Friday, November 29, 2013

All I Want for Christmas is a Lesbian Cafe Bento Box

When I was 16, I socialized at a lesbian cafe. At the time, I was living in Urumqi, China, and my best Chinese friend was a girl I'll call Danielle. Danielle and I had gone to Chinese pre-school together when my family lived in Urumqi in the 90s, and she was bossy as all get out. That probably only bothered me because I was bossy too, and used to being the center of attention as the only non-Chinese in my class.

We lost touch after pre-school and then we moved away for 5 or 6 years to other parts of China and the U.S., but upon returning to Urumqi, my mom happened to run into Danielle's mom, who ran a small grocery store. As moms are apt to do, they had soon conspired to get us back together, and as it turned out, we totally hit it off. I can't remember how exactly we re-met, but I do remember appreciating being treated like a friend, rather than milked as an English tutor.

We didn't hang out at either of our houses very often, but instead ran around town window shopping, or bemoaning the shut-down of the best CD store. Sometimes she would bump into her friends, and we'd talk to them for a while or share a taxi on the way to our next destination. She first took me to the lesbian cafe for their great bento boxes. I can't remember what we talked about, but the food was good.

The next time we went to the cafe, we sat next to two girls, one of whom was Ugyhur and had clearly been crying. She was with a friend, and we started talking to them. Come to find out, her girlfriend had just broken up with her. She and her friend told me how they would take their punk, pants, and false eyelashes to school with them in bags and change there, then change back before going home. They were astonished that I was neither a smoker nor a lesbian, since they had heard that all Californians were both. I mentioned to my dad one time where I often hung out, and he said, "oh, the Lesbian bar?" Being a 16 year old missionary kid, that detail had totally escaped me, despite the fairly obvious markers. It's become one of the only even remotely edgy things I did in my entire teen career. That and the fact that my boyfriend was Catholic, which I also didn't know when we started dating.

The third time at the cafe, we met up with another friend of Danielle's, and Danielle brought her laptop to play this Korean drama about a gang of young and violent boys that was hard to follow, but she thought it was amazing and really wanted her other friend to like it. We all ended up talking over it for most of the time, but I could tell she was in love with it, the way you are with your favorite song, full of fear that your soul will shrivel if your loved ones reject it.

She sometimes wore her hair in the krimped-afro-mullet that was popular in China at the time, and I tried to make my hair do that too, but ended up giving myself a hack-job of a bob in the bathroom one night out of exasperation instead.

We would talk about our boyfriends. Mine, at the time, lived on the other side of the world, and her boyfriend was Ugyhur, which was a big deal to some people since she was Han and particularly in our city, those two groups were at each other's throats, but she didn't seem to think it was strange at all, and I was proud of her for that. She called me one night, very drunk, sobbing and telling me that she felt so empty in her life and didn't know what to do. I never felt like I was a missionary, but that night I wished I had had the words to give her some - any - kind of hope. I couldn't translate the few things I could think of to say. It was one of the most raw moments I've had in any friendship.

She spent the summer in a city in Southern China, and we video chatted once. She brought me back some limited edition Beanie Baby teddy bear, that I left when we moved back to the States for good, which I now kick myself for, like I have over so many other beloved objects that seemed not important enough in mayhem and emotional hibernation that is packing for an international move.

My friendship with Danielle shattered a lot of my misconceptions about China, even as someone who grew up there. She made me have hope for Chinese millennials. We would talk about why young Chinese men and women didn't care more or act more about the oppression of the government or their prospects for the rest of their lives, and neither of us had answers for it. I wish I been able to see how similar American millennials are.

My family found out pretty suddenly that we would be moving back to the States permanently, and we were gone within a month of knowing it. Danielle and I hung out a few last times. I took her to my dad's cafe where we I ordered spinach salad, which she thought was pretty strange. On one of the last nights before we moved away, she and I went out, and it was one of the times where we ended up picking up some random person she knew and were driving around with them. She kept asking me what I wanted to do before I left China, she wanted to me to do something I'd never done before. I felt very uncomfortable because I had a feeling she was talking about having have sex, going to a rave, doing drugs, getting drunk out of my mind, or all of those things together. I said no again and again, and finally she just dropped me off at home late at night with a sick and sad feeling in my stomach. That was the last time I ever saw her or heard from her, and now I kind of wish we'd at least had a beer.

I don't know why she liked me or why she opened up, especially since our language barrier was apparent when true friendship took shape, but she was patient with me, and I miss her. I don't have any photos of us.

After I'd been back in the States for about a year, the first Urumqi riot broke out, resulting in many deaths, and later a complete shut-off of the internet that persists today as far as access to most international social media. My biggest regret in life, as dramatic as that sounds, is losing touch with her and my other Chinese friends. I try to email them whenever I come across some snippet of contact info buried in my computer or email history, but they always bounce back 

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