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Coming out and of age in China (2)

By Massoud Hayoun

(Artwork by Sadao Hasegawa)

Here's the second part of a wonderful story by Massoud Hayoun, an Arab-American who went to China at the age of 19 to learn Mandarin. The piece---originally published by Gawker---is here reprinted with the permission of the author. The first part sits under this link.

Lion dance III

My sexuality was transgressive, once upon a time. In China. Exquisitely so, because it showed itself only under the cover of darkness, hushed in back rooms, crammed into what was the only gay bar in Beijing (not for prostitutes) at the time and in Chinese—a language I could speak in without fully hearing myself. A language I'd speak the truth in, however filthy. A language my family, my God, my countries would never understand.

In that sense, Chinese is, perhaps more than any other, my mother tongue. I can conjure the heart arrhythmia of that era—saying things I never would have said in English, in what has now become my most familiar—and preferred—of foreign languages.

Nowadays in New York, I've taken an apartment in Chinatown, on the off chance I'll have some sensory experience that recalls what I only know how to refer to as my original sin, that year of study abroad in China. That sin being the excitement of being wanted for the first time, by other men. To me, those were the moments where I suddenly started to have worth.


If I stay with the same man for too long—sometimes more than an hour, I suddenly water down into a puddle of inauthenticity

That is, before I realized that being wanted sexually is, in this life, the height of intimacy for me. I don't say that with much disdain. It's mostly a choice, of late. With all the men I've slept with since China, the sights, sounds and smells of being momentarily wanted have become too familiar. Grotesque. Mediocre. If I stay with the same man for too long—sometimes more than an hour, I suddenly water down into a puddle of inauthenticity.

Hell is others, especially in China. In China, I cast myself into the farthest depths of the others. You had to, you see. To ride the subway, to make it to your internship or your little side-job, to buy your groceries. It was glorious. Before that, I'd been protected by my family. I'd never been swept up by any crowd of human flesh in spread-out Los Angeles. Nothing compares, until today, to the mass and might of Beijing—to the mass and might of the Chinese government, perhaps the only real lover I've ever known, even if our dysfunctional relationship is on hiatus while my career keeps me in the Tri-State Area.

What's more, before that year of study abroad, I'd never met a prostitute other than Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, never met a drug-dealer or DVD-bootlegger, never drank. Never lived. My family isn't especially religious. They are socialists, if anything, which makes them moralists at times. In Beijing, past all the pomp and circumstance of the art and politics, I left Eden and found the real world sweet and low-down.

In my year in China, I gave myself and others all the orgasms. I was filled with emotion at the time, deeply troubled by the people I was meeting and the things I was doing. The orgasms were better, still, than ever.

Then I returned to China over two years later, with a fraught journalism job, and was by then fucking most men I met.

Everything had already started to fade. At the age of 22, I was past my sexual prime. I'd realized men were pigs. Despite my own dick.

"Life is like a glorious gown, infested with mites," wrote Zhang Ailing, the larger-than-life author of Lust/Caution, recently made into a film where Tony Leung, far too late in his career and life, chose to take off more clothes. The mites, of course, were the men she knew. I've known a few mites. Maybe thousands, at this point.

Zhang died alone in her apartment in Westwood, California, my Chinese literature teacher told us. They found her decaying body days, maybe weeks, after she'd died.

"But don't feel sad for her," said the bespectacled, frail, impish and intensely misanthropic scholar—with whom I now recall, I almost shared an intimate moment late at night in one of the university gardens, before we walked to his bus stop—"She hated others." I too, hate others. In my Chinatown apartment, at the age of 26, I live alone, often eating shrimp dumplings—xia jiao—in the triumph of my boxer-brief collection. Multicolored neon solids, mostly. My style has changed since I took 3.25 inches of bad student's cock.


My style has changed since I took 3.25 inches of bad student's cock

My first man would be the man from Xinjiang, in China's west. The first I formally possessed, if only for a while. But he was not my first lover. The first, I met after a short summer break on my year of study abroad.

We shall call that one the Mongolian texter. Not because I care to protect his identity (he also most likely just wanted to dick me down, as a West Hollywood bartender I went home with once would say, in his southern twang), but because his name, as many of the minor details of his existence, has died off now, and the memory of him has turned to gold.

