Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Sex Trade

If you read the last few posts you know that my current stab at isolationism is in part attributable to my gradual reversal of malaise, symptom by symptom, that has plagued me for the last 2 years, and in part due to the fact that I am again digging and delving into something I don’t quite understand yet.

The quality of friendship here versus in the states or anyplace I’ve ever been before is decidedly different. Once declared a friend, it appears nothing is off limits. As depicted in the Peeling the Cultural Onion entry, Sam has no problem walking around in his jammies when I’m at his house. While at my house, he and/or Gary are not above strolling around, investigating my bedroom, opening my refrigerator or even glancing through my purse. While I’m in attendance, they will even paw through my purse.

I’ve come to accept these behaviors as normal and as a sign of our deep ties, outrageous as they seem. I am still a bit uncomfortable with the familiarity but not as much as I was before. To wit: last weekend, when at a dinner with Mr. Wang (the campus maintenance manager) and his family at their home, of course I was treated as honored and revered, but also as family. Their son, a college student at another campus, could not tune in anything worth watching on the living room TV, so he suggested we go to the back room to watch the program he was watching before my arrival. With hardly a raised eyebrow, I made my way into his parents’ bedroom, plopped down on their bed and watched TV with their 20-year old son.

See? Familiar. Comfortable. Not standing on ceremony at all.

With all of this ease and comfort, all of this familiarity and for all that I am becoming family to my best friends I have to wonder: what would be a friendship deal breaker?

I believe that stateside, if a non-relative were to stroll through your house and go through your things you would probably be deeply offended. If one were to plop down on your bed and watch television, or play with their cellphone of their own accord while in your company or at your house for a dinner, you would probably never invite them again. And, most likely if one were to go through your purse or wallet they would probably be immediately thrown out and all ties severed.

I have to do a measure of adjusting when going back and forth between cultures. Not so much for what I would or wouldn’t do in any given country but for what would be perceived as acceptable versus unacceptable. To the Chinese it is unacceptable that I do not make myself familiar, comfortable and at home. Hence, off I go to the back bedroom to lounge on the connubial bed with my hosts’ 20 year old son. You’d NEVER catch me doing that in the states.

Had I refused to watch television with George – the son, or if I were to chastise Sam or Gary for going through my things we would still be friends, but not to the degree we are now. By not allowing them into my private space, I am communicating to them that I wish for us to have a certain distance.

But again the question: what would be a friendship deal breaker? What would actually be considered rude in China?       

Personal habits are nearly polar opposite to Western society, along with the permissiveness of friendship. Asking about age, income, and other (by Western standards) ‘off limits’ questions is not only acceptable but routine. I’ve had to do a lot of adjusting to answer cab drivers when they ask me those questions!

Sneezing and yawning are done with the greatest of gusto, preferably with mouth uncovered and as loud as possible. That’s in public, not just among friends. Blowing one’s nose onto the sidewalk and hocking loogies is equally accepted. Bodily functions in general, from breaking wind to urinating in public (mostly small children, but sometimes men) is perfectly OK. Some bathrooms are actually only semi-private. I once even saw a boy of maybe 8 defecating in a trash pile while the street vendors cooked nearby. I did NOT eat from any of those vendor stalls. 

The one thing that seems to be off limits is sex. Talk of sex, gender identity, gender roles, sexual preference, the sex act and even any allusion to sex is taboo.

When I first got here, I would have thought this is a country of eunuchs. While surely women were pregnant and babies were being born there was nothing alluding to any goings-on between the sexes. Not even so much as hand holding, not even in the movies or television. Over the past 2 years, either because my perspective broadened or, most likely because it became socially acceptable, couples started getting more physical: holding hands or going arm in arm, and sometimes kissing in public. Often couples can be seen snuggling on the bus or on a park bench. On my little campus kids have gone from chaste mentions of relationships, confided while blushing and turning away to nearly au flagrante copulating only thinly concealed by a bit of greenery, a tree or a shrub.

Yes, the campus police have their work cut out for them.

Many kids now opt to rent rooms off-campus and set up housekeeping. They support themselves with part time jobs and some lucky few have grant or scholarship money to spend. I’ve been to a few of their little nests; they are quite cozy. If I happen to know their parents, the kids ask me to not tell their parents they are living together, and some have even entreated me to not tell their parents they have a beloved.

This more open attitude toward sex is not just on campus. In the last year no fewer than 2 sex shops have opened up close to our school. You can imagine how many there must be city-wide. These shops display a generous range of sex-oriented items: lingerie, lotions and, if I’m seeing correctly from the bus window, even sex toys. Those shops often have people hovering around. Whether they are tentative patrons or shamed citizens forming protests is hard to tell from my brief glimpse, in passing.

Am I an old fuddy duddy? No, I don’t think so. I’m well aware that sex makes the world go ‘round just about as fast as money does. However, having been used to a chaste society, and reading news stories about government control over television programming to make it reflect the morals and values of this society, witnessing how fast things are – pardon the pun: opening up is downright scary.

Wanna hear something else that is scary? One of my former students is caught up in the sex trade.

She called one day, out of the blue. Mind you, this young girl who, in my opinion embodies The Essential Feminine as described by ancient Greek writings had been somebody I considered a friend. She had been to my house often. The last time she came here, with her boyfriend, she spent all of twenty minutes here and then ran out, in tears. The boyfriend took off after her and that was the last I’d seen or heard from her in a year.

Now she resurfaces, asking me to buy 500 FC2 female condoms. She provided me with a website I could order them from and a credit card number to use. It seems it is more efficient to buy condoms in bulk in the States and ship them overseas. Immediately concerned, I told her I do not think I like her job. My comment was met with a wink and a grin, and that was all the answer I got. She did emphasize the need for my help though. Being as I have a connection overseas I could feasibly make this purchase and involve my family members or friends in getting her package over here.

Yeah… I don’t think I’m going to do that. I spent the weekend wrestling with my morals: if I help her I am communicating that I condone her work in the sex trade. If I don’t help her, she may engage in her work with no protection, certain to catch something vile and possibly lethal. Either way, I’m not going to put my family or my friends stateside in a position of discomfort or outright illegality. Argument won: she’ll get no help from me.

I was ready when she and that boyfriend of hers showed up for my final answer on Tuesday. Once said answer was given and the food I prepared was consumed, she whipped out her cellphone, pleaded a business engagement and ran out of my house, tossing pledges of devotion over her shoulder. Again, the boyfriend chased after her.

I’m still wondering what is considered blatantly unacceptable in Chinese society. I’d still like to know where the line of demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable lies, and what it is made of. So far, from what I can tell, it is made of sex and the refusal to help a friend in need.

There’s got to be more to it.          

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