The East, the West, and Sex
A History of Erotic Encounters
Knopf. 336 pp. $27.95
July 19, 2009
Chapter OneBohemians at Home and Abroad
Sometime in 2006, a foreign English teacher in Shanghai posted a message on the Internet in which he bragged about how easy it was for him to have sex with young Chinese women, mostly his former students. "I was with Star on Saturday," the teacher wrote. "I was with Yingying on Sunday. In between, I contacted Cherry via MSN. I telephoned Rina, and I used SMS to flirt with Tulip. I sent Susan an e-mail to flirt with her, and I professed my love to Wendy on her blog."
The writer of this kiss- and- tell memoir called himself China - Bounder on a blog he maintained, "Sex in Shanghai: Western Scoundrel in Shanghai Tells All." He appeared to be British, though that was not certain. In any case, he gave no name or other clearly identifying detail about himself, which was perhaps not very brave, though maybe a life- saving precaution, given the murderously furious response he elicited from Chinese men.
A psychology professor, Zhang Jiehai, of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, led the charge, posting a long article titled "Internet Hunt for an Immoral Foreigner," in which he urged the entire Chinese nation to track down this person who had insulted and humiliated China and throw him out of the country. "Several days ago, a friend told me about a blog run by an English man in Shanghai," Zhang wrote. "I read it and I was shocked, angered, and disgusted." After a lengthy, quotation- rich summary of the blogger's comments, Zhang concluded with a call to Chinese men to take action. "Please think about how this foreign piece of trash has dallied with your sisters and made fun of your impotence," he wrote. "Do you want to say that this is no big deal? Do you still want to treat the foreigners as important? Do you still quiver when you see foreigners? Please straighten out your backbones."
The foreign blogger's account was scattered with clues that might help track him down, Zhang said. ChinaBounder described hotel rooms that he had used for his trysts with his ex- student girlfriends, for example, and perhaps these rooms could be found and the hotel's guest register checked. His name might be Brian, Zhang said (though in 2008 the Guardian reported on a man named DavidMarriott claiming to be ChinaBounder). He disclosed details about his sex partners-for example, that the woman he called Tingting was a married doctor-and these bits and pieces of information could be put together to identify the foreigner. "Let our compatriots act together on this Internet hunt to find this foreign trash until we kick him out of China," Zhang wrote.
It should be noted here that, while it is illegal in China to lure women into prostitution, there is no law against consensual sexual relations between adults, even when one of those adults is a boastful foreigner and the other an innocent Chinese woman. ChinaBounder did not seem to have broken the law; nor did there appear to have been any effort by China's police to find him or charge him with any crime. But the publication of his exploits nonetheless produced an explosion of sexual nationalism among Chinese men, who wrote to online forums to express their feelings, their fury directed as much at the ex-students who had presumably slept with ChinaBounder as at ChinaBounder himself. While he was viewed as immoral and vicious, the female students were seen to have debased not only themselves but their country as well in submitting to the advances of what one commentator called "this white ape."
"These women are all bitches," one man wrote in a typical online comment. "They gave up their dignity for money [though in fact there was nothing in ChinaBounder's blog to indicate that he gave money to any of his partners; they all seem to have submitted willingly to his advances]. It would be better to sleep with a dog than with this foreign pig. This humiliates the hearts of Chinese men, as well as of the Chinese people. I feel ashamed for those women's parents and friends.
They are worse than prostitutes."
ChinaBounder, for his part, responded in kind, posting an entry on his blog calling Professor Zhang a "lunatic," "a mouth- frother," a "knee- jerk nationalist," though, whatever else one might say about this seedy exchange, at least Professor Zhang did not hide behind a mask of anonymity. In any case, ChinaBounder's blog, thanks to the attention Zhang called to it, was soon blocked by China's Internet censors, and he himself began writing from another venue-Thailand-where, continuing his saga of the conquest of Chinese womanhood, he told a story of seducing a member of a Chinese trade delegation he encountered in his hotel lobby, who told him to "pretend I am a prostitute."
