If feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression, and depriving females of reproductive rights is a form of sexist oppression, then one cannot be anti-choice and be feminist. A woman can insist she would never choose to have an abortion while affirming her support of the right of women to choose and still be an advocate of feminist politics. She cannot be anti-abortion and an advocate of feminism.
bell hooks (b. 1952) is an American feminist activist, writer and educator. Born Gloria Jean Watkins, she’s best known by her pen name which she borrowed from her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. hooks’ writing primarily focuses on the intersections of race, class, and gender, in history, art, education, social activism and much more.
This quotation is taken from chapter 1 of her concise, straightforward feminist handbook Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000), which she says she wrote because she “kept waiting for it to appear, and it did not.” Other influential works (there are 30 in total!) include:
Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1981)
All About Love: New Visions (2000)
Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1981), Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), All About Love: New Visions (2000), and We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004).
Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.
“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.
Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese filmmaker and author based in London. We met at Beijing’s Literary Festival in 2015, where we discussed writing techniques (she always writes by hand before word-processing, which is part of her editing process) and she borrowed my black biro to autograph copies of her books. She signed a copy of her debut book in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize, for me. I wanted to buy a copy of her latest novel, I Am China (published by Random House in 2014), but the bookstore’s order of had not made it through Chinese customs due to the controversial content of the book. Guo advised me to read it as an e-book, saying she didn’t think I’d be able to acquire a hardcopy in Beijing soon.
Below is an extract from Xiaolu Guo’s latest book, Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, which was published by Chatto & Windus on 26 January, 2017. This extract was originally published by the Guardian.
Some years later, after I had published a number of books in Britain, I managed to finish a novel that I had been labouring on for years. Publication was due in a few months’ time, but I began to worry that it would bring me trouble when I next tried to go back to China, since the story concerned the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the nature of totalitarianism. What if I was denied entry because of this book? I decided to make preparations before it came out. So, since I had been living in the UK for nearly 10 years, I applied for a British passport.
I spent some months gathering the necessary documents for my naturalisation. After a drawn-out struggle with immigration forms and lawyers, I managed to obtain my passport. Now, I thought to myself, if there was any trouble with my books and films, I would feel a certain security in being a national of a western country. Now I could go back to visit my sick father and see my family.
A week later, I applied for a Chinese visa with my British passport. After waiting at the visa application office in London for about half an hour, I found myself looking at the visa officer through a glass barrier. The woman wore horn-rimmed glasses and had her hair cut short, military-style. She looked like a resurrected Madame Mao. She took my British passport and scanned me up and down. Her face was stern, the muscles around her mouth stiff, just like all the other Communist officials, seemingly trained to keep their faces this way.
“Do you have a Chinese passport?” She stared at me with a cold, calm intensity, clutching my British passport.
I took out my Chinese passport and handed it to her through the narrow window.
She flipped through its pages. The way she handled it gave me a sudden stomach ache. I sensed something bad was coming.
“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” she remarked in her even-toned, slightly jarring voice.
“Illegal?” I repeated. My surprise was totally genuine. It had never occurred to me that having two passports was against Chinese law.
The woman glanced at me from the corner of her eye. I couldn’t help but feel the judgment she had formed of me: a criminal! No, worse than that, I was a Chinese criminal who had muddied her own Chinese citizenship with that of a small, foreign state. And to top it all, I was ignorant of the laws of my own country.
She then flipped through my visa application, which was attached to my British passport, and announced: “Since this is the first time you are using your western passport, we will only issue you a two-week visa for China.”
“What?” I was speechless. I had applied for a six-month family visit visa. Before I could even argue, I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.
I stared, without comprehension, at this once-trusted document. The enormity of what had just happened slowly began to register. Although I was totally ignorant of most Chinese laws, I knew this for certain: when an embassy official cuts your passport, you are no longer a Chinese citizen. I stared back at Madame Mao with growing anger.
“How could you do that?” I stammered, like an idiot who knew nothing of how the world worked.
“This is the law. You have chosen the British passport. You can’t keep the Chinese one.” Case closed. She folded my visa application into my British passport and handed them to another officer, who took it, and all the other waiting passports, to a back room for further processing. She returned her tense face toward me, but she was no longer looking at me. I was already invisible.
Inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, Lijia Zhang injects her cutting social criticism into her first novel, Lotus. The book delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute.
China is going through a sexual revolution. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.
