Candid reflections from a young female expat on one magical and mystifying Beijing summer.
On a crisp September 1st morning in Beijing, I stood before a locked iron door. On the other side was a hutong that led to the streets and eventually my university dorm. On my side was a scruffy courtyard home, a room with no couch and only one big bed – on which slept my Chinese boyfriend. It was dawn, and the hutong roofs were limned by a light morning mist, releasing the heat of the night into a new day. Inside, I was trapped, faced with an undesirable decision: to take a hammer to the door, or to return to the bed and have sex with a person I no longer respected.
Once in a while, when I mention to my expat friends that I’ve dated Chinese men, they show immodest curiosity. They want to know “how it happened.” I’m afraid I can’t succinctly summarize my experiences and opinions, considering the generalizations white women have made in the past while writing about this subject and the assumptions you, reader, will surely draw about me. But I can share one of my stories.
My friends in college told me I had an Asian “thing.” This apparently meant I was as equally attracted to Asians as white guys. And since this was not the norm in the US, even after I left white suburbia to attend a progressive liberal arts college, I ended up with that reputation. Not that I cared: I majored in Chinese language and literature. That choice wasn’t related to romantic interests, but it probably also spoke to my distaste for convention, my love of the underdog and frustration with American alpha-males.
My first night in China was on a study abroad program, and we did what any good study abroad students would do and got plastered in one of the city’s seediest nightclubs. One of my few clear memories from that night is sitting on a black-lit staircase steeped in the feeling of expat entitlement. I scoped out every guy that walked past before asking the most attractive amongst them if he wanted to do it. I believe the phrase I used was “做爱” (make love), to which he nodded gravely. I said we’d meet upstairs on the balcony. Then I changed my mind and danced with my friends instead. We still joke that the poor bastard is still waiting there for me.
When I settled in China after graduation, I considered myself an émigré sophisticate. I was ready for experiences more fulfilling than dancing on tables and modeling for textile startups. I committed myself to a summer of Chinese classes and Chinese friends. Don’t speak Chinese? Not interested. Clubs? No. Sanlitun bar street? Fuck that. No VPN, no HBO shows, no English music. Air pollution masks hadn’t come into fashion yet, but those too would have met my scorn.
Beijing’s humid haze hummed electric. It was a season of sweaty bus rides, swimming in Beijing’s public pools, eating greasy-spoon fare, and falling asleep to local radio. The conventional understanding of foreigners as super-citizens in China is true if you’re the type to embrace whiteface gigs and TV appearances, but when I rejected my American identity, I also rejected any first-class privileges. I wouldn’t even engage Chinese people who practiced their English on me, preferring instead to reply in sometimes-grating intermediate Chinese. I was mafan.
But! I was still white, young, and available. And that’s what Xiao Li saw – through soggy drunken vision – when we met at J— Bar, an iconic stronghold for local musicians. Xiao Li was part of a gang of pop-folk musicians that included not just his band mates, all singers, but also their brothers and cousins and mentors and girlfriends and gal pals.
I had gone that night to get my culture on and enjoy some folk music. Awkward but uninhibited, I picked off one of the shy ones to practice my Chinese. We were having a pleasant conversation until his strikingly handsome friend cut in. He said I was really pretty and clinked beers with me. When I replied in Chinese, he slapped his hand on his face – “Wah! I didn’t know you’d understand me!” He then asked for my number, said he wanted to treat me to a meal. That was the next day. It was Xinjiang food and I tried to spin interesting conversation. He texted on his phone, dropped food onto my plate, and said, “Talk less, eat more.”
I told myself to be culturally sensitive, that I was no longer the person I had been in the US, that I was in a new country and needed to play by my hosts’ rules. I told myself all the principles that had been drilled into us growing up, about respecting other people and their cultures. Chalking it up to an “interesting learning experience,” I shut up and ate. I shut up and ate again the next weekend, and the weekend after that.
