Coming Out and of Age in the People's Republic

He would have been my first, I suppose—a Korean student at some other school in Beijing's Wudaokou university district.

I'd met him on a website. You're the first and only person I've ever admitted that to, handsome reader. I suppose I want to feel closer to you.

I was 19, Arab-American, studying Mandarin and poli sci at a Chinese university. I was exceptionally awkward, and still under the impression that no one knew I was gay. They all knew and indulged me my illusions of illusiveness.

He was in his mid-20s. School was hard for him, he said, in our brief chat on a website for gay men in Asia.

I'd heard of a class of Korean students like him—unsuccessful and blowing their family's money away learning Mandarin, while China busily worked itself into the world's second-largest economy. Their parents wouldn't let them come home until they obtained a certificate of completion, and the Chinese universities appeared keen to keep accepting international student tuition fees, even if they were from the same students, year-in, year-out.

He was foreign—not just in the sense that we were of two different nationalities, living in China. He was a bad student, a rich kid, a magnificently athletic loser with a Rocky-like neanderthal chin and tall nose, the kind of man who is called, in Chinese, a baijiazi, a son who spoils his family's wealth. Fresh, preppy. He wore clothes my Chinese friends paid twice as much for at the bazaars: Korean fashion. His man-bag was made of real leather. He was a petit bourgeois; every lock of hair had been calculated and every pore tightened, perhaps surgically, because he had the time, money and inclination. He turned me on.

I went to meet him by the eastern gate of campus. It was after midnight—I passed my dorm's night staff without making eye-contact. I'd known a few men by then. Some had spent the night at my dorm room. The front desk staff and security guards had already started to talk. I never heard what they were saying, probably because I knew I couldn't handle it at the time. Now, I enjoy that I gave them a way to pass what can be the unbearable boredom of watching other people live, since that's what I've chosen to do as a journalist.

I walked quickly on the asphalt paved avenues of campus, some lit only by the moonlight, hurrying past patches of verdure, still glistening from their nighttime watering. Winter was dying; the dry chill of the Gobi Desert—which I always planned to walk to from our university one oppressively class-filled day, but still never did—had subsided. I walked with purpose, because I thought I would, as I had before, suddenly realize I was ashamed of myself and turn back.

He saw and passed me, at first, continuing into the cavernous depths of my campus. Upon reflection, he turned around. I had shaggy hair—a real mop, with a side-swept surfer fringe, incomprehensible anywhere but in my native Los Angeles in the early 2000s. And I was wearing an oppressively busy baby-blue zip-up sweatshirt with skulls and crossbones. And rockets and stars. And Batman words like POW. Cargo shorts. Some colorful felt sneakers, smeared with soot from the academic asphalt. I was a vision. An American dream, you might say.

We walked toward my dorm for a few minutes. I occasionally looked to his expressionless face for some sign of life that could extinguish the flames of self-awareness rising in my throat.

It's just for one night, he said, without so much as a glance, in his irksomely moan-y Mandarin. That was all he said. I didn't respond. I felt slighted. How could he not want to spend an eternity with me? Only a few years later, after having had a lot of sex—perhaps to prove to myself that I was, indeed, desirable—I would have been overcome with relief.

Does the patriarchy hire men like this to make us so self-loathing and insecure that we inevitably end by offering rabid coitus to anyone with testosterone? Is it that diabolical a set-up? Possibly.

Back in my room, I unceremoniously turned off the light and lay on my back. Still resentful, I decided he'd do all the work. He took off my pants, my knock-off Calvin Klein underwear. My socks, he slowly rolled down, like a scene from the Lolita remake with Melanie Griffith I'd fantasized about as a child—I'd only seen the trailer on TV.

He was wearing no underwear that I can recall. He was muscular, beautiful. He smelled of cosmetic powder. His penis was a good 6.5 inches long, thick, uncut but not oppressively so.

I was suddenly overcome by a feeling that I wanted him to love me. I wanted him to have loved me before he used me in what I then thought was an ungodly way.

I didn't care that I couldn't respect him back; I wanted to have spent time being respected. It was too late, I'd have to pretend. That's what I did for a few years, while being loved and respected were erotic, I'd have to pretend.

