This week sees another installment from our partnership with China30s.com 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.
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!”
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 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.