Mr. Wan

Mr. Wan 1

I was one third of the way through a run the other day when I heard a car honk behind me. I turned around to see a middle-aged man in a black Volkswagen sedan. He seemed just as startled as I was. He pulled up along side me with a broad but odd smile. It seemed forced, out of sync with his eyes. “What are you doing?” he asked. I explained to him what brings me here. He said he worked for the city government in the city of Wuhu. He was back to visit his parents for the weekend. “They live just down the road, there, in the white house on the edge of the village. Do you see it?” He introduced himself as Mr. Wan. “The same ‘Wan (万)’ as one hundred (百) ten thousands (万),” he said. He asked me for my contact information and invited me to dinner. Though his smile and enthusiasm to  made me a little uneasy, he seemed sincere and merely curious. I gave him my phone number and told him I could join him and his family the following night.

The next morning, I saw that the forecast called for rare thunderstorms. I considered calling Mr. Wan to reschedule. As the day proceeded, the weather turned hot, humid, windy, and unsettled. It started to rain lightly in the minutes before I got on my bike to leave. Some of the rain immediately evaporated as it landed on the ground and leaves. As it rose back up to the sky, it carried some of the earth with it: the smell of dirt, metal and grass now mud, rust and mildew.

The brakes of my bike squeaked as I arrived at Mr. Wan’s house. He approached to open the gate with the same strained smile. He graciously took my bike and guided it through the courtyard and into the garage. A woman in her 60s took a half step out of the kitchen near the gate and looked at me blankly. “That’s my mother,” Mr. Wan said with a nervous laugh. “Ma, this is Mr. Du.” She nodded and went back to the kitchen. A puppy came out of the open door of the dining room and approached me cautiously. I kneeled and held out my left hand palm up. “What’s your dog’s name?” I asked. “He doesn’t really have one,” Mr. Wan said. “But he’s grey, so we call him Hui Hui. Right Hui Hui?” Hui Hui didn’t respond. After a minute he approached my hand and let me pet him. “He’ll remember you next time,” Mr. Wan said.

We sat down at the dining room table. Mr. Wan poured us both tea. The room was bright white and without decoration, save for the framed black and white photos of Mr. Wan’s deceased paternal grandparents above a table on the north wall. The linoleum floor was still wet from having been recently mopped. I told Mr. Wan that I am interested in the history of this area. He said this village is called Wan Village, named after his ancestral clan. They settled here 120 years ago, fleeing a famine in Hubei Province, his true ancestral home. Sixty years later they endured another famine, during the Great Leap Forward. “Many people died here in this township,” he said. “My father almost died, when he was just a boy. I think this is why you find that people here seldom have a strong feeling for this place, and for farming. They remember. They want their children to leave. Everyone will tell you that there is no better time in history than right now. And that is because they are not afraid of starving.”

Mr. Wan’s mother began bringing in dishes of food. His father joined us at the table. He was completely bald, tall, and very thin. Yet he moved brusquely, with purpose. He offered me rice wine but excused himself from drinking, drinking a bottle of blueberry flavored milk instead. Before he began eating, Mr. Wan paused to look down at the floor for a moment. His father asked me routine questions about my work and family, glancing at me warily as I answered. After about 15 minutes, he rose from the table and left. “Keep eating!” he said as he left. Mr. Wan’s mother came in not long thereafter, carrying a bowl of rice. I asked her if she still farmed. She said the family had rented the family’s land to a large-scale farmer, like almost everyone in the village. But she and her husband still labored. She sewed at a nearby textile factory. He did plastering work in the county seat. They could use the extra money, she explained. But really they worked out of habit. “We don’t miss farming,” she said. “But we miss having something to do. We have worked constantly since we were young. We have no hobbies. We don’t know of any other life. This is how peasants are.”

It began to rain heavily. I asked her how many children she had. She said she had three: two daughters in addition to Mr. Wan, who was the oldest. They each had one child of their own, all girls. She asked me why I have no wife and children. I said it was partly choice, and partly circumstance. “Yes,” she said. “If relationships don’t work, there is nothing you can do. You have to separate. And that’s okay. More and more people are doing that these days.” I asked if that was a good or bad thing. “People need structure,” she said. “But they also need to the chance to make mistakes. All parents can do is try to give children the right perspective. Once they leave, their lives are their own.” As she spoke, Mr. Wan clasped his hands and looked at the floor.

Mr. Wan’s mother rose from the table to clear away the dishes. I asked him how he spent his spring festival this year. Did his daughter join him here? No, he said. She was with her mother. As he spoke he seemed to force a broad smile, as he had the day before, but this time his mouth trembled. “You see,” he said. “I have had a difficult time. The pressure in my job is so great. I failed. I felt that I could not succeed. And I was punished. And then my wife.” He gasped for air, and started to gently rock backward and forward. “I had never prayed before, but I prayed that God would help me. And he did. I found the Catholic church.” He said that he lost most of his friends as a result of his faith, and he speaks to almost no one about it, including his parents. “Most people don’t understand,” he said. “My life is very different now. But I have peace. I know that God has a plan for me.”

His mother returned to the table. I told them that my life had not turned out as I expected. But that those disappointments were not necessarily a bad thing. His mother looked at me. “The world is so big and you came so far to be here now,” she said. “That is strange, when you think about it.”

I noticed that the sun had set and the rain had temporarily stopped. I excused myself to go home and let them rest. His mother went to look for a poncho for me, and apologized when she could not find one. Hui Hui ran over and bit my shoe. “He’ll remember you next time,” Mr. Wan said. I looked for Mr. Wan’s father. They told me he had left to go to a friend’s house, pointing to a lit window in the distance. Mr. Wan brought out my bike, and they both walked me to the gate. I thanked them for their kindness, and began riding back across the fields to town.

Advertisements

Going to church

20180126_161725

One of the many noticeable changes to occur in Pingpu since I was last here in 2014 is the construction of a Catholic church across the river from the township. This was notable to me for a few reasons. Organized religion occupies a very strange place in politics and culture here in China. Seen as potential as threats to the officially atheist state’s legitimacy, religious activities have long been regulated by the Communist Party. Given that the Party’s legitimacy is premised on restoring China’s place as a self-sufficient power – a project undertaken in direct response to Western colonialism – Christian churches have faced particular scrutiny. After the expulsion of most foreigners following the Communist Revolution of 1949, Christian churches were largely pushed underground.