He put on a condom he'd brought, after some ritual fumbling—visibly flexing his biceps as he tore the plastic packaging. He was his own sexual act. I had been invited to be a passive voyeur, apparently because otherwise he'd be a tree falling in the forest, making no sounds. I was not unhappy.

He laid himself down on me. He didn't kiss me. Not anywhere. He bit my neck with his dull, stubby teeth, glistening from the moonlight that crept through the window above our heads and shoved what I'm gonna say was half of his 6.5 inches into my ass, before I saw the heavens open up above us in whirling fury and swallow, into the all-penetrating darkness of that dorm room, every last bit of serotonin left in my erratic brain.

The only art in his penetration was that, with his bit of flesh, he'd suddenly transformed me and my anus into something terrible—something intensely offensive to most of the world's fascists and institutionalists. Religious conservatives of virtually every doctrine spend countless dollars making sure I don't do what I did with my anus and don't teach their children to do the same. Until just a few years before, what I was doing was classified as a mental illness in the People's Republic of China, where I was doing it. In Africa, I would have been killed, along with modern-day witches. In the Middle East, in my family's home countries, I was a good candidate for testosterone injections and three years' imprisonment. In the U.S., I'd prepped myself for years of being called a faggot, on the street and even on the job. Three point two-five inches of pure magic.

Still, I told him to go home. I'm not ready, I said. I offered no further explanation. I may not have been a fashion guru, but I realized, suddenly, that I had the immense power of being able to leave him hanging, quite literally. All 6.5 inches. Another instance of magic, in what had been an evening of Fantasia-esque proportions.

Of course, he lingered there for a few minutes, like I'd change my mind and let him cum—like I was foolish not to. Perhaps he'd say something else that would cut me deeply, about my clothes or my ass. Or perhaps if I stood there smiling at my newfound powers, he'd have to leave, if only for fear of being in an odd, smirking stranger's room late at night. And so it was.

Bu limao, he said repeatedly in his caveman Chinese, as he dressed himself and left. Impolite. Today, after realizing I'm a top and not much else, I marvel at how impolite I was for having only taken what was probably half of his neanderthal dick. I suppose I've never learned my manners. Since then, I've almost only had sex because I've wanted to.

But back then, I remember crying—a largely dry weep, in frustration. I was only worth one kind of sex, I thought. The one kind I'd ever had, to be practical—one without any tenderness. Nothing cinematic. Of course, the perhaps thousands of men I've slept with subsequently have disproven that, kinda sorta. There are very many kinds of sex. And as a porn star-philosopher told me for an article I recently wrote, there's no better way to understand humanity—the very formulaic range of potential caprices and mannerisms—than having fucked a lot. I am a fucking sage-femme, assholes. Bow to me.

I still don't count the bad student as my first, although, by all definitions, he was.

In the gay world, not being perfectly symmetrical, perfectly dressed, muscled, young-looking or moneyed is a mortal sin. If you miss a step somehow, you fade into the walls of a gay bar, what is decidedly our LGBT agora—or what's worse, you fade into some niche subset of the gay community. The bears. The otters. The zoo. I felt, back then, that I belonged in a cage.

For a good two minutes before the next man who wanted me, whoever he was—I've forgotten—released me. Not from my virginity, but a plague of my own imperfections imperfections, some of which returned and will follow me to the grave. He had that power.

***

My sexuality was transgressive, once upon a time. In China. Exquisitely so, because it showed itself only under the cover of darkness, hushed in back rooms, crammed into what was the only gay bar in Beijing (not for prostitutes) at the time and in Chinese—a language I could speak in without fully hearing myself. A language I'd speak the truth in, however filthy. A language my family, my God, my countries would never understand.

In that sense, Chinese is, perhaps more than any other, my mother tongue. I can conjure the heart arrhythmia of that era—saying things I never would have said in English, in what has now become my most familiar—and preferred—of foreign languages.

Nowadays in New York, I've taken an apartment in Chinatown, on the off chance I'll have some sensory experience that recalls what I only know how to refer to as my original sin, that year of study abroad in China. That sin being the excitement of being wanted for the first time, by other men. To me, those were the moments where I suddenly started to have worth.

That is, before I realized that being wanted sexually is, in this life, the height of intimacy for me. I don't say that with much disdain. It's mostly a choice, of late. With all the men I've slept with since China, the sights, sounds and smells of being momentarily wanted have become too familiar. Grotesque. Mediocre. If I stay with the same man for too long—sometimes more than an hour, I suddenly water down into a puddle of inauthenticity.

