Lillian’s College Lesbianage: Out Of The Vassar Bubble And Into China

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Hello and welcome to another edition of Autostraddle’s College Lesbianage: a glimpse of college life through the wide eyes of six freshly fallen snowflake first-year queers. This month’s update will be given individually! Today we’ve got Vassar’s Lillian with some thoughts about China.


On the night that the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, I sat in my room hitting the refresh button on the Supreme Court Blog, the New York Times, and Facebook, waiting impatiently for the obligatory status updates. As I began to celebrate the announcement with my roommate, watching my radical queer friends express their bittersweet feelings towards the decision on my newsfeed, I heard a boom outside. It sounded like a car crash. I looked out the window and saw a crowd of people running toward the victim while the perpetrator revved up the engine and sped away. In vain, a man with a limp tried to chase after the car. It was then that I was thrust back into reality; I remembered where I was.

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I am in China. I am in China where the overturning of something like DOMA would not happen, at least under the current political rule. I am in China where the government is everywhere—on billboards and posters, online, on the radio and in history books, trying to seep its way into people’s minds. But everywhere people are secretly criticizing it. And, I am in China where homosexuality and is neither widely accepted nor punishable but, like the muffled denunciations I am witness to in passing, LGBTQ culture is secretly thriving; I can see it all around me.

The last month and a half I have been living in Qingdao, China, studying Chinese day and night, trying to be fully immersed in Chinese culture. I now realize that Chinese is, for lack of a better metaphor, like a crazy ex-girlfriend. She seemed nice and inviting at first but then I realized she’s hard to deal with. She’s difficult to read and it’s hard to communicate with her. But she won’t go away. She seems to pop up everywhere. I can’t seem to shake her as much as I want to at times. Despite little instances that remind me that I am a foreigner—feeling slightly embarrassed whenever I go out and have a hundred pairs of eyes on me, awkwardly having to use a squatty potty (and always carrying around toilet paper), and of course my annoyance when someone is brave enough to try to snap a photo of me or touch my afro—my love affair with Chinese is still going strong.

China has won the way to my heart.

China has won the way to my heart.

I have most enjoyed talking to the locals who have been straight forward in expressing their dissatisfaction with contemporary Chinese life and their various critiques of the one party rule. In our discussions, I’ve received yet another lesson on privilege. My privilege in China is shown in different ways. At the university where I am living, it is established in that all foreign students live with one roommate and have their own bathrooms while Chinese students can have as up to eight students in one room and have to walk five minutes from their dorms to use the shower building. Also at university, I’ve noticed the relaxed attitude there is to foreign students’ curfew whereas Chinese students must be back in their dorms by 11pm sharp, lest they wish to spend the evening on the grass by the pond. Above all though, the greatest privilege of all – that at Vassar and in the U.S. we all seem to have taken for granted – is our voices. The means through which we are able to assert our existence and express ourselves, arguably one of our most important tools as a people, is a liberty which by and large has still not been secured for ordinary Chinese people.

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The lack of freedom of speech in China was something I was always aware of. Living here however, has shown me more how lucky we are to live in the states. More importantly, I think living here has taught me something I can take back to Vassar: the Vassar bubble may be a mostly wonderful, open place but it is not representative of the outside world. I think that spending time in bubble has made me want to make that bubble my reality. That isn’t possible nor is it pragmatic. In the bubble I feel like one opinion tends to dominate while other more conservative, occasionally problematic ones are silenced. If China has taught me anything, it is that silence will not get you anywhere. (I decided to not stay silent and tell my tutor that I have a girlfriend. I am kind of honored to be the first out queer person she knows.)

And with that, I sign off. Now I go back to memorizing characters, fantasizing about trekking across China and thinking excitedly about the upcoming semester full of theory, endless discussion, history, politics, late night snacks and my little queer family.

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Lillian has written 2 articles for us.

15 Comments

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    This is so interesting. As a Canadian in the U.S., I can relate to the strangeness of being in a new country with a different culture. Beautifully written piece and I can’t wait to hear more about your experiences in China!

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    對於中國的女同文化您有什麽看法?在中國,大部分的拉拉們都把那麽T/P角色作爲比較重要,那有時候不分角色的都難過一點了。
    What’s your view of Chinese Queer women’s culture? Mostly in China lesbians regard Butch/Femme as very important, which can make a bit of a difficult time for those who don’t go with roles…

    祝您一路順風耶!
    Have a great trip!

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      说真的我个人认为这分配角色的问题不限制于中国这大概是个非常亚洲现象
      (看着东南亚大部分的女同都非常明显的)

      Personally, I think this Butch/Femme couple question applies to most lesbians throughout Asia.

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    That’s pretty amazing. I started learning Chinese a little over two years ago. It’s my job as a linguist now but I miss studying it. Eventually I’ll get to go to China (or Taiwan, I’m reeeeeaally hoping for Taiwan) I can’t wait! Enjoy your time in China, best of luck in your studies.

    祝你好运!

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    I can’t wait to hear more about the culture and differences over there in China. This is actually enlightening information to me, since I have little knowledge of the politics over in my land of origin.

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    OMG! I studied at Qingdao University for about a year (leaving this past Feb)! I had a decently sized multinational queer group of friends while I was there including a charming American fellow who I believe is still currently working in the foreign students’ office. If you haven’t found the gays yet, I’d be more than happy to try and put you in contact with someone and direct you toward gay nightlife (mostly oriented toward men but your time in Qingdao might not be complete without a drag show). My email’s maeve.add at gmail dot com if you feel like giving me a shout!

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          Hey Helena! I am at QUC right now but I’m going back to the States in less than a month. Too bad though because I love it here and that would be pretty cool to meet up. Feel free to email me, I’ll message you my info. I hope I can help!

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        Oh Muse… Is Yechao open? It closed for a few weeks before I left (I heard something to do with taxes?) but while not a gay club had plenty of findable gay men and women. Just look for the Ts. Feeling Club was listed somewhere on the internet as a mixed club and I’ve known a couple gay dudes that have found each other there but you don’t really want to go in there unless you’re surrounded by a group of friends.

        There was a small lesbian bar hidden somewhere near Taidong, mostly made up of lesbian couples playing cards, but I hear they also have a pole dancer a little later at night. I haven’t been there in a couple years, though, so they may be no longer. Guowang (King’s) bar, also near Taidong, is a must visit, at least once. It’s basically all men sitting in groups drinking beer and watching the drag show, but is usually pretty full on weekend nights and almost always leads to interesting conversations and plenty of ganbei’s.

        I have a good gay American friend in who’s made a point of discovering Qingdao’s gay scene and pulling together some sort of community. You’ve probably met him already. I feel a little weird giving out other folks names and contact info in a public forum, but email me and I’d be more than happy to put you into contact!

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          Thanks for the info! By the way, Yechao is still open. Feeling club is shut down though. Also I just officially met your friend. He’s very nice and gave me some suggestions. Thanks so much for telling him about me!

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      Wow! I’m just about to move to Qingdao to study for a year. I’ve been wondering how I might get into the Chinese queer scene (I find it difficult enough at home here in Britain). Do you mind if I email you for a bit more info? Even just the names of places. It would be really helpful!

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