On Dating Abroad: The Fetish and Green Card Conundrum

on dating abroadThis past weekend, I attended a going away party for one of my friends. It was a lovely event, featuring a large spread of Chinese food accompanied by a good amount of beer. About an hour into the party, I found myself in the Men’s Room at the same time as my friend Micky. While I took a leak in one of the stalls, Micky used a urinal and talked to me through the stall door.

“I tell you,” he said, “you and Fang Deng are just so good together. I mean, the way you two interact…you’re perfect for each other. Now, I know there are a lot of skeptical people that think she’s only in it for a green card, but if anyone pays attention to the way she looks at you, they’d be able to tell she really loves you.”

I thanked Micky for his kind, if somewhat jarring, words. Zipping up my fly, I found it hard to focus on the part about Fang Deng and I being a perfect couple or whatever he said. Instead, I kept thinking about the other part. The part about the green card.

“What fuckers are saying she’s only in it for a green card?” I wanted to ask. I fought against doing so. That would only make me look petty and lacking in confidence. Still, I imagined pushing Micky up against the urinal and yelling, “Tell me! I want names!”

When I first moved to Asia, I found that the foreign men here fell into one of two camps: those who were eager to date the local women, and those that had basically no interest at all in dating the local women. There wasn’t much of a middle ground. This was in stark contrast to the foreign women who move to Asia. They seem somewhat uncertain about dating in general, and are just as likely to date a local man as they would another foreigner. But the men aren’t like that. Some of them are totally on the prowl, while the others watch in disgust.

Truth be told, I guess I was in the former category. Moving to South Korea in 2010, I definitely wanted to date a Korean woman. I’d like to think that was more out of curiosity than because of some fetish, but who knows what subconscious things were working in my head. My first girlfriend, in high school, just happened to be Cambodian, and, before that, the first Playboy magazine I ever owned featured a centerfold named Venice Kong who was part Chinese. She is mildly famous in the history of Playboy for being the last centerfold to have a staple going through her body.

I think about these things sometimes. I think about how some of my friends in Korea and then later in China probably viewed me as a sleazy white guy with ‘yellow fever,’ a phrase that is only inoffensive when put in comparison with the far more candid ‘jungle fever.’ They probably questioned my motivations. Was I out for love, as I claimed? I’m sure they would say ‘no.’ I was out for Venice Kong look-a-likes.

This is the reality of being in an interracial relationship while living in Asia. The white male is viewed as having a fetish and being driven by sex, and the Asian woman is viewed as only wanting a green card. I’m sure the people Micky alluded to believe this, because sometimes, even Fang Deng and I start to think that.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Fang Deng told me one time when we were discussing the green card question. “I’m 31 years old. Do you really think I couldn’t find an American to marry me when I was in my 20s? I studied in Holland. Do you think it was impossible for me to convince any of the men in Europe to marry me and get me out of China? Are you nuts? If I was just marrying to go live in the west, well, I would’ve done that already.”

And really this little bit of reassurance is all I need. Of anything she’s ever said on the subject, I’ve found this particular argument to be the most convincing. Maybe to be able to shake off the green card question, one has to really believe that love is hard to find, while manipulation of men is pretty easy. There are tons of suckers everywhere, right? I have no doubt that Fang Deng could have worked a mark without any difficulty if that’s what she wanted to do. Had she chose to, I completely believe that Fang Deng could’ve gotten some dude wrapped around her little finger. Could’ve had him begging her for her hand in marriage. Could’ve had him buy her a home in Texas, with a bunch of dogs running through the backyard and a bed with a dozen pillows.

Love, on the other hand, is elusive. That’s something that evades you until you’re in your early thirties (or late thirties, in my case). Finding someone you care about is a bit trickier than finding a guy with an American passport or any random girl who can satisfy a sexual compulsion. Sketchy motivations aren’t hard to satisfy. That’s what dating apps are for.

Fang Deng and I authentically care about each other, although some people can’t see that. Micky could, which is why he gave me that little talk in the urinal. Micky could see the truth. Micky knew.

But of course he did. Micky has an Asian wife.