Hell is others, especially in China. In China, I cast myself into the farthest depths of the others. You had to, you see. To ride the subway, to make it to your internship or your little side-job, to buy your groceries. It was glorious. Before that, I'd been protected by my family. I'd never been swept up by any crowd of human flesh in spread-out Los Angeles. Nothing compares, until today, to the mass and might of Beijing—to the mass and might of the Chinese government, perhaps the only real lover I've ever known, even if our dysfunctional relationship is on hiatus while my career keeps me in the Tri-State Area.

What's more, before that year of study abroad, I'd never met a prostitute other than Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, never met a drug-dealer or DVD-bootlegger, never drank. Never lived. My family isn't especially religious. They are socialists, if anything, which makes them moralists at times. In Beijing, past all the pomp and circumstance of the art and politics, I left Eden and found the real world sweet and low-down.

In my year in China, I gave myself and others all the orgasms. I was filled with emotion at the time, deeply troubled by the people I was meeting and the things I was doing. The orgasms were better, still, than ever.

Then I returned to China over two years later, with a fraught journalism job, and was by then fucking most men I met.

Everything had already started to fade. At the age of 22, I was past my sexual prime. I'd realized men were pigs. Despite my own dick.

"Life is like a glorious gown, infested with mites," wrote Zhang Ailing, the larger-than-life author of Lust/Caution, recently made into a film where Tony Leung, far too late in his career and life, chose to take off more clothes. The mites, of course, were the men she knew. I've known a few mites. Maybe thousands, at this point.

Zhang died alone in her apartment in Westwood, California, my Chinese literature teacher told us. They found her decaying body days, maybe weeks, after she'd died.

"But don't feel sad for her," said the bespectacled, frail, impish and intensely misanthropic scholar—with whom I now recall, I almost shared an intimate moment late at night in one of the university gardens, before we walked to his bus stop—"She hated others." I too, hate others. In my Chinatown apartment, at the age of 26, I live alone, often eating shrimp dumplings—xia jiao—in the triumph of my boxer-brief collection. Multicolored neon solids, mostly. My style has changed since I took 3.25 inches of bad student's cock.

***

My first man would be the man from Xinjiang, in China's west. The first I formally possessed, if only for a while. But he was not my first lover. The first, I met after a short summer break on my year of study abroad.

We shall call that one the Mongolian texter. Not because I care to protect his identity (he also most likely just wanted to dick me down, as a West Hollywood bartender I went home with once would say, in his southern twang), but because his name, as many of the minor details of his existence, has died off now, and the memory of him has turned to gold.

In a short summer break between an intensive Mandarin program the start of the academic year, I traveled across China—only the nice parts, per my Korean-American friend Jennifer's request. We have no one to impress with having roughed it, she said.

From Beijing, we flew to Hangzhou. From there, we took a train to Shanghai. From there, we flew to Hong Kong, and from there we took an overnight train back to Beijing.

Jennifer was impossibly lovely and impossibly bossy. A group of our girlfriends, who'd gone to see the fish head mountains of Guilin, had told her to take care of me—to make sure I didn't do anything crazy. I have a habit of conning women into mothering me and then resenting it.

One night, I'd had enough and halfheartedly called her a bitch, because I had no more effective words at the time, and decided I wouldn't be bullied, even by my close friends. I was living so far from my family for the first time, only to be infantilized by people who hoped to earn maternal stripes with an at-times submissive gay man-child. It wasn't her fault, really.

I'd seen little of what I wanted to see. In Hangzhou there was the grave of a popular Song Dynasty poetess: Su Xiaoxiao, I believe her name was. She was a courtesan who suffered from a terminal illness who devoted what her short life to writing beautiful poems. An existentialist hero. The one catch was that Su Xiaoxiao may never have existed—that her poems may have been penned by the mastermind behind her persona. Still, what is allegedly her grave is situated at the heart of Hangzhou's signature West Lake.

Perhaps it was because she was a whore and even then, as a virgin, I felt a kinship with her—or perhaps because, like me, she may never have existed at all, I needed to see her. Jennifer preferred to sit in a Starbucks on the border of the West Lake and escape the intense humidity of China's uniquely balmy south.

