The Darkness after the Fire

No. 29

Dear readers:

Earlier this year, a deadly forest fire broke out in Liangshan, in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Some 30 people died, including 27 firefighters. The inferno began in a remote and mountainous area when lightning struck an 80-year-old pine tree. Strong winds, dry air, and combustible materials fanned the flames, causing a massive explosion that killed several firefighters. The tragedy was the worst to hit China’s fire prevention services since 2015, when a warehouse explosion rocked the northern city of Tianjin. This edition of Chinarrative tells the story of the Sichuan bush fires, as first told by writers from the online publication Meirirenwu.    

Other news: We’ve launched In addition to the stories we’ve published in our newsletter, the site will feature website-exclusive interviews and essays. It’s also a place to tell our followers more about who we are and what we do, and offer ways to readers to support our project financially so that we can continue to deliver great nonfiction stories about China.

The Darkness after the Fire

Photo: ImagineChina

By Yi Fangxing

Every night in my dreams, I see my 18-year-old brother. He’s reaching out his hand with a look of despair on his face.

— A firefighter says of his fallen colleague.

It was April 5, Tomb Sweeping Day in China. Six days had passed since the forest fire that had claimed the lives of the 27 firefighters Muli County in the Lingshan area of Sichuan province. The bereavement event had ended; the memorial had been taken down, along with the police tape lining the route to the funeral parlor.

But the scars left by the forest fire still lingered, both physical and visceral.   

For the surviving Liangshan firefighters, accepting the deaths of their colleagues was a far greater struggle than they imagined. Those once talkative grew taciturn. Some cried easily, while some walked about aimlessly in their grief. Others continued to relive that day, either in their memories or their dreams.

One of the civilian firefighters who had battled the blaze admitted that he was now afraid of fire.

A team of psychologists and therapists traveled to Xichang City, Sichuan province to help treat the survivors. Among them was Li Xiaojing, an expert from the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. According to The Paper, Li found that some of the surviving firemen had already begun exhibiting stress reactions. One survivor told him:

When I’m on duty past midnight, I always feel like they’re following me. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, thinking they’ve come back.

Thus began their efforts to address the psychological trauma of the Liangshan fire. In the coming year, the firefighters and the family members of the victims will be receiving psychological support.

Even as they commemorate the victims, the survivors have only started tending to their own wounds.

Memories and Nightmares

On April 3, the surviving firemen gathered for a press conference.

The firefighters, clad in orange and yellow, lined up at the front of the room next to their assistant captain, who had also survived the fire. They were joined by colleagues who had not been deployed to fight the Liangshan fire, either because they were on leave that day or because they were standing watch. 

Against the backdrop of clicking cameras, the firefighters grew emotional while sharing their experience, even breaking into tears. One survivor cried as he recounted their escape from the fire, saying:

Our captain had climbed up a tall tree at the time. There was nothing but smoke underneath him. Our instructor said that the lower part of the mountain was up in flames and gestured at us to go right. We had just reached the bottom of the ditch when we heard… the gusts of wind and the sounds of explosions coming from the hill across from us… and the smoke. Thick plumes of smoke.

They only had 10 seconds after the explosion to move. Ten of them fled toward the ridge to avoid the flames, but a fallen tree obstructed their path. One of the firefighters recalled, “I was the third one there. My instructor was in front of me and got stuck climbing over, so I gave him a push. Those 10 seconds felt like an eternity. I just rolled down from the tree because I felt like I was already burning. The fire was right at my back. I turned around to yell at my colleague behind me, an 18-year-old firefighter, but in that moment, all I saw was his look of utter despair.”

His voice faltered, and he sobbed for a few minutes before he could compose himself. Then he continued, “It’s been four days, but I see him in my dreams every night, saying, ‘Help me,’ and his burned hand…”

Three other firemen spoke next of their own experiences. As they did, they gritted their teeth and tried to hold back their tears, their faces twisting from the effort.

Photo: ImagineChina. The dorm bed of a forest firefighter killed in the forest fire in Lianghsan.

Moments of Frailties

Everybody has their own weaknesses.

The Xichang fire station, situated in the northern part of the city, has a vegetable garden, a rest area, dormitories, and a training ground. The men had shared fond memories there with their comrades and brothers, but after the fire, only bleakness and pain remained.  

At 1 a.m. on March 31, the crew was dispatched from the station, along with firefighters in the area who were on leave, to battle the blaze. One of them messaged their captain, who was away for his wedding, “We’re out fighting another fire.” 

Of the 42 men that set off, only 15 returned. The journey back to the station felt a little emptier. Aside from the press conference, the station was shrouded in silence. One survivor tried to eulogize his fallen colleagues, describing them all as “outstanding, really good” people. Before their deaths, some of them had been learning English; some were preparing for their weddings back home; and some had promised to make dinner for the whole team once they learned how to cook.

One firefighter had difficulties sleeping after that harrowing experience and the deaths of their comrades, saying, “Even if I do manage to fall asleep, I still wake up from the dreams.” Another firefighter added with a dazed expression, “I don’t know what I’m seeing.” 

They also struggled with an intrusive, constant flood of memories.

Ren Zhixin, an instructor from the Zhangjiakou Economic and Technological Development Zone fire crew, empathized. He too had fought fires and understood the emotional trauma of losing crew members. 

“Firefighters share a deep bond because it’s always the veterans teaching the new recruits. Everybody eats and rooms and lives together,” Ren explained. “Even now, I can still remember my fire captain from a decade ago, who taught me how to assess and extinguish a fire. There was a gas pipe explosion once that I wanted to see up close, but he shielded me with his body and said it was too dangerous.” Today, Ren extends that same protection and guidance to his new colleagues. 

A survey on occupational stress found that the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among policemen and firefighters was five times higher than that of ordinary people.  

Of the firefighters who had responded to the 9/11 attacks, 5,000 had nightmares up to six years afterward, while 3,000 still undergo counseling and therapy.   

Photo: ImagineChina. Exhausted forest firefighters take a rest.

Overcoming Shame of Fear

The fire had also traumatized the local residents who had aided the firefighting efforts and families who had lost loved ones. 

One of the Muli County villagers, who had fought fires for five years, prided himself as “the veteran of a hundred battles.” A semi-professional firefighter who had received specialized training, he owned his own uniform and equipment, like blowers for extinguishing fires. Now, though, he has a fear of fire and even panics at the sight of a cigarette lighter.   

He worries about the future, saying:

If a fire happened, I don't know if I would be brave enough to fight it.

Meanwhile, the families who have lost loved ones remain heartbroken. When their minibus drove past the funeral parlor, they pressed themselves against the windows, weeping inconsolably. During the memorial service held in Xichang’s Torch Square, some family members had to have their relatives carry them to the service. Others sobbed until they collapsed and had to be sent to the medics.  

On the day of the Tomb Sweeping Festival, before the memorial was taken down, one woman went to visit her son’s grave. Before she left, she moved his photo closer to the window so that he could see the city one last time. 

Two experts from the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences are using psychological intervention strategies to stabilize the survivors and the family members of deceased firefighters.   

Many of the firefighters said that they relied on their sense of duty and honor to overcome their fears, but the counselors suggested that they face their emotions, rather than feeling ashamed of their fears.

On the afternoon of April 5, the forest police confirmed that the Muli fire had been caused by lightning, which had struck an 80-year-old pine tree. 