I spoke with Lijia Zhang in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of her long-awaited first novel, Lotus. In part one of this interview, we discussed her personal reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.
Here, in part two, we talked about how women are faring in China’s sexual revolution, Chinese attitudes toward contraception and reproductive health, and the lengths some women go to in the fight against the patriarchy.
Lotus struggles to align sexual desire and social norms. She’s learned that good women shouldn’t enjoy sex, yet earning money involves trying harder to please clients. How are attitudes towards women’s sexuality changing?
I met a woman who was very empowered by earning money, and by her relative liberation since becoming a sex worker. People don’t get into the trade for sexual pleasure, but some women do find sexual pleasure with clients, which they hadn’t experienced with their husbands.
China is going through a sexual revolution. Studies show that a much higher number of people are having sex before marriage than previously. In sociologist Li Yinhe’s 1989 study, 85% of people claimed they had no sexual experience before marriage. Among the 15% who did have sexual experience, some of them were already engaged, which means by Chinese standards that they are already a couple. (According to The Report on the Health of Chinese People’s Sex Life, jointly released by Media Survey Lab and Insight China magazine, 71.4% of people were sexually active before marriage in 2012.)
There are more prostitutes, more pornography, more young people having sex before marriage, a higher rate of divorce, and now people have many different sexual partners. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.
Another woman I met felt very conflicted about one of her clients. An older colleague with more experience told her to just imagine, “The clients give us sexual pleasure and money. We use them for a service – not them using us.” She called clients dogs. She joked that a perfect job would be something that would give her both sexual pleasure and money. But she also craves respect.
Having a mistress (Ernai, or second wife) is a very common way for a man to show his money and status. This started with the Emperor and noblemen, who would have many concubines. Maoist reforms in the 50s changed that, even though Mao himself was doing all sorts of things with young women behind closed doors, disobeying his own rules. For some time prostitution was very uncommon in China but the rates are high again. Now, men have mistresses to prove they have a lot of money and a high status. Ernais are just glorified prostitutes. The relationship between a man and his Ernai is primarily about money and economic status, not love.
Abortion is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.
Lotus accompanies her friend Mimi to an abortion clinic, where she listens to her friend’s screams from the waiting room after Mimi’s boyfriend disappears. Although this is an emotive scene, abortions are very common in China with about 16 million abortions are performed annually. Is abortion viewed as a social or political problem in China?
Abortion is quite a normal thing in China. I’ve had an abortion, my sister has had several abortions, and my mother had abortions. There is no social stigma because Chinese women don’t carry the same emotional or religious baggage about abortion as people in the West. It is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Women don’t get counseling after abortions like in the UK. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.
It is very easy to get an abortion, but it is not always safe. There are many hospitals and clinics that women can go to. There are adverts in the back seats of cabs: “quick and easy treatment at such and such a clinic.” Some women go to get very cheap backstreet abortions, and it can be very dangerous. They go to places without proper licenses and get a razor treatment or something like that and it is very harmful.
Most women don’t know about other types of contraception. The information is not really available. So they just use abortions as contraception. I think this is changing, if slowly, and more women are learning about other ways to prevent pregnancy.
What is the worst thing about the state of women’s rights in China today?
There are a lot of problems for women in China. Women still have much less power than men, and lower social standing but the wage gap is probably the worst thing. The latest official statistics suggest that the income for urban women is 67.3% of men’s income while women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make. But many women are empowered by being able to earn money. There was one sex worker I met who bought a flat for herself and her mother to live in, in a city near her village. I think moving to the city is the best possible outcome that villagers hope for.
Did you hear stories about women fighting back against patriarchy while you were researching the novel?
I know a woman who was with a client who wanted a blow job. He had not given her enough money, so she said no. He told her “stop pretending you are a noblewoman, you are a common prostitute,” but she still refused to take less money. He said, “fuck your mother”, and she replied, “leave my mother out of it.” Again, he said “fuck your mother”, so she picked up a heavy glass ashtray and she hit him in the face with it. She lost her job for that, and she lost a few thousand kuai on the deposit she had paid the massage parlour she worked at as a guarantee she would not run away. But a friend helped her get a job at a higher-class establishment instead.
