There’s this spot on my university campus that we’ve taken to calling “The Makeout Garden.” During the day it’s like any spot of green on the grounds of the ivory tower – a blip of green to contrast with the blase bathroom-tiled buildings of academic boredom. It’s full of elderly people performing taiji and students sprawled out sleeping during the morning and afternoon, but as soon as the sun goes down, it turns into a live re-enactment of an AXE commercial.
And I’m not really surprised. All of my students have at least three to five other roommates. They need to go somewhere. If it’s not The Makeout Garden, then it could be any of the “love hotels” positioned around campus. With their hourly rates, these establishments are perfectly suited for a few hours of privacy without having to plan around the schedules of five other people.
So I thought I stumbled across a veritable conversational class goldmine a few weeks ago when I found an article about how living with your boyfriend or girlfriend may be replacing dating in the United States. Considering the displays of affection I’ve seen around the campus and inside my classroom, I figured there were bound to be some violent reactions to the article, especially in this crowd.
What I got instead was a violent reaction I wasn’t quite expecting. A classroom full of flushed faces and cricket noises. Nobody was talking in their discussion groups.
Eventually, I was able to cajole my students into talking to each other about the article, or talking at all, but the rest of the class time was marked with a severe tinge of embarrassment. The very hint of sex, by talking about living with your boyfriend or girlfriend, shut up my entire class of normally very talkative students.
Some of them started talking though. They told me they never could, or would, live with their boyfriends. They were “traditional girls” who didn’t think it was acceptable and didn’t want to lose social standing. They would never live with their boyfriends because what if they got married? They would have nothing to talk about because they would have already had all their fun and conversations. Or my personal favorite – that living together is always a good idea for the man. Living with his girlfriend improves his health because she will take care of and clean for him. But living together is never good for the woman because then her health will suffer from his “dirty, gross” habits.
I was stunned. I know that my province is one of the most traditional and rural provinces in China, but throughout the year my students have tried to explain to me that it is their parents who are traditional, not them. Which is why I didn’t think the article would stun my students into silence, especially since they view the storyline of “Desperate Housewives” as normal American behavior.
I became more confused when I talked to my male students. All of my classes are the same – the students are all girls except for a handful of guys who clump together in solidarity in the back row. When I asked them what they thought of the article, they stoically told me that it was “real.” No tinge of embarrassment whatsoever.
One of my students, Victor, who I frequently call the Fonz because of his upturned collar and tendency to speak while pointing pistol fingers, even told me that living together was “normal” for university students.
“Most students in relationships live together in university,” he said. “I know several couples living together right now. I think it’s acceptable behavior.” His surrounding male gaggle all nodded their heads in agreement.
This situation repeated itself class after class. Most of my (female) students told me that they were “too traditional” to even think about living with their boyfriend or girlfriend, while others (mostly the male students) told me that it happens all the time at my university.
The discrepancy between the two sexes was mind boggling. I don’t know if it’s the fact that my female students didn’t want to “lose face” with their teacher or violate some social more. Or maybe my male students just thought they could will a situation into existence if they talked about it enough. Or maybe it’s a combination of all of those things. And why is there such unabashed display of affection in public, but tight lips and nervous glances when sex skirts the issue of a discussion topic?
The flustered faces got me thinking – there’s talk about the current sexual ‘revolution’ occurring in China right now, but what exactly is revolutionizing and how effective is this ‘revolution’?
Articles from Associated Press, TIME and CNN all have articles focusing on this ‘revolution’ with a date range from a few weeks ago to almost a decade ago. Surely the social revolution would have affected a rural province like Henan by now? And if so, why is a topic that’s rather innocuous in the scheme of sexual revolutions still taboo to talk about? Isn’t a benefit of this change in society the social freedom to discuss such matters?
If someone were to talk to just one of my female students without talking to a male student, then it could be very easy to walk away from the conversation thinking that cohabitation doesn’t exist in Henan and that its absence is not a big deal. You would walk away thinking that it’s almost like they’ve never thought about it and are embarrassed by the mere idea of it.
So what do young Chinese people want to revolutionize about sexual relations and is it a nation-wide movement? Does it exist outside of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen? Or do Chinese people even see the need for a “sexual revolution”? And if there is a sexual revolution, what does it really mean if nobody wants to talk about it?