I just finished lunch with my student assistant and the three class monitors.  The university has been providing me with lunch in the faculty dining room after class whenever I want it, which is quite tasty.   I thought it would be nice to invite the three monitors and Karen to join me as a thank you for their help during the class.  It was a chance to also spend time with Bob, Singer, and Victor outside the classroom and learn a little more about them since it’s hard to get to know anything about my students when there are 113 of them and I only have two plus weeks to teach the course. 

Before lunch, Karen and I were sitting in my office talking about family and being gay in China.  To be fair, I met up with the Brazilian professor last night and while he has been quite coy about his own sexuality, he told me that he had a conversation with Karen a few months ago about gay people in China and her thoughts on the subject.  She had apparently told him that she thought that there were no gay people in China and that she knows for sure that there are no gay people in her hometown of Jinan.  But her dad, who is a civil servant in the local government, told her that he worked with a lesbian and was surprisingly in the know about the gay bars of Jinan.  Such a revelation forced Karen to revise her view on no gay people in Jinan, let alone China. 

So with this knowledge, we began talking about how chummy some of the boys in my class scene and I asked her why they were so touchy with each other.   She quickly asserted that they were not “gays” and that there were no gay people in Chine.  She then followed up with her opinion that being gay is a “sickness” and “disgusting”.  I just looked on bemused and let her continue speaking.  She reiterated that no gay people live in China because Chinese culture requires people to get married and have children.  I asked her how that was logical, especially if being gay was not a choice, but a part of who you are when you are born.  I also asked her how she could assert that no Chinese people are gay when she does not know all 1.4 billion Chinese people.  It was at that point that she recanted and said that maybe there were Chinese people in he big cities, but none at the university because all the boys talk about finding “beautiful girlfriends”.  We continued speaking about the tension in Chinese culture of pleasing ones parents and being true to oneself and how difficult that is and I told her it’s just as difficult to come out to ones parents in the States because more often than not it feels like a disappointment to them when you tell them that you are gay.  However, above all else, I told her that I believe parents in the States want their children to be happy and if coming out is part of them being happy, then so be it.   From there the conversation morphed into one about pleasing parents and not making them upset.  Karen, as an only child, is very obedient and while she recognizes her own desires, she has a deep-set desire to make her parents happy.  Then it came out in the form of two secrets why she is so willing to sacrifice herself for her parents, beyond the normal Chinese cultural limitations – first when she was ten, she was nearly crippled when she was hit by a car while on her mom’s bicycle and then a year ago, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required a two-week trip to Shanghai for surgery costing RMB3 million (approximately US$450,000) without any sort of insurance.  She has been fortunate enough to survive not one, but two nearly life-threatening incidents and it’s because of the love and support of her parents, which as children of parents, we should all recognize and be grateful for, but it’s created such a hold on her life that she is not willing to upset her parents by voicing any of her desires.  Of course all parent-child relationships are such private affairs that I would never weigh in on anyone else’s relationship with their parents, so it’s hard for me to say much more than “whoa” after hearing that story.

What is interesting to me after that discussion is that Karen showed no interest in why I was asking about gay people in China or what it was like to be gay in the U.S., or the more extreme conclusion that perhaps I was gay.  I didn’t expect her to ask me that, though Chinese students have asked me more invasive questions in the past.  But it was her lack of curiosity combined with such forceful and harsh opinions on the topic.  She said it multiple times that being gay is a sickness that some people have and that she thought it was disgusting and immoral, but with those strong opinions was no desire to engage me on my thoughts on the matter.   Just very curious to me.  It’s also not like I came out to her, which I would have done if prompted, but I am still the professor and she is my student and there are three classes left, so that line must be maintained.

Lunch itself was very pleasant and it was nice to talk to the guys in my class.  They asked me why I was interested in China and I told them it was something I never grew bored with because it was always changing.  I then asked them if they thought the changes taking place here were happening to quickly or if they were scared of all of the changes.  I received mixed answers.  With a mischievous grin on his face, Singer said it was fun and exciting.  Bob was more thoughtful and said it was scary and that he wished sometimes things would move a little more slowly, which elicited strange looks from his tablemates.  It was at that point that I had to meet the driver to head back to the hotel, but it was the tip of why may have been an interesting conversation and makes me think about what the next generation thinks about the changes taking place and whether they think Chinese culture is immutable.  Of course to a Chinese history student, it’s clear the culture is changing with the massive economic and social changes of the last 30 years, but the strong ties to family have remained in place more than such upheaval could have potentially left them.  Karen made a comment about Chinese culture changing, but it being very slow and she is perhaps more right than others may think.  As always, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the next generation and whether openness and tolerance will become a part of the Chinese cultural fabric as the country continues to open up to outside influences.