I know another woman who ultimately wanted to get out of the trade. She made a deal with herself that she would get out if she could earn 10,000 kuai. So she earned 10,000 and she said, 20,000 and I will leave. When she reached 20,000 she said to herself, “now I have to save up to buy a home.” When she had bought her home she still did not give up the trade. Then she learned about the dangers of unprotected sex: she got very worried that she had contracted HIV because she had had unprotected sex. She realised she could have died by now. So she went for a test. Back then the results would be really slow, she had to wait several weeks. While she was waiting for the results, she made a deal with herself. She decided if she got through this without HIV, she would really quit the trade. Her results came back clean, so she quit.
Inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, Lijia Zhang injects her cutting social criticism into her first novel, Lotus. The book delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute. A strong believer in fate, Lotus struggles against the pressures of modern city life without the requisite papers, trying desperately to raise funds for her younger brother’s university fees and maintain appearances of success for the family she left behind in the village.
Prostitutes are real people and I wanted to expose that. Most women come to prostitution through personal choice. Like any job, there are drawbacks. But their lives are not totally bleak either.
Zhang initially rose to prominence with the story of her rebellious journey from disillusioned rocket factory girl to international journalist. Her 2008 memoir Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China documents her escape from a mind-numbing job testing pressure gauges at a Nanjing munitions factory into the world of English Literature.
Lotus’s story begins more ignominiously. Starting in a brothel thinly veiled as a massage parlor, she finds herself toiling to create community around her through prayer, teaching local kids and befriending her colleagues. All the while she must placate her strict boss and navigate the demands of several lovers. Intrigued by her fierce independence and beauty, Bing, a photographer mockingly nicknamed ‘the monk’ for his somewhat convenient celibacy, rescues Lotus from the local police who threaten to repatriate her to the village. Their relationship starts to turn her life around, but she is not sure he is enough to satisfy her.
Through Zhang’s storytelling, real women’s lives bubble forth in a vivid perspective previously too stark to be explored. Having spent several months as a volunteer distributing condoms to sex workers, Zhang has observed China’s grittiest quarters first hand. By literally delving into the world of southern China’s sex industry, Zhang finds a literary value from and for China’s modern day prostitution complex.
Lotus reveals the current tensions surrounding change in today’s China, allowing the reader a nuanced insight into the migrant population, women’s rights, and the chasm between urban and rural populations in contemporary China.
The author holds a mirror to the inner-workings of a young woman who wants badly to free both her mind and her body. Zhang provides the reader a glimpse at the changes Lotus must undergo in order to make peace with herself and the vastness of life around her.
Zhang is one of the few mainland Chinese writers to write in English, and the novel is peppered with the flavours of China. The strength of Zhang’s connection to her heritage comes through in every phrase. This novel is not a translation, but the unfolding of this quintessentially Chinese story draws out the very essence of China itself. Her translation of Chinese sexual euphemisms masterfully carries both the poetry and the ergonomics of the carnal act.
Zhang’s telling of Lotus fleshes out the gritty truths of prostitution, it’s effects and utility in modern Chinese society. Although Zhang admits that she still wants to expose the true lives of Chinese sex workers in her non-fiction writing, there’s something about this novel no op-ed could match. Zhang’s style is utterly her own.
I spoke with Lijia Zhang in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of her long-awaited first novel. In part 1, she tells me her personal reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.
Why did you feel that you had to tell this story about contemporary China?
I tried to find out about grandmother’s life after her deathbed confession of being a concubine, but my mother knew very little about her life. So I have always been curious about these women. Then on a trip to Shenzhen I went to a hairdresser near my hotel and asked for a haircut. There were several women there but they said they did not know how to cut hair. I looked at the floor. There wasn’t any hair on the floor. I realised these women were prostitutes.
Prostitution is an interesting window to see social changes and it touches upon some serious social issues, such as migration and women’s rights.
Why write a novel, not a non-fiction book, about prostitution in China?
I wanted to become a journalist, and I did. I wanted to have a story published in the New York Times, and I did. I had always wanted to write a novel. So I thought I would try my hand.
I started Lotus when I was in my final year of my MA at Goldsmiths. The storyline has changed little, but the style changed a great deal. For example, I experimented with the point of view. I started by writing all the dialogue in pidgin English, with direct translations of Chinese, like “Toilet is where?”
I tried writing it from the perspective of Lotus, and later from Bing’s perspective, but that meant I could not tackle social issues like women’s rights, migration the aftermath of Tiananmen. So I decided to write it in third person, alternating between different points of view, and eventually it became Lotus.
How do your personal experiences inform the characters and events in your novel?
