Thursday, January 3, 2019

Straight-friendly Survival Guide to China

This incomplete rainbow in Beijing is a perfect symbol - China
has a lot to do to achieve equality (also note the pollution!)
For those of us who don’t speak Chinese, skipped Chinese history, think your local Chinese food is authentic (it’s NOT!) -- and perhaps never aspired to rule the Kingdom of Rice - as King or Queen -- visiting China might be off of your radar. But you must consider that China is basically the size of the US, with as many different cultures and ethnicities inside. Despite erasing the identities of many - and outright destroying some - the Chinese State media often calls attention to this wide diversity (at least they realize they should!). This reason alone is why you should consider making the trip - there’s so much incredible food, unique culture, along with boundless natural beauty in this big country.

But if you don’t have time to memorize the 3,000 Chinese characters needed to adequately read, write and get around - let alone the 50,000 that exist - the following list will help you immensely with your trip to China.
Destination nightclub in Beijing - definitely the most gay spot
in the country.
The first thing of course is to at least know some simple phrases, and of course Thank you. Like people of all cultures, Chinese folks appreciate when you can speak some of their own language. Knowing a few phrases (with the right pronunciation and tone) will get you heaps of praise. You can always start on Duolingo.

Be forewarned, being LGBT in China still has its challenges - and one of the main ones is a lack of places to meet up. Beijing has Destination and a couple smaller venues like Red Dog that provide places to socialize. Chengdu is considered by many to be a gay Mecca of China - but even there gay life is led by the expat community. Every city has some gay bar - or gay friendly space - but often they get shut down.

Quick 6 things before you go:
    At the gate for my flight, Delta nearly
    turned me away; my visa was printed
     a little off, making it look expired!
  • US Citizens (and nearly everyone else) need a visa before entry. You will have to go to your nearest consulate to submit paperwork. Be sure everything is filled out properly! And you’ll need a destination (hotel name) where you’re headed in China (even if you don’t yet have a reservation). As a tourist, you will likely be able to get a 10 year visa - good for multiple entries if you want to return for a visit over the next 10 years.
  • Download VPNs (computer and phone). These operate outside of the “Chinese Firewall” to protect your communications as well as enable access to Instagram, Facebook, and all Google platforms, news sites, and anything politically sensitive (although it appears if you’re just using data on your US cell plan, you may be able access these sites). I used Express VPN which worked well - also there’s a 30-day money back guarantee with most VPNs - so you can use it for your trip and cancel afterwards. Remember: You’ll have to contact customer support to get a refund, but this just takes a few minutes online.
  • Download WeChat app on your phone and create the handle and name you’ll use to meet anyone and everyone in China. WeChat is the Facebook/Venmo/Messenger App of China. China is mostly a cashless society now, because with WeChat you also pay for everything via QR code, but you need a Chinese bank account to be able to do this (apparently, that’s not hard to get but doesn’t seem necessary for a weeks long adventure). Warning: The Chinese Government also reads your WeChat (and thus may access your phone through it, who knows!) - don’t send anything you don’t want them to read - and definitely don’t send information of a political, organizing nature to anyone here (this includes LGBT related statements).
    DiDi is China's Lyft/Uber - it has
    in-app translation so you can
    communicate with drivers.
  • Download DiDi (on your phone) - the Uber/Lyft of China. Especially with the fact that Chinese cabbies don’t speak any English (and will be hard-pressed to recognize destinations on your Google Maps) this app is gold. It offers translated communications with your driver. Using an app also helps because often at night cabs overcharge customers in major tourist destinations. The tough part can be getting the destination correctly loaded (usually copied in Chinese characters from a friend) or you can use landmarks nearby where you want to go.
Side Note: When I arrived in China, the government had just “punished” the app (and all of us!) because a DiDi driver allegedly raped 2 women who he picked up. So, for a week between the hours of 11pm and 5am there was no way to get a car (perfect since this is the most vulnerable time for anyone, especially foreigners who are faced with overpaying for gypsy cabs). So (like anything) you might run into problems, but for the most part DiDi saves you! And you can also ensure a nicer car by paying about $0.50 more (DiDi Express).
  • Add a Chinese Keyboard to your phone (pretty easy through settings). Although you may not be able to use this keyboard, if you find yourself in a bind, others can help send messages or enter the characters you need for a destination or communication with someone else. I also used it to send basic phrases to people (they appreciate you knowing their language, of course).
  • Get a translation scanning app. Websites list Pleco - but I just used Google Scanner (I got lazy) - for scanning Chinese Characters in real time. It’s pretty cool to wave your phone in front of a sign and see english show up on your phone!
You will find that often - even in hotel lobbies - Chinese attendants are using Google Translate to ensure they are properly communicating with guests.