At the time of that announcement, the Liangshan firefighters were at their posts continuing their training. They had to be ready for the next fire.

Translator: Katherine Tse

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Diary of a 63-Year-Old Transvestite

No. 28


Liu Peilin got his first white dress from a trash can. Since then, flowery berets, thick makeup and flamboyant attire have become his trademark.

In this issue of Chinarrative, we bring a selection of diary entries of the sixtysomething transvestite, scavenger, and internet celebrity Liu, who is also known as Daxi.

The story, which first appeared in a publication of Beijing Youth Daily, is translated here with permission. The English version has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Perhaps more than other stories we’ve shared in recent months, this story needs a bit of background explanation.

Financially strapped Liu from Qingdao, a coastal city in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, appears to have attracted attention online when a campaign to raise funds for him, spearheaded by prominent artist Tang Guanhua, began to gain traction.

The goal was to raise around 30,000 yuan (or about $4,400). In the end, supporters raised more than 10 times that amount.

The proceeds were earmarked for paying for a hernia operation that Liu needed, and also to help him with living expenses and to go toward publishing an account of Liu’s life.

Liu has since started a foundation to help others who are facing similar experiences and to help build greater awareness of LGBT issues.

Tang also invited Liu to relocate to Another Land ecovillage in Fuzhou, in China’s eastern Fujian province. The artist and his wife are long-time promoters of sustainable living in China. The diary entries touch on Liu’s move from Shandong to Fujian, and the challenges it entailed.

Note, all Chinese materials refer to Liu as “he” or “him.” It’s unclear what’s Liu’s preferred gender pronoun.

With that background in mind, let’s begin Liu’s story which, in addition to shedding light on gender and identity in today’s China, looks at the challenges of starting over.

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Until next time!

Diary of a 63-Year-Old Transvestite Liu Peilin

By Liu Peilin

Not long ago, Daxi’s Dream of Womanhood was posted online. A few excerpts from Liu Peilin’s diary were used in the article. Liu is already something of a celebrity, but the response to this post was overwhelming. We decided to publish more, giving us more of a glimpse into Liu’s inner world.

Saying that Liu is a diarist sells him short; for him, writing is as essential as eating and drinking. Before dawn, during a lazy stretch after lunch, after a difficult encounter, Liu’s first recourse is get out the pen and notebook and write down his reflections.

In real life, Liu has trouble dealing with people. Their cold looks and comments hurt him. In the mental sanctuary of the diary, everything can be taken bravely. Liu takes an observer’s stance. One step removed from reality, emotions can be controlled. Keeping a diary is a means for him to express his pride, self-confidence, and humor, and as a way of recording a journey toward self-respect.

Courtesy Beijing Youth Daily

For Liu, becoming a woman has been a longtime dream. From a life as a half-basement scavenger to an online celebrity in the hills of Qingdao, Liu has lived a transient life. It may not be that much of an exaggeration to say that without the writing, he couldn’t go on. With permission, we are reproducing some of the diary entries here about Liu’s move from Qingdao to Fuzhou. This isn’t the celebrity version of Liu Peiling. This is real.

Sunday, Feb. 24, Qingdao

I was showing some friends from Beijing around Qingdao. Because they hadn’t been to the coast yet, we went there. The taxi driver pointed out major construction on the site of my old home, muttering to himself, “It takes all sorts these days.”

It was packed on the pier, but I could make out a few familiar faces in the crowd. I really didn’t want any trouble, so I decided to keep quiet and not say hello. I worried they’d come out with the usual unkind words, and I wasn’t in the mood.

I was all dressed up and wearing makeup, and we were just looking at the stalls. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that I wasn’t one of the girls around me, picking up glittery jewelry and imagining myself wearing it. I suppose I am still just masquerading as one.

With all these eyes on me, I wanted the earth to swallow me up. Then I was recognized by one of the stall owners. I said hello, but he just replied, “What have you done this time? How about not wearing this stuff next time?”

I squinted, smiling, and said “What’s wrong with it?”

He said:

It’s not okay. Men should look like men.

I said, “I don't agree. I think it looks great—beautiful.” I didn’t wait for him to reply, but just strode off as fast as I could.

Monday, Feb. 25, Qingdao

They’ve left, the girls. In the short time they were here, I feel I came to know deeply what it means to be a woman: the grace with which they carry themselves, even without makeup. Around them, I felt like a clown. There’s no other way to describe it.

With the girls, I returned to an age of childlike innocence. With the boundless sea in front of me and surrounded by innocent beachcombers, I had a million thoughts. The girls had looked after me, and for once I felt truly loved. I wanted to hug them, but didn’t want to break the warm and peaceful atmosphere. The seagulls circled us. The girls’ skirts flapped in the wind. I knew they’d support me in case I fell. It was a feeling as sweet as honey.

In the park, kids walk past in pairs, embracing—I want this. I may be older and know that fate has its limits, but I also know I can change my reality with help.

Tuesday, Feb. 26, Qingdao

Today is really busy. I will meet with two reporters. What I want to say is: 1) We need to get rid of discrimination, and treat people equally. 2) Find a situation that suits you, where you feel comfortable.

Courtesy Beijing Youth Daily

Packing to leave, I go down the mountain to buy strong woven bags and some tape. It’s hard to throw away the state-provided oil and rice. But I’m focused on the books and diaries. I’ve gone through my clothes again and again, sifting through everything. I just have to get on with it! But it makes me sad. I have to remind myself it’s not a wartime evacuation. Just a regular house move. Some of my notebooks are damp and going moldy.

Wednesday, Feb. 27, Qingdao

I have to fly on March 1 but I have never been on a plane before. I’m not sure if I will come back. It makes me very nervous. All this drifting; fate is no joke to me.

This morning, at eight o'clock, I fixed up my makeup and took the bus to the square. At 8:30 a.m., I got on tram No. 5.

After swiping my bus card, I saw a woman smiling at me. “Are you Daxi?”

I nodded.

“Hi,” she said. “I’ve wanted to meet you for ages. How strange to see you here. Is everything OK with you?”

"Thank you, I’m OK,” I smiled.

“Are you retired?” she asked.

"A while now. Four years," I said.

“Do you have enough money?” she asked.

"Yes, thanks. I make do,” I said.

I sat down in an empty seat next to her and we didn’t talk anymore.

I got off the bus at Siliu South Road. When I saw Old Dong at his kiosk, I handed him two bags of rice. He tried to refuse them, but after listening to my reasons he said he was happy to accept them.

I went to see Xiaoyu and thanked her for everything she’s done for me. I tried to say no but couldn’t stop her from giving me two bags of dumplings.

Thursday, Feb. 28, Qingdao

These past few days, I’ve become an online celebrity again. The internet is blowing up over my crowdfunding appeal. (Liu Peilin’s crowdfunding campaign brought in 300,000 yuan.) There was a time I thought I was finished. No one knew who I was. But now so many people know me and care about me! I feel really lucky.

Today is my last day in Qingdao. I’m scared to go to a strange place, but it will be good to breathe fresh air, and get a change of scenery.

And this attention has led to people asking me for money. Xiao You called to say that she’d won a prize and needed money to support her endeavors. How much? 30,000 to 50,000 yuan! I didn't want to offend her by saying no, but just at that moment Gold walked in and said, “You see. This is why it’s time to get out of here.”

Tonight I’m lodging at a little place behind Shandong Road.