Never mind. We'll get back, a bit regretfully, to ChinaBounder and his blog shortly. But first, a question: Imagine this situation in reverse-a Chinese teacher has come to the United States or Britain and brags online about how many American or British women he has slept with, how easy it was to get them to engage in noncommittal recreational sex, and how much more sexually attractive he was than "lesser" local men. Would anybody even notice, or care? Maybe some people, a few guardians of sexual morality, would look askance, but for the most part the matter, if it got any attention at all, would be regarded as the idiosyncratic braggadocio of one particular Asian man. No esteemed professor from an august research institute would be calling on his wounded countrymen to track the bastard down; there would be no howls of nationalist outrage and no declarations that an entire proud country had been humiliated. So what were the underlying issues that produced such a storm of anguished protest and recrimination in China?
Quite a few things can be said about the episode of the anonymous English teacher. For one thing, his ecstatic communication was an especially vulgar expression of an attitude that has been peculiar to Western men in Asia for centuries. ChinaBounder was allowed liberties with local women that he would not have been permitted to enjoy back home, or at least the circumstances would have been a good deal more difficult. That, I understand, is an arguable statement. Plenty of men have multiple sexual partners in the United States and the United Kingdom, as they do in China for that matter. Yet the mere fact that ChinaBounder posted his blog demonstrates that he had found something extraordinary in China, possibilities for erotic play far different from what he could expect back home. And what he found extraordinary was not just the ease and multiplicity of the encounters he described but their utter casualness; what China allowed was indicated in his self- identification as a bounder, a cad, a figure of self- satisfied unscrupulousness, the implication being that what came about for him so effortlessly with young Chinese women would be a lot harder to attain with more sophisticated, less easily manipulated women back home. It doesn't seem likely in this sense that a Chinese teacher of Chinese in Liverpool or London or New York would find several girls in his class willing to go to bed with him, or that he could flirt with them in so untrammeled a fashion, or that he could talk to them about their physical properties in the way ChinaBounder talked to his Shanghai girlfriends.
"My dear Tingting," he wrote to his married lover (in a passage of his blog angrily cited by Professor Zhang as a demonstration of ChinaBounder's viciousness), "you have a wonderful, glorious, beautiful body. I have found it hard to stop thinking about your beautiful skin, your lovely, smooth soft breasts, your sexy, smooth delicate stomach, your sweet and graceful legs and arms ... oh and, of course between your legs, how beautiful you are, how sexy, how perfect!"
Adding insult to injury, ChinaBounder had a few derogatory comments about Chinese men, who, he wrote, are "dull, dull, dull," traditionalist, hidebound, unimaginative, and less attractive than their Caucasian counterparts. Chinese women, even virgins, he contended, are impressed by the size of his penis, compared with the ones they have seen on Chinese men. Tingting even admitted to him that her Chinese husband was unable to satisfy her, a problem that she did not experience with Brian. This notion of the superior potency of Caucasian men is pretty common in China. Or at least Brian is hardly the only one to have made reference to it.
This is not to say that I think ChinaBounder's experience would be so easy to duplicate, or even that he was telling the whole story as he recounted his effortless and almost innumerable conquests. The likelihood is that a lot more former students rejected his advances than accepted them and that China as a whole is not quite the sexual adventurer's happy hunting ground that he described. Still, there is something to what he said, something about an advantage that Western men have in the competition for the favors of young women there, something sensed by Zhang and his cohort in their complaint about the Chinese worship, as Zhang put it, of things foreign. "Here's the problem," Zhang wrote in an e- mail message to me. "This is not a single case. In China there are innumerable such China bounders." Indeed, around the same time that ChinaBounder caused a stir, there were several widely circulated and fervent discussions about other foreign men boasting of their sexual conquests in China. One of them concerned a forty- two- year- old American named Robert Kugler, who posted pictures of seventy- nine Chinese women with whom he claimed to have had sexual relations-such that, according to Professor Zhang, "Robert Kugler" constituted the most searched- for phrase on the Google and Yahoo! search engines in China during that time.
In 2007, on a visit to Beijing, I interviewed several professional Chinese women, all of whom had, or had had, foreign boyfriends, and these smart, sophisticated, and self- possessed women readily agreed that foreign men do have an aura about them, that they are commonly deemed desirable by many Chinese women, including them. Why? I asked.
