Though it was indeed a match-making family dinner, there were also some higher-ups and elite engineers from East Wind Heavy Industries attending. However, Ning Yuan-Shan had arranged for them to be seated far, far away. He had a private room for themselves and it was just himself, Ning Yuan-Hai, Ning Jing’s mother, Zhang Hui-Lan, Xia Lei and Ning Jing for a total of five around a large, round table. It was a bit of a waste.
It was Xia Lei’s first time meeting Ning Yuan-Hai and Zhang Hui-Lan. Ning Yuan-Hai and Ning Yuan-Shan looked quite alike and both were in their fifties. Zhang Hui-Lan looked younger – she looked to be in her early forties and had no obvious signs of aging. She was very similar to Ning Jing and though she was getting on in years, she was a mature beauty, the type who had face, body and temperament.
‘Didn’t expect Big Sister Ning’s mother to be so young. I wonder if Big Sister Ning will look something like this when she’s her mother’s age?’ Xia Lei had a strange thought.
“Father, Mother, Uncle, Xia Lei is here,” said Ning Jing.
There was actually no need for introductions since Ning Yuan-Hai and Zhang Hui-Lan had looked Xia Lei top to toe and back up to his face the moment he walked through the door. Based off the small detail of Ning Jing holding hands with him, they’d concluded who he was.
Being stared at like a convict by Ning Jing’s parents made Xia Lei nervous. He paused in one spot, unsure of how he should proceed.
Ning Jing nudged Xia Lei’s waist with her elbow and urged softly, “What are you standing still for? Go, go.”
Xia Lei was prodded into action and he quickly walked forward, “Uncle, Aunt, Uncle Ning, sorry I’m late. I’ve made you wait.”
“It is important to be punctual, young man,” said Ning Yuan-Hai.
“That’s right. You’re late for our first meeting,” said Zhang Hui-Lan.
Xia Lei wanted to explain himself but he could not speak for embarrassment. He’d expected that this would not be a relaxing time and would be difficult but he didn’t think it would be this difficult. Ning Jing’s parents had set the difficulty level for him right from the get-go.
Ning Jing chimed in, “Lei was late because he was busy buying gifts for you. Don’t chide him.”
Xia Lei presented the gift baskets next, “Uncle, Aunt, this is a small token of my sincerity. Please accept it.”
Ning Yuan-Hai held the gift basket and looked at it but Zhang Hui-Lan did not even glance at it before she set it down on the table. The two of them seemed to have discussed matters beforehand and were not going to go easy on Xia Lei, probably meaning to test his temper.
Xia Lei sighed inwardly, ‘Please start dinner soon so I can leave. Next time, I won’t go along with Big Sister Ning’s charade even if she holds a knife to my throat.’
Just then, Ning Yuan-Shan walked towards the door, saying as he went, “You guys take your time and chat, I’ll ask the kitchen to send the dishes out. Geeze, look what time it is and they still haven’t served us. This service is too slow.”
Xia Lei glanced at the door and thought, ‘Would a five-star hotel have this sort of problem? Don’t lie to me. You guys instructed the staff to send out the dishes later, didn’t you?’
Ning Yuan-Hai seemed to view him more kindly. It was not difficult to see that he was pleased by Xia Lei’s charming handsomeness.
“Urmh, ahem,” Zhang Hui-Lan coughed all of a sudden, then said, “Xia Lei, when did you meet our Jing?”
“Half a year ago, in a bookshop. I love books and so does he,” said Ning Jing.
“Shut your mouth. I didn’t ask you.” Zhang Hui-Lan glared at Ning Jing.
Ning Jing closed her mouth; she seemed to be afraid of Zhang Hui-Lan, who looked to be the head of the house.
Xia Lei went with it, “Yes, that’s right. We met half a year ago in a bookshop.”
Xia Lei thought for a bit, “Xinhua, Xinhua Bookstore.”