Friday, March 1, Qingdao to Fuzhou

I couldn’t sleep all night, with the cars outside and the sound of my cat begging for attention and the memory of my landlord’s fierce wife screeching. At 5 a.m. I got up and put on my makeup. Before I knew it, it was 6 a.m. I put on much less makeup than I did yesterday. As I swished the powder across my face, I thought, “This is the real me.”

I charged my phone and my razor, and got ready to depart for Fuzhou. Just a two-and-a-half hour journey, but a million miles away. Up to now, the farthest I’ve ever been was the barracks in the countryside. That was far, but not as far. And I was still a kid then—I didn’t know anything of the world, its joys, its difficulties. Somehow I’ve gotten from there to now, and I’m feeling old. It’s tough. But I can overcome this feeling! Just got to be stronger.

I am getting on a plane for the first time—and in women’s clothes. So of course I’m pretty nervous. Rongrong encouraged me all the way, explaining the airport procedures to me. At the security gate, the male officer took my ID, and said, “You, in this outfit, I’m afraid it’s …”

Quick as a flash I said, “I also have a retirement card.”

He hesitated for a few more seconds, then stamped the form in front of him. I passed. At baggage check, they confiscated my nail polish. At the body search, a female security guard checked me over, and all was fine. Done! I breathed a sigh of relief.

As I sat in the plane, I laughed to myself, “I’m going up there to find Chang’e, the moon fairy!”

Zhongguancun, Minhou County, Fuzhou City, Fujian province—such a long name. At first it was hard to remember. But I might live there for a long time, so I’d better get used to it. Quite lost in thought.

Saturday, March 2, Fuzhou

I woke up in the dark, and fumbled to turn on the light. Broken, it kept flashing. I went out into the corridor, switched on another light and looked at my watch: 4.45 a.m. Preparing to write my diary, I upturned a bin and the sound clattered through the building.

In the morning, we went to Fuzhou’s biggest hospital for a checkup. It turns out my illness isn’t too serious, so we can wait till Monday to decide how to cure it: hospitalization or regular treatment.

Then we went out to Hou Nanjie, a busy shopping street, where I bumped into some curious girls who asked how I was. I wasn’t really prepared but briefly answered their questions anyway. We stayed there quite late, and when I got back, there were parcels waiting for me. There’s been too much for me to take on the plane. People are so generous.

Sunday, March 3, Fuzhou

I was so moved when I opened the parcel. Inside was my favorite book, The Complete Works of Lu Xun. I recently rediscovered Ba Jin’s Family, another great book. I’m so grateful for people sending me these things. Their support and love have given me all my courage.

I don’t have any special talents. Wanting to be a woman is just in my character. I may not be young, but I’ve got a young soul. I’m willing to keep going.

Yesterday, I saw a disabled couple with a child on the street. They were burnt and disfigured. I wanted to help them, but even without wearing makeup, in almost my natural face, I thought maybe I’d scare them. So I walked past.

Monday, March 4, Fuzhou

This is my fourth day in Fuzhou.

Yesterday a reporter said: "There are online rumors that you’ve committed suicide.”

I said: “Nonsense! I am a very positive person. Do optimistic people commit suicide?” This is such a boring topic.

Today we go to Xiayuan Road, a quieter part of town. But even here I feel watched. Why are we here? Because of the Foundation. Guanhua leads me in to meet everyone. They are all so positive. We sat around a table and the staff brings tea and snacks. They talk about the Foundation. I offer my wholehearted endorsement of the Foundation, as is expected of me. I agree we should help urgent cases first. And we agree we’ll tackle the complex cases later.

We talked for a while. I was in a hurry to go to the hospital so Guanhua decided to stay and keep negotiating about how the Foundation would be run. I went to hospital with Gold, and it turned out I needed a blood test. While we were doing this, Guanhua transferred 300,000 yuan to my account. That night, lying in bed, I felt like I was flying. My heart has been completely numb for so long. Now I am alive again!

Tuesday, March 5, Fuzhou

Dada, an online friend from Beijing, went home today. I don’t want to say goodbye, like an old man with his children. Parting is hard, but her visit gave me strength. A few days with her and the others have given me new depths of understanding.

Courtes Beijing Youth Daily

Wednesday, March 6, Fuzhou

I had a chest examination today, and was asked to remove my top and stand in my bra before a male physician. It made me uncomfortable, but I was willing to do this for the doctor. Then I was asked to take off my skirt for the electrocardiogram. The young female doctor made no comment and didn’t laugh. She just squinted and got on with the job, clipping wires onto my body.

Thursday, March 7, Fuzhou

Yesterday, I wrote a declaration about the 300,000 yuan donation. Nobody forced me to—I thought it was the right thing to do. It’s been posted online.

I don't have access to the internet or a connected device, but I plan to listen, observe, comment, redress wrongs, and form my own conclusions.

Tomorrow is Women’s Day, our day. Saying it’s our day may be a little premature. But I hope it will soon be the case that I too am a woman. It is, after all, my main goal in life.

“Are you afraid of dying?” Sometimes people ask me this. But no one can avoid death. Youth is not an eternal law. Plenty of people are alive but not cherishing every moment. And they think when they die that the soul stops and everything else stops. I hope that when I die, I don’t suffer. In autumn, trees lose their branches, and when the new branches sprout, hope returns.

I never thought I’d be living with cats again, but here is a female cat following me around. I lost my way yesterday. Ah, being old and forgetful. I keep thinking that there will be something to eat and drink. I’ll never be completely without again.

Friday, March 8, Fuzhou

As long as I can remember, I’ve known this date. International Women’s Day, but not for the likes of me. It’s a day for women. Today I dress up really nicely. I don’t know why. I guess I’m just a lover of pretty things. I’m wearing my red half-length dress to match my favorite green flowery top. I put on my velvet coat and take a long look in the mirror, humming to myself.

It’s so rainy here. When will it ever stop raining? For eight days, I’ve lived in this village in the south. Eight days! I am not used to life here. It’s better at home, where going out is more fun. Everything here is outside of my control and makes me confused. I’ve lost sight of the point of all this. The mother cat is guarding her kittens. Women’s Day.

Sounds on the street—footsteps this time. I get a few text messages, wishing me a happy holiday! People stare more here. They are talking about me, pointing to me and speaking in their own incomprehensible language.

Saturday, March 9, Fuzhou

In the coming days, I’ll need all my resilience. I must not get lazy. Although all this support has come in on social media, I have to do something myself to fill my mind. Happiness is not shouted out, but created.

I’m 63, in my sunset years. But what can I do? All I can do is write. Others just eat and drink all day, nod their heads, get sick. That’s no life. But me, I’ve been given a new life by my friends online. Their charity and gifts have lifted my heart. It’s a new beginning. As we say in China, it “adds oil.”

For a long time, all the hurdles I encountered were met with, “Don’t think it, don’t do it.” I kept my head down. For me, “positive energy” is a useless term. You just have to respect yourself, that’s all.

Editors: Liu Mi, Song Jianhua

Translator: Heather Mowbray

Rachel Zhang and Lilly Chow contributed to this issue of Chinarrative.

How I Landed My Dream Job in China Real Estate

No. 27

By Firecracker

The first time I heard about Longfor was in the early spring of 2011. I was a senior and about to graduate. I had just taken the civil service exam and was sitting around waiting for grades.

One day a friend told me that he liked one of Longfor Properties’ garden houses and asked me for advice. I remember the excitement and dizziness when I first saw the house.

