“Hitting is tenderness, scolding is love.”

MY EYES ARE TURNED AWAY, so I don’t see the hand coming. Suddenly my head jumps to the side and it’s as if someone shook me out of sleep. A second or two pass before my cheek starts to swell up and the back of my head ache from the impact of the headboard.

I’ve just been hit.

“Hitting is tenderness, scolding is love” — so the Chinese saying goes. I’ve used it myself jokingly, but now, with my Chinese boyfriend sitting over me with a look of anger on his face, I don’t feel like laughing at all.

I don’t know if my dad ever actually hit my mum. I remember one scene from when I was about three or four. I was playing with my older siblings when we heard some noises from the kitchen. We went to look, and Mum was lying on the bench, Dad sitting on her and shaking her by her blouse. He didn’t seem to notice us at all, but when she saw us standing there, she tried to smile and said: “It’s all right, Daddy and I are just playing. Go back to your room.”

I remember my sense of something being very wrong, but in the end we must have gone back, because I have no memory of what happened after. In fact, I think I must have forgotten the whole incident for many years, until one day, when I grew up, it came back and I finally understood.

I don’t know what else my mum might be keeping from us. I’d never seen any bruises, any raised hands, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. My father would die for us, but he’s got a temper and can’t control it. I don’t know and I don’t want to ask. What I know is how shocked I was to realise that domestic violence is not something that happens only in destitute, alcoholic families — it surrounds us, hidden behind a wall of silence. I remember thinking: “I will never let that happen to me.”

Before I close the door, I force myself to say: “I swore I would never let a man hit me.”

Now, half a world away from home, in the little guest room of my boyfriend’s ganma’s (godmother’s) house, this is exactly what happens. The sad thing is, I’m not surprised. I’d seen him keep calm when provoked before, and I thought he was a peaceful man. But one time he’d told me that if I left him, he’d kill me. I told him to not even joke like that.

Another time, when I let him know of my doubts about us, he grabbed my throat and held it for a few seconds. I thought then he might be capable of doing something more, and now, when I finally tell him I don’t think we should be together, he does.

He knows my time in China is coming to an end, and he knows I might not be coming back. He’d asked me before if we could at least stay together till I leave. I’d said okay, but later, as my misgivings became clearer, I started feeling it’d be unfair both to him and to myself — I’d be giving him false hope and forcing myself to be with him while knowing I wasn’t prepared for it to last. It would be a lie.

When I say so to him, he gets angry. “You won’t even give me a little hope?” This is when the stroke falls.

I’m too stunned to do anything other than leave. I don’t want to be in this room. I need to be alone. He watches me go. Before I close the door, I force myself to say: “I swore I would never let a man hit me. There’s not a chance I would ever, ever be with you after this.”

“Fuck off then,” he says.

I go downstairs to Teacher Zhang’s (Ganma’s husband’s) studio. I want to hide there for the night. It’s late and there’s not much else I can do. I was hoping everyone would be asleep, but Teacher Zhang is still watching TV and sees me in the hallway. After a few moments he follows me into the studio and asks what’s wrong. By then my emotions are catching up with me and I know if I try to talk I’ll start crying. I’m taking deep, anxious breaths. All I can do by way of answering is to shake my head. Not knowing what’s going on or what to do, he disappears and I know he’s gone upstairs to wake up his wife.

By the time they appear, my boyfriend has too. He squats next to my chair and looks up at me.

“Ao Jin. Ao Jin.” He calls me by my Chinese name. I don’t look at him. I don’t say anything. I’m just trying to control myself. I know I should get mad — I should yell at him, throw him out of the room, let him see how hurt and shocked and angry I am, how my face aches, how he had no right to do it, whatever he felt at the moment. But I just can’t.

If we were back in the city, in his flat, I could just leave and go to my own place, and never talk to him again. Here, I’m trapped. We’re in the countryside. I can’t go anywhere. And I don’t want to make a scene in his ganma’s house.

