Monday, October 18, 2010

A Ladies Luncheon

A long time ago, I was engaged to a man who is a diplomat from Turkey. We were engaged for five years, together for six. At that time, the Turkish foreign ministry forbade young diplomats in the service for less than seven years from marrying foreign nationals, and in a crucial moment of our relationship, they increased the requirement to twelve years, and when it was too late, they abolished the stupid thing altogether. It is questionable if I would have passed the security clearance in the end, as I recalled there was a long list of conditions, but I cannot think of a more politically inert group of people as Chinese Canadians.

When things got tough in our relationship but I couldn't let go, my friends obliquely suggested it was because I as in love with the luxurious lifestyle and prestige of dating a diplomat. I must admit, I did feel very chic when we attended functions together with police escort. I suppose what people said made sense considering the denouement, what kind of self-respecting modern-day educated girl would give up her professional goals just to be with a man anyway? Others can have their opinions I guess. But the truth is, we hung on because the love was strong, and the relationship captured both our youth and romantic innocence. I lived with him for a year in Germany as sort of an illegal immigrant, the rest of the time we were apart in different continents, unable to be together but unwilling to separate.

When I first got to Germany, I was introduced to my ex-fiancé’s boss the Consulate General and his wife. They had quite a bit of sympathy for us in light of the rule against us marrying, and Mrs. Consulate General made an effort to make me feel welcomed. Europe was an exciting place for the diplomatic circle at that time. America was about to attack Iraq and Europe was in an uproar. Everywhere we went conversations immediately turned to George W. Bush, Tony Blair, UN Security Council…etc. My ex-fiancé was anti-war of course, but all the same, in private, he thought his country was stupid for defying the US. “It is going to happen anyway, think of all the oil and military contracts Turkey will miss out!”

One US diplomat in a British consulate dinner said, “I understand France’s position, they are defiantly against war. But what is the problem with Germany? They are rather sheepish about this whole thing.” I thought it was not such a bad thing to be sheepish over attacking another country unprovoked, the Germans most especially. My ex-fiance said something clever in reply, and I stood there feeling very invisible in a long body-hugging black dress. In a later conversation, My ex-fiancé mentioned that I had just arrived from the US, and the US diplomat helpfully suggested that I should apply for a job as a secretary in her consulate, but I couldn’t help being offended given I held an Ivy League degree.

Soon after the British dinner, Mrs. Consulate General of Turkey hosted a Ladies luncheon and invited the spouses of all the other Consulate Generals in the city. I was told this was a very typical event; it is the duty of the wives to host and attend this sort of thing. She told me to arrive an hour early so she could show me how it was done. I thought Mrs. Consulate General had excellent taste. I liked the way she fixed the mansion, and her own paintings displayed very elegantly next to the furniture she collected from around the world. We sat in her museum-like reception room and sipped tea while we waited for the ladies to arrive, and she said to me, “I will tell you about this life, it goes by very fast.” I wasn't sure if she meant it was a good thing, she said it very deliberately like she wanted to help me form some kind of resolution. I kept silent.

The ladies all arrived at the same time, and they each brought a gift. My face went red, I didn’t realize I had to bring a gift. I felt very uncouth and decided then to be no more than an objective observer. There were two main sitting rooms, and I sat in a chair by myself to work out which country each lady belonged. It wasn’t difficult, they didn’t all know each other but they had a way of presenting themselves which leaves no doubt of their place. As soon as they were seated, I realized I've made an important discovery: The ladies were separated by their country’s position on the war! No mistake, in one room, there was the American, Brit, Australian, Spaniard, Mexican, Pole, Israeli, and the Against-War camp was seated across in the other room. I was fascinated.

I listened to their conversations intently. For months I had heard nothing but opinions on the war, but I did not hear it once mentioned in that luncheon. The ladies artfully skirted around the topic, “I was in the airport two weeks ago and I feel the security had stepped up again, it is not surprising given the way things are these days.” But on the whole, I didn’t think any of them wanted to be there, they had this rigid expression on their faces, and their conversations were very contrived. I sat close to the American Missus, she seemed a rather domineering figure. I guess she thought it polite to speak to me after a long time. “Do you speak English?” I told her I am Canadian, but she looked at me like I deceived her. I wanted to say more, but I did not feel equal to convey elegantly that "I am a Hong Kong born Chinese Canadian currently engaged to a Turkish diplomat stationed in Germany”. No one spoke to me after that.

Mrs. Consulate General had an official assistant; he was a nice looking Turkish young man. My ex-fiancé told me he was new to the job, that he was a clever guy who helped rebuild the mansion which did not nearly look so good before. I saw this promising young man for the first time in the luncheon. He was dressed all in white, his hair slick and neat. I watched him as he walked around in staccato steps to serve champagne to the ladies. When he saw me, he hurried over, and as he bend down to offer me champagne, he gave me a conspiratory wink like we were both new kids in training. I smiled and took a glass, but I did not think it wise to drink. Moments later though, I saw Mrs. Consulate General gracefully gliding across the room to where he was, and I watched her discreetly turn the champagne flutes so that the country’s seal all faced the same direction. It looked like the young man had made a mistake, she spoke to him softly, and I saw his face changed. Right then, the thought crossed my mind that I didn’t like this life so much.

I told this frankly to my ex-fiancé that night and it added to our long list of disappointments with each other which would inevitably drive us apart. My life is very different now, and looking back I am grateful that I had a chance to see a world so unlike my own. Many moons later, I occasionally allow myself to imagine ‘what if’, but it never turns out very well, not even in my fantasy.


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