From How Close Up Does Mr. Trump Start to Look Good?

donald-trump-chinaRight now, nearly 7,000 miles separate me and one Donald Trump. I’d really have to squint to see him, to make out the golden waves of hair-like substance that sit matted on his head like a pile of lint might sit on my kitchen floor after I’ve swept. From this distance, the Donald looks small. He seems strange and pathetic and the tiny little fingers on his baby hands look like cocktail wienies.

This is the view from my porch in Beijing, China. Mr. Trump as viewed by an American liberal living abroad. From over here, it’s hard to make out any positive attributes that Trumpy might have. By the time his tweets and his self-congratulatory boasts of being able to “call” really bad things before they happen, by the time those reach my small expat community in Beijing, they sound ridiculous. We laugh at Trump. We criticise him. But all of our condemnations are done from a safe distance. There’s an ocean between us, and viewed from a space that great, it’s difficult for the detached onlooker to see Mr. Trump as anything more than comical and frightening.

Question #1: Would Trump become more, er, attractive, if viewed from closer up.

This is what I wonder. Maybe being in China keeps me away from the sheer magnetism of the man. Perhaps if I was back in America (as I will be two weeks from now), I could get caught up. The Trump Wave would pick me up and pull me out to the Trump Sea like a riptide.

Is that what Trump has? Momentum? Is he like the Grand Canyon, where one has to be there in person to truly grasp the greatness of it? I try to imagine that. I try to picture myself at a rally, with his crowds of enthusiastic supporters all chanting his name. Then he walks out. I’m almost shaking, putting myself in this scene. Once he starts talking, I imagine how charmed I become. I nod along with everything he says as though I’m in a trance. Because that must be it. Up close, he must weave a magical spell.

Nah. I can’t imagine that’s true. Back in the safety of my Beijing apartment, I tell myself that Trump is more like war, where one can only grasp the true horror of it by being there oneself.

Question #2: Seeing that I’ve been okay with the oppressive Chinese government, why am I so frightened of Donald Trump?

It’s a good question. Here in China, things aren’t so hot. The Internet is terribly censored, human and animal rights violations happen constantly, the gap between the rich and the poor is even larger than it is in America, and the levels of government corruption are mind blowing. The RMB – China’s currency – is in a consistent state of flux, its value seemingly sinking down lower and lower every couple of months. They don’t elect their presidents in China and if you were to ask me to cite one good thing that appointed leader Xi Jinping has done – ever – I don’t think that I could do it. He has a nice peaceful countenance, I guess. That must count for something.

Still, I’ve been pretty happy here. Yeah, I’ve complained about a few things in China, but life here is sweet. It’s easy. And so I ask myself how Donald Trump could run a government worse than the current one in China, and I’m not really sure. I mean, this is the original country of walls and foreign exclusion. If I enjoy living here, what makes me think Trump’s America would be that much worse?

Sipping on my instant coffee, it’s a question that I don’t have an immediate answer to. I just know it would suck. That’s all. I think about the president of China again. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard him speak. His voice is a mystery to me.

So that can be my quick answer. If I’m going to live under an all-powerful dictator, at the very least, he could be quiet.

Crawling Back to the USA

The last time I was in America, things were different. It was before Sandy Hook and before horror struck the Boston Marathon; television audiences had not yet been introduced to Honey Boo Boo and moviegoers were still hotly debating the ending of Inception. Gay marriage hadn’t been legalised, no one had heard of George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin, LeBron James had no rings on his fingers, and “Like a G6” by Far East Movement was the top song on the charts.

It was the fall of 2010. I got on a plane and flew to South Korea, and I haven’t been back in the States since.

Which isn’t to say I totally lost interest. No, far from it. I would often read about my home country, sometimes discussing the current state of affairs with the other ex-pats in my little community of misplaced westerners. We’d talk about drones and the NSA and the Tea Party and of course recently all we talk about is Trump. It didn’t really matter where I was living – during my 3 years in Korea and then my 3 years in China – there was always one very apparent fact:

The USA, for better or for worse, was always the most interesting person in the room.

Sure, I found it intriguing when South Korea elected Park Geun-Hye as its first ever female president and then the older men in the country started having all kinds of mental breakdowns. And I found it noteworthy when Hong Kong protested against mainland China in what was called the “Umbrella Movement.” But none of those stories had nearly the same kind of visceral, emotional impact on me as, say, Ferguson did. Heck, if I’m being totally honest, in the last three years I’ve probably spent less time reading about Chinese president Xi Jinping than I have about Josh Duggar.

