It’s a “meet the parent.” Not quite the same as what we were talking about for Sheng Sheng and Toupai.
Chapter 3.3 – The Zhenjiang of Old (3)
Although this place, Zhenjiang, was the ancestral hometown of Shi Yi’s father, they did not come here often.
Like most of the other cities south of the Yangtze River, there was a lake and temples, mountains and hills of varying heights, and stories to tell. Their car drove beside the lake, and off in the distance Jinshan [Golden Mountain] Temple could be seen, misty and indistinct through a curtain of rain.
That morning, it had still only been cloudy but now, there were already signs that the rain would turn to a downpour.
Would they be stopping near here? Or would they continue driving?
Every few minutes, she would guess whether the car would be coming to a halt at any time now.
Unfortunately, they continued travelling south until the vehicle had entered into the mountains, and still there were no signs of stopping.
The mountain road seemed as if it had been painted by the misty rain and was very enchanting.
“My mother,” Zhousheng Chen suddenly spoke up, “she may behave somewhat coolly towards you.”
Hearing the seriousness in his tone, Shi Yi again could not hold back her anxiousness. “Because my family is too ordinary?”
“It’s not you. It is because my family is somewhat different.”
That was very evident.
Shi Yi unconsciously twirled the gold-inlaid jade bangle on her wrist. “Are there any sort of taboos I should be aware of? For example, your mother doesn’t like people talking about certain things? Or when we meet, is there anything I should pay special attention to?”
“There are no taboos of any sort,” he replied. “My family members are not like ferocious tigers or wild beasts. It is just that, you are not a girl that she knows. She might need some time to get to know you.”
She responded with an “oh.”
Recalling what he had once said, she asked, “You said, you have very complete information on me and even my family?”
“Yes, very detailed,” he said simply. “So detailed that it contains information for each year of your life, ever since you were young.”
Shi Yi could not really believe this.
“Our ––“ He seemed to be recalling the day they first met, and with a smile, he explained slowly, “–– first meeting was too unique and so, there were some necessary procedures that needed to be undertaken to understand who you are.”
She had not thought that such a romantic encounter could be described by him as if she had intentionally tried to get close to him.
However, after a few seconds, she relaxed again. She really had deliberately tried to meet him. If she were to say that it was unintentional, even she would not believe herself.
His elbow was resting on a wooden armrest that was on one side. He leaned forward slightly, and it seemed as if he wanted to remove his jacket. Because of his tall figure, there was not quite enough space in the vehicle interior for him to stretch out, and his movements seemed awkward and uncomfortable. Shi Yi casually pulled on one of his sleeves for him and helped him take it off.
Two people, one who had removed his jacket because he had felt constrained, the other just lending a helping hand in passing.
Because of her assistance, the garment was now in her hands.
It still had a little warmth on it, and as she hugged it in her arms, she suddenly felt lightheaded.
“I will hold it.” While Zhousheng Chen said this, he had already taken the jacket and placed it across his lap.
This brief little interlude inexplicably seemed to create a slight sense of closeness between the two of them. She could feel her heartbeat had become somewhat irregular, and she turned her head away to continue staring out at the mountain forest shrouded in the misty rain. For her, she truly could not forget him, could not free herself from him. But what about him? Why did he suddenly become engaged? If it was according to as he had said, that he “had a need to be engaged in marriage to someone,” then what was the reason for the need?
She belatedly started to mull over these questions.
She wondered, how would they carry out this role of being a betrothed couple?
Observing that she seemed lost in thought, Zhousheng Chen did not speak anymore or disturb her. He was accustomed to being alone so naturally, was also used to not intruding on other people.
When, finally, some scattered buildings appeared in her vision, she heard Zhousheng Chen say, “You will gradually come to realize that I was not calling you into question. All of it was just necessary procedures.” His spoke this calmly in a light and measured voice. There was nothing out of the ordinary about his tone, but it was apparent that he said this to make her feel better.
Shi Yi turned back and smiled at him. “You will also gradually realize that I am a very forgiving person. I usually will not get all that angry over ordinary little matters.”
Their car came to a halt in front of a very old-style manor. Someone was waiting at the front doorway.
He stepped out of the car, handed his suit jacket to the young man who had been waiting at the door, and, holding up an umbrella, crooked his arm slightly. “May I?”
She nodded, feeling as if the two of them were acting out a play.
Zhousheng Chen bent forward slightly to accommodate her level as she came out of the vehicle. Shi Yi stretched out a leg onto the wet brick ground, and very quickly took his forearm. She was wearing a long-sleeved cheongsam while he had only had on a thin dress shirt. Through two thin layers of fabric, they were both still able to sense the warmth of each other’s bodies.