"Size matters!" was the cheerful and instant reply of one of them, the very comely owner of a dress shop, only half joking, because the belief that Western men have bigger penises than Asian men does persist. In fact, the young woman in question was in the process of breaking up with her foreign boyfriend, and she was leaving Beijing to join a Chinese lover who lived in the provinces, so evidently size didn't matter above all else.
This matter of foreign-Chinese romance is complicated. In Shanghai, the derogatory term for a foreign man, used by unabashedly cynical Chinese women, is "airplane ticket." In Thailand it is "walking ATM." Western men may think that they have some special charm for Asian women when, in truth, what they may really represent is nothing more than a chance for material gain-or perhaps the fantasy of a richer life someplace else. But it's not only that, especially now that China's economic boom has generated a class of wealthy Chinese men just as able as their Western counterparts to produce a lavishly decorated apartment, a car, Gucci handbags, and trips abroad for their wives and girlfriends. One of the first observations I made in my own years living in Asia-one that led, decades later, to the idea for this book-came in the early 1970s, when I was a language student on Taiwan. It was obvious to me then that young American men of the somewhat nerdy and bookish sort (like me), the kind of guy who had trouble getting a date to the senior prom when he was in high school, were often able to attract very pretty and desirable Taiwanese girlfriends.
What were the reasons? Part of it was no doubt the exciting possibility of life in America, which, especially in those days (much less so today, since Taiwan has become a democracy with American- level living standards), seemed free and rich by comparison with life on Taiwan. But the evidence was strong that simply being a foreigner conferred an unearned distinction on young Western men. It was in itself a romantic adornment, a value added in the eyes of more than a few urban educated young Taiwanese women.
On that 2007 Beijing visit, I asked my well- educated and professionally successful female interviewees if they felt that foreigners benefited from the advantage I had first observed on Taiwan, and the answer was emphatically yes. The Western male advantage rested, in their view, on identifiable characteristics. What it came down to was less money itself and more a certain refined style of living associated with the West, along with a sense that to have relations with a Western man is somehow more sophisticated, exciting, daring, adventuresome, and worldly than to be in a more conventional relationship with a Chinese man. And these feelings are more than reciprocated by single (and sometimes married) Western men, for whom a Chinese girlfriend or two is a big part of the adventure of living in Asia.
"Western men have learned the techniques of being gentlemen," one woman, a professional businesswoman, told me. She used the Chinese term junzi, which was Confucius's term to describe a man of cultivated manners and good breeding. "Asian men have lost that," she said, and she cited in particular the enduring impact of the long Maoist years, when good manners were seen as bourgeois and reactionary and peasant- proletarian coarseness was prized. "Western men haven't. Asian men are rude and coarse. They drink. They gamble. When they get some money, they have little wives" (meaning concubines).
"Even when a Chinese man gets money, he uses it in a way to get power over his wife," this woman said. "He'll buy her things because of the prestige of the label, Gucci or Fendi, not because he thinks his wife will like it. Just the other day, I was with some rich friends, and the husband said, 'That handbag isn't good for you; I'm going to buy such and such a handbag because it's the only one in China.' He didn't ask her opinion about it or if she would like it but just ordered her to wear it because he can then show everybody that he has the money to buy his wife that handbag."
The other Chinese women I interviewed on this topic, including two editors with an online news service and the dress- shop owner, had similar opinions about the better manners and habits of Western men-though it must be remembered that the sample of the Western male population that Chinese women are likely to encounter is highly skewed toward the upper social and educational reaches of the spectrum. Among the reasons the women gave for their own attraction to Western men was, they said, that Western men had better hygienic habits-that they took more showers and better care of their teeth. This, like much else on this topic, relates directly to China's relatively low standard of living until very recent years.
"Chinese men don't feel that men need to be clean," one of the editors said. "In our university, you couldn't go into the boys' dormitory because ..." She made a gesture of repulsion. "Ten years ago, it wasn't that easy to keep clean," the editor's colleague said. "In the dormitory at our university, one hundred people shared one bathroom. Most people had to use the public toilet and bath, which was pretty disgusting.
"It's a reason that's easy to forget-why I first liked Western men," she continued. "It wasn't me; it was my nose."
Excerpted from The East, the West, and Sex by Richard Bernstein Copyright © 2009 by Richard Bernstein. Excerpted by permission.
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