As we’re chatting, we glance up and see a half-dozen or so young Chinese women coming down the stairs. They glide by us, slipping into a room off to one side. In a few minutes, they re-emerge, sans coats, and glide back up the stairs again. Dave and I glance at each other, then go back to our conversation.
Five minutes later, the same thing happens: 7 or 8 very attractive young women come down the open staircase, treading carefully in bejeweled slippers or high heels. Drifting past us, they disappear into the side room. Moments later, they re-emerge and go back up the stairs. Dave and I look at each other again. Tiny beads of sweat have appeared on his forehead. Dave is not a man easily phased. Before joining academia, he did a couple stints in the navy, serving as a undercover spy in Russia, where his main task was to single-handedly stop the government from poisoning its enemies by taking whatever foodstuff or drink was serving as the toxin-delivery vehicle, ingesting it himself, then leaping out the window and landing in a passing garbage truck that would take him to the nearest pharmacy.
Okay so I made that up. But seriously, Dave’s a pretty mellow guy. I’ve only seen him worked up once, and he calmed down immediately once I pulled his iPhone out of the toilet I’d tossed it into.
Now, though, Dave is frowning.
“I wonder what’s going on,” I say.
He shakes his head. “Looks like a prom or something.”
And seriously, it does. Most of the women are wearing cheongsams, the traditional Chinese dress with the high collar and elaborate stitching and the row of silk buttons running diagonally from the neck on down. These dresses are traditional, dating way the hell back to the time when women were expected to hide any part of the body that was even vaguely sexual—like, say, the elbow. Around about the 1920s, though, the cut of these quilted dresses changed dramatically, becoming more form-fitting, with a long slit running up one side. These women are, as my grandmother used to say, gussied up. I’ve never been quite sure what that means, but I’m fairly certain one doesn’t gussie just to run out to K-Mart.
We go back to our conversation. And not two minutes later, it happens again: more women, more gliding, first coats, then no coats, then back up the stairs.
“God damn it,” I hear Dave hiss. “Four or five I can understand, but now they’re screwing with our heads.”
I nod, oddly slack-jawed. I’ve never been one of those white guys who’s fascinated by women from other cultures—Asia is full of those guys, by the way—but even I’m a little stunned.
Anyhow, we talk a bit more, then the whole group of Fulbrighters and administrators and random hangers-on (What can I say? We get a lot of groupies) are lead into the dining hall. It consists of a short table across the front of the room, and four long tables running perpendicular to the head table. And when I say long, I’m not kidding: each of the latter must seat 70 people.
Now I’m no mathematical genius, but looking around it's easy to tell there's no way the random clusters of white folk mulling about can fill all those seats.
What happens next is of course obvious: the doors at the front of the room are thrown wide and in stroll 200 or so college-aged Chinese women in cheongsams. I’ve spent the last 45 minutes struggling to describe what this was like—searching for some metaphor that won't offend someone—but I’m afraid I can’t. It was simply beautiful. There were just so many of these women, all with black black hair, all bare-armed, all with silk shawls covering their shoulders. For another thing, the cheongsams (or qipao, in Mandarin) are stunning: reds, blues, whites, pinks, blacks, yellows. It was like someone had poured a chest full of life-sized emeralds, rubies, and sapphires into the room.
I’ll be honest with you: it’s tempting at this point in the narrative to tell you that, as a college professor who regularly goes on long trips with groups of students that often include young women, I’ve conditioned myself to be impervious to the attractions of college-aged females.
Or that, as a man who’s been married for 17 years and in a monogamous relationship for 3 years prior to that, when faced with hordes of Chinese women in the prime of life wearing ornate traditional dress, my head is filled with visions of my beautiful wife back in our hotel room, at that moment undoubtedly doing something incredibly sexy, brushing her teeth, maybe, or picking dried banana out of Lucy’s hair.
Or that, as someone who, like most academics my age and in my field, has studied race and gender theory and cares deeply about the manner in which identity is constructed, both linguistically and visually—that educated thusly, all I can think about as these women file into the room and seat themselves—in the formal Chinese manner, on the front edge of their seats, their backs straight and a good six inches from the back of the chair—all I can think about is Irigaray’s use of Lacan to challenge phallogocentrism.
Or at the very least, I’d like to say that when I myself slide into my seat, I’m able to say something more articulate than, “Urgh.”
But none of that would be true. Taking my place at B-3 (all of the seats are assigned), surrounded by young women dressed to the nines in what, by Wisconsin standards, are exotically beautiful dresses, every theory I’ve ever read or principle I’ve ever held flies out the window. For the first 20 minutes of the dinner, I sit, red-faced and blushing, thrown back to a mental-emotional state similar to pubescence and a linguistic state just short of toddlerhood.
