My Friend Peter
Thirty years ago, I was a teacher in a university located in the southern Netherlands. And I always loved going to the library. At this particular one, most of the books were stored on open shelves; there was no need to check the index and no need to fill out a slip.
It felt like all sorts of books were welcoming me with open arms. The only problem was, since Dutch people boasted the world’s highest average height, their book shelves were also as high as their people. And the books I wanted to borrow were very often stored on the mid to upper part of the shelves, beyond my reach, so I had no choice but to look around and try to find someone to help me.
There stood a typical Dutch guy with big muscles, strawberryblonde hair and green eyes leaning against a bookshelf leafing through a magazine, who was so tall that I had to look up to him. If I looked straight ahead I could only see up to the third button of his jacket. The timing was perfect when he closed the magazine in his hand to reach for a new one. I seized this opportunity and asked him to come help me by fetching several books from the bookshelf in the next hall.
He was a bit taken aback before he followed cheerfully and helped me solve my book problem.
That’s how we got to know each other. The second time we met, he said his name was Peter, and asked me my name, and which university I was studying in.
I said my name was Lulu, and that he should have asked at which university I taught.
As it turned out he was a second-year student of University of Limburg, Netherlands, majoring in economics. That’s why he thought I was a student as well. Only after knowing him for a while did I discover that there was a good reason why he thought I didn’t look like a university teacher.
According to Peter’s account of when we first met, I looked like a hungry baby crying for milk as I asked him to get a book from the shelf. He didn’t understand why I had to sit there pouting my lips and didn’t just come out with it directly.
This was really insulting, so I retorted, “Well, you were all absorbed in your magazine at that moment in the reading room, while I, a stranger and foreigner, needed to drag you away to another hall to help me get a book. If I didn’t play cute and act all flirty what would make you willing help me?
Peter replied, “I see. But LuLu, what you did might have had the opposite effect.”
So I asked him modestly what else I could have done.
Peter said he was actually not a typical Dutchman, who might have agreed to help me that day simply out of the goodness of his heart, but definitely would not have had anything to do with me afterwards. Peter’s father once
ran a sugarcane farm in the Dutch colony of Indonesia, and fell in love with an Indonesian Chinese, so his father knew quite a lot about Chinese women’s habits and had passed his knowledge on to Peter. If a Dutchman not in the know like he was saw me acting girly, he would definitely ask me seriously, “Are you two years old? What’s with the little girly- girl act?”
One day I went to the library to borrow a book and had a flat tire on the way. I called Peter and asked him to come help me right away.
Before long he came to the scene with a small box in his hand. He asked me to move my bike to a quiet place away from traffic and people, then handed me the box on which was written “tire repair kit,” and turned to leave.
I called after him: “Where are you going? Why aren’t you helping me repair the flat tire?”
He turned around surprised, “LuLu, aren’t the Chinese people famous for bike riding?” I replied “Yes.” Then he was even more surprised, “If you can ride a bike, why can’t you repair a tire?” I said, “Well, I spent seven years in Beijing University and wore out two Pheonix bicycles. I’ve had dropped bicycle chains and flat tires many times, and every time the bike broke down, all I needed to do was stand on roadside curb and wait. Before two minutes passed some stranger of the male persuasion would magic ally appear and stoop down to fix my bike for me without any complaints. So, I never needed to learn how to fix a bike.”
Peter shook his head with a sigh. He opened the box in his hand and told me, “As long as you follow the instructions, you can’t go wrong.”
I was about to have a hissy fit, but he stayed cool as a cucumber, and reassured me, “Lulu, it’s no use playing the damsel in distress. I’m not going to fall for that. Although I’m not a typical Dutch man, I won’t be at your beck and call anytime you want me to come fix this or that for you either. Can I ask you a question? Do you see me as a good friend, or as a ladder to get your books, or as your bicycle repairman? To think that you are a university teacher. If anyone should get all pouty and cutesycutesy, it should be some naïve young chick, not a university teacher like you.”
After Peter graduated from university, he went to Southeast Asia to develop his career. We lost contact after that. But he was the first person who ever taught me about European culture. Since then, I’ve tried to straddle the line. To not only exude female beauty in its Chinese manifestation, but also explore the feminine appeal from the European perspective.
I came to realize that, when I acted cute to get Peter to fix my bike, I was making a fool of myself. Because by doing this, I was lowering myself before him, and I was acting like a weak, coddled baby demanding everything to be handed to me on a silver platter. Obviously, Peter and I are both adults, why couldn’t I learn to do what he could? Why did I have to rely on Peter’s kindness? In other words, by being a dependent follower, how could I win Peter’s respect? Where was the gender equality? Without equality, how could we talk about mutual respect, values, love and admiration? Isn’t that where women’s charm comes from?
Dutch people, on seeing a woman acting girly, may ask them, “How old are you that you are crying like a hungry little baby?” French people favor mature women over young girls. Those different ways of expression show how European people view female charm. In their view, forbearance, nobility, maturity, wisdom, valiance and self- reliance are where the real beauty lies. (From World
Knowledge , February 2018. Translation: Lu Qiongyao)