A Taste of Nanjing, China
BY Michael Lowenthal
August 13 2010 4:00 AM ET
Fast-forward through a tiring hour of comedy-of-errors footage: wrong turn after wrong turn, my thoughts a whirl of nonsense marks, accosting strangers, following pointed fingers…
Finally I found the first address, tucked into a courtyard. A bar-and-sauna combo, said my research. A femmy man—or a butch woman; again my gaydar failed me—emerged from a shadow toward some stairs. When I approached, the person, in a panic, waved me off. “Please,” I said. I smiled and showed my map. The nervous Nelly (even this close, I couldn’t tell the gender) made a rueful book-shutting gesture and scuttled up the stairs.
At the next spot a street cleaner seemed to confirm the address. She pointed into the lobby of a residential building, brought her palms together, raised four fingers. I suck at charades. Her palms looked like…an elevator’s doors? Fourth floor? The club must be a hide-and-seek speakeasy! I rode the lift excitedly to 4, but when the doors pulled back, a padlocked metal grate kept me captive.
Damn it. Had her hands meant “closed”? Four somethings ago? Weeks or months?
I wandered the streets, feeling a gloom I’d thought was years behind me: a chokehold of confusion, emotions inexpressible, every hopeful turn a new dead end; it felt a bit too much like in the closet.
I gave up and was headed down the way to my hotel, when unexpectedly I recognized a street sign from my list. An eensie one-room market was the only shop still open, its wizened keeper slumped, head in hands. I showed him the bar’s address, and he did a funny double take, then shrugged and pointed across the little alley. (It struck me that my alienation in China had a flip side: Because I wouldn’t be able to understand a stranger’s scorn, I didn’t suffer my usual fear of asking.)
A doorman whisked me in, to the strains of a Chinese torch song, whose singer, in a miniskirt and four-inch bright-white heels, danced a slutty pole dance as she crooned. She winked at me with tarantula-legged lashes.
Lordy, what relief I felt, at last to have found this!
And then, just as fast: disappointment.
The queen on stage, peddling her cartoonish sexuality…her stringy wig…the cheesy disco lighting: The club resembled ones I’ve seen from Kansas to Cape Cod, from Copenhagen to Lisbon to Havana. It called to mind the set of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Gayness can be a great connector but also a cultural eraser, a lowest common denominator of customs. Not that I’m opposed to queens (I watch Ru’s show devotedly), or disco dives, or strutting sluts (God knows!). But I had crossed 12 time zones to a vast, exotic land, had braved its maze of mystifications…for this?
A craving for belonging, a horror of conforming: That has always been my gay conundrum.
Twenty or so Chinese guys were clustered around five tables, smoking, drinking, shaking cups of dice. They turned to stare—all of them did, at once—with no compunction, but sent me smiles and friendly little waves.
OK, well, you don’t get that in Boston.
I made the universal thumb-and-pinkie gesture to get a beer. When it came, a man got up and took the chair beside me. He clinked his beer-filled shot glass to my bottle, and we drank. He was maybe 40, wearing chunky black-framed glasses that I doubted he knew would make him hip where I live. We smiled and clinked and drank again, smiled and clinked and drank. That was all the language that we shared.