You may tell yourself this is not my beautiful house
You may tell yourself this is not my beautiful wife
~Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
Saturday, November 13th
*Some names have been changed*
Nashi Lijang, at the fire pit, singing’s too loud (for the tiny room), milk-thick cigarette smoke chokes, empty beer bottles leering. Fran yawns. Roy looks at his fingers, fidgets with his lighter. Our conversation’s run dry. It’s 11:45, but it’s time. Anyway, I’ve essays to grade tomorrow—if we leave now, and I get to bed sooner rather than later, I’ll only be a minor fender bender in the morning—bent but still functional.
Then Roy sits up, like he’s remembered something, holding the lighter like a wand, he says, “I know a place, we can go. You will like it very much. My friend is there now. I can call and we can meet.”
And Josh and Fran, pulled from the lull, don’t object. Josh smiles, nods. Fran stands, stretches, cracks her knuckles. They’re in. But I’m not, yet.
“Where is this place?” I ask Roy as he’s pushing numbers, “Is it a bar?”
“Josephine,” he says, a sparkle in his earnest eyes, “Come with us. You will love it. There’s singing and dancing, and the beer is cheap. It’s very close. My friend is there….Wei? (Hello?)”
Roy confirms we’ll arrive soon at this singing, dancing, cheap beer place.
Roy is an English teacher at a High School in Xi’an, and in the cab we talk about teaching. We agree that teaching writing in any language is time consuming, at least if you want to do a good job, do right by your students. Roy lets out a sigh and says he wishes he were an art teacher like Wang, whom we’re on the way to meet.
“Your friend is an art teacher at your school? That sounds interesting–I’d love to see his projects with his students, Chinese high school art. ” I say, then concede, “Yeah, teaching art, maybe better than teaching English?” I tease and smile. Roy laughs and launches into something about the Chinese education system and how national exam scores determine a person’s future, that many times students don’t have much of a choice in what to study at college. If you place high enough to get in, your scores determine your fate. Often, students are given a major and that’s that—tough noogies if it’s not what you want.
“Wang is lucky but very good at what he does. He does what he loves, his work much better for it,” Roy smiles. He admires and cares deeply for his friend and reveals more, “I would like to draw, do architecture, but my scores just not high enough. English for me. (He smiles at this) I teach. I make money, go out, have a good time. Life is ok… “Here, here, here!”
The cab stops, we exit, and from the curb we hear Chinese opera pouring from an open doorway, high-pitched perfect. Recording? No, that’s uncompressed, un-digitized, warm human breath, live sound—someone is hitting this music spot-on. We enter and climb two small flights of dim stairs, the expressive, operatic quaver louder and louder with each step.
And then the narrow steps give way to a large darkened room—150, 175 people seated?—with a light screen backdrop as big as the wall behind the stage. The lights on the screen shift and shimmer adding over the top drama and ultra divine diva-ness. When the singer finishes, men in the audience cheer wildly; some rush the stage and give her money; some try to kiss and embrace her. She rushes off coquettish and demure. The men go wild again.
Wang has been there most of the evening at his own table, and as we make our way to him, I’m able to get a better visual of the room—there are no foreigners. As Fran and I walk by tables of seated men, we quickly realize that not only are we the only foreigners here, we’re also the only women. There are easily 200 men, and they have all noticed us, and I can’t tell from their stoic faces if it’s ok, really, for Fran and me to be here. Have we crossed a gender/ culture line that we shouldn’t have? Is our presence offensive? I can’t tell. But we’re with Wang (and Roy) at a front table by the stage, and he greets us warmly, hugs us, toasts us with wine and
cigarettes, making a great display to demonstrate that we are his friends. The men sitting beside us soften and seem a little less stoic. The man closest to me makes eye contact and smiles.
Slowly, I am beginning to understand where I am and what’s going on. This isn’t a singing and dancing club in the sense that Fran,
Wang, Roy, Josh, and I can just get up and get down on the dance floor—I definitely couldn’t get up there and sing a song either. This place showcases local amateur talent (*though Roy maintains they are local stars and celebrities.) I sit, taking it all in as the next performer enters. She also sings traditional Chinese opera with full make up and costuming, and she’s also extraordinary, just spot on in her singing. (Chinese opera is dynamic and tonally challenging—what these people are doing so effortlessly and on the mark just brings tears to my eyes it’s so good.) And again the audience goes wild. I cheer loudly—Fran stands, claps, and whistles. The men at the tables around us smile and nod, lift their beers to us, appreciating our enthusiasm. They definitely like us now—we’re ok, Fran and I.
But at this point, I have noticed that some of the performers, especially those waiting in the wings (there’s a troupe of bikini-topped cheerleaders up next), are fairly broad-shouldered (well, so am I, so?) and oddly more muscular (well, me too) than Chinese women I see on the street. Something—what is it, what am I missing, here?
I have to go to the bathroom. I ask Roy if he knows where the bathrooms are. Roy pauses, hesitates, smiles then takes me, squats, of course. There’s no women’s bathroom. Waiting in line behind all men, I see more clearly the subtleties in their interactions–softly, gently brushing each other on the arm or neck. Flirtatious, demure. In the middle of this observational reverie, two men at the front of the line smile, gesture, and gracefully insist I go ahead of them.
And then I figure it out—Farewell My Concubine… Farewell My Concubine!
I get it. In Chinese opera, traditionally, men play all the parts—men sing and act as women. In fact, in the early 20th century until Mao, communism, and the Cultural Revolution, Chinese opera was one of the highest forms of entertainment, and many Chinese singers (men) were made famous by their performances of female characters (watch Farewell My Concubine, and you’ll get it, too). Then Mao came along. His wife was not so keen on Chinese opera as she thought it wasn’t in the best interest of the people—she convinced Mao to ban it. Eventually, the art form was restored (late 1970s, I think), but from the 1960s through 1990s, Chinese opera was all but dead. Yet, this ‘drag-style’ culture has been, and obviously remains, a very big part of Chinese custom and history. Now, Chinese opera is on a comeback—largely because of the economic growth here. And it appeals to the often closeted Chinese gay community; for the first time in many years, there are becoming more and more socially acceptable public places where gay Chinese men can be open about their sexuality. Though I definitely sense being gay/ lesbian in China remains taboo.
At least, I think that’s what I’m understanding from this incredible experience.
In the cab ride home, Roy and I speak briefly.
“Amazing, Roy, just amazing. Thank you for taking us. Do you go there often, or was tonight a special occasion?
“Well,” begins Roy, “That bar has been open a year, and I don’t go very much, but Wang does. He goes. Not another place like that I don’t think. It’s new. It let’s some people be who they are without worry.”