After a few weeks, I looked up Xiao Li’s band on Baidu. Apparently they had won China’s version of American Idol and were a go-to choice for the Party at official events. They were young and hip, but not rebellious. From the government’s perspective, I inferred, they were handy as a bridge to the younger generation.
Our dates stopped being exclusive. I soon became his arm candy for important gatherings – a dinner with the Sichuan province party secretary, a banquet with his band’s investors, several unexplained feasts in a private club in Wangfujing. At these, many beer bottles were clinked and baijiu cups downed. My Chinese got better, but people were increasingly skittish about talking to me. I was Xiao Li’s girlfriend, not someone to be befriended for fear of offending him, nor to be glanced at for too long or spoken with too deeply.
But there was one who was not afraid to talk to me: Xiao Li’s older brother by fifteen years, Li Ge. He had been the original breakout musician from his clan back in the ’90s, and his national popularity had paved the way for his kid brother’s band to find fame several years later. With ability and charisma, Li Ge was the true star, but while he had talent, he lacked youth, and thus was resigned to the mantle of godfather.
At banquets, Li Ge would pull out his six-string and spin beauty in his native dialect. After the applause and the bottoms-ups, he would always find me – usually sitting alone but conspicuous in the corner.
“How are the studies going?”
“All right,” I’d say. “Slowly improving.”
“Certainly improving!” He’d clink bottles with me. “Do you sing?”
“You should sing Chinese songs to learn Chinese. Xiao Li can help you learn.”
Teaching did not seem to be a forte of Xiao Li’s, but I smiled anyway. Li Ge said I was beautiful when I smiled and that’s reason enough for me to be happy. He was forty and overweight but he was genuine. He looked at me in a way that none of the others dared to – straight in the eye, warmth emanating from dark sockets and soft wrinkles. I have to admit: I wished then that I could have been on his arm instead.
But it was Xiao Li with whom I was having sex. When people ask me about it, I think what they’re most interested in is the initiation: who made the first move?
The answer isn’t straightforward. I came from a hookup culture rooted in partying, with a clear progression of: meet at school –> meet at party –> exchange glances –> drink more –> get close –> drink more –> hookup –> maybe repeat… and if it works out over time, introduce to parents. I couldn’t count on that with Xiao Li, so I had to improvise.
It was two weeks into our “talk less, eat more” dates that he took me to his band’s danwei, a sort of dance studio with a piano instead of mats. He asked what songs I knew and I said 童话 – “Children’s Story” – a Chinese song we learned in college because of its easy lyrics and theme of innocent love. He told me to sit next to him while he played. I couldn’t handle the cheesiness, so I kissed him. In an instant, he dropped the lovey-dovey act and tried to rip off my clothes. I jumped up, forgiving him with an awkward laugh. Then his band manager walked in. Xiao Li introduced me as his “English teacher.” His manager nodded in approval. I inwardly forgave him for this as well, and excused myself for a walk.
Later that day, as he was hailing a cab for me, he said he’d see me Saturday. “There’s a banquet I want to take you to. Then after that, you can come home and sleep with me. Does that sound good?”
I was stepping into the cab, tongue-tied. “All right,” I said.
His first reaction to seeing me with my clothes off was an admiring exclamation of, “So white!” I forgave him for this, too, doing so with an awkward laugh that meant, “Well of course!” I understood then why some local girls strive for that pale complexion. He asked if he could take a picture. I said no. He had surely seen naked white women in porn before, but I had a feeling I was his first real one, and in that moment I recognized myself as the embodiment of a fantasy – his – an objectified ideal come alive in his Beijing hutong apartment. Actually, I enjoyed it. Post-orgasm, I was the first to laugh. Then he laughed. Then we were laughing together.
But you can only have that kind of sex for so long. The better I got to know him, the less I wanted to know. He was not an intellectual by any stretch, yet he talked to me like I was a child. If I made a joke or sarcastic comment, it was always lost in translation. One such time he tapped me on the head and said, “My dear, you must use this when you talk.”