In a short summer break between an intensive Mandarin program the start of the academic year, I traveled across China—only the nice parts, per my Korean-American friend Jennifer's request. We have no one to impress with having roughed it, she said.

From Beijing, we flew to Hangzhou. From there, we took a train to Shanghai. From there, we flew to Hong Kong, and from there we took an overnight train back to Beijing.

Jennifer was impossibly lovely and impossibly bossy. A group of our girlfriends, who'd gone to see the fish head mountains of Guilin, had told her to take care of me—to make sure I didn't do anything crazy. I have a habit of conning women into mothering me and then resenting it.

One night, I'd had enough and halfheartedly called her a bitch, because I had no more effective words at the time, and decided I wouldn't be bullied, even by my close friends. I was living so far from my family for the first time, only to be infantilized by people who hoped to earn maternal stripes with an at-times submissive gay man-child. It wasn't her fault, really.

I'd seen little of what I wanted to see. In Hangzhou there was the grave of a popular Song Dynasty poetess: Su Xiaoxiao, I believe her name was. She was a courtesan who suffered from a terminal illness who devoted what her short life to writing beautiful poems. An existentialist hero. The one catch was that Su Xiaoxiao may never have existed—that her poems may have been penned by the mastermind behind her persona. Still, what is allegedly her grave is situated at the heart of Hangzhou's signature West Lake.

Perhaps it was because she was a whore and even then, as a virgin, I felt a kinship with her—or perhaps because, like me, she may never have existed at all, I needed to see her. Jennifer preferred to sit in a Starbucks on the border of the West Lake and escape the intense humidity of China's uniquely balmy south.

You're a bitch, I said that night. She cried. I cried. We hugged it out and agreed to get a drink—I'd never had a drop of liquor before. One drink turned into ten. In Hangzhou and then in Shanghai and then in Hong Kong, I was brutally drunk. Some nights, I felt as though the cab back to our hotel was spinning so fast, I'd fly right out. Some nights, I would serenade the cabbies: songs by late diva Deng Lijun, roaring by Faye Wong, Communist Party opuses, songs I'd listened to to improve my Mandarin, but also because I truly loved them.

Each afternoon, we awoke, put on our sunglasses and slowly nursed ourselves onto the streets for some steamed bun that could sop up whatever ailment still existed inside us.

My family would be so deeply disappointed, I thought, the whole time. Imagining that I was on the precipice of civilization, an enjoyable and terrifying experience. My protective single mother had specifically told me, during my freshman and sophomore years, not to hang out with drunks and druggies. Not to attend frat and sorority parties. I was the first in our family to make it that far, academically. I couldn't wash it all away.

We were on a budget, Jennifer and me. We stayed in modest places;travel is cheap in China.

Accordingly, each night, Jennifer and I would arrive at one of the bars in Hangzhou or Shanghai—glitzy affairs: shining lights, fog machines, youth and fat moneyed men, hair teased out to the sky. She'd sit me down at one end of the bar and take a seat across from me. She was beautiful. She'd purchased the most expensive hair extensions available from the Korean salon in Beijing's university district. Her eyes were as blue as the contact lenses she purchased from the clothing bazaar near the Wudaokou subway overpass. Her lashes were the most luxurious available at Huamei, the Walmart knockoff on campus. Men loved her.

Each night, she got a man, somehow, to buy drinks for both of us. Perhaps she told them I was gay. Perhaps once they'd offer to buy her a drink, she introduced me, and shamed them into buying me drinks too. All I know is every night, after returning home, the taste of Chivas and sweet red iced tea mixer reappeared on my palette on its way into the toilet.

She was my big sister, my role model. I needed to follow in her footsteps, I thought—hustle my own drinks, to have some self-worth.

So when we arrived back in Beijing, I asked to go to the one gay club there at the time where the idea was not to literally market male prostitutes, referred to as ducks in colloquial Chinese. There was another bar in Houhai where the boys were auctioned off, or so I was told. One of my jie mei—gay sisters—I made later that year was in a relationship with a duck.

