F.A.Z. Column by Emanuel Derman Separation Anxiety (The Hutong Sonata)

Love ist dangerous. Even in a plane. Even on a cellphone. Here is a lesson in separation anxiety.

© Kat Menschik Vergrößern

I boarded the early morning airplane from Beijing to Hong Kong. A few moments later, there sat down in the seat beside me a tall elegantly suited fiftyish man, cellphone pressed tight to his ear.

“Are you at work already?” he said urgently into the phone in Northern-European accented English. “I wanted to hear your voice one more time before I leave. I’m barely gone and I’m missing you already.” There was a long pause. “What about you?” he asked. There was a silence. He hung up, settled into his seat, put his books and magazines in the seat pocket, left the cellphone naked on the armrest between us.

During the ten minutes before the cabin doors closed, he several times redialed a number that didn’t appear to answer. Each time after four rings I could hear softly a few bars of minor-key Chinese-sounding meditative music, a bit like a Philip Glass sonata, and then a woman’s voice speaking Mandarin. After the fourth or fifth call he left one voicemail message: “I’m waiting for takeoff. I miss you. Email me.” Then, as the airline attendant walked up the aisle commanding us to turn off all cellular devices, I saw him send one quick text message.

We settled back in our seats, and then he turned to me, a little agitated.

“You may think I’m peculiar, Sir,” he said, “To keep trying to reach someone who doesn’t want to have a long conversation with me right now.”

I shook my head.

“Can I help?” I asked. “You look a bit upset. I’m sorry.”

“I know my problems aren’t your business,” he said, “But I need to talk. She’s thirty-three. She grew up in the Hutong area of Beijing. I’ve known her for six years. I met her when I came there for a short while to represent a North German company and she was a bank teller. We grew more than friendly, and I thought we could make a life together. I came here regularly on business for a week at a time, and spent all the time I had with her. She visited me in Europe. Once we travelled around China together. I lent her money, she went to university, got promoted, got a real job in banking, earned good money, borrowed more. She, how shall I say, she got used to the independent life.

“She doesn’t have it easy -- old parents she supports and helps, works the long days of finance business people. But she has her own apartment, and she likes the life of independence. When I first met her I thought I would settle down with her, like a Graham Greene character from the Fifties, if you know what I mean. But she likes her freedom and the right to buy whatever she wants. When I’m here in Beijing we spend our time together, she likes to visit me in Germany, but that’s enough for her … I wanted more.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But what can you do? Maybe you need patience. Sometimes people change.”

“No,” he said, leaning over to talk softly to me. “I never learn my lesson. All my life I’ve suffered from what they call separation anxiety. I’m the kind of person who hates to be first to hang up the phone. I like conversations to end like the smile of a Cheshire cat, Sir, fading away imperceptibly with no one actually committing the terminal click. I dislike separation, and separation from her is the worst thing for me. I’ve grown accustomed to her.”

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