Fortunately, it gets easier. For one thing, throughout the pre-dinner speeches and toasts and counter-toasts and counter-counter-toasts, it becomes evident that one of the American administrators has a love-affair with his own voice and can’t help but grab the microphone whenever it comes too near. About the 11th or 12th time this happens, I catch the woman across the table from me roll her eyes. I laugh. She looks at me, a little horrified, then blushes. When I just pinch my nose, trying hard not to burst into a full-bellied laugh, she grins, leans across the table, and says, in a thick northern accent, “I’m really hungry!”
I lean forward as well and say, in my thick northern accent: “I know: I can hear your stomach growling.”
Once all the toasting is done, the Fulbrighter sitting across from me—a man named Tom who is also large, also old, also bald, and also convinced he’s a comedian—begins chatting with all of the women around us.
“What’s your name?” he says to the woman next to me.
“Rain,” she replies.
“Rain,” he says, nodding. “Like--?” and he makes a trickling gesture with his fingers.
“That’s very nice,” Tom turns to one of the women beside him. “And what’s your name?”
“No.” She makes a gesture of her own, crosswise with her hands. “Like the weather.”
Tom and I look at each other. I finally find my voice. “Are you two friends?”
“We all are,” Rain says, gesturing at herself and Windy and the person to Tom’s left, an incredibly striking, statuesque woman with large eyes and layers of thick, feathered hair.
“Really . . . “ Tom says.
“Yes.” Windy goes on to explain how they’re all economics majors, how they were given the option of sitting together at the dinner and they chose to, figuring it would be more fun that way. When Tom asks if they were required to come to dinner or volunteered, they say the latter. When we press, asking why they’d choose to spend their evening with a bunch of old white guys, Rain explains that it’s a free meal, and a good one. “Plus,” she says, gesturing to their cheongsams, “it’s a chance to dress up.”
I have to say I’m a little relieved by this. The whole evening I’ve been a little uncomfortable wondering if what I’m seeing here is some bizarre cultural discord, a throwback to the time when kings or pharaohs or potentates or other men with more money and power than a pantheon of gods, offered their male guests a basket of fruit, two donkeys, a water buffalo, and three real live attractive young women as welcoming gifts. Traveling through the mainland back in 2000, I went to many a restaurant where customers were greeted by double-lines of young women in matching qipaos, there for no other function than to look pretty and say hello. Now, at the back of my head, I’ve had this vision of some low-level college administrator somewhere saying, “I have an idea: let’s get a bunch of hot undergrads and make them sit with these old white guys to keep them company. Whaddaya think?” And everyone else around the water cooler saying, “Excellent plan, Bill! And let’s make them wear some of those sexy old dresses, you know the ones, with the slits right up the butt?”
So knowing that these women are here by choice, that they look at it as an opportunity to do something they don’t normally get to do on their isolated campus, hell, even that they see the evening opportunistically, as a chance for free food—all of this makes me feel better.
Which is good, because I’m finally getting my voice back. And what I really want to know, though, is if they chose names like Rain and Windy at the same time, or if their having these names and being friends is just some sort of bizarre, weather-related coincidence. But I can’t think of how to phrase this in a way that would be easy to convey in room full of echoing second-language conversations.
Finally I turn to Rain and say, “Did you choose your English name when you got here?”
“Excuse me?” She gestures at the table. “Here?”
“At university,” I reply.
Rain glances at her friends, as if to ask, “Why did I get stuck with the dipstick?”
I struggle to make myself clear. This shouldn’t be that hard. But seriously? This is why I spent most Saturday nights during high school and college watching Starsky and Hutch reruns—because the most suave thing I could say to a woman somehow related to weather, geography, or tertiary education.
I try again. “Did you two pick your names together?”
Rain gives me a look like I’m a dog that just opened its mouth and recited the Gettysburg Address. Desperate, I turn to the woman next to him, not Windy, but the tall woman with the wide forehead and the huge eyes. “What’s your name?” I ask, hoping for Tornado, or Sleet—something, anything, that will turn the conversation away from my miserable self.
She leans forward and says, as clearly and distinctly as if speaking into a microphone: “Yummy.”
I look at Tom. His grin is huge. I look at Rain, who’s looking at Windy, who’s looking at Yummy, who’s looking at me. Expecting me, of course, to say something in return. I look down at my hands I look back at Yummy. Tom is still grinning, his eyes not so much dancing as hurling themselves around mosh pit. I glance at Yummy again, wondering, maybe, desperately, “Does she like to cook?” And then I say the only thing that comes to mind: