LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE WOMAN CRYING IN THE ONLY GAY BAR IN WUHAN, CHINA
BY DIANA HUBBELL
The city’s lone gay bar was spectacularly seedy, even by Wuhan standards. The floor was sticky with sweet tea and black market knock off whiskey. In the dull red glow, I could see skittish businessmen in rumpled suits. A ring of younger women around the perimeter who had come to gawk. A butch lesbian in a sequined white pantsuit. A middle-aged drag queen with a voluminous wig twirling around a pole. Everyone here had a secret, as did you, as did I.
You told me your name was Pamela, although of course that wasn’t what you were called at birth. Adopting a Western name is a common practice in China, ostensibly out of courtesy to waiguoren like me, though its appeal runs deeper than pragmatism. In a country where one in five citizens has the family name Li, Wang, or Zhang, a foreign name offers a chance to stand out—the more exotic, the better.
During the aimless year I spent working as an underqualified English professor at Wuhan University of Technology, the people I met did not want to be Jane or John. They wanted to be Rihanna, Beyonce, Rainbow, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson. An aspiring guitarist was Taylor Swift. An aspiring ladies’ man was James Bond. Unlike birth names, these alien monikers could be sloughed off as easily as a snake might shed old skin. Once, a student named Cherry asked if she could be Flamenco. She liked the feel of the word, its strangeness and the staccato clack as it rattled off her tongue. I told her of course she could. She could be anyone she wanted.
You were the only Pamela. You worked as a translator and spoke in deliberate, precisely enunciated English. You were pretty, with a smart bob and unblemished skin a fashionable shade of pale. And there you were sitting on the stool next to me, drinking straw-yellow SNOW beer and crying at the only gay bar in town.
An older girl had broken your heart, you told me between sobs. You called her your ex-girlfriend, although I wonder if she would reciprocate the term. You used to lie to your friends about where you were going and meet her in bathroom stalls and darkened corners. You told your parents you were too busy to have a boyfriend, but of course, you would get married—to do otherwise would have been unthinkable. And then one day she wasn’t there and she wouldn’t answer your calls. So you bought bootleg DVDs of The L Word and watched every episode, then watched them again. You kept coming back to this place, hoping that maybe you would run into her by chance.
You asked me why on Earth I had come to Wuhan instead of somewhere cool, like Beijing, or beautiful, like Chengdu, where the pace of life is gentler and alleyways still harbor tree-shaded teahouses. You had lived in Wuhan all 22 years of your life, a fact you confessed with a twinge of shame. Wuhan is many things—the capital of Hubei province, the site of a violent uprising against the Cultural Revolution, a transportation hub where bullet trains snake through a white station resembling a space hanger—but it has never been a place that many are proud to call home. Less than a century ago, Wuhan was three cities, Hanyang, Hankou and Wuchang, which the government decided to artificially merge into a metropolitan area larger and less cohesive than Shanghai. The result is a ten million-person concrete sprawl on the Yangtze River where traffic-choked roads run between the districts like sutures across a wound.
Like many second-tier Chinese cities, signs of seismic change were inescapable in 2010. Over the course of a week, whole bridges would rise up from the rubble and scaffolding would envelope skyscrapers like a parasitic mold. One morning, I woke up to a knock on my door and a crew of construction workers entered, demolished my kitchen, then left the gutted apartment two hours later without a word. My neighborhood—which has since been obliterated to make way for a subway line—still had dirt alleys lined with chain-smoking elderly men, their bare, distended bellies on display as they played mahjong. A few blocks away loomed a cavernous, vacant luxury shopping center, where a pair of shoes cost more than most Wuhanren earned in a month. A permanent dome of industrial-grade smog hung over the city, so dense that it could be seen from miles away. On cloudless days, the sky was never blue, but rather a brighter shade of ash illuminated with a diffuse light, as if one were viewing the sun from underwater.
In the months leading up to my departure for China, I had been living my own double life. I spent my days waiting tables at a French restaurant in the suburbs and my nights with another waitress in the city. For the first time in my life, I found myself lying on a daily basis—who I had seen, where I had slept.
She knew about wine and hung out with The Dresden Dolls and had fifteen tattoos, including the words I GOT TOSSED OUT THE WINDOW OF LOVE’S EL CAMINO from an Ani DiFranco song scrawled on her ribcage. When her father had found out that she liked women, he kicked her out of the house and refused to speak to her for three years. One night while we were making dinner, she called me her girlfriend and it seemed like the most logical thing in the world. When it all ended—predictably, abruptly, terribly—48 hours before my first trans-Pacific flight, I found myself in pieces and unable to tell anyone why.
Years later, I would come clean to friends and family, but when I crashed down in the putrid, sweaty Chinese summer humidity, I assumed I had left it all behind. For the city’s few foreigners, Wuhan was a good place to get away from something or everything. VOX, the punk club where waiguoren gathered, was a haven for degenerates and high school dropouts. There were divorcees and hard-drinking former junkies and expats who had meant to stay for a year and had woken up one morning in their forties.
On my second night at VOX, I met Vera, a willowy Russian with a raven pixie cut who modeled for money, stripped for fun, and referred to herself as the last gentleman in Wuhan. She lived on vodka and cigarettes and told me that one time, she had shown up at her ex-girlfriend’s door in a man’s suit with a bouquet of red roses. When I first saw her, Vera was dressed in leather with one stiletto boot propped up on a barstool like she was braced for a fight. By way of introduction, she flashed her tongue piercing and said, “I’m a dyke, honey. You have a problem with that?”
She wasn’t the only one. And while we had little else in common, we forged an uneasy alliance by virtue of shared circumstances. There was Nikki, another Russian with a frizzy mass of blonde curls, and Destiny, a sad, blue-eyed evangelical preacher’s daughter from Arizona who spoke in platitudes and went by “Tino.”
“Labels are for bottles, not people,” Destiny once told me in her far-off, dreamy voice. I heard at one point that she took off for Shanghai with a music producer without saying goodbye. Months later, I ran into her back in Wuhan, alone, glassy-eyed and dressed in yesterday’s clothes.
But Pamela, even that broken semblance of community wasn’t available to you, so instead you confided in a stranger. By the time you howled that you just didn’t think you would ever like boys, that you didn’t know what to do, that you wanted to go somewhere, Japan maybe, your face was a Rorschach of smudged mascara. So I flagged us a cab and dropped you off at your door and never saw you again. You were too embarrassed. So was I.
Without your real name, I have no way of knowing what happened next. For almost a decade now, I’ve promised myself I’ll go back to Wuhan, to slurp re gan mian and lose my way along unfamiliar streets like a ghost. Sometimes I like to imagine that I would run into you, probably with a husband and fat-cheeked child at your side. I doubt we would recognize one another.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Hubbell has lived in six countries on three continents. She currently resides in New York City, but feels equally at home in Berlin and Bangkok, where she worked as an editor for Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, VICE, Travel + Leisure, The Independent, Eater, Playboy, and Condé Nast Traveler, among other publications. She has an MA from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Header image by Grace Li