You're a bitch, I said that night. She cried. I cried. We hugged it out and agreed to get a drink—I'd never had a drop of liquor before. One drink turned into ten. In Hangzhou and then in Shanghai and then in Hong Kong, I was brutally drunk. Some nights, I felt as though the cab back to our hotel was spinning so fast, I'd fly right out. Some nights, I would serenade the cabbies: songs by late diva Deng Lijun, roaring by Faye Wong, Communist Party opuses, songs I'd listened to to improve my Mandarin, but also because I truly loved them.

Each afternoon, we awoke, put on our sunglasses and slowly nursed ourselves onto the streets for some steamed bun that could sop up whatever ailment still existed inside us.

My family would be so deeply disappointed, I thought, the whole time. Imagining that I was on the precipice of civilization, an enjoyable and terrifying experience. My protective single mother had specifically told me, during my freshman and sophomore years, not to hang out with drunks and druggies. Not to attend frat and sorority parties. I was the first in our family to make it that far, academically. I couldn't wash it all away.

We were on a budget, Jennifer and me. We stayed in modest places;travel is cheap in China.

Accordingly, each night, Jennifer and I would arrive at one of the bars in Hangzhou or Shanghai—glitzy affairs: shining lights, fog machines, youth and fat moneyed men, hair teased out to the sky. She'd sit me down at one end of the bar and take a seat across from me. She was beautiful. She'd purchased the most expensive hair extensions available from the Korean salon in Beijing's university district. Her eyes were as blue as the contact lenses she purchased from the clothing bazaar near the Wudaokou subway overpass. Her lashes were the most luxurious available at Huamei, the Walmart knockoff on campus. Men loved her.

Each night, she got a man, somehow, to buy drinks for both of us. Perhaps she told them I was gay. Perhaps once they'd offer to buy her a drink, she introduced me, and shamed them into buying me drinks too. All I know is every night, after returning home, the taste of Chivas and sweet red iced tea mixer reappeared on my palette on its way into the toilet.

She was my big sister, my role model. I needed to follow in her footsteps, I thought—hustle my own drinks, to have some self-worth.

So when we arrived back in Beijing, I asked to go to the one gay club there at the time where the idea was not to literally market male prostitutes, referred to as ducks in colloquial Chinese. There was another bar in Houhai where the boys were auctioned off, or so I was told. One of my jie mei—gay sisters—I made later that year was in a relationship with a duck.

Just out of curiosity, because it's like a themed club, I told Jennifer. (Sausage-themed.) She very gracefully said nothing—she was one of few people that year who didn't feel I owed her any clarifications.

It was, and is, called Destination. It was the first gay bar I'd ever been to. Back then, it was little more than two rooms: a crowded, dark dance floor and a crowded, slightly brighter bar. It seemed, at the time, that many men there were married. When I first entered Destination, I felt as though my own flesh were magnetically pulling me outside. I'd not yet become fully gay, I thought. There was still a chance. Everyone experiments in college.

I had a few whiskey sours. Somehow, I'd made my way outside. Jennifer was hitting on one of the allegedly straight bartenders in the interior, I believe.

I was wearing a black sweater vest and long black shorts from The Hot Topic. I saw him look at me. I looked away. He looked away. Then he looked again.

He was in his early 30s. Golden-brown skin. His national identity card said he was Mongolian. He was a businessman. Skinny, lithe arms.

I was drunk so I spoke of anything—just about anything. How I'd grown up without a father. He looked sad. I'm sorry, he said. No, I said, I'm better off. It took me several years to realize how true that was.

I love Faye Wong, I also remember saying. Cuz you're gay, he said. Apparently I wasn't the only one. My heart sank. For now, I thought. I'm gay for now. In college.

Because she doesn't care about anything, I said, correcting him. I wish I were that way. The more sex I had, years later, the more that wish came true, at least with regard to men and the little they're good for.

He had a deep voice, I remember. With a closed fist, he brushed his knuckles against my cheek. Strange boy. I felt the blood flowing in my forearms.

Jennifer came, saw us, and with impish haste wished me goodnight, before dashing into a cab, ignoring my imploring her to hold up.

Eventually we parted. His friend emerged from Destination and was to drive him home. We exchanged numbers.

A few days later, he texted me. What are you doing?

My homework, I replied, sitting at my dorm room desk, where I had likely just masturbated. I still pity the study abroad student who inherited my little cum-crusted pied-à-terre. You?