The Holidays in GZ

December 27, 2008

The Dancing Santa with Saxophone in 江南西

The Dancing Santa with Saxophone in 江南西

Thursday marked the end of my first semester here at SYSU.  In each of my last classes, I said goodbye to my students and thanked them for a great semester.  These were definitely the most relaxed classes of the semester because the final assignments had been handed in and there was no pressure to perform on the students’ parts.  With this more relaxed atmosphere, my students also decided to ask all of the personal questions that they had been dying to ask all semester:

“Are you married?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Oooh, your friend (who happens to be a girl) is coming to visit, is she going to become your girlfriend?”
“What are you going to do when you’re down teaching in China?”
“Why don’t pick one or two of the students in class to be your girlfriend?”
“When are you going to get married?”
“Is Celia (the other fellow I teach with) your girlfriend?”
“Do you like Chinese girls?”

My GZ Class

My GZ Class

It was open season for my students and most of the questions were answered honestly, but without revealing anything about my personal preferences.  It was nice to see my students let their guard down and all of my classes wanted end of the semester class pictures, as well as individual pictures with their English teacher.  I felt like I was surrounded by paparazzi with all the camera phones going off around me.

It was also Christmas on Thursday, which I discovered is treated as a second Valentine’s Day here in China.  Couples go out on dates, presents are exchanged, and not an ounce of religion or family comes into the day.  It makes sense since Chinese New Year (春节) is next month and that is the major family holiday in China, celebrating the coming of spring.  Of course there are Christmas decorations all over and I am sure they will be up for the next month unlike in the US where the decorations are gone as soon as the holiday is over, perhaps save for the tree at Rockerfeller Center.

Myself and the three other fellows had a Chrismukkah dinner Thursday night  Hanna and I brought the latkes and noodle kugel, while Alexa and Celia brought ratatouille and meatballs cooked in a lentil, carrot, and onion stew.  We then went to a Christmas Party thrown by some of the guys from Princeton in Asia who are here working in GZ.  Like many gatherings with a large number of Chinese people, upon walking in to the party we had to introduce ourselves in Chinese with twenty pairs of eyes on us as we did so.  All the while I was wondering why we couldn’t just walk into the party and naturally mingle.  Mind you, we also showed up nearly two hours late, so the party was well under way by the time we got there.

With the end of the semester comes grading, so let the grading begin.

Family Chrismukkah Dinner

Family Chrismukkah Dinner

Happy Holidays from GZ

Happy Holidays from GZ

Finding a Voice

December 21, 2008

The other fellows and I went for dim sum yesterday morning with our new friend, Anthony.  We met him a few weeks ago at the talk I gave at 广同 and he wanted to meet for dim sum to talk about, as he put in an email to me, how to “to figure out a way to live a valuable and meaningful life for myself and the society. Hopefully before I die, I could be happy with my choice.”  Going in, I knew that it was going to be a meal filled with some heavy conversation, but I also have a strong belief when it comes to being out that it’s hard to tell someone else what to do because it’s such a personal process.  When we met at the talk, Anthony alarmed my friends because he sounded like he was seriously considering marrying a woman just to make his parents happy.  Going into dim sum, my friends really wanted me to dissuade him from taking that path.

We get to dim sum and after polite conversation, Anthony asks us how to make him and his parents happy.  Carefully picking my words, I told him that the worst thing he could do is marry a girl.  I said that you have to weigh the pain you would cause your parents by not getting married against the pain you would cause some unsuspecting woman who would have to deal with you being gay, and no one person’s pain is more important.  The only solution is to indefinitely delay getting married.  What complicated matters is that Anthony has a partner who lives in another country and he is always flying off to meet up with him, enjoying what sounds like a special and loving relationship.  However, he is here in China where he does not feel comfortable coming out to his family or his friends, save for some really close friends.  He is going home for Chinese New Year and his parents have picked out another girl for him to meet for a potential marriage, one in a long line of others that have come before.  His other friends are also always trying to introduce him to women.  However, he is not interested and he does not know how to make it stop.  Towards the end of lunch, he proffered his own solution to being happy – leave China and live overseas with his partner and therefore avoid having to deal with his friends or family.  Anthony is thinking about leaving home in order to be happy.  He’s willing to upend social conventions and leave China to be happy.  It just made me really sad and grateful at the same time, sad because he cannot be happy at home and grateful for my luck to have both a loving family and friends who will support me no matter what.

