I was the most suspicious kid when it came to affairs and other illicit relationships. Maybe it was one too many soap operas I watched on our 3-channel TV. Sometimes, especially when my parents were fighting, I’d have nightmares about my mom abandoning us and running away with boyfriends. Abraham Lincoln may or may not have been one of those distinguished men.
They also socialized a lot, with people from church (where they went strictly as Atheists to learn English), my Chinese school, and work (younger Ph.D students my dad often took under his wing. Gross, not like that), which added to my paranoia. To this day, my mom doesn’t understand why I stuck out my tongue or hid from a handful of men. They were always the handsome ones, and whenever they talked to her alone, I’d yank her skirt trying to pull her away to safety.
You ever think about which of your parents would more likely leave the other for someone else? Back in the day, definitely my moms. Dad probably wouldn’t have noticed until a few weeks later when he came back from his lab looking for dinner.
I feel like there’s a line of decency I just crossed.
When it came to people I didn’t care about, I was less suspicious. But on my first trip to China at six, I had my radar up. I’d gotten the impression that China would be looser with prostitution, understandably since there’s more poverty. I remember trying to convince everyone in my family that the hair salon they took me to was a front for a brothel. Because first they had these beautiful girls dressed in silk cheongsams greeting you in the front, which was standard for most classy establishments (a post for another day), but then there were a dozen other younger, less polished girls in shabby cotton pink cheongsams, just sitting around in a row along the front of the salon.
My haircut, by one of the all-male stylists, was decent and cost a relative fortune (50 YMB). Afterwards, as I went to the back looking for a restroom, I managed to snoop around and see a “massage client” disappear back into the dark, dingy halls with a girl in pink. The back looked dank and unfinished, such a contrast to the salon’s chrome, luxurious facade. It was enough evidence to send my imagination on a spree.
For most people who haven’t been exposed to that world, our fascination with sex work is equal parts sad, sick and uncontrollable. I don’t know if there’s any way to avoid it, unless we get close enough to quench our curiosity.
When I went back to visit this January, I was intent on getting at least one massage. I love them, but don’t often spring for them in America, so I thought this would be the best time to take advantage of the USD/RMB exchange rate. But maybe I did it partly to see if there was anything “funny” about them, with my older, more discerning eye.