“It’s been half a year. You were together for half a year and kept it from us.” Zhang Hui-Lan seemed mad, “Xia Lei, are you ignoring the existences of us parents, or just playing some sort of game with our Jing? A responsible man would not be doing something like this.”
Xia Lei’s scalp was starting to go numb. He bit the bullet and said, “I apologise, Aunt. I definitely did not have that sort of intention, I…”
Zhang Hui-Lan cut him off, “How old are you this year?”
“My mother passed early on. My father… is also not around. It’s just my sister and myself. My sister was accepted into Jing-Du University and she will be going to study there in a few days.” Xia Lei just gave her all the details since Zhang Hui-Lan would ask about it anyway.
An almost indiscernible smile appeared on Zhang Hui-Lan’s lips. She caught Ning Yuan-Hai’s eye and they exchanged looks. It was easy to see that she was quite satisfied with Xia Lei’s age, appearance, temperament and family situation.
“What about Uncle? Why isn’t he back yet? Why haven’t we started our meal?” Ning Jing prompted, “I’m starving.”
“Manners.” Zhang Hui-Lan glared at Ning Jing.
Ning Jing shut her mouth again.
Zhang Hui-Lan’s gaze turned back to Xia Lei, and it was almost as if she could see through him, “Xia Lei, do you have a home in your name?”
Xia Lei replied somewhat awkwardly, “Yes, my parents left it to me but it is very small – just 75 square metres*.”
Zhang Hui-Lan followed with, “It is indeed too small. If our Jing marries you, how are you going to fit yourselves and your sister into that flat? And when you have children the place will be even more cramped. You have to work hard and earn more money, then buy a bigger house – at least 150 square metres.”
Xia Lei was speechless.
“How about a car? Do you have a car?”
Xia Lei shook his head. “No.”
“This can’t do either. You need a 500,000 yuan car, at least. It’s best if you have a 7-seater urban SUV so we can all sit comfortably when we go out as a family.”
“I currently don’t have the capital to buy a car…”
Before Xia Lei could finish his sentence, Ning Jing quietly kicked the back of his leg and he shut up, embarrassed.
Their actions did not escape Zhang Hui-Lan’s eyes. She wrinkled her brows a little, “Right, Xia Lei, what is your level of education?”
Xia Lei spoke without thinking, “High school.”
“High school?” Zhang Hui-Lan’s raised her wrinkled brows, “Why are you just a high-school graduate?”
Ning Yuan-Hai’s brows furrowed too; he was obviously not happy with Xia Lei’s educational background.
The way Zhang Hui-Lan and Ning Yuan-Hai looked at him made Xia Lei uncomfortable but when he thought about how this was for Ning Jing, he held it in and played along, keeping a respectful attitude, as he should, towards his elders. “Aunt, I would have liked to go to university too but if I went my sister would have no one to take care of her. I do not regret my decision.”
Zhang Hui-Lan and Ning Yuan-Hai exchanged glances, seeming to hesitate. They were both quite satisfied with Xia Lei’s other ‘qualifications’ but his education level was dissatisfactory.
“Our Jing is a Doctor. There’s a big gap between your cultures; you may get along well now but marriage is for life. Can you be confident of overcoming this cultural difference?” The look in Zhang Hui-Lan’s eyes was not as kindly as before.
Xia Lei didn’t know how to answer her; he had never thought about spending his life with Ning Jing.
Zhang Hui-Lan continued, “And your children. If you look at genetics, our Jing has the best genes, while yours…”
“Mother, what are you saying?” Ning Jing was upset and her face was red. Xia Lei had come to help her but her mother was making him uncomfortable.
At that very embarrassing moment, Ning Yuan-Shan walked in, chuckling, “They’ll serve the dishes right away.”
Ning Yuan-Hai stood and pulled Ning Yuan-Shan to a corner of the room to talk. Zhang Hui-Lan also stood and pulled Ning Jing to another corner to talk. The four people of the Ning clan spoke in low voices, obviously discussing Xia Lei. Xia Lei sat by himself, looking lonely. He was like a participant in a talent show awaiting the judges’ rating when the performance was over – Pass or Fail?
