Sunday, February 10, 2008

La La in Beijing

In China there is a growing out lesbian culture, especially among younger women. They call themselves LaLas, and they are trying to peal back a kind of grimness that has been associated with lesbianism in China for a long time. It's no secret that many women in Cultural Revolution in the sex segregated times were involved in lesbian relationships.

My companion is someone I met in college. She's not "butch" but is of the kind of person who makes no concessions to fou-fou. No make up. Stockings, if worn, are for warmth. Skirts are only very rarely part of her wardrobe. Her hair is severe and pulled back. She wears small but dark rimmed glasses. It doesn't say lesbian, but "serious" and asexual. We met in college, she had a boy who was crazy about her because of her mind. They had sex. She didn't like it.

We met in one of those settings that happens in college a great deal: nominally academic, but really social. I was embarrassed to be there, because I had thought, or convinced myself, that I was there for the topic. But really there was a forbidden lure, or maybe a feather dangled in front of a cat, creating an instinctual reach.

So that was our first meeting. I was all nervous and clutching the books that were supposed to be under discussion, and she wore a scowl on her face and was busy denouncing the male gender in sweeping theoretical terms that I knew had some kind of personal basis. I recalled meeting her before, and remembered she had always been quiet. It jarred with my impressions of her as studious. I left sort of quickly after she introduced herself, not because of her, but because of another person, who so obviously was unintellectual that it pierced the walls of compartmentalization in my mind. You just know when someone isn't there for the conversation.

We met later on campus. She was back to her quiet and withdrawn self. She stared off in the distance a great deal, and looked shocked like a boiled egg that has been whacked on to a counter to peel it. She was clutching books this time, and seemed to stumble over words. She talked around what had happened, but my inference, perhaps wrong, I don't know, was that something had passed between her and the athletic, larger boned woman whose presence had unnerved me. We spoke about once a month after that, and I remembered she stayed withdrawn socially for the remainder of our undergraduate years.

She forgave me my nervousness, and to some extent my unavailability. During our conversations she would reach out towards me, looking for contact. For some reason I was not uncomfortable and responded. Nothing more than embraces or contacts of fingers happened.

After college she went back to China to work for a multinational, and remains working for them. She tells me they are sort of aware of her sexuality, in the sense that after working that long for them and never having an obvious man, it is an assumption that she is "married to her work" as her boss puts it.

I looked her up when I got to Beijing, she and I tossed emails at each other now and again. We met early in the day. Our eyes locked from the first. I knew she had something to say. She knew I had something to say. It would take a while to say it. I suppose if I were the sort of person who could drink alcohol without falling asleep, that drinking would have made it easier. We walked around in the chill windy clear air of Beijing for a while, and then sat down in the most deserted small cafe we could, one that played resolutely Chinese only music and had a shortish woman with wrinkles setting in around the eyes sweeping the steps , and spoke English.

She told me what was obvious. She's out. Not out out out out out, out out, kind of out. But out none the less. She identifies as a Lala. She has had a girlfriend. She told me that she had had an "encounter" in college, and there was that sort of knowing we know who kind of look shared between us. She told me that she had had a break up some months ago, and was over it.

I had a harder time explaining that I too have had some revelations about who and what I am. Her eyes fell when I declined to tell her that I am like her. But I couldn't stop there. I explained that I had done things "in a game." She accepted that. She told me that before she had done anything with anyone, she had gone into text based places, and played someone older and more experienced. She had tried playing a male too. She morphed through different roles, never finding one she liked. She explained to me that among Lalas, there are three categories. She uses her lap top with wireless to show me how China Daily had lifted this article. She shows me some sites in Chinese and a map that points to current hang outs.

She tells me that there's a lost rift in China. That before anyone thought about women being sexual with women, and people could just hold hands, that it was easier. Not easier in easier, but there was a hide in plain sight. Women holding hands wasn't sexual. Women not being married was common. Women having to share apartments and close spaces was ordinary. So being lesbian was just a matter of being quiet about those most intimate moments, which is easy to do.

But after that innocence was lost, there was a pushing. Not just parents pushing marriage, which is always a pressure regardless of sexual orientation, but pushing to be visible in consumption. Holding hands, public displays of affection, so frowned upon in older times, and by people not much older than we are who are uncomfortable about it, is a way of showing being now, here, today.

According to here that created a pushing to be out as heterosexual and be seen as an attractive women who has the money to spend on clothes, shoes, make up and the accoutrements of being stylish. Not universal, it was still possible to be, well, as she put it, "resolved to be T." For Tomboy. At this point in our conversation she realizes how well made up I am.

"Po." Meaning a femme, for the word for wife.

"I like being who I am."

She gets a kind of sour look, as if I've transgressed. But she spends time looking at me, and realizes that I meant what I said, and not what it might imply.

"I am not sure I like who I am."

We leave because we've drawn stares. It's not dark yet, I can tell there are things she wants to show me. Things she still wants to tell me. We can walk hand in hand, but the temperature of her fingers tells me it means, or she wants it to mean, something else. It doesn't mean that for me.

We spend sometime at Bookworm. We can just talk there, and it is about poetry, and Toulouse-Lautrec, and Chinese brush painting. She sort of gazes at me. The coffee is terrible, the chocolate cake not so bad. It is past dark. We walk down to the main intersection, and she leads me across the street. It is there that the tired bar street where the expats are, and which was once sort of a "the" "it" kind of place to be.

It looks ghastly to me, with greeters talking to us in Chinese to come in and have a beer. "No minimum charge for ladies!" There are leers. An already drunken young man accosts a girl in front of us who is wearing a bright goose down. She's clearly new at this, because she is talking with her cellphone as she walks and doesn't notice him until he falls into her. She tries to put distance between her and him. I smoothly trip him with the corner of my boot heel. Center of gravity, training and sobriety are more than a match for gangly hormones on this street at this time. He face plants in front of a uniformed police officer who roughly dusts him off and pushes him to the other side of the street, where there are no bars. Hint taken.

The greeter outside the Red Moon is particularly aggressive. My companion asks me if I want to go in. I don't. We turn and walk up, hail a cab. I thought that the day was over. But we lurched off in another direction.

(Continued I hope...)


  1. Lillie, you've had me absolutely rapt with this series. You're painting such a vivid picture of a fascinating new world.

    Thank you, for your insight, your talent and your sensitivity. You're always a delight to read.

  2. Thank you. There are many new worlds, and some of them intersect.