In the past 40 years, the state has in some ways liberalized policies concerning religious activity. In this, it has seemed to acknowledge the void left by the de-legitimizing of folk religious practices under Maoism, which was following by the de-legitimizing of Maoism by the Cultural Revolution and the Party’s embrace of market capitalism. Freedom of religion has been guaranteed under the state constitution since 1982. However, in practice, religious activities are heavily controlled and monitored. Officially-designated religious sites must be approved by the state. As a result, Christian churches in China typically operate in more discreet spaces, such as people’s homes. They are generally tolerated by officials, but crackdowns are not uncommon. As it relates to so many phenomena in China, degrees of official tolerance and intolerance come in waves. It seems the current wave is one of intolerance. The central government is stepping up restrictions, having implemented new regulations earlier this month. Two Christian churches were demolished in Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces in December of last year and January of this year.

So that a church would appear here in recent years seemed odd to me. Walking down the street in town last month, I asked a shop owner and handyman about the church. He told me that it was built just last year with private funds, and that it was not officially approved. I asked him if many people attended services there. He let out the kind of scoffing laugh that seems to follow so many of my questions. “No one goes!” he said, adding a wave of his hand and look off in the distance to emphasize his complete dismissal of the topic.

That seemed unlikely to me, so I set out to explore on a Sunday earlier this month. Service had let out, and a group of men were talking in front of the church. One of them introduced himself as the pastor. Pastor Liu – a medium-built man in his late 40s with intense eyes – confirmed that the church was built last year, but told me that the community has existed here for a long time. I asked if it would be okay if I attended services. While not exactly conveying a sense of warm enthusiasm about the idea, he nonetheless said that would be fine. He told me that the congregation meets Thursdays at 1 pm and Sundays at 8 am.

I headed out last Thursday to attend my first service. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was bracing for the worst: that I might be greeted with some hostility by the parishioners, who could feel that I was drawing unwanted attention to them or perhaps that my goal was to spy on them. When I walked in, the service seemed to have already started. The congregation was singing hymns, the lyrics of which were projected from a laptop onto a screen on the stage. The church was largely just a bare, grey concrete room. The only decorations were a laminate mural on the wall behind the stage. It depicted rays of sunshine falling onto a flock of sheep on a field, a forest in the distance. On the bottom right was written Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it”.

Moments after I entered, a man turned around and looked at me. He then alerted his friend: “foreigner!” Within about five seconds nearly everyone in the church had turned to look at me. I smiled and mouthed “hello” to faces around the room. Feeling self-conscious, I took a seat in the back row. I quickly noticed that while there were three rows, they were distinguished by gender: the men sat only on the right side. The room was fairly small, with seats for about 100 people, though only 60 of them were full. In-keeping with the population of Pingpu in general, the congregation was mostly over 50, with two younger women holding babies. While most people lost interest in my presence and went back to their singing after a few moments, some people kept staring at me with a sort of expressionless look. After I nodded and smiled at them, most returned the greeting, but some just kept staring as though they were in an audience at a play.

A man who was sitting across the aisle from me got up from his seat, approached me and put his hand on my arm. I braced myself for the awkwardness of being asked to leave.

“Do you remember me?” he said. “We met in December. You gave me your card.”

“Oh right!” I said. “I remember you.” I didn’t remember him at all. (On an unrelated note, this concerns me.) I still wasn’t sure what his attitude was regarding my attendance, so I checked in. “Is it okay that I be here? I don’t want to bother anyone or make anyone feel uncomfortable.” (On an unrelated note, you can write that on my tombstone.)

“You can, no problem,” he said, before taking the seat next to me. “Do you believe in Christianity?” he asked. This was a completely reasonable question that for some inexplicable reason I was in no way prepared to answer. So as usual I overthought it and offered a confusing answer. “Uhhhmmm…. I went to church every week when I was a kid,” I said. “I agree with a lot of what Jesus said. I also think what he said is at base reflected in a lot of what is said in other religions.” He stared at me for a bit, then went back to the hymn.

The first part of the service was devoted to hymn singing. Only a few people had hymnals. Most relied on the project lyrics, which seemed to come from a website. After taking a few laps around perhaps three hymns, a man rose from his seat near the laptop and took up a long pointing stick. A new song was projected on the screen. This one was apparently rarely sung by the group, because the man felt it necessary to guide everyone through it exhaustively. Using the stick to keep the time, he sang it alone, slowly, twice. He then went through it again, asking everyone repeat each verse after him. He then asked that we sing it in time with him, before finally letting us sing it independently. Even after all of this, which took perhaps 30 minutes, we were still not ready: we steamrolled through key changes and skipped whole verses. He got up and intoned the parts we flubbed, all the while waving his stick up and down like a sideways metronome.

The pastor then took the stage for his homily. I noticed that he seemed almost broadcast-ready: he generally spoke slowly and simply, repeated concepts, and enunciated in very standard Mandarin without a trace of local dialect. In contrast the homilies with which I am familiar, his often felt more like a classroom lesson. He asked questions of the congregation: “How many holidays in Catholicism?” “How many sacraments?” “How many pieces of bread and glasses of wine per person for communion? 60?” Most were either shy or unprepared. After being greeted with silence, Liu provided us with the answers.

The majority of his talk was devoted to the topic of wealth and gifts. Given that last week was the heart of Spring Festival – during which red envelopes of cash are exchanged and “I wish you wealth!” is a common greeting – such a theme was apropos. “God gives us the greatest gifts for free,” Liu told us. “Love, understanding, peace, consolation. These come down from above, and are all around us, like the air we breathe.” It was a simple and moving message, and a welcome contrast to what for me here can often feel like an overwhelming degree of resignation to the pursuit of money and material goods.

When the service ended, several people approached me with questions about my work and reasons for joining the service. Most were kind and sweet, if a bit suspicious. Apropos of nothing, one of the young women with a baby turned her cell phone around to show me a picture of a luxury watch. “How much does this watch cost in America?” she asked.

I looked at her for a moment, not sure if she was joking or if I had misunderstood her question. “I have no idea,” I finally said. “How much does it cost in China?”

“About 7,000 yuan,” she said.

“Oh, well that’s probably about how much it costs in the US,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m just interested in things like this,” she said.

Home

You asked me what is the meaning of home. When I woke up just now after sleeping for a bit on the train, I was surrounded by strangers. I’m happy with nothing much. Looking at my house in the sun, looking at the clouds, looking at my nephews, looking at my paternal grandmother, looking at my maternal grandmother, looking at my father working with his hands. Fish bones and red-crowned cranes. That is happiness. This can make a person feel more satisfied than materials and money. It is this kind of longing thought that can support me on my long journey. I leave in order to better return back. This is the most honest answer I can give to your question.