Because, you know, those are my people. Flawed and trying to figure things out. In the country I spent the first thirty years of my life thinking I’d never leave. And as I hopped around Asia and hung out in Europe, they had to deal with those last six years. While I watched Ferguson unfold on the screen of my laptop, they watched it happen in their backyards. It’s one thing to discuss Trump with a group of Brits over drinks in a pub in downtown Beijing; I can imagine it’s something else entirely to discuss Trump with a person who actually plans on voting for him.

In two weeks, I’m going to come back. Yeah, it’s about time. The six years that I spent overseas will likely be the greatest years of my life…but while I was living them, I was always pretty certain that they came with an expiration date. An end time when I’d nod my head in appreciation and go back home.

Not to my apartment in Seoul or my room in Chang Ping.

Nope. Home. To the States.

So this is what my blog – completely and totally ignored for the last four months – is going to turn into. The story of a guy who left America six years ago, and now returns. Feeling older, wiser, and a tad bit unsure of what the hell he’s getting himself into.

 

 

 

 

The Squid Will Come When You Least Expect It

squidOn Friday night, Fang Deng and I decided to go out to eat at a little Thai restaurant in Beijing for dinner. It was six o’clock in the evening and I was starving as though I’d just gone through months of famine. I fear this is my body getting older and thus craving dinner at earlier and earlier times, until I eventually transform into my grandparents and start eating at four in the afternoon. I guess that’s part of the aging curve. In another decade, I’ll probably have to accept pre-sunset dinner times just as I’ll have to accept balding and impotence.

Flipping through the menu, I knew immediately that I was going to order an appetizer. I really only order appetizers when I’m starving, as it’s my understanding that ordering an appetizer means food will come quicker. Wasting as little time as possible, I looked up at the waitress and placed our order.

“We’ll start with the fried squid,” I said, and then I ordered some red curry with chicken and a spicy beef and pepper dish. Fang Deng and I then drank water and she talked about something while I thought about food.

About ten minutes went by and suddenly there was the red curry with chicken sitting in front of us with two big plates of rice. Next came the spicy beef. And then, after we’d eaten everything, our appetizer arrived.

Which wasn’t exactly surprising. It’s just another one of those things that you have to adapt to, living abroad. It seems to me that in western culture, we apply logic to a lot of stuff, including how we eat. We have drinks and appetizers and entrees and deserts. Here, things aren’t so orderly. Here, it’s anarchy.

Like, for instance, if I order a drink at a restaurant back home, it will likely come first, before the food. Not so much in China. In China, the drink sometimes comes well after the food has been served. Because there’s not the same thought process going on. No one thinks, “Hmm, the food will probably make the person thirsty, so we should give them something to drink first! It’s brilliant!” Nope. Here, it’s more like, “Well, I wrote this thing down first, so we’ll serve that. And then we’ll serve the next thing I wrote down. Unless something else cooks faster. In that case, we will serve that. Unless I forget it. Yes, I will likely serve the thing I forgot last.” Sometimes one dish comes out and then an eternity passes before the next one shows up, unlike the synchronicity in which the dishes arrive back home. Sometimes one dish will be a real stragler and arrive like an hour after everything else; sometimes you will be tempted to cancel something because it’s taking so long, and then, as soon as you complain like an impatient foreigner, it magically appears.

Food timing. Yet another cultural division between the east and the west. Fang Deng held her stomach and said she was full, our freshly delivered appetizer now sitting on our table. I was stuffed as well. In the past, I’ve heard people say that there’s always room for desert.

I’ve never heard anyone say that there’s always room for fried squid.

A Sense of Belonging in Aisle Four

Grocery StoreAbout a year ago, my girlfriend Fang Deng confessed to me that she hadn’t eaten breakfast in about a decade, and as a result we headed to the grocery store to rectify this problem. She was living in Beijing at the time, and on the weekends I would stay at her place as a guest. And as her guest, I had to take credit for getting the ball rolling on the breakfast thing, because simply having a guest over at one’s apartment can really help a person get their shit together. I, for instance, didn’t clean my apartment at all for months until Fang Deng first came over to visit me. Then in those few days before she showed up, my brain suddenly switched on, and I found myself sweeping the dust off of my windowsills and taking out the trash left from 2014.

