“I don’t shit where I eat,” I said quietly sitting in the Ritz’ tearoom, taking another sip of Oolong from my white porcelain teacup. Ben stared at me with a look of bewilderment, and after a few moments he finally spoke up again, “how can you be angry that people speculate you’re a lesbian if you never have a boyfriend around you, and that we have never seen you even kiss anyone before?” I felt a sense of indignation creep up upon me, not that I have anything against lesbians, but just because I really really do like men. Just not the men I know in Beijing. And I made the decision at a very young age that my private life was my own, and should always be shielded from my hometown’s gossipy crowd. After all, I haven’t lived here since I was 13, and it’s been easy to keep up my best behavior while at home for holidays – hence my comment, “I don’t shit where I eat.” Certainly, I could not, in my right mind, blame Ben for this line of reasoning, as it became abundantly clear to me that this was a question many people have asked him before. And in the five years we have been friends, he has never seen me close to a member of the opposite sex, or even hear me speak of a special person. So at the tender age of 23, having never even kissed a girl despite attending an all-girls boarding school for five years, I unintentionally projected an image that couldn’t be further away from the truth. It was pretty comical.
So I lightened up, and told Ben the story of the phone call I received from my mother a year ago, after my godmother saw that I was “in a domestic partnership” with one of my best friends on Facebook, and informed my mother of this ghastly situation. It was one of the most bizarre conversations I have ever had. It began with small-talk, but quickly escalated to – “is there something you want to tell me?” – “nothing really comes to mind…” to “well, June was on your Facebook and saw that you are in a relationship…with a girl?” – “oh, that’s a joke, Mom.” This answer naturally merely satisfied my mother briefly, as she quickly pointed out the fact that things on social media could easily be misconstrued, and I shouldn’t want people to have the “wrong idea.” This really set me off, “what do you mean ‘wrong idea’? Am I not free to love whomever I want, even if she’s a woman?” Obviously this conversation ended just as many of our conversations have ended ever since I left China for England, and perfectly captures the relationship I have with my mother. We are not close, so I have never told her about men either – perhaps that was my problem? It became apparent to me at this point that I wasn’t going to get away with it anymore, that I had to tell Ben something for him to believe me. And so I told him about the first boy I cared about in college, and how that, a massive car crash and various other factors, landed me on academic probation. In retrospect, it was perhaps one of the best, but also one of the worst lessons I got to learn in my life so far. But it was in experiencing such a traumatic first semester that I saw the detrimental effects emotional entanglements could have on my rationality and academic pursuits, and so, I subconsciously walked away from it all. It was never meant to be permanent, but three years later, I’m still that girl who’s never had a boyfriend. And I have never wanted one. That is to say, I just don’t think I have really met the right person yet – is there something wrong in having high standards? I explained all these things to Ben as we paid the bill and took the elevator to the upstairs bar, where he stepped out to call his girlfriend while I ordered us two gin and tonics.
I quickly glanced around the dimly lit, smoke-filled room, where tipsy businessmen smoked cigars on this cold and hazy Christmas evening, gazing at the Filipino singer whose voice gave me a slight unease. I glanced down at my American phone and saw a text, so I opened it open to find a message composed entirely in Chinese, which said: “Beijing hotel and apartment delivery service [female students, white collar girls, models, students returning from their studies in America and Europe, and second/third rate actresses] Please call at 132409012XX.” This menu is certainly interestingly phrased, and I suppose this is how pimps advertise in Beijing, as my phone automatically received such a text upon entering a hotel where such services may be easily rendered. At this point, Ben had returned from his call and sat down next to me, I show him the text and he said he had gotten one just the same. He called the waiter over and ordered a Romeo y Julieta from the cigar menu. I had messaged one of my friends from boarding school earlier on, complaining about the wrongful accusations against me, and she, being stranded in Jakarta after graduating from university, understood exactly what I was talking about – being a Chinese girl who did not really behave exactly Chinese, who appreciated her own independence and did not like Chinese men – was extremely problematic. After returning home from London, Tamara, being somewhat of an introvert whose not-so-pleasant breakup with her Indonesian boyfriend 3 years prior had left her relatively friendless in Jakarta, became extremely depressed. That is, until she quit the job she did not enjoy and accepted that her un-ideal predicament in hometown was never going to change if she limited herself to only socializing with the locals, so she made a daring move – she went on Tinder and found herself some fun. Now, what’s really funny is her response to my “omg, they speculate I’m a lesbian in Beijing…” She said, “don’t worry, people here think I am as well because I am not well groomed enough to be straight apparently.” Glad someone else shares my experience. I chuckled to myself, and saw that Ben had now settled down and was lighting up the cigar with the blowtorch the waiter had just put on our table.
I watched the cigar briefly flame red then fade as Ben took his first pull. He exhaled and after taking a sip of his G & T, turned towards me and asked, “so what about the boys now?” I really did not wish to go into great details, as, despite the fact that Ben is one of my closest friends, I remained reluctant to tell anyone from Beijing about my life abroad. So I told him I’ve divulged enough for the time being and changed the topic of conversation to his future plans. Having worked at one of China’s biggest investment banks for the past 3 years, he told me he was thinking about starting his own fund. I told him I thought it was a brilliant idea, and we spent the rest of the evening talking about this and that. I realized during the course of our conversation that he was a changed man. He no longer looked at me the way he used to – maybe it is because of this older woman he now dates, or that the professional world had really transformed him, there was now something in him that I never saw before. It suited him, but also created somewhat of a distance between us. “Happy boxing day,” I said as I watched the clock on my phone turn twelve. After paying the bill, we made our way downstairs, and parted ways as I got in a cab, “keep in touch,” he said as he made his way to his burgundy Maserati.
Getting into the car, I unlocked my phone and saw another text from Tamara. An obvious continuation from the conversation we had earlier, she wrote, “this just goes to show how much girls in Asia care about getting a man, their entire identities are structured around being appealing to men.” I spent the entire journey home thinking about this, and what had transpired in the past four hours. Tamara was partially right – the “being appealing to men” part was something that affected both girls in Asia and in the West – but it is only in Asia where we have an openly accepted culture of publically discussing the private lives of other people, where being gay is something that is completely unacceptable. As the car pulled up to my house, I came to the conclusion that it would be pointless to dwell upon these false impressions I created, and I should just rejoice in my success to keep doing what I set out to do so well. After all, I have apparently managed to be so mysterious that people have resorted to making up stories about me, and that in itself, is pretty impressive. Opening the front door, I found my mother sitting on the sofa reading on her iPad as she waited for me to come home. I sat down next to her and said laughingly, “Mommy, Ben told me that apparently people in Beijing think that I’m a lesbian.” Glancing up from her reading, she said:
“But I know you’re not – you just know not to discuss it with the wrong people.”