Then I got to thinking about my students.  We’ve been writing letters to the editor in my Zhuhai class modeled on those in the New York Times.  I have spent the past four weeks trying to get my students to offer their own opinions about the articles they have read, to think outside the box and upend some social conventions of their own.  Yet, this task eludes most of them.  They are very good at telling me the author’s opinion or quoting a line from the article and passing it off as their own opinion, but when I walk around the room and ask them how a certain article made them feel, I get a blank stare.  This blank stare is a common feature in my classroom when I ask my students to think critically about something or to think of a challenge a conventional belief.  My students are excellent at regurgitating received wisdom.  For example, many students chose to write about the opening of direct air links between Taiwan and China.  Almost all of the letters that were written had some variation on the line that these air links would help Taiwan return to the arms of the motherland, which is a national goal that they have been taught from a young age.  Ask them exactly how these links would lead to that result and the blank stare reappears.

Thus, I am left with the thought of many of my students unable to form their own opinions because they have been pumped so full of received wisdom.  Then I think about Anthony, who by virtue of being a gay man in a society that will not allow him to live his life in a way that makes him happy, is slowly coming to the realization that the only way to live a happy life is to throw off the cultural and social mores that have been placed upon him.  Does one have to be considered an outsider by his own society in order to find his own voice in China or is there another way?

Birthday Self-indulgence

October 30, 2008

Yup, today is my 30th birthday. Well, at least in China it is my 30th. As my friend Thom said, if I want to still be 29 I would need to quickly get across the international date line because that window is fast closing. People have been asking me how it feels to be turning 30 and to be honest, I don’t really have much of an opinion. I was trying to explain to someone who is 22 that it is less about age at this point and more about what phases of their lives different people are in. If someone is married or married with children, I notice that more than I notice their age. Those things tend to separate people as you get older. Or perhaps it has to do with career and what stage one is at in their own career. It’s these comparisons that serve as reference points, not the absolute age we’re at. At least that’s how I feel about it. So turning 30 is not that big of a deal for me, yet. I am 8000 miles away in China, so it’s easy to forget about all the comparisons to where my other friends are in their lives, but I am sure I will feel some element of it when I return to the States in a few weeks. Being in China for my 30 this almost a relief because it takes the pressure off this milestone, no big plans were necessary to commemorate the event. Myself and three of the other fellows are going to go out for some non-Chinese food tonight, probably Indian and then get some drinks at a chill bar. I mean, I am 30 after all and I’m not going to recover from drinking the same way I did when I was 29 the other day. This weekend will also be filled with various drinking events. Tomorrow night, we are throwing a Halloween party for our students to introduce them to American culture. As someone with a birthday that was often treated as an afterthought to Halloween, the holiday and I have a tenuous relationship. I think it’s that way for anyone born really close to a big holiday. But in the spirit of the party, I will be in some sort of costume.
It’s been nice because my friends have been calling or emailing throughout the morning, so I feel connected to home. Alexa, one of the other fellows, came over at midnight last night singing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese with some Chinese pastries, candles, and little gifts for us. Oh yeah, Celia (my roommate) and I share the same birthday. It was really cute that she came by like that and it’s moments like that when I realize that what we are building here in GZ is our own little community. It’s kind of like one of the reality TV shows, except it’s taking place in China. In fact, most days feel like a reality TV show with daily challenges and almost deliberately placed warm and fuzzy moments, but it’s been fun and it’s definitely an adventure. My 30th in China will definitely be memorable, if not because of the festivities, but for the simple fact that I wanted to get back to China this year and I was actually able to make it happen.
Since this post is purely self-indulgent, I am going to leave you with pictures of my new first cousin once removed, Jake, which sounds way too clinical for someone so cute. My cousin Marianne gave birth to him at the end of July, so he’s quite young. While it’s my first cousin’s baby and technically we are first cousins once removed relationship, I am just going to anoint myself as one of his uncles and take it up with his parents, Marianne and Matt later. Regardless of the relationship, he is one of the most adorable three month olds I have ever seen, but perhaps I am a little biased. I cannot wait to see him and his parents when I am home in November.
Jake and Marianne

Jake and Marianne

Jake looking quite happy

Jake looking quite happy