It took a lot of work to do all the research about these women. It took months and months of research over many years. I met so many people with so many stories.
I volunteered for an NGO dedicated to help female sex workers, where my main task was distributing condoms. On day two of my time as a volunteer, I met a really colourful character. I accompanied a staff member as she went to visit a sex worker. This woman was sitting outside, which is unusual because most women would hide inside. They wear revealing clothes but they don’t want to draw attention to themselves on the street. This woman was doing embroidery on the street – she was embroidering a church onto fabric. She took us inside, and the woman I was with commented on her breasts. I was amazed how much they talked about breasts. She spoke to prostitutes in their own language, to be on their level. She was a former prostitute and knew she had to engage them using the same language. They really trusted her.
The women inside the shop commented on her breasts in return, so she explained that she herself had had surgery. They said “I’m thinking of getting implants, can I see?” So they went into the back room and everyone looked at her breasts. The breast implants had not settled well. It was a cheap procedure, and one of her nipples went sideways. She had been told that massaging them would help so she was always massaging her chest. When I got back to the NGO centre, I told the other staff what had happened. They said she was always showing people her breasts!
My husband left me for a younger woman. That was horrible for me. I fell apart. But I used my break-up to understand Lotus’s struggle to deal with the crisis and to become independent.
Her fellow villagers call Lotus “the toad who dreams of eating swans meat”, meaning someone who dreams too big. How does your own struggle for self-improvement come through in Lotus?
Lotus wants more from her life. People often laugh at those who think or behave differently. These women send money home to their families. This is really important for them. It improves their position in the family and gives them face. They must be seen to be successful. They want to show their best side to people in the village.
My friend and I went to visit one woman’s hometown with her. On the day we travelled there, she wore very nice clothes and when we arrived in the village, she took off her trainers and changed them for a pair of leather high-heeled shoes.. On the bus there, she introduced herself, and us, to other people from her village: “hey, I am the second from the Mao family, do you remember me? This is my friend, an international writer and this is a doctor.”
It is the same for other professions, too. I met a man who was a garbage collector in the city. He usually wore very dirty clothes all the time. But when he went to his home village he wore a very smart coat, with a fur trim around the neck. He looked so smart. It is very important to appear successful to the people in the village.
They cannot really tell people the truth about their life in the city. It can be quite lonely. Telling the truth is the worst thing that they could do.
When Lotus chooses her own path for the first time, she decides to open a school instead of settling down with the father of her unborn baby. Is her choice to become a single mother a realistic one in contemporary China? What does the future look like for a woman in her position?
It is realistic. Single mothers exist and they live their lives. Many live in these villages that were once stand-alone places but have now been engulfed by the city. They are supported within that community. She may not have the correct papers for the baby but they will be ok.
A woman like Lotus might marry the baby’s father just for the papers. Lotus is very smart and savvy. I don’t think she has decided yet. But she may not maintain the relationship with Bing, because she realised that she can’t be herself when she’s with him. He is very selfish really. He doesn’t really consider her needs. He was a more sinister character in previous versions. But Lotus has always been very strong, quite unlike the way Bing sees her.
My husband left me for a younger woman. That was horrible for me. I fell apart. But I used my break-up to understand Lotus’s struggle to deal with the crisis and to become independent.
The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.
Adrienne Rich was an American poet, essayist and radical feminist. She was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse” (Flood).
Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”
Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions–predigested books and ideas…marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…and this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”…The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.”
Date says more attractive with clothes on. Does an open relationship translate to open dates? Getting an I.O.U. for accepting a drink. Women tell true stories of their dating experiences in China.
It took a couple of lonely months in Beijing, only knowing my colleagues, before I looked to Tinder as a remedy for my tiny social circle. It felt like a last resort. After a disastrously embarrassing first date, and a three-week fling that took me nowhere, I made up my mind to be pickier. I needed to be really into the guy to go out on a date. So I began my search.
On Christmas Eve I got chatting to a handsome man who claimed he’d arrived in Beijing that week. Encouraged by our lively conversation, my generosity warmed by his apparent loneliness in a new place, so I invited him to a Christmas party I was throwing. I figured it would be a safe place to scope him out. He accepted the offer; I got very excited.
He never showed, cancelling at the last minute. I was disappointed but forgave him. He was new here, and it was Christmas. That can be tough. Plus, he said he would make it up to me.