Looking back, it was nothing special. But at that time, still living on campus, it touched the bottom of my heart. Viewing the multi-story Mediterranean Tuscan style apartments made think:

What if I could work for this company one day.

For me, a graduate of a third-tier university, Longfor was a dream. Nevertheless, I decided to investigate.

I learned through online forums that there were three main types of management trainees in Longfor: the professional and technical “officials;” the “blooming students” of the marketing department; and the “future leaders” of property management.

The comments regarding Longfor were very positive. Many, like me, expressed interest.

“Not less than 100,000 yuan (around $14,500) a year!”

“Get paid twice the average and grow three times faster!”

“An incredible management training system!”

Seeing these comments, I was invigorated. I imagined achieving something as amazing as what I had read. I found out the key was to get an interview after attending a Longfor campus recruitment talk. This made me nervous. I almost never got a job interview, and I had little experience.

My interview was held at Zhejiang Media College.

The questions tested one’s ability to react on the spot. There were two big boxes of cards—one set describing places, the other objects. All the cards were randomly drawn, and the exam question was based on the combination of cards where the interviewee must “sell” an item in a specific place.

The outcomes were so strange that a boy in front of me had “selling helmets in the shower,” while mine I got “selling thermometers in the park.”

During the short three or four minutes of preparation, I kept thinking about how to construct the scene in my head.

“You may come in, student,” said the clerk at the door.

I entered the interview room without being fully prepared. There were three interviewers. One was the keynote speaker of the recruitment talk, and there were two other women. Judging from their clothes, I thought they must be from the sales department. They watched me enter and smile, and didn’t say anything.

“Hello, shall I just start now?” I enquired, trying to take the first step.

“Well, go ahead,” said one the people from the human-resources team.

I began:

“Sir, your child is so cute, how old is he?”

In my scenario I had envisioned, the HR representative was a middle-aged man walking in the park with his child.

He paused for a moment and said: “Thank you, two years old.”

“Oh, what a beautiful day it is today. It is unfortunate a lot of people are catching early spring colds. Have you seen the stories on the news?”

“Yeah, I know,” he responded.

I felt good. He seemed to be cooperative.

“I know that for diseases like colds and fevers, prevention is the most important thing. I have the latest German thermometer to sell. Would you like to take one home?"

“Oh, no, thanks. I already have one,” he said.  

“How many thermometers are there in your house?"

“One. Why?” he asked.  

“Well, thermometers are a bit like toothbrushes. It is better to have one brush per person to avoid infection. Would you like to buy more for your home?”

He seemed quite satisfied with my answer, and after asking the price, he said: “Yes, I will take one.”

I left the room, believing that I might have the chance of a second interview.

Credit: txzheng from Pixabay 

The Second Round

It wasn’t long before I got a call from Longfor. After a while, a text message also arrived. It described the dress code as formal. But, as a student at university, where was I to find formal clothes? I borrowed a suit and a pair of shoes, but I still needed a shirt and a tie. Gritting my teeth, I took my girlfriend to Youngor, a men’s clothes shop, near the school.

At that time, Youngor was an absolute luxury to me. A casual shirt was priced at almost 1,000 yuan.

My girlfriend saw me reluctantly looking at a tie. “You will use it when you work in the future, just buy it,” she advised.

I thought to myself, this will be an investment. So, I chose the best value for money, and I ended up spending more than 1,000 yuan. It was one month’s living expenses at campus, and by far the most expensive item I bought in my college years.

The next day, wearing a suit and tie, I took the bus to the Longfor headquarters in Xiasha District. Along the way, I felt a little uncomfortable. It was my first time wearing such a fabulous suit to a company interview. I felt very different to the people on the same bus.

Every now and then I looked at the shiny shoes on my feet, worrying that someone might step on them. I made my way to the terminus and walked five minutes to the Singapore Science Park, home of the Longfor Hangzhou headquarters.

The second interview began in a novel way. Ten people were divided into two groups, then the examiner asked: “What if you were a member of Longfor property staff and a homeowner wanted to use the garage to store his dried salted fish, what would you do?”

The two groups had to debate this topic. The preparation was half an hour and discussion time was 20 minutes.

One person in my group suggested that I could make the opening statement, because he thought I had a nice voice and good charisma. The others agreed. I secretly felt happy because the first speaker would be the first to get noticed. But, it turned out I only got to speak at the start and not at all in the discussion. I left disheartened.

Then, in April, at a family reunion, I talked about my job hunting and Longfor Properties. My family’s interest peaked. It was rare that we visited Hangzhou, so the family decided to see Longfor’s “Yan Lan Shan” project in Xiasha District for themselves.

As it happened, the staff member who greeted us was the management trainee who I saw in the Longfor recruitment talk at the Zhejiang Media School. I discovered his name was Big K.

“I attended the second interview the other day, and it was a disaster,” I told Big K. “There is no way I got through.”

“No way, I remember you from the recruitment talk, and my colleagues said that there were two good candidates,” Big K told me. “Now I just heard more about you, one of them must have been you!”

Spookily, just moments later, my phone rang. To my surprise, the number was Longfor HR’s landline. I immediately picked up the phone.

“Congratulations! You passed the second interview and will be entering our training session. Please come to the company next Monday,” the voice on the line said.

A Battlefield with No Fire

I entered the training session not knowing what to expect. There were 20 people participating in total, seven of them from Zhejiang University, a top-tier university.

On the first day, we were told the training would be like a game and one of us would be knocked out for good. The training was to last one month, during which time we would learn about real estate basics, enter team-building events, and complete an internship project.

Longfor Properties had a site in Chao Mountain in Linping, an area in Hangzhou. As many of us would be sent to the mountain when the houses went on sale, it was important for us to know the competitors’ buildings near Linping.

Gemdale and Greentown each had local projects, mostly townhouses. Longfor Properties Chao Mountain project was also going to consist of townhouses, specifically a circle of 16 townhouses called a “courtyard house.”

It was said that “16 families can become a family by sharing a yard.” But later we learned that was marketing propaganda, and the house had to be built in such a way because of the limits of the plot.

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A week later, we were taken to the project to learn sales techniques and get a sense of the market. Except, the housing market had recently cooled, so most people chose to wait and see.

We were visited by a maximum of 12 customers a day, usually much less. So, we spent most of our time watching or sitting on the sofa in the lobby. Everyone arrived at the sales office early each day, hoping to get a visit from a stranger or the opportunity to lead a presentation. The competition remained intense, with each trainee eager to get picked at the end of the training.

The Offer

In addition, there was an online training test. An American company was to analyze them and create reports on personal competencies and character. It was said that Longfor Properties paid hundreds of yuan for each report.

The previous cohort of “blooming students” was also indispensable during the training session. Although we were all the same age, they were like the predecessors who were greater than us, akin to university seniors. We chatted to them as they seemed to hold the secret of getting hired by Longfor Properties.

Big K was from Shandong Province. He was very handsome, more than 1.8 meters tall, funny, and friendly.

Qiao Feng was not tall. He had dark skin and was down-to-earth.

Su Hang was a graduate student from Zhejiang University. He didn’t say much and he seemed to like to take a prudent approach to things.

We asked Big K whether they were always three “blooming students.”

“There were supposed to be seven or eight, but some people gave up when they got the offer,” Big K informed us.

“Why?” we asked.

“Probably because they didn’t think it was suitable for them,” he said. “Longfor Properties isn’t for everyone.” At that moment, I didn’t understand what he meant.

One month’s training session soon passed. Then came the “offer” days. A company supervisor called Kou and another of his colleagues went to the project office and called us in one by one.

Some people went in and returned with an offer. Some couldn’t help smiling, while some pretended to be calm. Some came out in silence. Everyone knew what it meant so they no longer asked. When it was my turn my heartbeat jumped. Seeing Kou’s simple and honest smile, I sat down as he instructed.

“Do you think you got in?” asked Kou.

“I suppose so,” I said with all the courage I could muster. At this point, you had to have some faith in yourself.

“Yeah? Well, you can look at this,” said Kou, handing me the analysis report done by the American company. I took it and opened it. I turned white. The report concluded that I was not fit for sales and advised the company not to hire me.

Kou looked at me. “Don’t worry. This report is just a reference,” he said. “We’ve seen what you’ve done this month.” I could feel the color drain back to my face.

You are from Wenzhou. We hope you will be able to act like your predecessors and fellows. Welcome to Longfor Properties!

Some Stay, Some Leave

Soon the final results came out. Five of us had been eliminated.

Since we were amid the graduation season and the off-season of sales, Longfor Properties agreed to let us go back to university before having us officially report for work.

During that time, I had a phone call with a girl called Dan who had left, despite receiving an offer. She told me that she had another offer to go to graduate school in America.

She confessed that she felt like she had lied to everyone and that if it wasn’t for her one of the five eliminated people could have stayed. She told me that she was eager to excel and when she heard it was hard to get a job offer from Longfor properties she was motivated to try.

Then I got a phone call from Big K. I was surprised because we had never talked in private on the phone before. “We had a predestined relationship,” he said. “Just so you know, I didn’t mention it to anyone else in our group.”

Hearing his words, I was a little moved. I did not expect him to take me as a friend. He told me he was leaving.

“Why are you leaving? What will you do in Green Town?” I asked.

“I'm going to the marketing center. I wasn’t feeling happy at Longfor Properties. I felt they were too focused on sales, which was not interesting to me. Anyway, we’ll keep in touch. After all, we are in the same circle now.”

Later I found out Big K hadn’t sold a single apartment during more than six months at Longfor Properties. He was under great pressure. But, the company didn’t accept excuses or consider the market status.

Big K told me the sales director and sales manager had also left.

I thought, how could so many people leave such a great company? I set out to prove them wrong.

Firecracker describes himself as a hardworking public servant in his early 30s. This story was originally composed in Chinese for writing platform

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I Grew Up on a Chinese College Campus

No. 26

By Ban Ban

Shantou University is its own tiny world. I fluttered in that cage for 15 years.

Sir Li Ka-shing, the most famous millionaire in China, built the university in the Chaoshan area of Guangdong Province, and I was raised there.

Shantou University was basically in the middle of nowhere. A 40-minute bus ride to downtown Shantou, it lacked even a decent market, let alone shopping malls.

If you wanted to buy a bottle of soy sauce, you’d have to ride 20 minutes from one end of the campus to the other—a story my mother never bores of telling. Professors who had come from the countryside and then spent 20 years at Shantou University liked to say they had never been in a city their whole lives.

Yet the campus was like a city with its very own ecology. It had teachers’ apartments and students’ dorms, facilities for all kinds of sports and schools for children of all ages, a post office, a publishing house, and even an asylum. With enviable funding from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, young men and women from all over China flocked there.

There was also a reservoir more than 2 meters deep. Some would go there to swim and play. Others would go to commit suicide. When the reservoir was drained, it was a nice place to walk, though sometimes you might step on cow dung.

I Constantly Forgot That I Lived on Campus

I was quite ignorant then.

There was an old man I often saw walking his dog. I remember him coming to my class when I was in middle school and chatting about everything. But I didn’t realize he was Wang Furen, a master researcher in modern literature, until I saw his obituary.

Living among academics, I rarely knew what any of them were teaching or researching. What I knew was where you could find the most shrimp in the artificial lake, which trees to climb, and when to catch tadpoles.

Here, below Sangpu Mountain, the civilization and savageness of the campus taught me about the world in its own way.

Shantou University. Credit: erzhong1988 from Pixabay 

While the natural environment felt vast and wild, the university community was small and tight knit. As a child, you could always be identified just by your parents’ names. Everyone knew each other and there was no room to lie.

In a sea of southern coastal dialects, the campus was an island of outlanders speaking Mandarin, cultivating, building, and breeding. It had its own customs and even its own fusion cuisine.

Aunt Shao came from a northeastern Chinese town known for dried spicy cabbage and pork, and became an expert pickler after she married a man from Hunan Province. Her take on Shantou rice dumplings always made my day.

My own mother was a woman not born for the kitchen, yet in Shantou, she learned how to make northeastern-style dumplings, the fermented rice of Chongqing, and all kinds of specialties from all over the country.

Where Do You Come From?

I spent the month before my high school entrance exam in the library, leaving only to eat, sleep, and attend classes. It felt like I was inside the belly of the beast, and I loved leaning against its stomach wall, touching the membrane.

A lot of familiar faces came by as I enjoyed the air conditioning. When I got sick of a chair, I could spread out on a sofa. If I forgot to bring my pen, I could just ask the receptionist. There were movie magazines on the shelf if you got bored. It was really a luxury for us—because of our parents’ positions, we could make ourselves at home in the library as if we were university students.

After I entered high school, my family moved out of the campus. I was excited because I’d never felt attached to the institution itself; it was merely my mother’s workplace.

It was when I started boarding school that I was thrown in with Chaoshan people for the first time. I started to learn about local food, but I still couldn’t understand a word of the local dialect. I’d always mistaken it for a branch of Cantonese.

Often, I’d be having a conversation with someone, then another person would join, and suddenly the two would start speaking in dialect, leaving me aside. I’d try to guess at what they were saying but always ended up smiling awkwardly. Yet though this dialect remains foreign, hearing it still makes me nostalgic.

The most awkward thing is when people ask me where I come from.

I was born in Shanghai, my father’s hometown. My mother’s family is from Jiangxi Province, and I grew up in Shantou, in Guangdong Province. But I cannot speak the local dialects of any of these three places. So the better answer is perhaps Ningbo, the ancestral home of my father’s father.

I don’t feel attached to Shanghai at all. Before I started college, I had only been to Shanghai during the school holidays to stay with my father and stepmother for a couple of weeks at a time.

I still remember how nervous I was the first time I visited them. I was so afraid that she would introduce me as her daughter and I would feel like I had betrayed my mother. Yet she simply said, “This is Zhi Yue’s daughter.”

I was relieved, and probably the only one who cared about it. Soon I came to accept their relationship, and my presence in their lives.

I hit it off quickly with her two children. At one point, I grabbed a broom and dustpan to clean up after the arts and crafts we were doing. An uncle who saw me complimented my stepmother: “Oh, your daughter’s so nice and thoughtful.”

The word “daughter” gave me goose bumps all over my body. I slipped away with an awkward smile.

Moving to Shanghai

Credit: Sławomir Kowalewski from Pixabay 

In my last semester of school, I had to decide where I would take my college entrance exams. Either I could stay in Shanghai, facing unfamiliar textbooks, and having to catch up on everything I didn’t learn, or I could return to Guangdong, which would mean I’d have to give up the prized Shanghai hukou residency. Eventually I decided on Shanghai.