When you arrive:
Always carry tissues! And do eat yummy
waffles and ice cream.
  • Buy Tissues (cheaper in China of course!) - for 2 important reasons: 1) Restaurants often do not have napkins and 2) especially if you like using this privately in the bathroom; there is NO TOILET PAPER in public restrooms (and often when using facilities at restaurants). Plus, you’ll have an experience with the squatter toilet if you decide to poo in public restrooms. Don’t sit down on it. You’d be sitting on the ground! You squat to poop in China - and a lot of the Eastern world. But Western-style toilets (like those in our bathrooms) are ubiquitous in hotels and many western establishments. Just don’t expect to have a nice long sit on the toilet. 
  • Have lots of patience. In China, things often take longer - there are just millions of people in any one place so you must consider that. Traffic is often horrendous - and subways can be challenging during rush periods. Just be patient with people - and also remember that it wasn’t too long ago that these people had to literally fight for everything - even to eat - just to survive (a Chinese person mentioned this to me). They often are unbelievably generous and kind - but in passing they may cut you off, que in crazy ways, and of course, charge you (a foreigner; “farang”) a foreign price for everything.
    Nothing like a busy subway train in Guangzhou!
  • Triple check destinations and meeting points. Often names and things sound the same so just pay extra attention to where you are going and when - this will cut down on more than half of the miscommunications you will inevitably have. And of course, allow for extra time to take the subway the wrong direction - or if the DiDi/cab didn’t understand your destination.
  • Keep your ticket. Will you be taking a bullet train? Or any train around? For some reason, you need your ticket to both get in and out (Keep it like your DC Metro card). And you also must pick up your tickets, so you should arrive at least 45 - even 1 hour - before your train departure to make sure you can get your ticket, get into the building (like airline security) and get to your gate.
  • Carry cash. There are a lot of banks that are useless to you in China - often the specific ones definitely don’t serve foreign cards. But “Bank of China” seems to work and is around a lot. Sometimes, when you arrive at the airport, there’s one ATM where you’ll see all the foreigners congregating. That’ll be your sure sign. Also, don’t forget your card! Chinese (and often many foreign ATMs) will wait until after you get your cash, to release your card - unlike US banks which make sure you have your card before you run off with the cash (I’ve done this at least twice - thankfully once in an airport where some other foreigner noticed and yelled after me!). 
Small gay bars provide entertainment!
  • Be wary of random strangers wanting to meet and practice their english or take you to a fake “tea house.” Like all tourist destinations, China has its scammers. I experienced (and even fought back) against a group that I met in 2013. You can read that crazy full story in 3 parts here. But suffice it to say, don’t follow a random, seemingly friendly Chinese person into an establishment. They are likely looking to scam you out of some cash.
  • Be sure to meet LGBT people where they are in coming out. Chinese gay guys are often in the closet to their family as well as to even their closest friends (or at least in part). So just be understanding. Not unlike other places, It’s typical to ask and discuss whether you’re a “0,” “0.5,” or “1” - a fun code for bottom, verse, or top, respectively. In China, gay socialization for many is in a place where its challenging to have relationships; few LGBT people can be out to their parents - so sometimes talk goes right to sex. Don’t immediately expect them to be comfortable holding hands in public, for example. However, it depends on each individual. Many can be adamant about who they are -- it’s clearly tough to be openly LGBT in China. The government is watching and reading your WeChat! And if you’re a foreigner that gets too involved in organizing locally, Public Security forces might come knocking on your door.
Flyer for my event in Guangzhou
I visited Guangzhou in September, the weekend after what was supposed to be a number of celebrations for Pride at different venues. However, the authorities heard about it - and they came after a westerner who played some role in managing the event, and threatened them with deportation if all of the events were not cancelled. Also, in Guangzhou, a number of gay bars had just been shut down.

While I didn’t experience any harassment by the authorities while I visited - I didn’t stay very long anywhere I went. The US Consulate in Guangzhou held a speaking event where I discussed where I work at OutRight Action International - it was well attended. However, I’ve heard that often colleges dissuade students (even threatening removal of their scholarships!) from attending events like these and Chinese authorities record when Chinese citizens visit foreign embassies. They are very wary of anything that could be a “foreign influence” even though outside support is sometimes desperately needed by local LGBT NGOs.

Typical gay bar in China - filled with tables and a big stage!

Often gay bars don’t have much space for socialization. You come with a group of friends, sit around a table and play dice, and order essentially what we would call bottle service. For the establishment, this probably works well as you are forced to order a round of beers or a bottle of liquor. But you wouldn’t just come out alone -- so challenging for a guy visiting alone! Still, clearly as a foreigner, you’re often desired at these spaces (and at clubs) because you’re expected to have more money to spend (even if you don’t) and clubs see an expat community as validation for locals to believe it's a happening place. Still, what's cool about most small gay venues, is that they have almost continual entertainment - drag queens or sexy male dancers.
Terracotta Warriors near Xi'an

Side Note: While walking to one of those gay bars in Xi'an, I passed by a big straight club called “Area 51” (which was a pretty cool space, admittedly) and one of the promoters still asked me to come in. I told him I would look around. He got my WeChat and essentially schemed to get me to come back the next night - telling me he had a bunch of gay friends who would join me a table. When I arrived, there was no one else, and he expected me to buy a bottle ($80 USD) for the one poor gay guy he eventually found (only after I asked where his alleged gay friends were). He just happened to find him on the street; he was from Thailand. We got along, but he said he had to leave shortly after arriving - so a total bust of a night (remember the bullet above about being too naive with people).
7th annual Great Wall China AIDS Walk 2018
always held in mid-September

Despite challenges and often unavoidable miscommunications when you don't speak the language, visiting China can be an incredible experience - there's so much yummy food - the people connect with will be very very friendly - and don't forget the many sights of China. The Terracotta Warriors (outside Xi'an) are amazing - you watch archeologists putting the pieces back together before your very eyes. And the Pandas (in Chengdu) are super cute and amusing to watch. And especially after rainfall, the air clears of pollution like this incredible day we had participating in the 7th annual Great Wall China AIDS walk outside of Beijing. One daring individual even chose to do it in heels!

Great Wall China AIDS Walk - in heels!

Disclaimer: The GAYographer visited China in 2013 and recently in September 2018 as part of a US government-funded exchange under the auspices of the US-China Commission. His primary goal during this time was to meet with LGBT activists for an exchange of non-profit best practices. All of the views and information expressed here are his personal views and do not in any way reflect OutRight Action International, the US-China Commission, or the US government. You can reach out to him for more information by clicking here.

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