Her mind was unable to focus, and she had walked a dozen or so steps before she started to pay attention to this place with courtyard upon courtyard.
Even though it was an old dwelling, its drainage was designed very well.
The rain was coming down so hard, yet along the entire way as they walked in, they did not encounter any accumulated water.
“You lived here from childhood?” She unobtrusively took in the surrounding scenery along the way.
“Before I was fourteen years old, I lived here for sometime,” he told her. “It was not a long period of time, though.”
Because he said he had once lived here, she immediately felt that this lonely, old manor in the curtain of rain seemed closer and dearer to her heart.
They would frequently come upon people hurrying by, all of them coming from side doorways or small pathways. When they saw Zhousheng Chen, they would all stop and bow slightly towards him. Those who were far away would not say anything, but those who were close would greet him as “Eldest Young Master.” Hearing this remarkable form of address, Shi Yi stole a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye. He, though, was extremely indifferent, most of the time not showing any reaction.
He merely addressed the young man who was leading the way for them: “Take us directly to see Madam.”
The Zhousheng Chen in the airport who had been hurrying on his way, the Zhousheng Chen at Qinglong Temple who had occasionally conversed and laughed, the Zhousheng Chen in Shanghai who had seemed somewhat mysterious –– none of them had anything to do with this man right here in this moment.
As they stepped into a pavilion that was a shelter from the rain and someone meticulously wiped away the water on their shoes, this feeling became even stronger. Inside the pavilion, there were a dozen or so women, middle-aged as well as young girls, giggling and chatting, and when they arrived, these women instinctively rose to their feet or sat more upright.
Every gaze inconspicuously fell on her.
Zhousheng Chen, though, did not exchange any polite greetings with anyone and seemed as if he was not very acquainted with any of them.
Only the woman sitting on a wicker chair in the northwest corner did not show any reaction.
Judging simply from her bearing and sitting posture, Shi Yi was able to guess that this extremely dignified middle-aged woman was Zhousheng Chen’s mother. While she was conjecturing, the woman had already spoken. “And this young miss is…?”
“She is Shi Yi.” Zhousheng Chen took her hand that had been on his arm and held it gently.
Everyone’s expressions showed astonishment, and some even evidently did not understand.
Shi Yi could hear her own heart thumping violently against her chest from uneasiness and apprehension.
Zhousheng Chen’s mother stared at her for several seconds, then very, very slowly turned her lips up in a smile. “Miss Shi Yi, hello.”
“Auntie, hello,” Shi Yi answered.
A quiet, composed voice gently slid into everyone’s ear.
She made herself smile as much as possible and appear humble as she willingly accepted his mother’s scrutinizing gaze.
The noise of the falling rain seemed to amplify the mood of this moment.
She was not certain the reason, but she sensed that his mother was not simply “cool” towards her, as he had described, and truly did not like her.
What followed confirmed this fact.
Zhousheng Chen’s mother merely very graciously asked her if she had had lunch yet. When she learned that Shi Yi had not eaten, she said in a natural, gentle tone, “Miss Shi Yi, I am extremely sorry. These next several days are in recognition of the Qingming Festival and are also the Zhousheng family’s days of partaking in cold food, where open flames or heat are not to be used to cook foods. I, therefore, shall not invite you to stay here for lunch and shall instead let my son have the honour of acting as host and choosing an appropriate location somewhere in Zhenjiang to entertain you. Is that alright?”
A very tactful way of ordering the guest to leave.
She completely had no choice in the matter and could only nod her head in agreement as she replied, “Thank you, Auntie.”
His mother, with someone’s assistance, had already risen to her feet from the wicker chair and was serenely adjusting the shawl on her shoulders. “My apologies, Miss Shi Yi.” A smile was still on her lips, and after giving a nod to Shi Yi, she gently patted Zhousheng Chen’s right arm. “After you have taken Miss Shi Yi back, come talk with Mother. We have not seen one another for a long time, and we, mother and son, have become unfamiliar with one another.”
Zhousheng Chen’s voice did not carry any emotion in it. “I may not return here tonight.”
“If you do not have time tonight, then tomorrow morning.”
The gazes of this mother and son pair met and then separated again. His mother left the rain shelter pavilion, leaving behind a pavilion full of irrelevant people who were still continuing to assess Shi Yi with various different expressions on their faces. Zhousheng Chen squeezed her hand lightly. “We will go now.”
Despite having prepared herself ahead of time, it was still hurtful.
Dressing up so finely and with such care, nervously awaiting this meeting, yet it had so hastily ended. This scenario was one that had not even crossed Shi Yi’s mind.
Later, the two of them were once again in the car and leaving that place, from an old manor that carried a strong feeling of history back into the modern city.