Because I was transferring so late in the academic year and good schools are very careful to maintain their college enrolment rate, the only school that would take me was a continuation school, where most of the students had already failed the exam and wanted to retake it a second or even third time.

I lived with my aunt and uncle, and their son who was beyond spoiled. It seemed as though my cousin never washed a single plate, and he was never asked to, just like he was never asked to go visit his 90-year-old grandmother in the nursing home.

My cousin was 30 years old and worked as a producer in a gaming company. He was a legit adult, yet his father would serve him breakfast and weekend lunches in front of his laptop. It went against the way that my parents raised me and it made me feel sick, but no one in their family seemed to think anything of it.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always been an outsider, whether in a city or in a family. Maybe I was just jealous. Maybe I was just judgmental.

Bird Without Legs

My first choice of university was in Guangzhou but I didn’t do well enough in the exams so I ended up in staying in Shanghai. I moved into a college dormitory but at weekends, when my classmates went home, I had nowhere to go. My mother encouraged me to get in touch with my family members but they felt like total strangers to me.

Despite living in Shanghai for several years and having my father’s family here, I have no intention of becoming a local. I might wander through the laneways and eat local breakfast foods or volunteer at the film festival, but it’s just to get used to the city.

It seems I’ve been connected to so many places, each one ends up as a kind of label. But all the labels make me itchy.

I still return to Shantou sometimes, just to visit my mother. Sometimes I get stopped by security and asked for my student ID.

“My mother works here,” I say.

“Which building?”


In fact, Building 24 no longer exists. It was demolished for renovation along with Buildings 60 and 72. But the guard let me in without another word. I realize I’ve given a secret signal, and he must have worked here for more than 10 years.

There’s a famous quote from the Wong Kar-wai film, Days of Being Wild.

I’ve heard that there’s a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly, and sleep in the wind when it is tired. The bird only lands once in its life... that’s when it dies.

Eventually I realized I’m not that bird. I’m prepared to land at any time. Really.

Ban Ban is a student at the film academy of Shanghai University. She has written for SandwiChina, an online writing platform of, and interned at WorldBeat Cultural Center in San Diego, California. She loves writing and food.

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Rice Cake, with a Side of Lies

No. 25


This week sees another installment from our partnership with that allows us to share, in English, nonfiction stories and experiences of ordinary Chinese people. These submissions come from people who are not professional writers but who are passionate about storytelling.

This story is from Qiu Liang, who was born in 1987, and describes herself as a bisexual woman who majored in Chinese. She says she once gave up writing, but later discovered that it is the best way for her to talk to the world.

In this longread, which was originally written in Chinese, Qiu recounts how she helped her butch girlfriend find a fake husband, all the while waiting for her own divorce to come through.

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Rice Cake, with a Side of Lies

By Qiu Liang

In my year with Rice Cake, there were three questions she frequently asked me:

Did you come?

Are you really in a fake marriage?

Do you love me?

It wasn’t until the day we broke up that I finally told her the truth.

Rice Cake was my girlfriend. She was tall and pale—almost 5 foot 9—hence the nickname.

Her hair was cut really short and all her casual clothes were menswear. Being mistaken for a man in public bathrooms was a common occurrence for her. But her work required a uniform, and she was soft-spoken in public, so no one ever questioned her sexual orientation.

She had two personas. In uniform, she was the hardworking Chief Zhao, who would occasionally act cute and girlish. Out of uniform, she was a lesbian who could never manage to quit smoking.

Her car was a closet on wheels: If she had a date after work, she would change out of her uniform and dress like a typical butch. Many times, we’d be holding hands on the street when she would suddenly drop my hand and walk off like a stranger. Then she’d come running back. “Just saw a colleague,” she’d say, smiling.

Steeped in Doubt

I met Rice Cake online through an artsy forum where you could often find local lesbians. The most popular topic was always the personal ads. Just like straight personals ads, lesbians would list their star signs, heights, and job titles. But they would also include other preferences: “Femme,” “not part of the scene,” “open to a marriage of convenience,” et cetera.

Rice Cake had been lied to before, so she detailed her many demands on her ad: She was looking for someone in the same city, never married, not out, not part of the lesbian circle, financially stable, and so on. “If you fulfill these requirements, and are willing to stay by my side for life, I will promise to give you a warm home,” she wrote at the end of her long post.

But the more boxes there were to tick, the fewer people fit the profile, and the more doubtful Rice Cake became of those who replied. She would question them repeatedly, mining for details that might reveal lies.

She seemed unpredictable when we first started dating. One second she would be gossiping about her ex as we ate at a restaurant, and the next, her face would suddenly drop. “Are you also lying to me?” she’d ask. Or she would hug me softly from behind and whisper:

If you have any secrets that I don’t know, it’s not too late to tell me.

Her worries weren’t unfounded.

My Secret

Three months earlier, I’d moved back into my old place from the home I had shared with my husband. It had been less than 100 days since our grand wedding.

We separated not so much because our relationship fell apart but because of accumulated animosity from both families. From the engagement to the end of the wedding festivities, every single step seemed to enrage our parents, leaving each side thinking they’d gotten ripped off.

Neither I nor my new husband knew how to handle it. We each hid under our parents’ wings like ducklings. Soon divorce became inevitable, but neither of us took the first step as we both hoped the other would apologize.

When I met Rice Cake, I had been stuck in this stalemate for three months. It wasn’t until after I broke up with Rice Cake that my husband and I finally completed the divorce paperwork without his parents’ knowledge.

In a second-tier Chinese city like ours, marriage is a much-anticipated celebration, but divorce is a shameful secret. Both families were hostile to each other for over a year but somehow concealed the conflict. When nosy onlookers asked about future children, we all smiled and responded, “Soon.”

The matchmaker who had set us up heard about the split and tried to mediate. “It’s better to destroy 10 temples than to ruin a marriage,” she said. It was obscene to her that a young couple would separate because of four feuding parents.

My mother-in-law told the matchmaker of the supposed crimes committed by my family. She smirked as she dropped her last bombshell: “She fooled my naïve son. When they got together, she wasn’t a virgin. You didn’t know that, did you?”

The matchmaker, who was at least 60, frowned and let out a disapproving tsk. “What are you talking about,” she said. “Who cares about that nowadays?”

Before my marriage, I had no idea that the hatred from one woman to another could be so hysterical. Perhaps I should have seen it coming. At our engagement party, my fiancé’s mother drank too much and transformed into an angry lioness. She grabbed her adult son and took him to the couch, repeatedly kissing and touching him as if he were an infant, completely disregarding how people looked at her.

At that point, I had already become a thorn in her heart. I hadn’t realized that, despite acting like an open-minded mother-in-law in front of people, deep down she was lying in wait to open her mouth and take back the flesh that had once been part of her.

Everyone Hates Bisexuals

When I was still dating my ex-husband, I once half-jokingly asked him: “Can you accept that I also like girls?”

He paused. Apparently this question was too much for a straight man. “You like girls?”

“Let’s put it this way: If I went off with someone else, who happened to be a girl, could you accept that?”

He looked stunned for a while, then replied, “How could that work!”

“Alright then.”

I kept my promise, at least. Before we separated, I was faithful to him, both physically and emotionally.

Credit: Wu Yue

“Bisexual” was not a positive label in LGBT circles. The common stereotypes were that bisexuals were players, that they were insincere, and that they always had a way out. Most heterosexual people aren’t aware that the LGBT crowd has never been one united entity, despite all being minorities. It always had its own hierarchies of discrimination.

