PLA Birthday Party

(Please note: for purposes of privacy I do not use people’s real/whole names)

Your favorite ugly pony here, writing from a cafe sitting next to a giant palm tree and sipping a fresh coconut juice. Apologies for the delay in posts, I finally arrived in Hainan to start my official research posting for Fulbright and have been scrambling around to organize my life and get my presence on the island legally ordained by the authorities. Now that my visa is safely in processing mode, I thought I reflect a little on my initial impressions of my new home for the next year.

Beijing is such a different scene from Hainan, particularly with regards to the 老外 (foreigners) crowd. There were so many foreigners living in Beijing that I often found it all-too-easy to fall into an isolated social scene of just foreigners. Thus, when I came to Hainan I was very keen on 交-ing some proper 本地 (local) friends. And what interesting friends I have made…

I lucked out by making fast friends with a lady named 思姐 (big sister Si) who owned the local Haikou hostel that I stayed in when I first arrived. She is originally from Henan, had studied undergrad in England and her husband, who runs the hostel with her, is British. On my third night staying at their hostel, I introduced myself and she readily accepted me into her social circle. Most foreigners, or Chinese for that matter, are just passing through Hainan for vacation, very few actually decide to live there for an extended period of time, so she was quite excited to here that I would stay for at least a year.

On the spot, she insisted that I stay sitting in the lounge, she was about to throw a birthday party for some of her friends and she wanted me to meet them. So one moment I was sitting quietly reading my Kindle, and the next moment I suddenly found myself eating pickled goose feet, sunflower seeds, and drinking an inordinate amount of Tsingtao with 3 PLA officers.

The three gentlemen were called 小洋 (xiao yang),大洋哥 (da yang ge),and 小李 (xiao li) respectively. 大洋哥 was clearly the senior officer of the three, the oldest and he works with PetroChina in some kind of security capacity — he was definitely the 高ist 地位 (highest position) of the three. (For those of you unfamiliar with China, I point this fact out specifically because “position” is very important in the Chinese social scene and decides everything from who pours drinks, who sits where, and who drinks when).

Tonight is 小李’s birthday (he’s the youngest and most junior) and his 兄弟们(social “brothers”) are clearly out to get him drunk and laid. Here’s a picture of 小李 with his birthday cake:

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For me, the birthday party was a hilarious but useful lesson on the social/scene in China. The three PLA officers were very curious about me – but I made it quickly clear to them that I was not on the market. After that, the guys took to acting like my big brothers with the explicit intention of getting me to set them up with my foreign girl friends. 大洋哥 was particularly emphatic: “blond hair, blue eyes, and under 35 years old!” he declared, were his criteria. And they need not worry, he’s not looking to get married, “just wants to have fun” – he said through what can only be described as the world’s most lecherous grin. “我可以免费教她中文,她免费跟我谈恋爱” (I will teach her Chinese for free, she can be my girlfriend for free), he said, smiling even bigger and slapping 小李 on the back.

I could not honestly tell if any of these guys are married. They all looked to be about 30-yrs, give or take, although the oldest 大洋哥 I suspect is in his upper 30s. I asked Si Wei about this later and she did not quite give me a straight answer, saying something vaguely like “they’re probably divorced”. Whatever the case, their marriage status clearly did not matter when it came to “having girlfriends”.

After that, 小洋 who is the closest friend to Sister Si asked her to invite some of her friends, asking specifically for a girl friend that he’s hung out with before. The officers were looking to have actual single-girls at the party. When the girl friends of Si Wei show up however, they came with two other guys — all of them were dressed very trendy and thoroughly drunk. One girl, the one the officers specifically asked for, works at a bank, the other girl is originally from 新疆 (Xinjiang) but now she works for an event planning company in Haikou. One guy works producing TV programs (call him Mr. 张 “zhang” if you will) and the other guy owns a very popular Karaoke bar in Haikou (Mr. 潘 “pan”).

It soon became clear that the girl the officers originally wanted to hang out with was 1) sloppy drunk, and 2) already hitting it off with the TV producer guy.  At first it seemed the PLA officers were very unhappy with 张 for monopolizing the girl. But Mr. 张 and his friend Mr. 潘 quickly plied the officers with beer and promises to introduce them to the countless beautiful models that both of them work with. After while, birthday boy 小李 starting hitting it off quite well with the girl from 新疆 and his officer friends took their leave, satisfied that 小李 had a good birthday.

The most interesting moment of the night for myself was when Mr. 潘, the owner of the Karaoke bar who is rather soft-spoken and does not drink much, chatting with me told me that he liked my personality. “你比较传统”, (you are quite traditional) he said. That threw me, I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone tell me I was “traditional”. Rather I always imagined myself a hard-headed, overly-direct, independent personality that is very much a product of my American upbringing — the exact opposite of what a “traditional” Chinese girl should be. Thus confused I asked Mr. 潘 what he meant.

“你不真么喝酒,也是不大声说话,不爱说话,跟我一样,很好的” (You don’t drink very much, don’t talk loudly or very much, like me, its very good), he replied.

Now, anyone who knows me knows I am not “quiet” by a long shot. But due to my inability to fully communicate in Chinese, I come across as more reserved in China because I talk less. More interesting though is that they (including the PLA officers) felt that I am “educated” or appear to be so, so they find me to be more “traditional” then the other girls, who were more party girls. What an odd experience, to suddenly find myself being described as more “traditional” than the local girls….

My main take-aways from this experience were: (1) dating here is in many ways a form of material transaction, where knowing beautiful single young ladies was a form of social currency and political capital; and (2) if you yourself are not a beautiful young single girl, then you are a gateway to your beautiful young single friends. This presents an interesting challenge for young women trying to network in the professional and political scene in China, a challenge that I find myself navigating with great difficulty. What is your proper role / manner of interaction with men? How do you maintain dignity while still developing 关系 (connections)? Is it possible to be a respected, intellectual female in the male-dominated world of China without finding yourself becoming one of three archetypes: (1) “Madame”/pimp, (2) young ersister/ingenue who needs 照顾 (care), and/or (3) a she-man (强女).

What will I become? Can I carve my own distinctive path, find some way to develop my social identity without having to fall prey to traditional female stereotypes? It remains to be seen. I’m helped by the fact that I am technically foreign, so they give me more social leeway for “odd behavior”, but at the same time I still look Chinese and thus will always be measured in some part by Chinese standards. All-in-all, I expect I will learn a lot over the next year about feminine identity in China’s rapidly evolving society.

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