– Feng Hong. 24. Pingpu native and Shanghai migrant worker. December 11, 2017.

Feng Hong_baby picture

Snowpeople of Pingpu Township

The largest snowfall in Pingpu in 10 years – about a foot – occurred this past weekend. Kids, shopkeepers, hairdressers, and hospital staff responded by making snowpeople (and at least one snowcar). Which raises the clearly urgent but under-researched question: what do the forms chosen by people for their snowmen reveal about their worldviews?

 

Offhand I would say:

People seem to have a general agreement about the shape of snowpeople and the work involved in producing it. That generally is: push some snow together in a pile and put a head on it. Maybe add arms, maybe not. Preliminary evidence suggests folks are aware of the classic three-part Western shape of snowpeople, but are understandably dismissive. First, who cares how people in the West make snowmen? Second, Frosty takes a good amount of time and effort to construct, and most folks who might make a snowperson either have jobs or are small children.

Also, that snowcar guy really loves his son.

 

 

Letter from Pingpu: Day 1

My first day back in Old Pingpu Town was predictably unpredictable. After two days of traveling from Wuhan I arrived on Wednesday afternoon. I knew I had to take care of three things immediately: check in to my hotel, register with the local police, and call the head of the township government to introduce myself. The first task worried me not at all. From my previous stint in Pingpu I’m quite familiar with the hotel and its idiosyncratic owner, Wang. The police worried me a bit, just because they’re the police so who knows. The government official caused me more worry. From various sources I have come to understand that the government as a whole has become more restrictive over the past few years. This includes refusing to grant foreign researchers access to many rural sites, even those researchers with longstanding relationships with those places and their governments. While I had a couple dinners and participated in some interviews with local officials in 2014, I can’t say that I felt we had forged a truly comfortable and friendly relationship. (Though I wouldn’t have described them as unfriendly either. Guarded might be the best word.) My biggest worry all along has been that I would come all this way only to find out that I wasn’t welcome here, and I would have to scramble to find another research site.

Wang was his usual interesting self. For some reason after seeing me again he immediately wanted to talk to me about hanging laundry. Even before he checked me in he took me behind the hotel and showed me all the places where laundry could be hanged, as though I hadn’t spent a month in his hotel three years ago, or more to the point that I had just asked him if he happened to know of any convenient places to hang laundry. Then he made a point of doing the same thing in my room, opening the window to show me some places where wet laundry could be conveniently placed. I nodded while I tried to think of something supportive to say in response. “Oh good!” was the best I could do.

A local policemen then came into my room to register me. Far from the glowering, thousand-yard stare tough guy cop type, this officer looked all of 25 and was all sweetness and awkwardness. “I’ve never done this before!” he said, leafing through the pages of my passport to find my residence permit. “I’m not quite sure what to do.” He seemed to want to outdo me in the category of saying “I’m so sorry for bothering you”, which takes some effort. During this time Wang made himself comfortable in a chair and told me how lucky I was to have such a nice room.

I nervously called Cheng, the township head. He asked me a bit about my trip and plans, and I told him about my hopes to rent a space in town while I did my research. He said he knew of a place and would be happy to show me. He would come back after a meeting that afternoon and take me there. I was amazed and incredibly grateful. Not only was he not complicating my project, he was trying to help.

Cheng came to pick me up in his black VW Passat. We started driving through town. I assumed an immanent stop, but instead we kept driving. We started up the highway heading north of town, and Cheng showed no signs of slowing down. That Cheng felt no need to tell me where we were going was both amazing and totally commonplace. Many, many folks I have met who have grown up in this country have done similar things. I have no idea why, but this kind of foregrounding somehow seems unnecessary. Where it would seem totally bizarre to me to pick up a newly-arrived person in Seattle and drive them into the mountains with no explanation, that is a perfectly reasonable thing to do from other people’s viewpoints.

But I was hoping for a bit more information about, you know, what was happening. “So, that’s great that you know of a place I can stay,” I said. “Yeah,” Cheng said. Cheng apparently saw no need to offer details. Instead, he politely asked me about my previous research and experiences in Pingpu. After driving for about 10 minutes, he turned left off of the highway and into a dirt road. Once more, I kept waiting for him to tell me about where we were going. Instead, he told me about his experiences working for the township government. We kept driving up a steep incline to increasingly remote parts of the township, heading towards the western mountains. I would be lying if I were to say I did not start to think about shallow graves. Mostly, I considered how, assuming we were ultimately going to a house, wherever it was would be totally impractical for doing research, especially without a car.

We eventually took a left and came upon a lake surrounded by mountains with fall foliage. “Here’s the house!” Cheng said.

 

20171115_164337

It was a lovely and totally unexpected spot, which perhaps was the effect for which Cheng was going. Despite my worries about commuting, this initially seemed like an very interesting possibility. But then Cheng informed me that it was a guest house, run by a couple that lived onsite.

Cheng gave me a tour, showing me the guest room and the shared living room, kitchen and bathroom. He then took me to a room where four men in their 30s and 40s were playing mahjong. If they were in any way happy to have a guest they did not indicate it. It was a nice house, and Cheng insisted that I could stay there for free. It was an amazing and kind offer. But I was disinterested in sharing a space for the next 7-8 months. I know I could do it, but I also know how much happier I am when I have a place to return to where I can have some privacy. I also couldn’t imagine how I would manage the daily to the villages below that are the subject of my research project.

Almost immediately my thoughts turned to the question of how I would get out of this situation while not seeming ungrateful. After all, it was incredibly kind of Cheng to drive me all the way out here to see this place, and to offer it to me for free. I tried to politely push in that direction. “How would I solve the transportation problem?” I asked Cheng. “Oh that’s no problem!” he said. “You can buy a bike. And when it rains, you can call me.” That seemed like an incredibly impractical thing to say. One does not cheaply or easily buy a mountain bike in rural China. And every time the weather’s bad I’m supposed to call the head of a 30,000-person township to give me a ride? I stared at him, waiting for smile or some indication that he was kidding. It never came. After a bit of thinking, I tried another, more direct track. “I’m here to learn more about how people’s livelihoods are influenced by agricultural modernization policies,” I said. “Do you think this is best place for me to do that?” “Oh definitely,” he said. I was out of ideas. I nodded and smiled. “Take a look around,” he said. I wasn’t sure what more there was to look at – it wasn’t a very big house. But I wandered around and considered my options. I could certainly think of worse places to be. But it really wasn’t practical. I had to find a way out of this. I walked out again to find Cheng. I looked out over the lake and saw a head floating in the water, towing a balloon.

