and I quietly slip out. I look around. We live about 20 minutes on foot from town. I begin my walk to town. I walk quickly, so Mother won’t catch me escaping my chores.
When I get to the city, I see children playing. They are running, chasing each other around everywhere. I see women in shops and at the market examining foods and goods. I continue to walk towards a shop, just wanting to look at things. A man stops me. He looks as if he is in his late twenties.
“Hello, woman. You look lovely. May I offer you to spend the day with me?” He asks. I smile gently and he grins back.
“No.” I say. I walk past him and he grabs my arm. I take my fan out of my dress, and I take the pointy wooden end and jab it into the back of the man’s hand. I twist it and he yelps and releases his hold on me. “I said no. Now if you may excuse me I will continue to enjoy my day.” I look up and around me, and realize that a crowd has gathered. They were clapping. A girl that looked my age approached me and linked her arm through mine. I shrugged and left the crowd as the girl led me to a gown shop.
“Hello! I am Mei! I am sorry for the actions of my brother. He is wrong. We shall be friends now. Do you want to go to a shop? I really need a new parasol. Mine ripped.” Mei talked so fast and was hard to understand. I nodded.
“I would love to go to a shop! I need a new veil. My mother has been driving me crazy with all of the matchmaking appointments. Oh, by the way, I am Lan.” I said. Mei smiled and grabbed my wrist. Her eyes went crazy and she squeezed my wrist hard. She took off running through the streets, dragging me with her. I half-way regret my decisions of befriending her, but I quickly shoved the thought of that into the back of my mind. Yeah, Mei was crazy, but she got us to the shop fast. It was a quaint shop that I had never been to before.
“This is a new shop. A woman from Europe came all the way to open a shop! She has European style dresses and accessories. Everything there is based off of Queen Matilda!” Mei exclaimed. We went into the shop and everything seemed so exotic. Everything was beautiful. There were jewels, crowns, dresses, fans and parasols.
"Come with me! I have been in here many times. Sometimes, you might meet a boy buying a gift for his mom or sister. That might cancel matchmaking for you!" Mei led me to a dressing screen. "Let's try on some clothes, Lan! It'll be fun!" She grabbed a beautiful peach colored gown from the rack and shoved it in my arms. I found a flouncy jade colored gown that would look lovely on Mei. I nodded to it and she grabbed it. We went behind separate screens to change. I took off my comfortable, soft tunic-type dress. I hung it over the screen and put the gown on. It was sort of hard to put on. It took me a good ten minutes. I glanced at myself in the mirror.
"Oh my!" I whispered. I looked twenty times better than I did with pounds of fabric tied to me and a face full of powder. I had expected Mei to be out of her screen. I stepped out from behind the screen and Mei was talking to the woman behind the purchasing counter. I looked in front of me and a boy my age was standing there. He gasped. I guessed that he was probably the son of the store owner, because he clearly wasn't from China.
"I don't know you, but you look gorgeous." He was speaking Chinese, but his accent was rough, and his pronunciation was a little off but I could understand him. I smiled and twirled in my dress. He smiled back, then furrowed his brow. He glanced up and scratched the back of his head.
He glanced up and nodded, clearing his throat. "Would you be interested to spend a day with me? My mother has been begging me to find a lovely girl. I have no interest in any of the ones she picks for me. I do take interest in you. I could pick you up from your house tomorrow. I could take you on a picnic." My jaw dropped open. I glanced at Mei, who was nodding with a smile.
"Yes! I would love to! I live just outside of town. We have yellow gates to our farm. The only yellow gated farm around." He smiled after a while, comprehending what I had said. He nodded his head with a smile and walked to the back of the store. I went back behind the screen and changed out of the gown and into my tunic dress. I came out from behind the screen and Mei was standing right by the screen.
"I bought you that dress. For your lunch date! Isn't it wonderful! And now that I know where you live, I will come over and visit you!" I smiled and gave Mei a hug.
"Thank you, Mei. I really had fun today! Would you like to join us for dinner? At my house?" Mei shook her head, with a smile.
"I would love that! But I must tell my mother where I will be. Let's stop at my house first. Then, we can go to your house." Mei said. She hooked her arm through mine, and we left the store. Mei had a lovely lace parasol and I had my wonderful gown. We skipped through the streets to Mei's house. Mei's mother was a kind, sweet woman, unlike my mother.
"Mei, my mother isn't nice like your mother, so watch out." I said. We then took a long slow walk to my house. My mother was waiting at the gates.
"LAN! Oh. You brought a friend. I am sorry. Come in!" She let us in and smiled at Mei. She glared at me as I walked in. I giggled with Mei, because mother only was kind to visitors, grandmother and Jia. Mother led us into the house and glared at me secretly, everytime Mei looked away. It was the funniest thing.
"Mother. I have a lunch date tomorrow. With a boy my age." My mother's eyes lit up and my father grinned.
"Finally, someone you can agree to! I will do your makeup, and your dress-" Mother was cut off by Mei.
"Actually, I am staying the night, and I bought Lan a new gown. I will help her get ready. She rather hates wearing all that fabric. I do too." Mother glared at me, and shrugged. I guess she was angry at me. For finding my own friend. For finding my own man. For going out, skipping chores and trying on clothes.
I guess Mother didn't approve of me. I was not Jia. I couldn't do anything that Jia could. But I could be me. Not some silly doll that Mother wanted me to be. I am not her and I never will be. Most girls don't get married by meeting men. It is usually an arranged marriage. I won't let my mother do that to me. I will break the rules and be a rebel. After all, that is just how I am.