With the aid of a PowerPoint presentation and some "Friends" references, I taught some wide-eyed college freshmen how we get down in the USA
The Way of the Vagina–a new play based on the feminist classic, The Vagina Monologues–has been scintillating and scandalizing audiences in the underground theatre scene since its Beijing premiere. Its frank discussion of sex and sexuality has earned the appropriately mystically named play accolades and a New York Times write up.
The mysterious nature of this most ancient of female passageways is kept largely intact in China, where the play's explicit topics–female masturbation, orgasms, and (gasp) the actual word “vagina”–are still strictly taboo. While the play has been an underground hit in cities like Beijing, Tianjin, and Xiamen, audience members have had to cram into tight spaces (no pun intended) to watch these performances, since the subject matter is far too edgy enter into the mainstream theater scene.
Reading this article, I couldn't help but recall my own experiences teaching my Chinese students about sex and dating in the Western world. In the summer of 2012, I spent three weeks in Beijing on an internship that allowed me to conduct a series of lectures and classes on American and British language and culture to freshman students at Tsinghua–the best university in China. With the 1956 musical The King and I in mind, I embarked on my mission of mutual cultural enlightenment by presenting lectures on the wonder of Ella Fitzgerald (they preferred Kenny G), the concept of gay marriage (they were not fans), and the English tradition of afternoon tea (they fell asleep sitting up). My dreams of sitting around in a circle with a guitar, harmoniously singing “Getting to Know You,” were quickly dashed.
In the spirit of true cultural immersion, we had asked all of them to give themselves English names (also knowing we'd never memorize hundreds of unfamiliar Chinese names in three weeks), and, one day, a girl named Sparkly Dolphin asked the question that all of them had obviously been dying to ask: “Teacher, teacher,” she piped tentatively, “Do American boys and girls make the love with their friends?”
This was a question that popped up frequently thereafter. We had a question box, the purpose of which was to allow the students to discreetly write down their burning questions about English grammar, TESOL scores, and American job prospects. Instead, the question that appeared most frequently was, “Usually, when do American/British young guys first have their girlfriends?”; “have” being one of the many euphemisms for “sex”–a word which no one in the classroom ever dared use.
Intrigued, I asked my fellow teachers later that evening in the local hutong (read: dusty alleyway in which people drink beer) whether or not their students were similarly nymphomaniacal. The teachers who had been at the university for years explained that because dating culture differed so radically in China and America, and because they gorged themselves on popular TV shows like Friends (yes, they're a little behind on our pop culture), students at Tsinghua were absolutely obsessed with what to them were exotic and bizarre dating rituals.
In particular, they found the custom of “friends with benefits” to be worthy of eye-widened interest. When I answered Sparkly Dolphin's question with, “Yes, sometimes they do, and sometimes, like Monica and Chandler, they become girlfriend and boyfriend afterwards, and sometimes, like Joey and Rachel, they do not,” they became visibly excited, as though I had just confirmed a burning suspicion they had harbored all their lives, breaking through the Great Firewall of China as the harbinger of truth.
When I asked one of my fellow teachers, Bennett, about this giddy fascination with Americans “doing the nasty,” he affirmed that as a traditional society with strict family values, you sort of had to marry the first person you (openly) dated in China unless you wanted to be disowned. When his students had asked him, with equally gleeful wonder, how many girlfriends he'd had, Bennet began to silently count on his fingers, and when he reached the second hand, a chorus of awe echoed through the classroom. That day, he earned his own noble Chinese name, which translated into English as “Flower-Flower King.”
Armed with this new knowledge, I created my first and only lecture that captured the undivided attention of every single boy and girl in that packed 300-student hall. In a series of PowerPoint slides, I presented the many facets of dating in the Western world: the etiquette of the kiss at the end of the first date, the process of becoming engaged, the British habit of waiting until you're drunk in a club to let someone know you like them by fervently attacking them with your mouth.
And a curious thing happened: as I passed through each slide and looked at these customs neatly laid out in bullet point and accompanied by stock photos of happy white people, these rites which had once seemed so natural suddenly seemed kind of bizarre. Why did men get down on one knee when they proposed. Isn't that a bit…performative? Doesn't it make more sense to sit down and just have a rational discussion with both of your families about whether or not you're compatible for life? On the other hand, the dating timeline of how long you should date, live together, be engaged, etc., suddenly seemed like such a systematized approach to romance. And why do we always need the encouraging nudge of alcohol to express romantic and sexual urges?
In the end, I couldn't decipher whether the way the students responded to most facts with Huah!–a uniquely Chinese utterance that sounds a little like getting punched in the stomach–meant that they were impressed by Western enlightenment or disgusted by Western depravity, although the looks of wonder on their faces sort of implied the former. In that light, perhaps we can view the underground success of “The Way of the Vagina” as a sort of progress (I can certainly vouch that some of my former students went to see it).
When thinking about the complicated courtship rituals that are uniquely expressed in every culture, I saw more clearly the artifice of my own sets of values and expectations. I’m not sure if my students would have been happier in a more sexually permissive culture or even what effect my exposure to the concept of “friends with benefits” has had on my own life. We'll always consider with interest a culture so markedly different from our own, wondering what that experience might have been like for us. Perhaps it's telling that the second most frequent question that appeared in the question box was this:
“Do most Americans have a happy life?”
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