20171115_164342

Cheng had decided to go for a swim. I approached Old Long, the man of the house. “Cheng has gone for a swim,” I said. “Yes,” Old Long said. “He does that every day.” After a trip to the end of the lake and back, Cheng emerged from the lake in a black Speedo. He told me this is indeed his everyday routine, one he started a couple years ago. It was something of a relief to know that I was really just a conveniently-located passenger on a trip he would have taken regardless. Looking around at the karaoke speakers and mahjong table, it was clear to me now that this house was a frequent destination for area high rollers. That possible added layer of intrusion made the place even less appealing.

Not long thereafter, Long’s wife Zhang came in with armfuls of groceries. Unlike Long and the mahjong players, who by this point had left, Zhang was full of smiles and quick to laugh. But she did not know how to speak to foreigners like a normal person. Instead, she would get within a foot of my face and yell at me slowly in Chinese. Yes I would like some raisins, I said, and no I don’t know where the top of the raisin canister is. Maybe you threw it away?

Cheng sat on the couch with me. We watched a terrible Chinese soap about anti-terrorist special agents with no work-life boundaries and serious emotional dependency issues. Long and Cheng started chain smoking. Cheng’s friend Tang and his wife (who’s name I can’t recall) joined us. Cheng asked Long to take a photo of us. I got in on that too.

20171115_174532

Eventually dinner started. Dinner+officials+a guest means a fancy-ish dinner with baijiu (rice wine). I am no fan of any of this. Baijiu in particular is the worst. Perhaps I’m just far too polite, but I also have a hard time describing the powerful sense of obligation one feels in these situations to participate in all of this. So you go along and try to make the best of it. Here is one of far too many toasts between Tang (on the left), Cheng and me. (For a supposedly health-conscious person, Cheng really doubles down on the smoking and drinking.)20171115_190511

Towards the end of the night, Zhang asked the table, “Is Ross going to stay here?” Cheng said, “It’s up to him.” I think he was being honest, so that was a huge relief to hear. We have since not discussed it. All else aside, I’m very grateful to Cheng for what I am assuming was a sincere effort to try to help me solve a problem, inviting me a lovely spot, and treating me to dinner. That was not necessary, and it was very kind.

Letter from Chengdu: Wet Rags and Remembering How to Walk

I’ve spent most of my time since arriving here at the beginning of the month doing what’s required to secure a one-year visa extension, as well as initiate my first stipend payment. That has necessitated lots of running around to different university, bank and government offices, where I am asked to fill out essentially the same form and coordinate with a different set of overworked, exasperated employees. The last step of the visa process is handing over one’s passport to the immigration bureau, which I did last week. My new visa should be ready on October 31. But, given that I presently have no other form of official identification to use for travel or accomodations, until then I’m essentially stuck in Chengdu.

That’s not necessarily bad. This forced time here gives me a chance to interact with faculty and students at Sichuan University, as well as to work on a couple of projects. It also gives me an opportunity to reflect on previous long stints here in China, and how and to what extent things have changed. On so many levels this experience feels fundamentally different than when I was last here three years ago, to say nothing of my first arrival in 2005. So much of that has to do with more recent exposure to ideas that have in many ways reinforced longstanding beliefs that, for various reasons, I found reason to doubt.

But then there are what a friend calls wet rags. These are the experiences that resurrect that familiar feeling of doubt, which may be best described as a creeping sense of futility. And living in China can often feel like one is constantly being smacked in the face with a series of wet rags. For example, last week I chatted with a graduate student here, Huang, about his personal experiences growing up in the countryside. He noted the foundational changes in his home village in the past 10 years ago since the onset of policy reform: community spaces and neighborhoods demolished and replaced by apartment buildings; the young and middle-aged vanished, leaving only children, the elderly and the infirm; along with this a lost sense of place, home and liveliness. But like many of us would when faced with the onset of something terrible and seemingly implacable, Huang tried to find the positive. “These changes are not all bad,” he said. “For example, I can now pay for things electronically with my phone. I don’t have to carry a wallet.”

One does not have to look hard or wait long for more wet rags. Last Thursday night on my walk back from the visa processing office I was propositioned by three middle-aged prostitutes who were working along the riverbank. That had me thinking about my chat with Huang, and about wider changes that push people into cities in search of work. And when that search fails, there’s no choice other than to do what’s needed to make ends meet.

This place, like pretty all places but maybe more than most, has a way of getting you down. Of wearing away at your spirit. Of forcing you inward towards those things that you feel you can control. Commutes spent in constant fear of the cars and bikes bearing down on you from all sides. The seemingly endless string of oppressively smoggy days. Roaches, rats and mosquitoes. Anecdotes and news stories about – and personal experiences with – scams that seem unconscionably callous. In conversation with a local I met last week, I asked why it is he thinks people in this country focus so much attention on their kids. “Because it feels safe,” he said. It is understandable why it can feel like so little else does.

And I can relate. When I think back on previous times here, I remember long stretches where the accumulation of wet rags sent me into a kind of pain avoidance mode. Declining invitations. Talking myself out of initiating conversations. Avoiding eye contact. Hurrying through interactions. Being back now and seeing things with relatively fresh eyes, I feel as though I can now spot that familiar feeling in others: a look of shell shock, a feeling of exhaustion and reflexive cynicism.

But of course there are different ways of seeing. Ways that invite everything experienced in a day – wet rags and all – into the frame of what is observed. Ways that try to meet life on its own terms, rather than dictating those terms. Ways that stave off the desire to create coherent, easily summarizable and thus easily dismissable grand narratives by looking for challenges, contradictions and messiness. One of those options allows for survival, while the other is actually living.

Yesterday the weather was mild and I decided to take the 45-minute walk to my favorite cafe. During that time I tried  to look at every person I passed by. Many of them chatted with their friends. Many of them were caught up on their own thoughts, or were looking at their phones. Some of them scowled at me. But every so often as they passed by someone would make eye contact and give me the sweetest smile, and for that fraction of a second my heart felt like it would burst, overwhelmed by charge it created. I don’t know what they were thinking, but I’d like to think that they were out trying to look, learn and engage, not in spite of but because of how difficult each day can be.   

My Dinner with Bogdan

welcome to hell

WorldView, April, 2007

The medical staff had warned us that Romanian winters were the toughest.  They had surveyed the emotional well-being of previous volunteers and showed us a graph that took a plunge in November that lasted until April.  My group reacted predictably to the season.  By mid-December 2004, limited sunlight and bad weather had led to low energy, and we all struggled for a reason to put pants on in the morning.  We added pounds, grew beards and went unwashed. Once-ambitious English teachers turned to endless Bingo and Scattergories tournaments, and others spent hours on the Internet taking personality quizzes and sending e-mails criticizing other volunteers’ projects.  It was bleak.

A run of bad luck that month made it challenging for me to stay positive.  A smooth-talking Bucharest cab driver tricked and bullied me into giving him $20 for a $1 ride.  At a restaurant, a waiter spilled a beer on me.  On the train back to my home in a town on the Black Sea coast, an old man who looked like a mummy and smelled like pickles blamed me for the Soviet occupation of the Republic of Moldova and the inflated price of spread-able cheese.

When I got home I vowed to stay in my apartment, but after two cold, rainy days I started getting depressed.  The doorbell rang and my spirits picked up; I was happy to trade my sweatpants for jeans and re-enter the world.  But it was only the crazy woman who maintained the bloc I lived in.  She wanted $2 in local currency to sprinkle water in the halls and rearrange mud puddles on the walkways outside.  I handed over the money, dejected.  An existential chasm inside me yawned and groaned like an old dog kicked awake from a long nap.  I needed some yogurt.

Picking up my mail on the way back from the store, the bloc’s unofficial handyman called out my name from his first-floor apartment.  Bogdan Amatioaie had helped me many times with repairs and twice nearly killed us both by testing for a leak in my propane tank with a lighter and starting a fire in my stove with a pint of diesel fuel.

Bogdan resembled a friendly brown bear, a compact, hairy unit moving with no great urgency on undersized hind legs.  Sweet but confused, he persisted in believing that I was German and deaf.

“Guten morgen herr professor!” he yelled, walking towards me.  “I’m so happy to see you.  I thought you were dead.”  Every few months a new rumor spread about me around town: that I was married, a spy, a Morman, gay, married to a man, marrying a Chinese woman, opening a Chinese restaurant, deaf, German, and now dead.

Normally I enjoyed our conversations, but not this time.

“No, I’m not dead, Bogdan.  I was on vacation.”

“Wonderful!” he said.  “But you don’t look well.  You should come over for dinner.  Elena is making piftie.”  I flinched.   Rancid flounder looks tantalizing next to piftie, a gelatinous mass of cold pork fat and onions masquerading as a holiday treat.  “Thanks Bogdan,” I said, walking up the stairs to my apartment.  “But I’m not feeling real well.”

Back inside my apartment, I found among my mail a Christmas card from my aunt in North Carolina.  It had a painting of a smiling snowman on the front.  “I’m sure there are many Romanian foods and customs about the Christmas season that you will be enjoying,” she wrote.  It made me regret my hibernation. Here I was, wasting my Peace Corps experience inside my apartment, feeling sorry for myself.  Well by god, things we’re gonna change!   I was going to start giving back and making the most of my time here. And I was going to begin with dinner that night at Bogdan’s.

A few hours later, I knocked at Bogan’s door with a bottle of wine in hand.  He greeted me, shirtless and shoeless.  I felt embarrassed, as if I had opened the door to his bedroom by mistake as he was trying on his wife’s clothes.  But Bogdan expressed no shame.

“The German!” he annnounced.  Resting one hand on his sizable belly and the other on my shoulder, he walked me inside to the kitchen, where his wife, Elena, was preparing dinner.

“Elena!  The German is here.  He’s joining us for dinner tonight.”  Elena glared at me and nodded, then went back to stirring her cauldron of stew.  Dressed in black, thin and disapproving, she looked the opposite of Bogdan. She’d always ignored my greetings.  I’d never seen her smile.  Elena didn’t seem interested in a cross-cultural experience.

Ignoring her sullen nature, Bogdan led me into the living room, where he had been watching a soccer game at a high volume being played between two indistinguishable teams in a muddy, half-filled stadium.  He poured me a very tall glass of homemade wine.

“Do you like Romanian football?” he yelled.

“Of course,” I said.  Who doesn’t?

“Who’s your favorite player?”

I was afraid of this question.  The only Romanian soccer player I knew Adrian Mutu, and I remembered hearing that he had been in some trouble lately with cocaine.  I had to think fast.  I drank half my glass of wine to buy some time.  It tasted like fertilizer.  I gambled.

“I like Popescu,” I said, choosing one of the most common Romanian surnames.

“Popescu?  That no-talent drunk!”  He slammed his glass down and pointed a finger at me.  I was in trouble.  I needed diversion.

“Look at that!” I said, pointing out the window at a stray dog walking in the road.  He stared at the one-eyed dog, then looked back at me, confused.  Pointing out a mangy dog on a street in his town was like finding socks remarkable.  But it diverted his attention to my stupidity, a subject he didn’t have the energy to discuss.  We went back to watching the game.

A few minutes later, Elena announced the start of dinner by silently bringing a bowl of Romanian polenta to the table with all the joy of a pallbearer.  Bogdan patted his belly and nodded.

“Ah!” he said in his limited English.  “The wife!”  We made our way to the table.

In addition to the typical ciorba, bread, french fries and fried chicken, Elena added a casserole dish full of piftie, complete with miniature smiling snowmen on top made of butterballs.  I started on the polenta.  The rest of the food was excellent, but I grimaced as I regarded the smiling snowmen, looking like chubby toddlers bobbing in a sea of congealed grease.  I knew I’d have to confront them.

Bogdan and Elena stared at me, clearly pleased with how much I was enjoying the food.  I tried to start some conversation.  “So how do you like living here?” I said.

“We like it,” Bogdan said with a smile.  Then his face clouded over.  “Except for all the damn gypsies!”  Bogdan then took me on an exhausting 10-minute journey through Romanian history and politics, as he saw them.  What followed was a dizzying mix of rumor, speculation, revision, anecdote, limerick and fairy tale peppered with some facts.  Everyone was implicated.

“Asta e,” he concluded.  But what can you do?  When Bogdan had finished even the snowmen seemed tilted and diminished under the weight of his sobering lecture.

As I poured myself another glass of wine, Elena served the piftie.  I insisted that I was full, but she put a heaping plateful of it before me.  My snowman had collapsed at the waist, and a disembodied head stared up at me.  I was out of diversions.  Taking in a forkful, I was surprised to find that when mixed with every available food on the plate, piftie is not without its charm.  My fears overcome and the wine taking effect, I relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the meal.

Bogdan invited me to watch more television while Elena cleared the table. Remote in hand, Bogdan hesitated when a midget appeared on the screen­–a dead ringer for Tattoo on Fantasy Island–who sang manele (Gypsy-influenced dance music) as women in mini skirts danced around him.

“Ah, Romanian girls,” Bogdan said.  He looked at me proudly, as if he was responsible.  “The most beautiful.  What do you think about the women here?”

Since I had heard this question so many times before, I decided to throw him off.  “They’re okay.  But I like German girls.”

“What!” he said.  “No, they are too fat.”  I looked at him, sitting there like a hairy Buddha, and considered telling him he was the portly black pot pointing fingers at the kettle, but I didn’t want to spoil the friendly mood.  Elena returned and sat next to him.  Even she seemed happy.  She asked me if I missed my family in Germany.

Later, over the blare of the television, Bogdan told me how he met Elena.  The wine and heavy carbohydrates didn’t help my poor Romanian, but it was something about high school and gym class and a sofa.  They showed me a picture of their son, a student in Bucharest.  Bogdan toasted the New Year, good health and welcome guests.

After cookies and more wine, my host switched channels to a Romanian program called Vacanta Mare.  It was the worst show I’d ever seen, but Bogdan enjoyed it.

“He’s bald like you,” he said as he pointed at one actor.

“Well, that one’s fat like you,” I said, pointing to another.  He nodded.  Next up were sitcoms and Dog Day Afternoon, which inspired Bogdan to do his Al Pacino impression, consisting mostly of a lot of incoherent yelling.

After two hours of Romania’s cultural channel, I was ready to go home.  I had enjoyed many Romanian foods and customs of the season.  Sure Bogdan and I didn’t really understand each other and likely never would.  But we practiced patience and good humor, like all friends do.  Awkward as it was, I enjoyed the evening and felt lucky to have been there.

Elena invited me back for dinner the next night, and I swear she even smiled.  Bogdan shook my hand firmly.

“I’m glad you came,” he said.  “And that you’re not dead.”

Ross Doll served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania from 2003 to 2005.

Behind the Scenes With a Local Private Investigator

Map, October 2008

Since Eugene Francois Vidocq opened the first private investigation firm in 1833, private investigators have come to occupy a unique place in society and popular consciousness.  The brilliant and highly skilled yet self-interested, isolated and morally flexible private eye has become staple of Western literature and film, romanticized and clichéd even as the investigators themselves have tried to avoid public notice.

In China, however, private investigation work has only existed since 1994, when the government made the practice professionally legal.  In that time, as the country’s social problem and legal framework have grown more complicated and individuals and companies have been left increasingly on their own to solve disputes, the number of PI firms in the county has grown to over 200.

To learn more about the field of private investigation in China, we interviewed Mr. Guo, manager and chief investigator of the Nanjing branch of Leading Services Superior, one of China’s larger PI companies with branches throughout Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

On the day of our interview, we meet Guo in one of many consultation rooms in his office, where he sits hunched over a paper cup of green tea. In his mid forties, short and stocky, he wears a military-style haircut, a faded collared shirt, black slacks and inexpensive black loafers. He was up much of the previous night working on a case, and it shows.  While engaged and attentive, his eyes are rimmed with dark circles and he speaks in low tones and short sentences.

As we learned from our interview, while the work of actual private eyes bears some resemblance to their fictional counterparts, the reality for private eyes is at once more monotonous and dangerous.  What’s more, while there’s a certain universality to the nature of PI work, the advent of the modern Chinese PI and what keeps him occupied has much to say about China’s unique historical moment.

Map: What sorts of cases you have typically have?

PI: Right now, our business is a bit more civil-based, about 60 percent, with about 40 percent being for businesses and corporations.

Map: What do corporate cases typically involve?

PI: Every case has different requirements. PIs can provide companies with information about other companies that would otherwise be inaccessible: an automotive company that wants to know about the fuel injection systems used by rival companies, for example.  For a fee we are able to gather a full range of information about things like competitive proposals and marketing plans… essentially, we can tell our clients why their competition is successful.

Map: What sort of cases typically fall under the civil heading?

PI: Civil cases can involve a lot of things, but they usually involve what we call marriage investigating, marriage consulting and marriage rescue. Many women know their husband is having an affair, but they don’t want a divorce. We can provide “marriage rescue,” such as helping to create a separation between the husband and the third party.  Also we provide psychological help, similar to marriage counselors, in order to help the wife maintain her marriage. All of this is work that we do here.

Map: What steps do clients take when they want to hire your services?

PI: Usually customers call or send us an email first. After the client gives us a rough idea of the case, we will present them with an initial proposal and estimate. We will then arrange a face-to-face interview. We will meet those clients who are very concerned with their privacy at an outside location. Usually, before the client presents too much information to us, they ask to learn more about our company.  If they are satisfied with our company and proposal, we will sign a contract.

Map: You carry out your investigation based on the contracted terms?

PI: We design our plans based on the needs of each case. We don’t have a standard investigation procedure. Our job is not like the assembly line of a factory.

Map: In the West, our conception at least is that private investigators are specialists in some field. What sort of qualifications do you look for when recruiting private eyes?

PI: We usually look for retired military personnel or people with advanced degrees in public security. Society, however, tends to think PI firms have some kind of organized crime affiliation. This simply isn’t true. We’re actually a very honest, professional, standard investigation company.

Map: Are self-defense abilities necessary?

PI: We don’t necessarily have martial arts abilities. Mostly, we rely on our intellect. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t know martial arts, but he has experience and wisdom, which he used to solve many difficult cases. We had an extra-marital case once where two of our investigators stayed in the downstairs of the subject’s apartment for two days, but they weren’t able to take a picture of the subject and his mistress together. So I came up with an idea for the investigators. We asked an older man to knock on the subject’s door, and tell him he was from the neighborhood committee and that he wanted the subject to clean up the garbage in front of his door. Initially, the subject was hesitant to open his door. Likely, he was nervous due to his circumstances. But, when he heard that the man was from the neighborhood committee, he opened his door, at which point an investigator waiting nearby with a camera was able to take a picture.

Map: What other kinds of cases fall under the civil investigation heading?