Just out of curiosity, because it's like a themed club, I told Jennifer. (Sausage-themed.) She very gracefully said nothing—she was one of few people that year who didn't feel I owed her any clarifications.

It was, and is, called Destination. It was the first gay bar I'd ever been to. Back then, it was little more than two rooms: a crowded, dark dance floor and a crowded, slightly brighter bar. It seemed, at the time, that many men there were married. When I first entered Destination, I felt as though my own flesh were magnetically pulling me outside. I'd not yet become fully gay, I thought. There was still a chance. Everyone experiments in college.

You are my neighbor

I had a few whiskey sours. Somehow, I'd made my way outside. Jennifer was hitting on one of the allegedly straight bartenders in the interior, I believe.

I was wearing a black sweater vest and long black shorts from The Hot Topic. I saw him look at me. I looked away. He looked away. Then he looked again.

He was in his early 30s. Golden-brown skin. His national identity card said he was Mongolian. He was a businessman. Skinny, lithe arms.

I was drunk so I spoke of anything—just about anything. How I'd grown up without a father. He looked sad. I'm sorry, he said. No, I said, I'm better off. It took me several years to realize how true that was.

I love Faye Wong, I also remember saying. Cuz you're gay, he said. Apparently I wasn't the only one. My heart sank. For now, I thought. I'm gay for now. In college.

Because she doesn't care about anything, I said, correcting him. I wish I were that way. The more sex I had, years later, the more that wish came true, at least with regard to men and the little they're good for.

He had a deep voice, I remember. With a closed fist, he brushed his knuckles against my cheek. Strange boy. I felt the blood flowing in my forearms.

Jennifer came, saw us, and with impish haste wished me goodnight, before dashing into a cab, ignoring my imploring her to hold up.

Eventually we parted. His friend emerged from Destination and was to drive him home. We exchanged numbers.

A few days later, he texted me. What are you doing?

My homework, I replied, sitting at my dorm room desk, where I had likely just masturbated. I still pity the study abroad student who inherited my little cum-crusted pied-à-terre. You?

Thinking of you, he said.

Lion dance I

It was the first time any man had expressed interest in me. I was suddenly not a leper or a nun. I was 19 and desirable. I was 19 and, for the first time, felt young.

You like me? I asked, milking the moment.

Must be, he said. He was so cool, I thought.

In the next few weeks, the Chinese Moon Festival came. The smell of autumn mulch, pervasive in Beijing at the time, reminds of those earliest days of feeling possessed. That was all I wanted.

He sent me a poem via text. It was about us both being under the same mid-autumn moon, drawn together by its warm glow. I was moved. I merited poetry, nothing less—from this adult whom I would decidedly marry!

If I really wanted to, I suppose I could search for the poem online. Months later, after my odd romance with this man, I found out most of what he sent me came from a website for the clinically game-less.

Wear more clothes, one text said. It's getting cold out.

I had a Japanese girlfriend at the time—also a student at the university, who would eventually unfriend me on Facebook, because she started dating our mutual friend and feared I'd secretly bone him. Like my mother, when I came out to her in the fourth grade, in the street, Mika wouldn't believe I was gay. You're not gay. You're normal. Don't lead this man on.

There was no need to fret, Mika. By mistake or design, I never met the Mongolian text message king in person again.

Over time, the text messages became less quaint as the sexual frustration built. I want to hold your naked body in my arms, he wrote. I want to hold you down and kiss you, he wrote later. I want to hold you down and...

I masturbated to his texts, the poems and the latter-day unsaintly ones. Then I threw my telephone SIM card into a storm drain outside my dorm on a rainy night. Every time I went to Destination. Every time I shopped for some gay-looking outfit, I hoped I'd run into him, that he'd hold me down and… before I could give it a second thought.

The last part will follow soon.

Massoud Hayoun is a 26-year-old Arab-American journalist based in New York City who has worked/ struggled/ copulated in China, the MENA region and France. He has had sex with thousands of men, and has realized that on his deathbed, he will be no more than a sum of his life experiences. He identifies, lately, as more of a very masculine woman than a feminine man. Email him at massoudhayoun87@gmail.com if you want.