Eleven years ago today – Christmas Day, 2001 – I asked my girlfriend to marry me. Gill was living in Brisbane but holidaying with her family on the Gold Coast at the time. I was 8,500 kilometres away in northeast China, having relocated to a city called Changchun for work a few months earlier.
How do you propose to someone on the other side of the planet? By email, of course. The hitch is that it’s not an especially romantic method of popping the question – a bit like the guy I read about who proposed to his girlfriend while they were pulled over at a Mobil service station.
My task, then, was to find a way to make it more than just an average email.
Step one was to enlist the services of Mr Gan, a famous Changchun artist, to help with the calligraphic side of things. I met him at his art studio at 9am on Christmas morning. December 25 is just a regular day in China, so it’s not like I was dragging him away from roasting a turkey. First we cut a large cardboard sheet into the shape of a love heart (cheesy but effective). Then Mr Gan picked up one of his bamboo ink brushes and set about painting my message for Gill in red Chinese characters.
Mr Gan was a wiz with Chinese writing but his English was as bad as my Mandarin. So it was my job to pen the English-language version of my message on the reverse side of the heart.
When we were done, I thanked Mr Gan for his help, then marched off through the frigid streets of Changchun to execute the next part of the plan: the photo shoot.
On reaching Changchun’s South Lake, the location I’d chosen for the proposal, I stepped tentatively onto its frozen surface. As someone from Australia’s tropical coast, I’d not walked on a lot of solid lakes before this. The cracks can be disconcerting.
My partner in crime for the day was a Swedish fellow called Magnus. Magnus was my teaching colleague in Changchun and also Mr Gan’s son-in-law. I’d asked him to brave the -25°C temperatures in order to take the photos that I would send to Gill in Australia. Below is the first photo he took of me on South Lake. I look utterly alone, almost like I’m in Siberia not China. In fact, an enormous crowd of local onlookers had gathered behind Magnus. They were presumably scratching their heads and wondering why on earth a silly foreigner might be standing on a bitterly cold lake waving a heart-shaped placard featuring a Chinese-language marriage proposal in the direction of another silly foreigner with a camera.
Magnus took a dozen or so photos in various locations until his shutter finger froze. Here’s one of me sitting on an aquamarine block of ice carved from the lake. These glistening slabs would later be deposited at street corners in Changchun and turned into sculptures by artists wielding chainsaws and blades.
The following photo is what I call “the reveal”. In case Gill thought the Chinese message was just a simple Christmas greeting, I flipped the sign around to show off the English-language words so there could be no doubt. (The object I’m holding aloft isn’t a glass of champagne but rather a stuffed toy dog called Naps that Gill and I had been given for free one day in Brisbane, when we rented a couple of videos at a Blockbuster store. I’m not sure why he featured in the proposal, but good luck to him.)
And here’s a diamond-shaped lump of ice in lieu of a ring, hopefully to seal the deal.
After one final photo – the triumphant Rocky-style portrait below – it was time for a Christmas lunch of incendiary Sichuan food doused with cold Qingdao beer.
My final task for the day was to attach the photos to a series of emails and send them off to Gill. (Sounds easy now, but in 2001 the internet speed in China was shocking, and my computer was a Windows 98 dinosaur, infested with something called a Panther virus. Took me forever.)
Twenty-four hours later, on Boxing Day, Gill nonchalantly walked into an internet cafe on the Gold Coast. I’d told her to be on the lookout for a Christmas message from me. Surrounded by tattooed Aussies and tanned backpackers, she clicked open my set of emails and watched as a series of photos chugged onto the screen, all of them showing her boyfriend standing on some kind of icy tundra in a far-flung part of China.
As she perused the emails, Gill had no inkling that the love heart said anything more than “Merry Christmas”. Then she saw the final photo – the one with the English-language version of the message. Apparently she let out a loud squeal, at which point every person in the internet cafe turned in her direction to see what the fuss was about.
Happily for me, hers was an excited squeal rather than one she might emit while watching The Shining or upon discovering a nest of cockroaches behind the fridge.
She said yes.
I also asked her if she’d come and live with me in China and she said yes to that, too.