They had lunch in a private dining room on the second floor of a restaurant that they had made reservations for ahead of time. Their window overlooked a lake.
She did not eat much, simply drinking tea and watching him eat.
The more contact she had with him, the more she could tell that he had had a very fine upbringing since he was a child. Even the manner he held his chopsticks and his practices when he picked up food with them were extremely precise. Freedom to do as he pleased within the rules –– that was likely the way he functioned as a result of his personality.
“I had thought, after telling you ahead of time what her reaction would be, you would be prepared.” Zhousheng Chen took a small sip of tea and said rather unconcernedly, “Or at least, you would not allow yourself to be so upset.”
She smiled embarrassedly. “I did not expect that your mother would be so opposed to me.”
“In her eyes, my betrothal is an extremely important matter, and furthermore, long ago, when I was still a teenager, she had already started selecting potential candidates whom she believed were suitable to be my wife.” He leaned back lightly against the seat and, in an utterly serious tone, told her, “When a person, who had began preparing a gift more than a dozen years ago, finds out that, in the end, that gift is completely useless, the feeling of disappointment is inevitable.”
She all of a sudden understood. It was no wonder, then, that the look in his mother’s eyes when she looked at her was questioning but also had a sense of disappointment.
But, starting the wife selection process when someone was only a teenager was truly unheard of.
“She chose some candidates and then was going to leave the final selection to you?”
He took a sip of tea, purposely overlooking this question.
She lowered her head and thought, why did he always have experiences in his life that made it difficult for people to get close to him?
Yet, it had to be this way or else it would not be considered befitting of him.
“Are you still angry?” he asked her.
Shi Yi pressed her lips together, wanting to smile but not doing so, and instead joked, “No, I’m just curious about the way your family would have you choose your wife.”
“A little bit.” She deliberately wanted to make things difficult for him. “If you will tell me, I might find it entertaining and then not be angry anymore.”
He seemed to be contemplating. “If you will be happy, I could consider letting you have a look.”
He quickly turned his head to the side, summoned the middle-aged chauffeur who had been waiting in attention at the door, and said something.
The chauffeur could not hold back a smile and cast a cryptic glance at Shi Yi.
Soon, the chauffeur had left and come back once again, bringing with him an incredibly thick folder that he had actually deliberately gone back to retrieve. Shi Yi opened it and discovered that it contained very detailed profiles of people. Perhaps the person who prepared this book did not like taking high definition photographs, for accompanying the written descriptions were various hand-drawn portraits.
“There really are people who are willing to put their daughter’s name in here for you to look over?” She felt awkward from just flipping through the pages, so she truly could not imagine Zhousheng Chen holding these in his hand with people beside him asking him whom he was interested in.
“They are all from families who are long time friends of the Zhousheng family,” he answered.
She gave an “oh” and did not feel right to keep flipping through. “You are really like those emperors or nobles of the past. Such complicated rules and practices in order to marry your wife.”
Selecting from a daughter of an aristocratic or influential family whose birth time eight characters was compatible with his –– a very traditional, orthodox approach.
But, if this approach was taken in the twenty-first century, would it not be considered to be too bizarre?
What type of family did he come from that these wealthy, highborn young ladies would willingly offer up their portraits? Shi Yi had heard that many family-held corporations had their own large families in which there were young girls who were brought up in a sheltered environment and were born specifically to be wedded off in a matrimony joining families of equal status. Even though this was all hearsay to her, she knew that this sort of equal status marriage required the guarantee of wealth and assets to bring about the union.
The more she brooded over this, the more she wanted to look at him.
Zhousheng Chen, on the other hand, had moved his gaze to her hands. “Those two rings, is their size right for you?”
Shi Yi used her fingers to gently rotate the rings and replied honestly. “They are a little loose, but they won’t fall off.”
“If I know approximately what size you are, when I select an engagement ring, I will not make any gross errors.”
伯母 “bo mu.” This means aunt or auntie, but it is a much more polite and formal form of address (to someone approximately your mother’s age) than the 阿姨 “a yi”, which is also translated as auntie but is less formal.
 寒食日 “Han Shi Ri” or the Cold Food Festival. A traditional Chinese festival that begins one or two days prior to Qingming. It is actually a very old festival and used to include ancestral worship as well as consuming food that was cold. However, recognition of the Cold Food Festival has largely disappeared within most of China and the practices have mainly been amalgamated into Qingming.
 生辰八字 “sheng chen ba zi.” One’s birth time eight characters (also called birth time ba zi or Four Pillars of Destiny) is made up of the year, month, day, and time of one’s birth, and these four things (each described by a two-character name, hence eight characters in total) are supposed to determine one’s unique personality and a map for one’s destiny (e.g. marriage, career, etc).
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