How to Be Mistaken for a Prostitute in China

Guest Post by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

Hey, folks! I'm on vacation, taking a much-needed blog break. Some batteries need recharging. But don't worry -- I've enlisted the generous help of some great guest bloggers to keep things fresh around here while I'm gone. Here's Dorcas Cheng-Tozun with a step-by-step guide to being mistaken for a prostitute in China.

Step 1: Marry a white man.

When I was a senior in college, a Chinese American student wrote a scathing op-ed in the school newspaper about the bane of white men dating Asian women on campus. He blamed the men for poaching Asian women; he blamed the women for not giving their Asian brethren a chance; he blamed all parties for perpetuating nasty stereotypes. His column ignited a vigorous debate on campus.

The paper did a follow-up article on just who these outrageous white-Asian couples were. My then-boyfriend -- now husband -- and I were interviewed for the article. (Ned is technically half-Turkish and half-Jewish, but in this context, that didn't matter. He's white enough.) We talked about the challenges of cross-cultural romance and how we tried to be sensitive to one another's heritage. But we were confident we could find a way to make it work. And we did.

We married four years after graduating and enjoyed copious amounts of marital bliss. See? I wanted to tell that guy from college. Asian-white relationships can be a beautiful thing.

Three years later, we moved to China -- and I realized I had no idea what I was talking about.

Step 2: Move to one of China's newest cities -- the fewer foreigners, the better.

My husband and I moved to the industrial city of Shenzhen, ground zero for China's experiment with capitalism and home to more than ten million migrant workers, almost all of whom had limited exposure to foreigners of any kind.

They could understand Ned. He was strangely tall, he had real facial hair, and it was a small miracle if he could say ni hao or use chopsticks. But I was an enigma to them -- an appalling, inexplicable, stinkier-than-the-stinkiest-stinky-tofu enigma. An ethnic Chinese who couldn't speak Mandarin and didn't have the faintest clue how to operate in the Middle Kingdom? She must be an idiot, they reasoned, and proceeded to inform me of this -- loudly, irritably, and very frequently.

They also had to explain why I was always with that white man. Favorite hypotheses ranged from me being Ned's secretary to his tour guide or interpreter. It wasn't uncommon for locals to approach me, ask a perfunctory "Can you translate?" and launch into a long monologue on how foreigners are welcome in China or the importance of China-U.S. relations. Whenever this happened, I would pretend to listen, turn to Ned, and say, "I have no idea what he just said. Something about China. I suggest you nod and smile and say thank you."

I hated being treated like Ned's underling. But such are the power dynamics between white men and Chinese women in China. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning. Especially in a place like Shenzhen, which has a thriving sex industry.

Step 3: Walk around city with said white man.

The first time it happened was in a subway station. Ned and I were waiting to catch the train home, both of us dressed professionally and carrying our laptops, when two Chinese men approached us.

"Hello. We are study English in school," one of them explained. "We need practice. It's okay?" They began peppering Ned with questions about why he was in China and how long he was planning to stay.

I tried to participate in the discussion, but they ignored me. They only had eyes for the foreigner with the light hair and grammatically correct English language skills. Or so I thought.

Suddenly, they turned to me and began spewing a stream of Mandarin. As hard as I tried, I couldn't comprehend what they were saying. And then one of the men made the shape of an hourglass with his hands. That I understood. Nice curves. (Never mind that, by American standards, I have almost no curves to speak of.) He and his friend slowly looked me up and down, curling their lips in suggestive leers that were shocking to see in such a buttoned-up culture. Worst of all, I had no words to defend myself or rebuke their inappropriate behavior. I could only gape at them as they walked away, those creepy smiles still on their faces.

They weren't the only ones. There was the woman in the airport who suddenly started screaming at me. There were the men in the local markets who stared at me with such disapproval that I wanted to hide behind the stacks of counterfeit purses and DVDs for sale. There were countless waitresses, cashiers, clerks, and security guards who looked at the two of us with knowing smiles or judging scowls.

Of course, their condemnation was based on what they knew. Shenzhen is full of foreign men who regularly hire prostitutes or entice local women with promises of financial security and a passport. Chinese men from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland get in on the act too. Perhaps this is why no one ever challenges the actions of the men -- but, as I found out, the women hear about it on a regular basis.

Though the only evidence against me was my ethnicity and my connection to a white man, I had been tried and convicted by the Chinese public as a foreign-man-hunting hussy.

Step 4: Leave city -- and China -- in disgrace.

A weird thing happens when millions of people keep telling you something is true, even when you know it isn't: you kind of start to believe it. I became paranoid about holding Ned's hand or showing him the slightest bit of affection on the streets of Shenzhen. I worried so much about how others saw us that I would sporadically squawk, "We're married!" or, "He's my husband!" to anyone within earshot.

After nineteen months, we left Shenzhen and moved to Hong Kong because I just couldn't take it anymore.

During our time there, I came to recognize that all of the racial, cultural, and sexual inequalities of white male-Asian female relationships that our classmate had railed about back in college existed in spades -- in China. But I learned one other thing: I had a lot more in common with my Turkish-Jewish husband than I did with the Chinese Nationals. The American part of my Chinese American identity is even stronger than I realized. Perhaps that‘s why our relationship has always felt so straightforward.

I don't mean to diminish the realities of being in a cross-cultural relationship in the U.S. Yes, Ned and I need to be aware of and honor each other's backgrounds and customs. No, we don't want to perpetuate stereotypes -- which is why it's so important to me that Ned respects me personally and professionally, and that we are truly equal partners.

In the end, though, regardless of where our parents were born, we are both Americans with similar values and expectations. It's our differences, but also our similarities, that make our mixed-race marriage a beautiful thing.

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer and editor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience as a Chinese American living in Shenzhen, China. Learn more at www.transformativewords.com or follow her on Twitter: @dorcas_ct.

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