Six weeks later, I was still waiting for that first date. We’d chatted every day, bantering and joking, back and forth. Several times, we set up a date and then he cancelled last minute. I was getting irritated, not sure he was worth it, but I kept hanging on. Friends at parties asked me, “do you understand how Tinder works?” They were shocked anyone would wait six weeks for a Tinder date.
In some way, I was proud of the long courtship. I hoped that this would make “us” different. The waiting had certainly worked. He’d got me hooked. I’d made up my mind to like him before I had even met him.
In the winter holiday, just days before Valentine’s, he finally found time for little old me. On a cold, windy night we had dinner, drinks, and more drinks. He was taller and more handsome in person than I had imagined. He was funny and attentive. The reality was better than his online personality, which rarely happens. We were both super talkative. He complimented my appearance. I could hardly believe how well we were getting on. We moved on to a bar where he smoked and shared the odd cigarette with me. I wasn’t sure whether I was lightheaded because of the smoke or his smile.
Very, very late, after all the bars had closed, he invited me to his place. There was no way I was saying no after the time I’d waited. I’d already decided it would be worth it. To be honest, it was disappointing. He certainly enjoyed it. He was selfish both that night and the next morning, but I barely noticed, so awestruck was I by his body.
In the morning he made me breakfast, told me stories about an old friend he said he wanted me to meet, and walked me to the subway. I drifted home on a cloud and wrote down all the wonderful moments that had made our night special.
We continued to talk day after day. Throughout my short winter vacation I kept wishing myself back in Beijing, imagining spending every night of his lonely week-long break with him. I’d even offered to turn around and go back before my train left the station. I was hopelessly devoted.
Six weeks later, I was back at work and still hadn’t seen him again. We’d set up several more dates and he’d cancelled every time. I was angry and frustrated; worried I’d scared him off by being too keen. It gradually became clear he wasn’t interested in a relationship, or even casual sex. I asked him for an honest reason, and was astounded by his response. I finally felt the sting of that dreaded situation: he thought I was more attractive with my clothes on than nude! He found my body hair so repulsive that he didn’t enjoy sex:
“I found your leg hair distracting. I really had to concentrate to finish.”
My immediate impulse was to fight my corner, argue that women make choices about their appearance for themselves, not for men, and tell him that his opinion didn’t matter.
But I didn’t rant at him. Instead I left him alone in his small-mindedness and got on with my life. I’d blown my chance with him, which bothered me because it was over such a small thing. But what really stung was I’d been on the brink of falling for someone who allowed something so minor to affect our entire relationship. I will never make that mistake again.
– United Kingdom, 26
Dating is hard, especially if you aren’t really dating. Let me explain.
One fall, I met a guy the day after my birthday. He was my coworker, and younger than me by a couple of years. After spending a little time together we ended up making out one night.
The next day as he asked, “what exactly are you looking for?” I was honest, I didn’t see him as a long term thing. Both of us were planning on leaving Beijing that summer. I just wanted fun, with stipulations on privacy. “Ah ok,” he said. “I just wanted to let you know, before we went any further, that I have a girlfriend. Not all girls are cool with that.”
That knocked the breath out of me. At first I was too stunned to reply, curse words forming in my head. But I reacted calmly: “does your girlfriend know?”
“Oh yeah, it was actually her idea. Do you want to talk to her?”
So I took the risk of being in an open relationship. It was weird. Having a guy over two to three times a week cooking, watching movies, having sex, all while knowing I couldn’t f**k it up. My plan was impenetrable. Or so I thought.
Six months in, we went on our first outside date. While out at a fun bar party a cute British girl approached him. After flirting with him, and letting him know she was interested, she asked if we were together. “No” we both responded. She continued to flirt, and I found a way to extract myself. I had a drink by myself at a table in other room but could see them talking at the bar. I played with my phone for a bit.
“Hey,” he was standing next to me, looking down, a little concerned. “Do you want to come hang out with us?”
“Nah,” I told him. “I think she’s pretty interested in you though.”
He brightens. “Yeah! I think she is. You don’t mind, do you?”
OF COURSE I MIND! WE CAME HERE ON A— I caught myself before I yelled.
What were we on? Was it a date? Does it count as a date if you obviously aren’t planning a future together? Did him agreeing to accompany me out contractually bind him to me for the night? I wanted to be cool. Chill. He didn’t owe me anything.
“Nah. Go for it. I’m going to go meet up with some other friends. Have fun, be safe,” I said as lightheartedly as possible. Then, without meeting his eyes, I left.