It was about eight o’clock at night when we arrived at the grocery store, and I was surprised by how packed the place was. There were loads of people, all quietly floating through the aisles or weighing fruit on that little silver fruit scale thing. Fang Deng kept asking me what to get for breakfast but I wasn’t sure, as Chinese grocery stores don’t always stock cereal that my Western tastes deem as edible.

We kept walking around, and I kept looking at the people shopping for groceries along with us on a Saturday night. There was an old man with a goofy newsboy hat walking around super slow with a plastic bag full of avocados. Then there were two women in hiking gear shopping with big smiles on their faces. A gang of old women chatted idly by the checkouts. A weathered looking guy with eyes so small they looked like pin pricks slowly glided across the floor with an enormous jug of cooking oil.

I looked at all these people and it made me feel nice. This is why I’ve always liked grocery stores. Loved them, even. Because, man, there was a time in my life when I went through a terrible, dark depression the likes of which I hope to never see again. During that time, I fell into a deep cave of loneliness and despair. Few places could take me away from that feeling. I’d go to bars and find a few desperate people sitting around drinking in silence, and it would just bum me out more. Or I’d go to church and feel like an imposter, an outsider, someone who had to smile a lot in order to hide his true feelings of agnostic uncertainty and being-around-religious-people uneasiness. Or I’d go to the library and the heaviness of the books mixed with the general absence of people would immediately make me think about death and late fees.

But the grocery store was never like that. It was different. The grocery store, it seemed, was my one true respite from all the weariness. There’s happiness in the grocery store. Life. You buy food with a small sense of excitement, glad to know you’re doing something that will keep you living. Everything is bright in the grocery store and inoffensive pop music plays at a very reasonable volume. There are always people in the grocery store, too, always doing exactly what you’re doing. And there’s no social pressure, none whatsoever, in the grocery store. You don’t have to talk to anybody, nobody is going to try to be your friend, and there’s no self-imposed pressure to meet girls. Nope, you can simply walk around in the midst of lots of other people while pushing along a big massive metal cart, feeling a tiny sense of belonging that you can’t seem to find anywhere else.

Fang Deng eventually settled on yogurt and pears. We left the bright grocery store and stepped back out onto the dark street, where a few people were smoking cigarettes and some dogs ran around playfully biting each other. Breakfast was secured, my sense of belonging in the world was rejuvenated and, as we walked home, my girlfriend reached out and took one of my hands, the plastic grocery bag gently swaying in the other.

The Man Who Brought Mustard To Asia

Mustard BabyYan Yan likes to take pictures of herself. She’s in her thirties and puts selfies on her WeChat at a rate that likely exceeds most teenaged girls. Not that this is a bad thing. Enjoying one’s own image is a trait I find commendable. It takes an enviable degree of confidence, I think, for one to want to see themselves that often.

For a period of about five months, I took Chinese lessons from Yan Yan. Her English was decent and her rates were low, so she was an ideal teacher for me. Yan Yan’s lessons were fun and were mostly conversational; she’d just start talking to me in Chinese and I’d do my best to respond. Usually our conversations were about food and where I was going (which was often the grocery store, to get food). A friend of mine took the lessons with me, and that made it better. If you’re going to butcher a language, it’s nice to have a little company to butcher it with.

But one day, in one of our lessons with Yan Yan, something happened that will forever stick with me. We were talking about the grocery store (yet again), and my friend was trying to articulate himself.

“I’d like to buy,” he said, in Chinese, “eggs and milk and…”

“And what?” Yan Yan asked.

“Oh, I don’t know the word,” he said, in English. “How do you say mustard?”

“What?”

“Mustard.”

She furrowed her brow. “What is that?”

“You know. It’s the yellow stuff you put on hot dogs.”

“Ah, yes, mayonnaise.”

“No, no, no. Not mayonnaise. Mustard. The yellow stuff.”

“I think it is the same as mayonnaise. No?”