A faint wry smile crooked his lips, ‘This world sure is realistic. Good thing I’m not really in a relationship with Ning Jing. If I become the son-in-law of her mother I’d be driven mad by her sooner or later.’
The four people of the Ning clan were still deep in discussion.
On one side, Ning Yuan-Hai was saying to Ning Yuan-Shan, “Yuan-Shan, this won’t do. Xia Lei is just a high-school graduate. There’s too much of a difference with our Jing. The children they will have won’t get AA genes, they’ll get AB genes.”
“I say, brother, has your brain turned to mush? What can educational level prove? I have a whole bunch of university graduates, research labs and the like. Some take care of the warehouses, some write papers and none of them can hold a candle to Xia Lei. Do you know that Xia Lei’s workmanship is unparalleled in this country?”
“Isn’t it just welding and processing? You make it sound so mysterious.” Ning Yuan-Hai was obviously in disagreement with Ning Yuan-Shan’s view.
Ning Yuan-Shan let out a sigh, “Ai, whatever. If Jing were my child I’d raise both hands in approval of her and Xia Lei’s relationship.”
“I’m actually not that against it but Jing’s mother doesn’t agree. I can’t do anything about that,” said Ning Yuan-Hai.
On the other side, Zhang Hui-Lan spoke softly in Ning Jing’s ear, “My dear, how far have you gone with him?”
Ning Jing’s face turned pink. “Mother! Why are you asking this?”
“Mother’s asking you, so you answer.” Zhang Hui-Lan continued her interrogation, “Have you had sex?”
Ning Jing’s face turned redder, “We haven’t got to that stage yet. We just held hands and sometimes… kissing on the mouth.”
“You two really didn’t have sex?”
“We really didn’t!”
“That’s good… You didn’t – Mother is relieved.” Zhang Hui-Lan let out a breath.
Ning Jing sneaked a look at Xia Lei. For some strange reason, her eyes held a trace of disappointment.
Zhang Hui-Lan put her lips close to Ning Jing’s ear again, “My dear, Mother is actually not opposed to you finding your own love. If this Xia Lei is outstanding, your father and myself would gladly accept him but he’s just a high-school graduate. How can a high-school diploma holder be with a doctorate holder?”
“If you don’t like it then forget it,” said Ning Jing. It was a fake relationship anyway so this result was fine.
“Do you still remember the little boy you used to play with when you were a child?”
“Your Auntie Hu’s son, Ren Wen-Qiang, is back from studying in America and he got a PhD in Business Administration there. He was hired by Vientaine Group as their project manager for their wind power plant as soon as he came back to China. He’ll also be in charge of the project in the future.”
“What does this have to do with me?”
“Of course this has to do with you! Wen-Qiang has always liked you. How can I not see it as your mother? I ran into him today and when he heard you were coming, he said he was coming too, to discuss the wind power plant with your uncle. I know he actually wants to see you.” Having said that, Zhang Hui-Lan looked at the time on her watch, “He should be here about now, I think.”
“Th,That’s not good.” Ning Jing suddenly seriously regretted asking Xia Lei to help her out. She felt that this would hurt his feelings.
Zhang Hui-Lan glared at Ning Jing, “What’s not good? Ren Wen-Qiang has been playing with you since the two of you were very young. You two are childhood friends. If the two of you get together… Heh heh. That’ll be a match made in heaven. Be nicer to him later, all right?”
Ning Jing bit her bottom lip. This change in situation was unexpected; she wanted to leave with Xia Lei.
At that moment, a young man in a suit and tie appeared in the doorway of the private room.
*The author used an unspecified unit, 七十五平方 (75 square). I put the measurements down as 75 square metres, since it would be ridiculous to have a 75 square foot flat.