A long walk on a chilly night is terribly symbolic when you feel alone. I wish I could say I went home and composed this balanced rational story. That would be a lie. I got drunk. I cried. Not because I was in love. But because I just wanted a real date, at which I was the center of a guy’s attention. Through much contemplation (and water) for the next two days, I decided to stop my destructive behavior. Maybe it works for others, but while I could handle and open relationship, I couldn’t handle an open date.
– United States of America, 20s
Thanks to the ever-popular Tinder app, I met a number of guys online. With some, we moved discussions over to WeChat – a platform not stymied by VPN restrictions. We would chat, occasionally meet up, and often that was it. My schedule left a lot to be desired, and made meeting for dates a large commitment on my part. Unless I was particularly interested in our conversation, it was rare I put in the effort.
But I was starting to realize how little I was actually getting out there, with dating or even just engagements with friends. So I started to say, “yes,” to a few dates. To drinks or a quick bite to eat – something to get a better feel for these fellas.
One such man had been quick with the wit and as engaging as anyone can be over WeChat. I was enjoying myself, and figured odds were high that that would translate to an in-person meeting. We picked a subway station, and I took off after work looking forward to a night out.
As it were, it actually took me a moment to find him. Unsurprisingly, it’s common for folks to use vague photos on dating app profiles, leaving the one you’re meeting unaware of what you *actually* look like.
In this case, there was little to no resemblance.
Already off to a poor start, we walked around, making our way through the typical chit-chat. He presented me with a kitschy gift – something he thought I’d like – in the form of a children’s toy. Unsure what to think, I smiled and accepted it, sliding it into my purse. Thrilled, he launched into a story about himself – one of many that evening. Though we didn’t have any plan, it soon became clear he had an idea what we’d be doing. Soon we were inside a bookstore. “You like books, right?”
“Well, yes, of course, but …”
“Yes, I thought so! See how much I already know about you?”
And off he went, directing me to section after section of all those topics he was oh-so-knowledgable about. Art, art history, architecture, Chinese culture – was there anything he didn’t know? Was there any book that his great and glorious mind hadn’t absorbed?
After nearly two hours of this, it was off to a bar nearby, where his friend was hosting her farewell party. I was soon sidled next to a few of his friends, and he was absorbed in a conversation with the other end of the table. I did my best to keep up, but their in-depth discussions on Japanese art and complex photography techniques weren’t easy topics to engage in. So I sipped my drink and listened politely.
“Want to split some food?” my date asked, remembering I was there. “Uh, no I’m OK. I’ll just stick with this drink.” “Well OK. Don’t worry, by the way. Drink’s on me.”
None of my protests and insistence that I pick up my own drink worked, so I finally accepted and thanked him profusely. Another hour passed, and I made my way to the subway. He hugged me goodbye. I told him it was nice to meet him. For me, well, it wasn’t a great evening, but he was nice and had been kind in treating me to a drink. I appreciated it, and went home happy to have given it a go.
Days passed and we didn’t say much. Then suddenly, there was his name. “Long time no chat, pretty lady!” We exchanged the pleasantries, and there it was. The inquiry for a second date, but in a way I’d never been asked before.
“So since I picked up your drink the other night, it looks like you owe me!”
“Uh, yea… lol Thanks again for that.”
“No. Really. You owe me a drink. I’ll be free this weekend, we can meet up and you can get that for me.”
As it turns out, he wasn’t playing a bit. I owed him 35 kuai, and he was calling to collect. A few more messages later – “So, about that drink …” – and my subsequent silence, he abandoned the chase. Seems he didn’t think the money was well spent. Needless to say, it took me a few dates before I’d accept a drink again.
– United States of America, 27
Learning that an ex is married. Walking away from a Tinder date. Getting set up by your boyfriend. [part 1]
Humiliation by comedy in a Beijing bar. Parents say, “break up with him” because boyfriend is not Chinese. [part 2]
A Chinese first boyfriend who ruined dating for years. Suffering through sleep apnea on a first date. Offered money for sex with a stranger. [part 3]
Guy uses Chinese whispers to ask for a date. Remedies for dating in inauspicious circumstances. [part 4]
These stories are shared by the women who experienced them in their own words. All stories took place in Beijing, China, unless otherwise stated. Identities are kept secret out of respect for the individuals in the stories.
A feminist anthropologist exploring the realities of culture, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Asia