Today is even hotter than yesterday. It’s 3:30 pm and 95 degrees. Sunny. Punishing heat when you step out of the shade. Most folks here in Wuhan, China, are smart enough to carry an umbrella everywhere they go.
I successfully bought myself an egg, a banana, and warm soymilk this morning. All on my own! I also decided to try a local favorite breakfast dish, something an American friend called tofu pudding. It’s soft tofu scooped from a huge pot, then sprinkled with sugar and served up in a little to-go cup inside a plastic bag. Most of the locals eat just about anywhere, so I found a shady spot on a wall near a sidewalk and enjoyed my tofu pudding. I get lots of second looks around here–people will look at me and look again, as if they are thinking, wait a minute, you’re not from around here. Most young people are kind and curious. Older locals seem a little wary, like they want to give me room because they don’t know what I might do next. Personal space is different here than in the US. Not that it is more or less, but that it is fluid. As long as we all keep moving, pedestrians and cars and scooters will find a way around me and around each other. It’s when anyone hesitates that there can be problems. Over and over I have seen what look like impossible traffic situations resolve with no problem at all if everyone just keeps moving. Sure, there is some honking and maybe a little shouting, but no accidents.
In contrast to my breakfast, which was the cheapest street food you can buy in Wuhan, I ate an incredibly elegant lunch hosted by a local university. We ate in a private room in a local hotel. We ate Chinese style, which means we had a round table with a lazy Susan in the middle. As the guest of honor, I was instructed to start the meal by selecting from the first dish, flat green beans cooked in garlic and pepper. I’ve been practicing with my chop sticks, so I was pretty successful in retrieving three bean pods and placing them in my little bowl. Next, we chose a drink – fresh watermelon juice – and then we moved on to the other dishes: lotus root cooked in rice, fried tofu, fish in batter, lotus seeds, and crawfish. Each dish was excellent. We donned plastic gloves to eat the crawfish and dipped it in little bowls of soy vinegar with red peppers. To finish up, we had watermelon triangles and cans of JDB tea, both good for cooling the internal body temperature (as are the lotus seeds) according to my hosts. So lovely.
The conversation was excellent too, ranging from topics like driving in Los Angeles to drinking habits of American college students to how to stay safe while visiting large US cities. One question surprised me. One of my hosts asked about how to be safe with the homosexuals in the US. I asked him to clarify, and he said that it seems like there is a problem with homosexuals in the US, and wondered why there are so many. At least, I think that’s what he said. Anyway, my response was that unless you go in a gay bar, no homosexual is going to try to pick you up. But if you go in a gay bar, of course, they will assume you are interested in being with a man. He laughed and asked how he would know if he was in a gay bar. I said, well, if you walk in and it’s all men, and they are all dressed really nice and look very handsome, then you are probably in a gay bar. More laughing. I can’t imagine what he has heard about homosexuals in the US to think he needs to protect himself from them.
Earlier, he’d asked me how to stay safe from pickpockets and thieves, and I made the usual suggestions of not going out alone, not being out at night in unfamiliar areas, especially if there is no one else around. When he asked about the homosexuals, I assured him that they would not be aggressive toward him like pickpockets or thieves, unless he was mistaken for a male prostitute in an area where men were trolling for sex. He was surprised by this and asked why men would want male prostitutes, and I said some men like to be with female prostitutes, and some like to be with males. The entire portion of the conversation about homosexuals was so fascinating and surprising to me because I was worried about bringing up the topic myself. I took Chinese lessons in the US and brought my teacher to lunch just so I could ask her if it was okay to talk about my novel with Chinese students–the main character in my book is a gay teenager. My teacher said it would probably be okay to bring up this topic with younger people, but not older people. Imagine my surprise when it was my lunch host who brought up the topic of homosexuals first. He also asked why homosexuality is such a problem in the US. Last night, a Chinese student had asked me about DOMA. Her questions the night before along with my host’s questions today make me wonder what kind of media coverage homosexuality in the US is getting worldwide.
In answer to my host’s question about why it is such a problem in the US, I broke my answer down into two parts. First, I said that it isn’t just something happening in the US, homosexuality is everywhere, regardless of culture or nationality or ethnicity. I cited the typical 10% data, though I actually don’t know where that number comes from (if anyone knows, please respond in my COMMENTS section). So, I explained to him that it isn’t the case that we all of a sudden have many more homosexuals than ever before in the US, but that they are finally able to stop hiding and living in secret. The second part of my answer was about the Judeo-Christian heritage of the US. Much of our treatment of homosexuals results from Biblical traditions that denounce homosexuality. I clarified that I, personally, do not agree with this. I also explained that I am very liberal politically, and that my views don’t represent the views of all or even most Americans, but the tide is certainly changing. ‘Bout time! It is interesting how much I have to reflect on my own politics and the history of the US in having a conversation with someone from a different country. This travel thing is good stuff!