For some reason, I thought I’d jump in and try to help.

“Mayonnaise is white,” I said. “Mustard is yellow. It comes from, like, mustard seeds. I think.”

She was baffled. Eventually we got on our phones and searched for mustard. Finding pictures of bottles of French’s Mustard, we showed them to Yan Yan, assuming this would clear everything up.

“I don’t know what is that,” she said. Her face told us she was telling the truth. She had really never, in her life, heard of mustard before. It was a totally alien item to her.

“You’ve never had mustard?” I asked.

“It is like wasabi?”

“It’s nothing like wasabi,” my friend said.

Yan Yan stared at the mustard the way I might stare at ancient hieroglyphics. She just couldn’t comprehend what she was looking at. We put our phones away and moved on. We figured that going forward, we’d just have to give up on buying mustard.

This incident has stuck with me. I understand that we are all of different cultures, and yet…how does someone not know what mustard is? Part of me thinks that this is probably common. Most of us probably don’t know the condiments typically used in other countries. Take India, for example. I have no idea what condiments are used in India. I don’t even know if they use condiments in India. So not knowing mustard, then, isn’t so strange.

Still, though, it’s mustard. I can’t help thinking of those stories where English people go into isolated, tribal societies in the jungle and the jungle people freak out because they’ve never seen blonde hair before. That’s what I imagine happening in China with mustard. I keep picturing a Chinese person going nuts over a jar of Gray Poupon and then running around Beijing, spreading word of the ‘wild yellow mayonnaise.’

When you’re living abroad, you grow to accept that the people of your new country are going to have a different frame of reference than you do. Your pop culture references will not be understood, and your fond remembrances of Taco Bell and Hot Pockets will fall on deaf ears. But then, sometimes, something comes up, and it strikes you, like a ton of mayonnaise, just how big the gap is, how enormously different your worlds are. And you stand there and you wonder how the heck that’s possible.

I guess I’ll just have to be content in telling myself that one day, mustard will be a common item in China. And on that day, we can start talking about Miracle Whip.

You’re Pregnant? Great! Are you Having a Boy or an Abortion?

Yes, the title of today’s blog is a tad off color, but I wanted to write about a conversation that I had with a coworker the other day. I should first provide a little background information. Although I’m American, I live and work in China. And although many of my coworkers are also from the West, I have lots and lots of Chinese coworkers too. Which is great, because it gives me the opportunity to peer into a world that’s very unlike the one I know.

So, I have a coworker named Lisa (that’s not really her name, it’s the English name she picked for herself since Westerners have trouble remembering Chinese names) (or distinguishing between them because everybody is named Li or Wei or Ma), and Lisa is a lovely youngish Chinese woman. Coming back from summer vacation, news spread that Lisa had gotten knocked up over the summer. When I saw her in the office, I thought I would congratulate her.

“Say, I heard you’re pregnant,” I said. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks!” she said, with a big I-just-got-pregnant-and-I-like-the-attention smile on her face.

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

“I don’t know,” Lisa said. “In China, they don’t tell you.”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s cool. It adds a bit of mystery, right? It’s like a big surprise!”

“Well, actually,” she said, “they don’t tell you because they’re afraid people would abort the baby if it’s a girl.”

That threw me for a loop. I hadn’t considered that at all. It was far darker than the fun ‘surprise’ angle I’d assumed was the rationale for keeping the gender secret. But it made sense. This is a country with a one-child only policy, so I suppose there would be a real danger in telling the parents the baby’s gender. I looked this up later on Google and learned the term ‘gendercide,’ and I also learned that this isn’t just a China problem, and that gender-based abortion happens worldwide.

Which struck me as crazy, mostly because I’d never heard about this before and also because I personally would much prefer to have a girl baby if I accidently impregnated my girlfriend. Going back to that conversation with Lisa, I don’t think I asked her any other questions because my mind was blown. I nodded and walked away and felt icky.

After thinking about it for awhile, I decided that if I was a doctor, I’d just tell everyone they’d be having a boy. And then I’d bring a video camera into the birthing room and tape the fathers’ reactions to their surprise daughters’ arrivals. And then I’d put the videos on YouTube.

Which is blocked in China, but still, it’s nice to dream.