I even feel a bit guilty — I knew it wasn’t a good idea for us to be together in the first place. It doesn’t justify him, but somehow I feel that if I’d stuck to my opinion, none of this would have happened. I’m partly responsible, because I’d been too weak to say no to him when I should have. So I’m just sitting there, breathing. This is what Ganma and Teacher Zhang see when they come in.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. “What’s happened, what did you do to her?” She has to ask a few times before he finally says it.

“I hit her.”

The words fall like a bomb. They can’t believe it. “How could you do it? How could something like that happen under my roof?” Teacher Zhang repeats a few times, incredulous.

“Go back upstairs,” says Ganma to my boyfriend. “Leave us alone, both of you.”

They leave. She stands next to me, puts a hand on my shoulder.

“Now, what happened?”

“I don’t want to talk now,” I say. “If I start talking, I’ll cry.”

“It’s all right. You can cry all you want.”

I tell her haltingly what happened, and about my parents, and about my promise to myself. She listens without interrupting.

“You know,” she says eventually. “I was married once before. I left my husband because he used to do it to me.” I look at her in surprise. It’s hard to imagine this intelligent, cheerful, energetic Chinese lady as a victim of domestic violence. “And it’s breaking my heart to learn that this boy, whom I love like a son, would do something like that. I never thought he could turn out to be this kind of man.”

Throughout the many goodbyes in my life, I’ve only cried twice: once for my mother, and once for her.

How would she? How would anyone ever? They don’t have the word “brute” written on their foreheads. They might actually be decent men in other roles: good friends, devoted fathers. When I started dating my boyfriend, all of his friends told me: “We’re so happy for you two. We hope you’ll get hitched eventually. You know, he’s such a kind and generous person.” But why is it that those good friends and devoted fathers think it’s okay to take their anger out on the women who trust them to love and cherish them?

Maybe it’s because we don’t talk about it, or not enough. We don’t see it when it happens; it gets hidden away. I actually feel sorry that it occurred in Ganma’s house, even as I’m grateful for her presence and support, and for the fact that I won’t have to explain anything to her later. But if she wasn’t already here, I wouldn’t have told her. She shouldn’t be a part of what goes on between him and me.

After all, she’s his godmother, not mine. She’s known me for all of two or three weeks, and suddenly I’m throwing her whole relationship with her godson off balance. Yes, she has the right to know what he’s like. But I wish she wouldn’t. What can she do about it, apart from feeling disappointed? In the same way I’m probably never going to tell my mum. It would only break her heart. I’m going to protect her, like she tried to protect me.

“Well,” I say eventually, “at least now I know exactly what to do. Even if I wanted to be with him, it would be best for both of us to split up. If he did it once and I went back to him, he’d do it again.”

She nods.

“I’ll prepare a bed for you in another room. You just wait here.”

I’m much calmer now. In a way, I’m lucky. I wanted to break up with him anyway. How devastating it would be if I actually loved him? To imagine that we could have been together for years, that we could have even got married. What if he never got this angry till after we had children? Would I say then that I’ll never let a man treat me like this? Ganma did. My mum didn’t.

So the good thing is, he didn’t actually ruin anything for us; for my part, there was nothing there to be ruined. I don’t feel traumatised, I don’t hate him, I’ll even talk to him in the days to come. What he did ruin, at least temporarily, was my trust. The next time I meet a man, I might have to fight hard to trust him. I already catch myself planning my defence strategy. I hope the man I choose will prove it unnecessary — but how is he going to do it?

When it’s time to leave China, I go and visit Ganma on my own. I call her my Ganma now, too, even though we’ve known each other for such a short time and will never have the traditional ceremony to make it official — but just like a mother, she was there for me when I needed someone. I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again, but I know that throughout the many goodbyes in my life, I’ve only cried twice: once for my mother, and once for her.