The “pure” gays and lesbians looked down on transgender and bisexual people. Many personals ads stipulate “don’t bother if you’re married or bisexual.” If people at the bottom of this hierarchy dared to speak out, they’d immediately be drowned out with insults.

During the separation, I often dreamt of rainbows. The Duke of Zhou’s The Interpretation of Dreams said if a married woman dreamt of rainbows, it meant that she would be separated from her husband for a long time.

It would take a year and a half from when we first separated to when we finalized the divorce. I joked that the period of preparing for divorce was like a prison sentence. While I served my sentence, legally I was still that man’s wife.

So back to the beginning: In response to Rice Cake’s three questions, my answers weren’t fully truthful, but they weren’t only lies either. It’s like making counterfeit alcohol. Simple mixing using flavoring and coloring is easy to detect, so I had to blend into a glass of feelings so authentic that I could even fool myself; that’s when the performance would become flawless.

After I met Rice Cake, I couldn’t help but get a bit tipsy on my own untruths. Maybe we would be together forever. Maybe she would ultimately understand my predicament.

When Rice Cake hugged me from behind and asked me to tell her my secrets, my heart was pounding so hard I thought it would burst out of my body. Was this my chance to come clean?

People say that when you have something to hide, you start answering every question with another question.

“Rice Cake, will you ever come out?”

“Never, in my entire life.”

“Will you forgive those who lied to you? “

“Never, in my entire life.”

My heart sank. Why would I give my all to someone who decides to lie their whole life?

In the version of the story that I told Rice Cake, my ex-husband was gay, and our dramatic divorce was a preplanned performance. She was never fully convinced.

I set myself a time limit of one year, starting from the day I met her. If, after a year, I still didn’t have the courage to tell her the truth, then I would break up with her no matter what. At that moment I didn’t know that this little lie would turn into a sharp fishbone that would stab me deep in my throat.

Meeting Rice Cake’s Parents

During the weeklong October holiday, Rice Cake’s parents flew from their home in the north to live with her for a month, bringing tons of hometown treats. In part, they came to visit because Rice Cake rarely returned home after she started working, but they were also there to push her to get married.

Her father was the eldest in his family. His three younger sisters had all become grandmothers in the last few years. Rice Cake was the eldest of her generation and the only one who wasn’t married, so unwanted attention to her love life was inevitable.

Rice Cake had always been close with girls since high school, and once her parents even walked in on her with someone, but they had kept silent on the subject. Once she started working, though, they began to bring up marriage and children frequently.

“My parents must know,” Rice Cake mused. “It’s impossible that they don’t know.”

“So what if they do?” I remembered 20-year-old me. Crazily in love with my first girlfriend, I came out to my mother on a whim. She didn’t burst into tears or threaten suicide, like so many parents I’d read about on LGBT forums.

She simply said, “Oh.” And then, with surprising calm: “You’re still young. There are still good men in this world.” Over the next 10 years, it was as if we’d forgotten the conversation. We never talked about it again.

But Rice Cake was determined. “I want them to know that I’ll get married for them but you are the one I want to live with,” she said, slapping her leg. I was shocked. She hadn’t asked if I was willing, and at the time we only spent weekends together.

Despite a few successful role models like Geng Le and Mitao, most LGBT people in government jobs did not dare come out. Growing up, Rice Cake was not an obedient child like I had been. When she was still a student, she learned to smoke, drink, and talk back to her parents. But after years of working in the system, she’d come to be seen as a “good girl” and she only showed her true self in front of her parents and me.

At the end of the October holiday, Rice Cake organized a dinner with me and her parents, as though she was introducing the “wife” to her folks. She drove the four of us to a restaurant in the countryside that she said she’d taken colleagues to before. The table was covered with dishes. Rice Cake played the role of a male host, instructing us to start eating. Her parents couldn’t stop smiling at me but they also seemed uncomfortable.

I busied myself with eating. I heard Rice Cake say, “Don’t worry about my marriage, I’m working on it. I have it under control.” Then she put her hand on my shoulder and continued, “Look at my friend over here. Don’t you think she’s pretty?”

Her mother sighed. “Definitely. She is much more like a girl than you.”

I looked up and smiled. “I didn’t meet the right one and I’ve already had a failed marriage,” I said. “Rice Cake needs to be smart and find a good one.”

Life is so ridiculous: In front of Rice Cake’s parents, my truth sounded like a lie.

No one around the table brought up marriage again. Before her parents flew home, they filled the freezer with handmade dumplings that lasted us for quite some time.

A Husband for Rice Cake

Toward the end of the year, Rice Cake’s calendar started to fill up with dinners, and one subject was always brought up: marriage.

A woman’s age seems to set people off like a kettle about to boil. Everybody becomes impatient, yelling “You are incomplete without marriage,” “You are incomplete without a child,” or even “You are incomplete without a second child.” When it comes to women and procreation, it seems like anyone can voice their opinion in the name of care and concern.

Rice Cake smoked cigarette after another, filling up teacups once the ashtray became full. She liked the heavy stuff—if not Double Happiness, then Zhongnanhai, because they were “manly.” Smoking those thin women’s cigarettes? Any butch would think you were joking.

“I need to find a candidate before Chinese New Year,” she said to herself as if she was giving orders, while stuffing her mouth with potato chips. “He will meet my parents in the first half of the year, we’ll have the wedding in the second half, and the year after that have a baby,” she rattled off.

“I’ll need to get a bigger house. My mom will come over to take care of the kid. I’ll start getting ready for the baby right after the wedding. I won’t smoke then; I will take care of my body and aim to get pregnant in one go.”

“You think you have a nice plan,” I scoffed, my feet on the coffee table. “You have no idea what’s going on in the minds of gay men looking for a marriage of convenience.”

Credit: Wu Yue

On LGBT forums, there were plenty of personal ads seeking a partner for a marriage of convenience, maybe even as many as those looking for “true love.” But while the idea might seem similar to an open marriage, in practice these types of arrangements can be filled with traps.

In the ideal scenario, a marriage of convenience produces a family with “two fathers, two mothers, and double the love for the children.” A gay couple and a lesbian couple blend to create two legal families, and pass on their genes through assisted reproduction, such as artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilization. They usually live with their same-sex partners but put on a performance for their parents during the holidays, saying that it’s “for the sake of love.”

For queers in the closet, a marriage of convenience is a protective umbrella. And compared to surrogacy, which isn’t legal in China and can cost millions of yuan, marriage might seem to provide frugal gay men with a free shot at having kids. For lesbians, too, it can appear to be a safeguard against the financial and social risks of having a child as an unmarried woman.

Yet despite giving herself an order, Rice Cake wasn’t enthusiastic about marriage, and she dragged her feet when it came to writing a personals ad. She asked me for help.

A sham marriage isn’t easier to arrange than a real one. All the things that straight people value, like looks, class, and income, are still important.

All the headaches that straight partners have, like messy relationships with in-laws or who does the bulk of the child care, equally trouble partners in a marriage of convenience, particularly lesbians. These problems remain even without love or sex between the husband and the wife.

Rice Cake left my contact details on her marriage ad because she rarely had time to check her phone while she was at work, plus she was worried about being outed. So I took on quality control for her. Long after we broke up, I would still get messages from people who had seen the ad.

