Arabib lives on the same floor as my room. I first met her when she was standing outside the door to her room, talking with a bald young man who looks almost Indian except that he wasn’t Indian – he was from Saudi Arabia. Arabib says she is from Tunisia and introductions follow. She is an effusive talker and reveals far more knowledge of Bollywood than I. It’s around 2:30PM, and she says that she just woke up. Aghast, the three of us, Birdy, Dawei and I ask her about her classes. “I don’t go to class,” she says. “I know everything now. I don’t need to go to class at all. So I just sleep.” We nod, in admiration and envy. I would love to reach the stage when I can say I know everything in Chinese. But I am afraid such stages don’t come in life – I am not sure you can ever say over to learning, it’s a process that just seeps into your system and never lets go.
After that brief introduction, she had come over to our dorm another day to borrow a USB. That time Birdy was about to go to the local fruit shop to buy some longyan and Arabib went along with her too. As usual, words are not a premium when Arabib is around. She is pretty – fair-skinned with curly hair, she has a certain charm. But her face is lined with creases, and when I glance at her passport, it’s a shock to see that she was born in 1987, just around 23 years of age. She looks 30 though, harsh as that sounds. Like many Africans, Arabib has felt the sword of racism that is all too prevalent in China. She tells Birdy that she hates going to class because the teachers are all prejudiced about Africa. And I can understand how she feels – we have a teacher called Tang Laoshi who acts pretty much the same in our speaking class – she adores the Americans, Germans and Englishmen in our class, but gives us Indians the short shift. And Arabib can afford to skip classes – she is at an advanced level, and is just looking for a job.
On Sunday, just after visiting the Pandas I was looking forward to a nice afternoon of rest and relaxation. It was not to be as Arabib came over with a camera in hand. She explains that she had been to another city in Sichuan the past few days, and wants to show us the pictures from it. And there begins the tale. Arabib has a boyfriend. He is Algerian. Last semester was when she met her boyfriend online. “He is not very handsome,” she says apologetically. We hurry to tell her that it doesn’t matter. “Yes, I know. He has a good heart,” she says. We are impressed and hope that the boyfriend’s heart is really good because the bald, aging man who stares at me in the photos she shows is definitely not good looking. But well, looks don’t matter, don’t they? Arabib says she met him for the first time a few months ago in Shenzhen. At that time, her father needed some money, and so she sent him all the money she had. Then, her boyfriend comes down from Algeria to Shenzhen and invites her to come over. She declines many times, until puzzled, he asks her in exasperation if she ever wants to meet him, because he is even willing to buy her the ticket. That’s what Arabib was waiting for. Having no money at that time, she decides on an impulse to take him up on his offer. The tickets arrive, and for no reason I could discern, Arabib doesn’t tell her boyfriend she is coming. No, not a peep. She doesn’t contact him for days, she doesn’t even have money for a mobile phone…yet with just the clothes she is wearing, she boards the flight to Shenzhen. At the same time, the boyfriend is asking his friends for advice. “Is she going to come? Why hasn’t she contacted me?” The friends advise him not to go – after all she is only some person he met online, who knows if she will ever come. But the boyfriend says he will take the chance and go to the airport. Which is a good thing as Arabib has no money – and by now, on the flight she is worried and petrified. What will she do once she lands? With no phone, no money to buy a ticket back? But her prince is there. Waiting. And laughing at crazy Arabib who lands in Shenzhen with no bags, not even a little travel case.
“Those days in Shenzhen were the happiest of my life,” Arabib says wistfully. By now, I have finished most of the apricots I had, and Birdy around 2 milk packets. “He take real good care of me, you know. He buy me everything. This coat, phone, you know everything.” Three days later, she travels with him to Hong Kong – and sleeps with him for the first time. “I regret it, you know, I really regret it,” she says. “Why?” Birdy asks, surprised. It’s not hard to understand why. Tunisia is a Muslim country despite all the French influence, and no Muslim man there likes his wife to be a non-virgin. But what’s the problem, we wonder. Arabib loves her boyfriend, doesn’t she? “Yes, I do,” she says. Except she doesn’t like his ideas. The boyfriend doesn’t want her to work, or to continue her studies – he wants her to be at home in Algeria. “Algeria is not like Tunisia,” Arabib explains. Far more conservative a country, she would be expected to wear the burkha, have virtually no male friends, and be a dutiful wife to her husband. Of course, her boyfriend promises her that he will provide her anything she wants. But warns that she must choose him or her family in Tunisia. He is 39 and wants to get married by summer so that the kids can start coming as soon as possible. Choices don’t come tougher than this. Or easier than that, depending on your affinity to either side. Arabib is torn. But that’s not all.
In the college here, she says that a French guy is in love with her. He is a very good friend of her, although I am not sure what the relationship is right now as her boyfriend is apparently very possessive. She says that she has no friends on campus currently – for the French guy’s birthday she prepared a cake, hosted a party – “I did everything for him. But on my birthday? No one remembered. I am very sad. Life…that’s how it goes,” she sighs. And then comes the final bombshell of this 2 hour saga – there was also a boyfriend back in Tunisia. “But he is not a good man!” Arabib says, although I am not sure why. “He says bad words, so I come here to China, I don’t speak with him.” He wants me to call him every day, she adds, and that is difficult for her as a student. “But a few days ago I call him.” Once again, we are not sure why.
At this stage, my memory also becomes a little hazy. It had been almost 2 hours of what was becoming an increasingly incoherent love story. I am not sure if there is a triangle or a square or a circle. The ex-boyfriend is obviously incensed, and having called him makes our Arabib unhappier. The current boyfriend keeps asking her if she has made up his mind. Arabib feels indebted to him – he has helped her many times, bought her many things. We try desperately to weave in a good word about marriage and companionship and the need to choose well. “Ya, but sometimes I think maybe I like another man, also?” she says, seriously. “When?” I ask her. “After marriage?” “Yes! Life, you know, very uncertain.” I swallow. Indeed life is uncertain. But her life sounds rather over populated now with a French boyfriend, Algerian boyfriend, Tunisian boyfriend – and some future boyfriends all lined up. “I don’t know why, everyone I meet falls in love with me!” Ah, that was a Arabib classic. I half want to tell her that it’s a wonderful skill, but she is being serious, not vain. Towards the end, I invent a meeting in a coffee shop, and beg my absence. It’s hard to compile this in a 1000 words because this Tunisian love story is not a story, but a novel. Arabib’s life, fascinating, chaotic and confusing as it is, I suspect has only just written its first chapter.