"Wo ai ni." That's the sentence I will always remember. Perhaps over time I will forget how to say "When are you free?" ("Ni shenme shihou youkong?") or "I like Chinese food" ("Wo xihuan chi zhongguo cai").
But I will never forget how to say "Wo ai ni," or forget what it means.
My husband and I are studying Mandarin. "Oh, that's wonderful," people say. No, it's not. It's terrible. Except for the lovely young woman who is our tutor and is unfailingly positive in the face of homework noncompliance (him) and dreadful tonal pronunciations (mine), there's nothing wonderful about it. It's a hard language to learn, nothing like our native tongue or the one we studied in school, which enables us to buy things in Paris and order from a pretentious menu.
And we are learning it for the sake of a little boy who can't even speak yet. Our first grandchild will grow up bilingual, one set of grandparents born in Beijing, parents both fluent in Chinese. I will be Nai nai as well as Nana.
Arthur, ni xiang qu gongyuan ma? That means, Arthur, would you like to go to the park? At least I think it does. Someday a small boy will say to me, Nana (or Nai nai), your Chinese is terrible!
Here's the thing about loving people: you wind up acting in two distinct ways when you do. There are the things you do because you have to. And there are the things you do because you want to. Over time, the balance between the two makes the difference between something that is a helium balloon and something that sinks to the floor and begins to wrinkle, the remnants of a party that is over for sure.
Hasn't it happened to all of us? You have this friend, and you love her and she you, and you tell each other almost everything and text each other dozens of times a day. She needs you to meet this guy to see if he's as nice as she thinks. She asks you to look at apartments to see what she should rent. She wants you to come to her party, and give her some work advice, and lend you that dress you have, the one the two of you got together at that cute little place and you can't believe that it was on sale!
And over time, something happens: the things you have to do — because she insists, because she won't take no for an answer, because she will have hurt feelings and suddenly the texts will stop — overwhelm the things you want to do. Eventually you don't want to do anything much for her anymore. And that's when the friendship goes south.
This desire, and this balance, changes over time. When I was in my first year of college, I met a guy whom I really wanted to impress. I was a fledgling feminist, which may explain why I decided one weekend when he was away to clean his dorm room. (He was away seeing his high-school girlfriend. That's a different essay.) His room wasn't particularly filthy, especially by the standards of college-age men. I did it because it was so counterintuitive, me as maid, that I thought it would telegraph that I was so sold on him that I wanted to do things that no one would ever expect me to want to do.
That guy is my husband, and I cannot count how many years — no, decades — it's been since I wanted to clean on his account. There are things I do for him because I want to — cooking is one of them, not because I love to cook but because I love to feed people — but cleaning is not one of them.