Fireworks light up the night sky as The Middle Kingdom prepares for Chinese New Year. Shanghai — an Asian megacity consisting of more than 25 million people — is more than half empty. The only ones who stay behind are the locals and foreigners. 2018 is the Year of the Dog. Small shop owners change their signs to “closed” and the local supermarket checkout lines flood with last-minute shoppers planning to prepare elaborate meals for family and friends over the holidays. My Wechat messages overflow with dog emojis and the phrase gongxi facai nestles into the forefront of my brain.
It has been four months since I came back to China from Japan. I stand on the balcony of my newly rented room, near my old club, thinking about what to do next. The Chinese often utter the word yuanfen or fate to describe encounters like the ones I’ve had over the past few weeks. The beginning of my good fortune occurred as soon as I arrived back in Shanghai where the man who sold me a Chinese ID card almost two years ago picked me up from Shanghai Railway Station.
“It seems you’ve gone in a big circle,” he said while digging into the massive feast they’d ordered for our little table of three, “What do you plan to do next?”
I twirled my chopsticks between the grains of rice. “I’m going to start a business. I’m not sure what and I’m not sure how but in the meantime, I’ll go back to my old job.”
“It’s not good to work in the clubs. It’s bad for your health and no man will take you seriously if you continue on this path,” he mumbled.
“Well, I don’t like teaching little kids and the salary for other types of daytime work is far too low to support myself in Shanghai,” I snapped, “so unless you plan to pay my bills, maybe you should refrain from telling me what to do.”
An awkward silence fell between us as his spiky-haired friend continued to play with his phone. We ate at a snail’s pace yet more and more dishes kept arriving on the table, much to my disgust at the sheer amount of waste. A waitress brought out grilled fish which I thought was the final round. We’d gotten about halfway through before steamed buns arrived. The server turned on her heel.
“Excuse me!” I shouted, “Are there any dishes that haven’t arrived yet?”
She listed off three more. I told her to cancel them right away. Bellies full, we waddled like penguins through the door and went to our respective homes for a long rest.
“Long time no see,” I said to the manager of my old club as his eyes widened. A Ling was and will always be my boy. He’s the most even-tempered of all the managers. He always had a smile on his face. Every day, he wore a white button-up shirt and black slacks. His short, straight black hair gelled up and parted to the side made him look a bit like a character from an old detective drama. He stood at about a foot shorter than me but commanded an aura of confidence and sincerity.
“Long time no see,” he said with the most stoic expression he could muster, “now change your clothes and get to work.”
Hordes of girls rushed around the dressing room to do last-minute makeup, eat snacks, play mobile games, and chat with friends.
On the surface, our club looked like a freshly-dropped dog turd on blacktop pavement in midsummer. Most of the customers rowdy and ill-mannered. This is why many foreign girls don’t want to work there. We were the rejects; the ones who couldn’t get work in those top-level clubs that only want supermodel Russian girls. However, we were the only place in Shanghai that could boast having girls from around the world including Turkey, the U.S., Brazil, Georgia, and Kenya. Also, because our club was so large, we had a healthy mix of first-time and repeat customers alike. Many of our guests were foreigners of Asian descent — Koreans, Japanese, and even Taiwanese. My favorite, of course, were the Taiwanese.
I hadn’t been back for more than a couple of weeks before I managed to snag a repeat customer. The first night felt a bit awkward due to one of my coworkers getting drunk and taking off her heavily-padded black bra in the middle of an almost-empty hotpot restaurant. As we sat in his Mercedes Benz at 2 a.m. listening to 90’s Jpop and waiting for a designated driver while chain-smoking Chungwhas, I realized that this dude could be my spirit animal. At our next appointment, however, he asked me to bring a friend. I didn’t have many foreign friends in Shanghai at that time. There was one South African guy who sold me greens once a few years back who wouldn’t stop trying to get in my pants. As for actual friends of the female and pretty variety, well, we can’t all be so lucky.
Fortunately, my brilliant company WeChat group came in handy. I posted that I needed a girl to eat out with a private customer. Along came Irine, a lady from Turkey who spoke pretty decent Chinese. The air outside was biting cold but she wore a dress with no stockings. She smoked skinny blue Nanjing cigarettes and shivered under the street lights. After shooting the shit for a while, I realized we had quite a bit in common. She was doing a Master’s degree in Shanghai.