PI: We also do a lot of liability investigation. These cases mostly involve a debtor who has disappeared, and the creditor has hired us to find him. Other civil cases require us to find missing friends and relatives.

Map: To work effectively on your cases, is it necessary to have connections with entities such as the Public Security Bureau, the Supervision Bureau, or the courts?

PI: Absolutely. Without these relationships we cannot do our work. We need cooperation from all these entities when we search for some information.

Map: Have people ever physically threatened your staff as a result of your investigations?

PI: I always tell our investigators that it’s better to lose a subject than to be discovered. If you lose a subject, you can always follow him or her the next day. But once you are discovered, your investigation is over. If you continue following the subject after you’re discovered, the risk is too great. For example, in Beijing, one investigator was discovered and beaten to death. In situations like this, no one will come to the defense of the investigator. The attacker could always say they thought the investigator was a robber or something.

Map: For corporate cases, is it sometimes necessary to send investigators undercover?

PI: Sometimes, when we do intellectual property right protection cases, it’s necessary. But these cases are difficult and dangerous. For example, once we were hired to investigate an illegal factory. They had very strict security.  They only allowed current and previous employees inside. It was nearly impossible to take videos in their factory. At that time, this company posted an advertisement looking for front line workers. Some of our investigators gained employment and infiltrated the company in this way. We discovered this company was counterfeiting the goods of a very famous foreign company.

Map: Do civil cases ever interfere with individual’s privacy?

PI: Usually we take pictures in public spaces, since taking pictures in private places is illegal. Our clients often ask us to take pictures of couples in bed. We never agree to this.  First of all, these pictures cannot be used as evidence in court. Second, taking these pictures at all is illegal.

Map: Are PIs usually equipped with hidden devices like cameras or microphones?

PI: Yes. We cannot use normal cameras to take pictures of subjects. We definitely need some very advanced equipment. China has very strict laws about this equipment. Even selling these kinds of things is illegal. Actually, private investigation in general is at the fringes of the law. That’s why we refer to our company as a business consulting firm. As the legal representative of our company, I have to know a great deal about the law, so as to avoid putting the company at legal risk.

Map: How are PI’s salaries calculated?

PI: Usually their salaries are composed of a basic salary on top of commission. The average salary is RMB3000 to RMB4000 per month. Commission is six percent. So if we have a RMB120,000 account, and there are three investigators working on this case, each will receive RMB7200 upon successful completion of the case.

Map: Do your investigators work 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

PI: Theoretically, they do. However, when the subjects rest, we tell our PIs to go home and rest too. But, as I said before, they need to capture the right moment. If you know the subject goes to bed at 2 a.m., you can go home at that time. But you never know when he will get up. Is it 6 to 7 a.m. or 11 to 12 a.m.?  So the investigators have to get back to the subject’s apartment very early. This is the difficult part of this job. Even though you don’t work 24 hours a day, you have to be ready at all times.

Map: Do you ever have lower-income clients?

PI: Yes. Earlier this year, we had a missing child case. His parents were divorced, and his grandfather came to us to ask if we could help find him. We didn’t charge him for this, first because he didn’t have enough money and second because we didn’t feel that it was morally right to take his money. We don’t do our job entirely for the sake of profit. While most of our customers are middle or higher income people, we do have lower income clients as well. We can’t refuse to take a case because they don’t have the necessary money. So we will adjust our rates.

Map: Have you ever failed to complete a case?

PI: Absolutely. I’ve been doing this job for a long time, and I’ve met subjects who are very good at evading detection. Some of them have been in the army so they’re very aware of their surroundings. Many people who are aware they are behaving inappropriately and therefore are perhaps being watched change their actions accordingly, such as deliberately taking back roads or round-about routes.

Map: What do you like about your work?

PI: Nonetheless, its work he takes obvious satisfaction from.  “Solving cases is very gratifying to me. I remember a case I had when I first started this work. I went on a stakeout to wait for a subject, and after five or six hours of waiting, he finally arrived. I was so excited. This kind of feeling is difficult to describe.”

Map: What are the downsides?

PI: It’s very challenging and risky. Also, compared to white collar workers, the salary is low. However, unlike white collar workers, who sit in their offices and only use their brains, our job requires us to use our bodies as well.

Map: Is the work as exciting as you imagined before you began?

PI: Sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s very difficult and strenuous.

Map: Has this job negatively affected your opinion about people?

PI: These days, our economy is developing very fast, and there are a lot more temptations.  That’s why you see more moral transgressions and, consequently, investigation cases. I’ve never considered people to be evil. People do bad things because of temporary impulses and the desire for new experiences. I believe that those people who break the bonds of marriage and family will realize their mistakes in time and return to their loved ones.

According to manager Guo, maintaining this distance from the general public eye is essential for the survival of his company.  “In our industry, confidentiality is everything. If we could not maintain confidentiality, it would be very difficult for us to survive in this industry, much less expand.”

Sex Education: The Chinese Sex Culture Museum Stimulates in Unexpected Ways

DSC01271

Map Magazine, December 2007

No one told the people of Shanghai that sex sells.  When Shanghai University professor Liu Da Lin first opened the Chinese Sex Culture Museum in that city back in 1998, it seemed a bold but safe move.  He had accumulated over 1,600 ancient and modern Chinese sex-related artifacts and art works that, cumulatively, were a window into a rarely seen part of China’s past. Shanghai, China’s most famously-forward thinking and steamy city, seemed an ideal home.

Shanghai ren, however, took little interest. More crucially, local government leaders were less than, well, stimulated by the museum.  The city elected not to provide the museum with public funding or to promote it to tourists.  By 2005 the museum, no longer able to afford its rent, searched for a new home.  Officials in the ancient southeast Jiangsu canal town of Tongli, looking to increase tourism, offered the museum space in a former young women’s academy.

I was surprised to learn that such a museum existed at all in China.  It raised questions too interesting to ignore: What would the museum say about the place of sex in Chinese culture? How did Chinese views on sex change throughout the centuries? How would that information be presented?

After arriving in Tongli, I concluded that the town was an unlikely host for the Chinese Sex Culture Museum.  Quiet and traditional, Tongli seems a world apart from the liberal vitality of Shanghai, though it’s only an hour and a half away by train.  The town is crisscrossed by maze-like cobblestone alleys and canals, and during my 24-hour stay, I saw not one ex-pat cafe, karaoke bar or disco. If you squint just enough to ignore the modern products for sale, it’s easy to imagine Tongli as it was one thousand years ago.