Thinking of you, he said.

It was the first time any man had expressed interest in me. I was suddenly not a leper or a nun. I was 19 and desirable. I was 19 and, for the first time, felt young.

You like me? I asked, milking the moment.

Must be, he said. He was so cool, I thought.

In the next few weeks, the Chinese Moon Festival came. The smell of autumn mulch, pervasive in Beijing at the time, reminds of those earliest days of feeling possessed. That was all I wanted.

He sent me a poem via text. It was about us both being under the same mid-autumn moon, drawn together by its warm glow. I was moved. I merited poetry, nothing less—from this adult whom I would decidedly marry!

If I really wanted to, I suppose I could search for the poem online. Months later, after my odd romance with this man, I found out most of what he sent me came from a website for the clinically game-less.

Wear more clothes, one text said. It's getting cold out.

I had a Japanese girlfriend at the time—also a student at the university, who would eventually unfriend me on Facebook, because she started dating our mutual friend and feared I'd secretly bone him. Like my mother, when I came out to her in the fourth grade, in the street, Mika wouldn't believe I was gay. You're not gay. You're normal. Don't lead this man on.

There was no need to fret, Mika. By mistake or design, I never met the Mongolian text message king in person again.

Over time, the text messages became less quaint as the sexual frustration built. I want to hold your naked body in my arms, he wrote. I want to hold you down and kiss you, he wrote later. I want to hold you down and...

I masturbated to his texts, the poems and the latter-day unsaintly ones. Then I threw my telephone SIM card into a storm drain outside my dorm on a rainy night. Every time I went to Destination. Every time I shopped for some gay-looking outfit, I hoped I'd run into him, that he'd hold me down and… before I could give it a second thought.

***

Bai Xue knew I was gay. She was likely hoping that when she came out to me, I'd do the same. No such luck, I was mired in my sense of shame, and perhaps enjoying the novelty of going to hell.

She had made herself a little clique of homosexuals, when I returned to Beijing for study abroad. We went to lesbian parties. Her young, rowdy tomboy of a girlfriend would give me unwanted fashion advice and appeared to be jealous of me being so close to Bai Xue. Perhaps it was because Bai Xue was indeed fucking around, with other girls. With no remorse. All of my preconceived notions of female sexuality being something polite and cerebral were dashed.

It was their clique that introduced me to a young man they'd met online, on a gay social networking website—a student at a nearby university named Nur.

Nur was a token ethnic Uighur at a Beijing university, from a prominent family in Xinjiang, the Muslim-majority region to China's far west. He was gay.

My family is Arab. As far as Bai Xue was concerned, Nur and I were of the same ethnicity, and were eligible to not have pure-bred children together.

We liked each other enough, me and the Xinjiang man. Nur looked like no race I'd ever encountered before. A little Russian, a little Indian, a little Chinese. And we both enjoyed lamb and percussion.

He wouldn't listen to Qur'anic verses with me on my iPod. For him, I was lovely. But there were two parts of his life that, like his mashed potatoes and peas, were never to touch.

In the middle of the night, he held me in his significantly smaller arms. Occasionally, when he fell asleep, he would fart, and I loathed him.

Nur often slept in my bed during the few weeks that we were formally together. He was struggling with his math class. He'd always bring his math books to my dorm room. We'd study, maybe take a walk around the gardens, then take off our pants and sleep bottomless. We touched each other's penises. I wasn't especially fond of his. It wasn't much of a wiener, to be honest.

One night, I went to a gay friend's birthday party. One of the young men there was what was then considered stylish. I complimented his necklace, which he then gave me. He asked for my number. That night, he called me and asked how I was. Nur took the phone and told him that I was in bed with my boyfriend.

I had succeeded. I was in a relationship—even if it didn't last for long. I had a boyfriend. I was worth commitment.

One bright smoggy day, at a cafe where me and my posse drank coffee upon coffee and I attempted to write down all of these experiences, too raw and immediate at the time, I called my family via Skype.

I told my mother I was gay. She said nothing. I told my grandmother I was gay. That I was with a man. That he was a good man—a Muslim, a student at a good university, from a good family. Oh no, she said. Our communication, in the weeks that followed. At one point, an occasional injection of cash into my HSBC account was our lifeline.