I was trying to straddle the line between going along for the ride and going for something of meaning. But this was a quintessentially uncommunicative cross-cultural relationship, which allows little room for either option. I realized that dating Xiao Li meant I would have to cede my autonomy to him. Attraction is based on power – when it’s in the right kind of balance, it’s electric. When mutual needs are not fulfilled, it’s over.
On the last night of August, there was a party on a rooftop bar in Gulou. Xiao Li was drunk and flirting with a beautiful Chinese girl in a slanting, willowy white dress. Li Ge saw me, conspicuous in the corner as usual, and handed me a beer.
I paused, then decided to fuck pretenses. “I’m not happy.”
“How can you not be happy? You’re too young and beautiful to be sad! I’m old, only I can be unhappy!” We clinked beers. He took a deep swig. “Now, my little brother is a handsome guy, but he’s not the smartest. But he really likes you.”
I clinked beers again and smiled so that he’d go away. Li Ge, with his honest eyes, was the more desirable of the brothers, even at his age and size. I knew this and I knew that I had lost myself.
Back at his place, Xiao Li was too drunk for sex that night. Relieved, I dove into the words I’d been chewing on for weeks: “I think we should break up.”
“We’re not breaking up,” he replied. I said, “But I want to.” He said, “But I don’t.” And then he spoke in English for the first and last time, saying, “I love you!” and I knew without a trace of doubt that he didn’t love me and that I would never love him. He rolled away from me and said he was too tired for this, sorry he couldn’t have sex, we would do it in the morning. That’s when I planned my escape, certain that I’d not let him have me again.
And then, that iron door.
It was too heavy, the lock was complicated – it was the first of many doors in China that would defeat me – and after twenty minutes of quiet twiddling, I slinked back to Xiao Li’s room. I wanted to tell him I wanted to leave, but I was gripped by a frightening possibility: what if he forbade it? What if I had to… struggle?
“Where were you?” he asked.
“Outside,” I answered. I took off my clothes and willed myself into enjoying it. I had to prove that I was never going to be owned, not me with my American college degree, not by him, a simpleminded shadow of a more capable elder brother.
We shared a cab out of the hutong that day, him to his danwei, me back to school. I told him I was moving – that I been accepted into a Master’s program in another city and was going to leave immediately. It was true that I had been accepted, but the move wasn’t imminent. Still, I told him it would be a two-year program and it didn’t make sense for us to keep dating.
“When you come back to Beijing, we’ll get married,” he said without looking up from his texting.
I laughed awkwardly. I could only wonder what the driver was thinking.
“I’ll think about it.”
When we pulled over at his danwei, he dropped a 50-kuai note on my lap. “For the cab fare,” he said.
Several years have passed and I’ve managed to avoid running into Xiao Li and his gang. I’ve long since reestablished myself as an expat. The dance floors from my study-abroad semester are still bumping, and the laowai gigs still abound. I keep a steady 9-to-6 job and hit up Sanlitun on the weekends and browse the English-language China blogs in my free time. I live in a hutong courtyard home with an easy-to-open door. Almost all of my friends are foreigners.
But now, when I suggest swimming in a public pool, my friends tell me I’m insane. When deciding where to grab dinner, we compare which shops use less oil. When I think about seeing a show at J—, the cover charge deters me. When I open my computer in the morning, it’s my newsfeed that informs me of Beijing’s unfortunate air.
At these times, I grow nostalgic for that first summer here, for my wide-eyed curiosity and softhearted leniency. Recently, I got on Youku and looked up Li Ge’s music videos. I found a song about love and loss. It was trite, but his voice was good. “Love is perhaps just a tragedy,” he sings. “We lose ourselves in it.”
I never loved Xiao Li. But there was love that summer, in the humidity and haze and the clinking bottles and the warmth of so many glances. I am the expat I am now because of those things. Their lingering presence keeps me rooted here – an entitled laowai, sure, but a Beijinger all the same.
Some names in this account have been changed to protect individuals involved. Hannah Lincoln took the pictures that appear above. Her previous piece for BJC was, “Religion, Rape, Murder: When The Expat Experience In China Was Interesting.”