The opening message was always in code, as if we were spies. A typical format would include age, sexual orientation, location, occupation, economic status, relationship status, and whether they wanted children—for example, “28, absolute 1 [a top in Chinese gay parlance], teacher, house and car, long term BF, wants kids.”

Out of 10 gay men, nine would want kids. One would hesitate but if prodded further, he would say he wanted kids when the time was right. I would delete anyone who wasn’t honest or serious, and log the remaining candidates into an Excel spreadsheet for Rice Cake to review. Then she’d shortlist the best ones and ask to meet them.

We met a lot of gay men in that period. Compared to gay men I’d encountered in the LGBT scene, the ones I met through matchmaking for Rice Cake tended to live quiet lives behind closed doors. They often hold prejudices against those who are part of the scene, but they’re in a circle of their own too.

People who are in or looking for marriages of convenience often chat with each other, and as in any social circle, there is gossip and arguments and flirting. Often, they see the troubles that arise from marriage as a sign of being responsible. They’re grown-up troubles.

Rice Cake seemed to think so too. As an only child from a northern family, she believed that a marriage of convenience was the best option for placating her parents but leaving freedom for herself. She didn’t have time for the chat groups, but she’d listen to my accounts of the fresh gossip. After half a year together, our relationship had grown stagnant, and often we had nothing to say to each other. Marriage was one of the few topics that excited her.

But in the marriage market, Rice Cake didn’t have many advantages. For most Chinese men, 5 foot 9 is too tall for a woman. Appearance was a top priority and some men emphasized that their prospective lesbian wife needed to look feminine. However, Rice Cake’s government job was a point in her favor, as was her strong desire to have a child, which was rare among women looking for sham marriages.

Even though most lesbians aren’t against the idea of having children, many feared being used as a “free uterus” in an arrangement that lacked trust or feeling, and even trapped by the little “family” and losing their chance at true love. So lesbians who were willing to give birth would vet their candidates patiently and thoroughly, while the gay men were no less picky than the grannies at Shanghai’s matchmaking market.

Bear and Monkey

One gay couple that I remembered particularly well was a typical “bear and monkey” couple who lived in a city near ours. They had a long, stable relationship and they were well-known in the scene.

Our first meeting was at a Starbucks. Mr. Bear, who was the marriage candidate, thought I was the one looking for a spouse and his tiny eyes lit up behind his glasses. But he looked disappointed when he saw Rice Cake.

Both Rice Cake and I thought Mr. Monkey was the cuter one, with his light skin and fine features, but sadly he was determined to spend his life with Mr. Bear and had no plans for marriage.

Despite poor first impressions, both parties decided to proceed on account of other compatible attributes. For the second meeting, Mr. Bear invited us to their house, which he owned. His “house husband” Mr. Monkey was such an incredible homemaker that he made us women feel embarrassed.

The scent of sandalwood greeted us as we stepped in the door, and the house was spotless. After a hot pot lunch, Mr. Monkey put on an apron and started to clean up, while Mr. Bear beamed like a little kid who had finished his homework, and took us to play ball with their two golden retrievers.

“Look what a life they are living,” Rice Cake said in admiration. I envied them too, of course, but I couldn’t help but notice Mr. Monkey’s gaze carving into us like a knife. “Their life is theirs. We are just onlookers,” I told Rice Cake.

“I think Mr. Monkey is a good choice—maybe after your divorce, you can marry him. He’s got good genes,” she giggled.

I sneered, “Did you see his eyes? He’s about to eat us alive.”

As expected, after we returned, Mr. Bear didn’t contact Rice Cake for days. Only after a month did he text her to apologize, saying that Mr. Monkey was throwing tantrums and threatening to break up with him, hence putting a pause on the marriage plans. Rice Cake was a little disappointed, but she hadn’t been satisfied with Mr. Bear’s looks from the beginning, plus she had other candidates to consider, so she didn’t think much of it.

In front of the prospective spouses, Rice Cake was always pleasant, putting on the show she usually performed for her colleagues. She’d even take my arm and act like a coquettish doll: “Look, I’m the more girly one.”

Even when they picked over her like a vegetable at a market stall, she was respectful, waiting until we got home to fume:

This makes me so angry, they should just take a piss and see what they look like themselves!

“Don’t be upset. You can’t rush this decision of a lifetime,” I would say, consoling her.

“I think you just don’t want me to find one!”

She looked like a starving rabbit, running around the tiny bedroom.

“If it doesn’t work out, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for you either,” I said. This was the truth. As long as it didn’t involve my lie, I always told the truth.

“Leave!” she hollered, then got into bed and pulled the covers over her face without even taking her jacket off.

“Then I’ll leave,” I said. If I left, I wouldn’t have to keep lying anymore.

I took my phone and coat, and closed the door behind me, diving into the night as though I were escaping a nightmare. My scarf unfurled as I ran and the bleak wind beat my face. If it had been raining, it could have been a scene from a television soap.

Then I realized I’d left my car keys.

When I went back to fetch them, Rice Cake held me tightly, like a drowning person clutching to a plank. My tears drenched her shoulder. I really had nowhere else to go.

The Real Breakup

During Chinese New Year, Rice Cake returned to her hometown thousands of miles away. I stayed to be with my parents. Relatives poured in and the topic of my imminent divorce came up again and again.

“I knew that family was no good,” one auntie ranted.

“That old hag was so obsessed with men she was after her own son,” another raged.

“I say, the earlier you divorce the better! You’re so young and you have so many great attributes. If you want to find a good man it will only take a second!” Another auntie reassured me, grabbing my hand so hard it hurt.

In that moment, I realized my plight was no different to Rice Cake’s. With or without marriage, everyone had the same expectations for women. We were daughters, wives, or mothers—anything but ourselves.

When spring came, I was hit with a strange medical condition. It started with dizziness, then blurred vision, and soon I was struggling to stand up. My mother took me to the hospital and after countless tests, I was diagnosed with a type of vertigo disease. The treatment was quick.

When she heard that I’d recovered, Rice Cake sent me a cute sticker on WeChat. “Our one-year anniversary is approaching. Let’s go eat something nice and celebrate.”

What she didn’t know was that my ex-husband had just sent me a divorce proposal through a lawyer. The only thing on my mind was that I had finally been set free.

When I told Rice Cake the truth, her face was unmoved. “I knew you were hiding something from me,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not surprised at all. So we will stay together, right?” She looked at me.

“I want to break up.” I struggled to strike the right tone. If I was too gentle, she would think there was still a chance, but I didn’t want to be too harsh and further antagonize her.

“I don’t have to get married,” she said, shaking.

“This is impossible. We both know it.” I calmly watched her cry, resisting the urge to hold her.

Finally her tears stopped streaming. She sniffled for a very long time, then asked me one last question—an old question.

“Have you ever loved me?”

“... I don’t know.”

I told this story across the table in a crayfish restaurant. The sauce on my plastic gloves had already dried. A gust of midsummer heat broke through the door and made the electric fan stagger.

“You asked me what I’d been through before. This is what I’ve been through.” I took off my gloves slowly, dried my hands with a wet tissue, and smiled at the girl in front of me. She looked at me and told me that my hands had been shaking as I spoke.

“By this age, everybody has some stories.” I paused. “That was Rice Cake’s social media status when I first met her.”

We both sighed, stood up from our seats, and slipped out into the night like two quiet cats disappearing into the darkness.

Qiu Liang is a bisexual Chinese woman born in 1987.

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