My family loved me. My family loved me so much that they didn't want me to lead what, to them, seemed like the most fraught and lonely existence, the life of the homosexual. And my grandmother's uncle had been killed—likely by our own family—for his "vices," she said years later, explaining why she'd been so devastated by what she'd accepted as my biology.

I realize that my family is far removed from what killed my grandmother's uncle. But until today, I'm not convinced that homosexuality isn't a lonely lot in life. And I'm not convinced that loneliness is all that bad. I will leave this life as I arrived, alone and with all the imperfections intact that haunted me while it lasted.

Eventually, there were some attempts at oral sex with the Xinjiang man, but it wasn't long before we awoke one morning and he said that his family had found him a wife, a few months prior. What followed were several months of existentialist dialogue on whether we should remain together for a while.

For a few years after we finally called it quits, I pitted hi, until I realized he'd chosen to ruin a woman's life to appease his family. I too could have chosen to marry a woman to avoid years of disputes with my family, but I don't yet have it in me to so willfully ignore another human's basic rights.

We spoke a few times via Skype after I had returned to the United States, and then eventually lost touch.

He'd return, though. Not quite as I'd expected.

***

One night, at Destination, I'd left my friends at the bar in a drunken haze and gone to the dance floor. I never liked the taste of liquor, but my relationship with my family and my universe was on the rocks. I fell into bad habits.

Chinese and Sufi poets drank to be creative, I told myself. That was my justification du jour for not being present.

With all the bulimia, my Hot Topic shorts were falling down. A young man with thick wrists and a killer smile approached. He held my pants by both sides and said, Don't you need a belt?

I laughed, stupidly. Men responded to that in China: my stupidity, my childishness.

I'll help you, he said. He pulled me into his arms by my pants and we danced that way — dazzled by the machine-made fog, carrying a pale blue light, at once innocuous and foreboding.

I need to go to the bathroom, he said. He dragged me by my pants. Dragged me into a stall. Took of his pants and bent in to kiss me while his glistening foreskin pulled back and forth over the proportionate, inoffensive head of his penis.

He took off my pants. He put his dick on top of part of mine and started rubbing them together until the chafing irritated me beyond my drunken haze. I pulled his hand off my penis. And he came—a stain on my shorts that never came out.

It's a souvenir, he said, laughing. He took my phone and entered his number. Text me. I stumbled home.

A few days later, he came to my place and spent the night.

He lay on top of me. Took off my pants and underwear and stuck his index finger up my ass—an inch, then the whole finger. He twirled it. I struggled to feel some sort of arousal beyond the pain, beyond the feeling of taking so many consecutive shits. The sensation that bottoms feel, I never felt. I wondered if, as I imagined I was in high school, I was simply not sexual.

At one point, I had the feeling of needing to justify what can only be classified as his aggressive gesticulation with what we often call "meaning."

Do you love me? It was the first time I'd ask that question. He stopped. He sat at the edge of my bed. He, as people so often do, told me his story.

He'd been with another study abroad student months earlier. A Chinese-American. That had been true love. This was sex. The study abroad student would return.

A few questions later, I realized the study abroad student was from my group — he'd only opted for the half-year program. He'd already gone home. He'll returnHe said he would at the airport, through his tears.

We can have sex, but my heart belongs to your friend, the fruit of another said. Once again, I was worth only so much feeling as I could muster in my insensitive anus.

The next day, I spoke with another gay friend— a gay guide, as it were—in my study abroad group. It was indeed our friend's ex. Our friend had no intention of returning to China in the immediate future.

I had a deep and aching desire to break this man's heart. I was worth nothing more than a lousy finger-puppet. But I said nothing. The universe had already punished him.

***

I had made something of a sex worker friend in China, at a club called Candy, in Chaoyang. She appeared to sense immediately that I was gay. We drank and spoke of life. She didn't charge me for her company as she did other men. She was gorgeous.

I was spending a lot of time at a shopping bazaar, a clothing market, helping one stall with sales for a tiny commission. There were many international students and tourists there. My languages came in handy. I mostly spent everything on a $5 outfit a day—what were trendy clothes there that made me look utterly ridiculous immediately upon my return to Los Angeles.

A Liberace-esque man, bouffant hair and tight t-shirt, worked at a stall with an exquisite man-bag. Murses were not only for gay men in China. Everyone wore them.