“It’s easy for foreigners to get into Chinese universities,” she said.
That’s when I suddenly had a lightbulb moment. If I went to graduate school for an MBA, not only could I have some great networking opportunities that I didn’t take proper advantage of in undergrad but I’d have a student visa that could last for two years. No more visa runs.
After I went home, I started drawing up a proper budget and making plans to enter grad school in the fall. Out of boredom, I played around on TanTan, basically Chinese Tinder, until I found a guy so cool it made my heart sink as soon as I saw him.
He took me to see Wonder. After the movie, he took me to a bar, but we were too early so the tables stood empty. The music also lacked oomph. We played dice games and chatted for a bit before heading off. He didn’t ask me to sleep with him and sent me home in my own taxi when I told him I needed to get up early.
On the second date, we walked around the mall, ate pizza, and chain-smoked. This time we would try a bar closer to the city center. I’d looked up reviews online and decided upon one that looked super underground and exclusive. He paid for our lockers and we entered the red-light tinted scene. On a Friday night, the place looked remarkably empty. After a couple of minutes, he came back to grab my hand.
“Baby, we’re in a gay bar,” he said in the most matter-of-fact way, “let’s go.”
I felt so stupid. The English review said nothing about LGBT venues. Most gay bars have lit-as-hell music and enchanting live shows. However, this one resembled more of a boudoir. As a straight couple, according to him, we attracted several stares from the men who sat on the couches and held hands, smoked hookah and did whatever else.
“You dumbass,” he said with a grin as he wrapped an arm around me, “come on. My friend works at another club not far from here.”
When we got to the new locale, the music embraced me. The dancefloor spilled over with young Chinese people and most of the tables were full. Only one seat remained at the bar.
“Sit down,” he said.
“I’d prefer to sit with you,” I protested.
He shook his head before he walked off to look for another chair.
While he searched for seating, a portly young Chinese man to my right began chatting me up in English. I told him my boyfriend would come back soon but he insisted and kept asking for my WeChat. I mentioned that Kai might be unhappy to no avail.
Kai returned with a barstool and placed it in between us. The man’s phone lit up with his WeChat QR code in full display. I whispered to Kai that I won’t add him and he turned to the man, placed a hand on his shoulder and said in a firm yet gentle voice, “Brother, if you add my girlfriend’s WeChat I might be unhappy.”
The man backed down and turned to his friend with the dice cup in hand. I beamed. This was a man. A real man. A man who spoke gently but got what he desired. Perhaps, they do exist outside of fairytales.
I led him to the dancefloor where we sashayed and shimmied for a bit before my African friend came to deliver some goods, late, as usual. He left the club in a hurry and we went downstairs to hail a taxi back to Minhang. I couldn’t wait for the third date.
Two weeks had passed before I could see him again. This time we met at the same mall, inside an independent bookstore with a coffee shop inside. He’d been reading a Chinese novel and sipping red tea.
“Let’s go,” he said as he got up to take his backpack and coat.
“Wait,” I protested, “does this place have English books?”
He led me to a tiny corner with all the classics that I’d already read in college as an English major. One tattered book with a blue cover suddenly caught my eye: Alice in Wonderland. I picked it up and to my delight, it was a mixed-language book. The original English text appeared on the right pages. The left pages contained a Chinese translation. He saw how enamored I’d become with the little book and offered to buy it for me but insisted on a new copy.
When we took it to the counter, the staff informed us that it was the only copy left. Without missing a beat, he whipped out his phone to pay by WeChat and told me to keep it safe. He suggested that we see a movie. I agreed. An Indian movie, Secret Superstar, had become incredibly popular in China. The movie starred an Indian teen from a small town who loved music yet had to endure the wrath of her abusive father only to beat all the odds by becoming an internet sensation. Unfortunately, there were no English subtitles. The first time I’d seen it in Beijing with my customer a few days prior. The second time, I wanted to see it with Kai. The commercials played on the big screen when he turned to me and said, “I can’t look at you up close because if I see you this closely, I will want you so badly,” He kissed me, “Let’s go.”
We walked out of the theater before the film even started.