The museum lies at the end of a long, moss-tinged alley at an edge of the city.  A large sign in front of the entrance announces that the museum is a “witness to history” and a “source of knowledge.”  The conclusion of the English text sounds like it came from the megaphone of a carnival barker:  “Welcome to you for visiting this museum, you can see what you never see, know what you never know, and be no [sic] disappointed at all.”  All but guaranteed a memorable experience, I exchange 20 yuan for a ticket and enter.

The first thing that greets visitors to the Chinese Sex Culture Museum is a courtyard statue of a troll-like immortal with a massive erection.  It’s a striking introduction, and I’m unsure if I should admire the sculpture reverently from a distance or giggle like a 10 year-old.

The museum’s wide and well-preserved grounds – with their original brick and wood buildings, high walls, large shade trees, gardens and pagodas – give the place a peaceful and contemplative air. The exhibition halls are divided into four main sections: “Sex in Primitive Society,” “Marriage and Women,” “Sex in Daily Life” and “Unusual Sexual Behavior.”  There is also a sculpture garden, which I pass through on my way to the first hall.  Setting a lighthearted tone for the artwork here, the garden’s large central sculpture depicts a potbellied immortal carrying a small boy on his back.  The immortal’s head is sprouting a giant erection capped, improbably, by a turtle.  Another sculpture shows a woman joyfully embracing a five-foot tall, freestanding phallus.  “Women’s dependence,” reads the accompanying sign.

Sex in Primitive Society is the museum’s first exhibition hall.  “Primitive people worshiped sex,” reads the brochure I received upon entering the museum, and the hall provides plenty of supporting evidence for that claim.  Among the pottery, jade tiles, wooden statues and porcelain artifacts here is a clay “goddess statue” from 7000 BC, which depicts a pregnant woman. There’s also the “oldest erotic statue” from 3500 BC, showing a man and woman copulating in a standing position. I take a few minutes to consider why a series of photographs of genitalia-shaped mountains and rock formations adorn the walls before giving up.

Next up is the “Marriage and Women” hall.  The hall begins by introducing a 1st and 2nd century-era sculpture series depicting Fuxi and Nuwa, the “legendary ancestors of the Chinese nationality.”  Fuxi and Nuwa were brother and sister and also a couple, the accompanying text says, indicating “brother and sister might get married in ancient China.”

I then entered the “Sex Oppression on Women” section.  My brochure tells me that, throughout the ages, “wives were always ruled and oppressed by men, acted as tools for men to satisfy their sexual demands, to give birth to children, and to do homework.”  Surveying the coming parade of horrors on display in this hall, I’m inclined to think that, historically, extra trigonometry was the least of women’s worries. The first artifact in the first subsection, called “Outlook on Chastity,” is a “Licentious women saddle” from the 18th century. The saddle, “an implement of punishment,” includes a retractable wooden dildo. Further along are a series of chastity belts from the 18th and 19th centuries, a 16th century-era finger vice “to punish women,” and a foot-binding wheel.

Further evidence of the spectacularly raw deal women have received historically follows with the next subsection, “Disgusting Prostitution.” Despite its unnecessarily judgmental title, it is a generally sympathetic and comprehensive exhibit. The introductory text states that there were various kinds of prostitutes throughout the ages in China, including those for the home, court and army, as well as service prostitutes who played music, sang and danced. “The ancient prostitutes were a result of money and power oppression,” the text reads.  “Most of them had a miserable destiny but the superior prostitutes occupied their special place in literature and art.”  There’s also a “Prostitute Guide” made by the Kuomintang government in 1929, which provides a geographical breakdown of the number of prostitutes in the country at the time.

Next door is “The Prostitute’s Room.”  Recreated in part to resemble what a 17th century-era brothel may have looked like, the room includes a 19th century-era double-backed “happy chair” which allowed couples to sit face to face during intercourse, and a beautifully designed, enclosed “special bed for high grade prostitutes.”

The next exhibition is the “TV Room/Sex of Religions” hall.  The text and artifacts stand in harsh judgment of sexually active monks and nuns throughout the ages.  Taoism and Mizong Buddhism, a sign reads, “call for cultivation of sex.” However, “Many records show some of these religions improper behaviors.”  A series of porcelain statues from the early 20th century depict licentious monks, while a wooden pillow belonging to a nun in the 15th century hides a box containing a wooden dildo.

Hoping for a more healthy and optimistic look at sex, I eagerly enter the “Sex in Daily Life” room.  Unfortunately, this area is also easily the museum’s dullest.  It’s essentially a modern collection of sex education books kept behind glass.

The penultimate hall promises to be the museum’s most scintillating.  “Unusual Sexual Behavior” begins with an exhibition of sculptures honoring the classic erotic novel Jin Ping Mei, which depicted “undisguisedly [sic] the abnormalities of the society” and described “hardcore not healthy sex.” The “Sexual abnormalities in ancient China” area includes historical evidence of bestiality, including a jade carving from 3,000 BC.

Things get really fascinating in the “Long-Standing Homosexuality” section. All debates aside about whether homosexuality belongs alongside bestiality, the artifacts here – including double-ended jade dildos and ox-horn anal dildos from the 11th and 12th century – indeed demonstrate that homosexuality has long been a part of Chinese culture. Homosexuality in China, it seems, “was first found in the Shang Dynasty according to related records.”  Amazingly, the text also tells us that “about half the emperors of the Han Dynasty were homosexuals.” Supporting evidence includes elaborate copper coins made and given to Han Emperor Wen by a man named Deng Tong, apparently his “personal favorite.”

The final and easily most puzzling area in the museum is the “Exhibition of Erotic Stamps of the World,” which includes 1,300 erotic postage stamps from 70 countries.  I pause to consider how the Princess Diana commemorative stamps on display fit alongside the rows of dildos and implements of torture I’ve just seen before again giving up.

I leave the museum as a group of teenage boys enter.  They laugh hysterically at the aroused immortal, climbing onto his oversized member. Like everyone’s first time, the museum is often clumsy and confusing.  But it’s also often fascinating and bravely honest.  Professor Liu states the goal for the museum is to help society “find a balance between the extremes of sexual containment and indulgence.” His museum, in showing the historical place of sex in China’s culture, as well as the way it has helped to shape it, gives the impression that sex has caused as much pain here as it has joy.  It’s a troubling, vital and contemporary statement, and one that may have finally found a voice in this most blissfully nostalgic of places.