This murse was gorgeous, a brown-maroon color, almost like a Birkin. I wanted it, but it was 500 yuan, far too much for me.

Long story short, I blew Liberace for the bag. With a condom on. I stopped, in the middle of our oral encounter, asked for the bag, and he gave it to me as long as I would finish. It was a terrible penis. Horrible.

I'd always admired sex workers. That was at least half of the reason for that encounter. But the next day, with my bag sitting in my room, I learned to appreciate them more. The bag was my soul. Much cheaper up close. I hid it in a closet.

The following day, I took a 100 yuan bill, crumpled it up and threw it into Liberace's stall. I never saw him again.

The strap on the bag broke about a month before I returned to the U.S. And a few months after I returned, I saw the exact same bag sold for roughly a tenth of the price at Target, amid other choice items marketed to elderly women.

***

I am North African. I am an Arab. I'm American. I'm not Chinese. Not even Asian.

I hope that you, dear reader, will know that it was never my project to infantilize China or shove it, somehow, back into the annals of its own history. Especially you who inherit China as an ethnic-cultural legacy, I realize that for you, China is your parents and theirs. I am sorry if you are unable to have the experience of a young, sexy China.

China was an incubator for my adulthood.

I was a foreigner. I was well accepted, as foreigners in China sometimes are. Not as well accepted as blond and blue-eyed people, or foreigners with huge noses or facial hair. My hair and eyes are dark brown. There's nothing especially interesting, even in the Chinese countryside, about my appearance.

Everything I know about life today, I owe to China. Not Qing Dynasty China. Not Ming Dynasty China. The China that exists, mostly in dark streets, perhaps lit with Christmas lights, the smell of lamb kebabs or stinky tofu in the distance, and lovers, recoiling into the shadows.

When I returned to China after journalism school for an internship with a newspaper, I felt feelings for the first and only time for a Canadian McGill student, the only man weird enough to understand me. The sex was awful. Clumsy. Unappetizing. Our bodies had no chemistry. If love exists, I loved him.

Visiting friends who still lived in Beijing, I formally fucked: a Hui ethnicity waiter, a Congolese study abroad student, a Midwestern American coke-addicted artist, and an Egyptian flight attendant, whose minibar I raided.

One night outside of Destination—which had been converted into a three-story West Hollywood-like affair, without any of its original grit and soul or my old friends—I had a beer with a Hui man, roughly my age.

Up the block, in a bush, and using a condom I carried in my messenger bag, I fucked him—blocks away from Tiananmen Square, the heart of the People's Republic. No lube. Unbearably dry. Blocks from Destination, the heart of my coming out. Perhaps in-keeping with that first year, I didn't cum and he did. My mind was preoccupied with the pedestrians passing just a few yards away.

I returned to Xinjiang one summer, during my time back in China. I'd been invited to attend a trip to Tibet with the son of a soon-to-be-fallen superstar of the Communist Party, but my altitude sickness prevented me from partaking in what would have been that epic journey. No worries, I traveled solo and had my own kind of adventure.

In Xinjiang's regional capital of Urumqi, I searched out the only gay bar. Uighur gay men sat on one side of the bar. Han Chinese sat on another. Uighurs dressed in drag and spun in a traditional Sufi-inspired dance for customers eating popcorn, drinking tea and beer.

I went home with a group of Uighur boys. I slept with one—almost more, in a guest room at his family home and then a few more times back at my hotel. He was one of a few men to cum without touching his penis. Just being fucked was enough.

I told him of Nur. He told his friend, who showed me a picture of Nur on his phone, a few years later now, rather obese and expressionless.

He has children now, the friend said. I didn't have the inclination to ask how many.

I often think on him these days. As Xinjiang is torn by ethnic conflict, I wonder if he's consumed on the inside too by a deluge of his own making. More often, I think on the woman.

On bad faith. On fucking. On orgasms. On self-worth. On China. And what else.

Massoud Hayoun is a 26-year-old Arab-American journalist based in New York City who has worked/ struggled/ copulated in China, the MENA region and France. He has had sex with thousands of men, and has realized that on his deathbed, he will be no more than a sum of his life experiences. He identifies, lately, as more of a very masculine woman than a feminine man. Email him at massoudhayoun87@gmail.com if you want.

[Photo by Getty]