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-from A Daoist Journey Into China: Journal of a Voyage Into the Interior, by Joel Schwartz
Dodging bicycles and ditches, balancing on wooden planks over open trenches, I made my way to Huangpu Park along the river through markets of live chickens and more varieties of shrimp than I had ever seen. I was approached almost immediately by two young Shanghai University students.
“Where are you from?” one of them asked.
“May I practice my English?”
“Sure, why not?”
“You are a very comical person!”
I took it as a compliment. He told me he had been studying English – a mandatory requirement – for eight years, and had little opportunity to use it with native speakers.
“You will correct me?”
“Only if you say something wrong.”
These two students, Hu Ding and Zheng Lu-shan, offered to show me around Shanghai. There was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something that seemed beyond mere good natured friendliness. They were curious about my clothing, my Reeboks, my pocket tape recorder, what it all cost, including the flight to the P.R.C. As we walked along, Zheng began to sing an aria from Chinese opera in full falsetto. I asked him if I could tape it.
At first shy, he agreed and did two takes before he was satisfied. The machine fascinated him. We had stopped in a doorway of an office building for him to record the aria so we wouldn’t draw a crowd around us on the street. He asked if I liked his singing, if I liked him, and he smiled flirtatiously. Hu became embarrassed. I answered ‘yes’ to all his questions. Zheng complimented me on my body, a very non-Western thing to do outside the context of a gay bar. He asked me if I was married. I said I wasn’t. Did I have a lover? Not presently. In the past? Yes, for seven years, but we separated a few years ago. What was she like? By now I had the feeling he was making eyes at me, cultural differences notwithstanding. I decided to run my guesswork up the flagpole and see what would fly.
“It wasn’t a ‘she’,” I answered. “My lover was a man.”
“You?” he responded with wide –eyed wonder. “And your lover, he wore the dress and earrings?”
“No. He was a man.”
“But he wore makeup?”
“No. Occasionally aftershave.”
It was a word they didn’t know and I tried to explain, not successfully. I only confused them.
“But he must have been the woman between you two.”
I told Zheng otherwise: we were both masculine and comfortable being men in a relationship. He seemed stunned, shocked, for a moment even smiled knowingly as if he got the joke: I had to be pulling his leg.
“What do you call these relationships between two men in China?” I asked.
“Your lover was gay, yes?”
“Both of us are gay.”
Again the incredulous look. I tried to explain something about such relationships in parts of the West, especially California. But the information seemed too mind-boggling for him to assimilate. I was surprise he knew the English word ‘gay’, but the conversation went nowhere. Neither he nor Hu seemed able to grasp the idea of a same-sex relationship without gender roles. I let the conversation drift to something else.
We walked a few blocks, with Zheng and Hu muttering among themselves in Shanghai dialect. I was wondering if they were still trying to fathom what I had told them about gay men in the States, but I didn’t want to get back into that conversation since we had reached an impasse and were going in circles. At the art museum we found the Song Dynasty collection on the third floor. Neither Hu nor Zheng seemed interested in anything hanging on the walls, spending their time staring out the window at the street scene while I took in the paintings.
I couldn’t make out much of the captions, which were in Chinese without translation, but I had the distinct feeling I was looking at fakes. One of my Chinese art history classes, during my senior at college, had focused on how to distinguish copies from originals. The more I saw of these paintings, the less convinced I was that I was looking at masterworks. I pulled the two students away from the window and told them my suspicions. They came over to the paintings I was looking at and read the captions, translating for me.
“These are copies, not originals,” they explained.
“Where are the originals?”
“In Taiwan. What do you think of the two-China policy?”
We were about to embark on our first political conversation, referring to the days when the US recognized both the People’s Republic and Taiwan as two independent governments of China. The People’s Republic has always seen Taiwan as a wayward stepchild but a part of their country nonetheless.
“There is only one China,” I replied.
Zheng hugged me. Hu nodded vigorously. The discussion was over. Before we left the museum I had to use the men’s room. Zheng followed me. As I finished my business, he leaned over and kissed me on the neck.
“Do you like me?” he asked.
“Yes, you’re very nice.”
“Will you take me to your hotel?”
Profound dilemma. I did think he was nice and attractive as well. The idea of becoming physically intimate with the Chinese was a notion I had given up even before embarking on this journey, having heard the party line that there were no homosexuals in the entire population of over a billion. Not that I believed it, though I was ready to accept there might not be any uncloseted homosexuals.
And here I was being propositioned by one within a couple of hours of arriving on the Mainland. It didn’t seem safe. I had read Chinese Government, while open and friendly toward Americans, took a dim view of our having sexual relations with the population. Certainly HIV/AIDS-phobia played its part, but this sexual noninterference attitude preceded the advent of HIV/AIDS. I pictured myself asking the floor monitor for my key with this local boy by my side. They would exchange some words in Shanghai dialect, which Zheng would not translate. We would slip into my room, maybe embrace, and then explore cultural differences in bed.
And the police would arrive.
While I knew that the Chinese policy toward Westerners meant I wouldn’t be prosecuted, there was little doubt but I would be deported; that was how the Chinese dealt with major infractions by Westerners. For minor infractions, I was told by an Aussie on the Hong Kong boat who had been arrested for ‘raucous partying’ on a previous trip to China, you are brought to the police station and asked to write a confession of your guilty behavior. His confession, satisfying the Public Security officers, began:
“Having dishonored and disgraced my noble parents and distinguished ancestors by this heinous antisocial offense which I committed…”
He was released and the authorities saved face. I decided it would be too risky to take him back to my room and declined.
“Perhaps you would like to go to a restaurant? I could take you to a private club where gay Chinese go.”
“That would interest me.”
“Do you like me more than Hu?” he asked with fluttering eyes.
“You are both nice men.”
“Do you want to kiss my penis?”
“Let’s go to this club of yours and get something to eat.”
We left the museum.