Friday, June 20, 2014

My Childhood in Brothels

I will update this post with real photos from the home and courtyard I wrote about when I find them. I swear they were on my external hard drive last month, but I can find no trace of them now, which makes me very sad and nervous. I will try and track them down on my parent's computer! 

I'm worried that the older I get, the more I'm forgetting details of my missionary kid days, because those days are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of my whole life. Plus, I'm one of those people with virtually no memories before age 7 (for no apparent reason - nothing particularly traumatic happened), which was definitely one of the most interesting times in my life. On top of that, it's hard to track down pictures of specific memories, even though my mom was stellar at taking them because it was a time before people documented every moment. So basically, what we have to work with is a patchy memory and a flare for dramatic storytelling in place of visual representations. (Click here to read the first installment from my series on memories of growing up in China).

Some of the things I remember take new shape as I reflect on them now, as an adult. For example, I spent a lot of time around prostitutes, and it was pretty perfectly normal to me then. I didn't really know what a prostitute was as a younger kid anyway, which probably helped. As you probably know, "my childhood in a brothel" does not refer to me having been a prostitute or pimp or otherwise involved in prostitution itself. I did, however, essentially live in a brothel.

At the time, my family lived in a very small town in-the-middle-of-nowhere, China, and the one thing beside an incredibly high number of brothels in town was an army base. They kind of went hand in hand. In fact, one of the reasons that my family ended up moving away eventually was because the police chief in town required my dad to engage with prostitutes in order to stay in his good graces. Kind of a deal breaker for missionaries. Rumor had it that when that police chief eventually moved on, his "parting gift" to the town/base was a 100 new women.

My family made a home in the old post office in town, which had been turned into a motel/brothel/rental space. The living situation was set up similar to a traditional Chinese home, with buildings on three sides and a large gate on the fourth side of an open courtyard. The gate faced the street. If you turned to your right upon entry, there was a wing of motel rooms, several of which were converted into bedrooms for my siblings and I. Straight ahead from the gate, across the courtyard, were two large living rooms in a second wing. One room was the entire home of a Chinese family with three daughters, the other was the living space for my family, including our kitchen in the hallway. Sometimes we'd have to leave for several months in the winter when the water pipes froze solid.

Once, when we were watching a movie, we heard a blood curdling scream, and ran out in to the shared hall to find our neighbors skinning a dog alive to eat (you don't want to kill it too early before eating or drain all the blood, because blood in the meat tastes better). Another time, my dad found a man who had hung himself in the alleyway behind those rooms. In the corner between the motel wing and the living room wing, there was a dirt lot that was the communal outhouse for most of the time we lived there. There were three make-shift walls of linoleum for some privacy (no roof), but one of the guys in the compound would take his radio out with him so that you knew the outhouse was occupied. That outhouse - rather, hole in the ground - gave a whole new meaning to not wanting to get out of bed to pee in the night, especially in the winter. Furthermore, that corner of the lot was in perfect view of a guard shack on base up on a hill across the road. Sometimes the guard shack blew over in the wind, and one time, we got a gun pointed in our faces when we were playing in an abandoned house near the base and stuck our heads over the wall. Eventually, my dad turned the outhouse corner in to a greenhouse where just about nothing grew.

Behind the living room wing was a mysterious abandoned factory full of gold colored dust that we frequently broke in to and marveled at. There were also a lot of dog and cow carcasses and a 5-foot high tunnel that stretched a third of the way under our block - we never could figure out what it was for. It was a great town to explore as kids. But anyway, back to prostitution....

The left hand and final wing was the brothel where the landlord occasionally stayed and where the ladies lived. I can't remember being particularly sternly warned away from them, but we definitely got the vibes that we weren't welcome to just chill over there, not least because they weren't particularly friendly. Even from across the courtyard, I could tell that their rooms were very sparse, basically just a bed in each.

As I recall, there were about 3 women who were there regularly. They did a lot of laundry and their clothing was fancy and scanty in a town with nothing to do and nowhere to go. They "slept" a lot during the day and seemed generally grumpy and miserable, perhaps because their lives must have been incredibly monotonous. Looking back, it's strange that I never thought to ask more questions about them.

When we moved on from that house, we did a walk through of another brothel that was becoming an available space. This one was a second story to a shop on the street. As I recall, there was a very large wood-floored central room with several smaller rooms branching off of it. Someone in our family - probably me, given my general nosiness - tried to explore one of the off-shoot rooms and was quickly shooed away as it was "in use". It was embarrassing and strange. Once again, I didn't totally get all the logistics of how sex work operated, but I understood that what was going on was kind of hush-hush and not altogether upstanding. I just couldn't figure out what all the sleeping during the day was about.

We ended up finding another place that hadn't been used as a brothel, to my knowledge, but some aspects of the lifestyle remained in my life. Wet hair, for example. As I mentioned before, sometimes the pipes would freeze or we wouldn't have running or hot water at home for some other reason, so we'd go to a public shower house, which could easily have been mistaken for a dungeon and which had slime of every imaginable kind lurking in the corners. It still gives me the heeby jeebies to recall. No one used hair dryers, but my mom always wanted us to cover our heads on the way home, and I hated wearing head scarves, which was unfortunate in a predominantly Muslim area.

Again, no one really spelled it out in so many words at the time, but it turned out that wet hair was associated with prostitutes because they were the only ones who bathed so regularly as to often have wet hair. In China, people don't shower daily, and when they do, it's at night, which is a habit that I continue to hold as an adult in the U.S. Another thing about hair and prostitutes in China - hair salons are the most common cover up for brothels. Often, the store front is a sham of a barber shop, and behind a curtain or in a back room is where the real business takes place. I always wondered how one was supposed to know where to go if you wanted an actual hair cut?

To me, there's still a strange sweetness in the whole hair thing, though. I distinctly remember being about 8 years old and admiring the long, straight, black hair that all the Chinese women had in the women's dorm that my family lived in on a Chinese college campus. I remember thinking to myself that when I grew up, I was going to have hair like that. I'm not sure I realized you couldn't just grow the hair you wanted, but either way, those long black locks have remained one of the few childhood style ideals I've carried into adulthood. I continue to find the hair of Chinese women exceptionally lovely and I like my hair black the best. [image]

Another thing that stuck with me was all the pink florescent lighting. In english, we do call areas with a high concentration of sex work "pink/red light districts", but I don't know if that's as universal or prevalent in the rest of the world as it is in China. But why all the pink bulbs in bedrooms? Ambiance? Some hidden meaning I've never heard of? Some sort of feature disguise? I'm not sure, but they used the heck out of pink lights and the glow still makes me uncomfortable, even if it's out of context.

Fast forward a few years to my other deepest ties to prostitution in China.
I went on a summer missions trip in eastern and southern China, led by a dear friend. I was the only short-termer on the team coming from a different part of China instead of the States, and my Chinese language skills therefore differed from the rest of the group, so I had private tutoring sessions (including some spiritual vocabulary), and separate homework assignments.

I should get out of the way that I don't blame my experiences in this story on the leaders of the trip - they remain close and respected friends of mine. However, looking back, I wish I'd just put my foot down about something I felt strongly against, or had approached it in a way that was more in keeping with my views on missions. As it was, this turned out to be pretty much my worst experience as a missionary, which is saying a lot because I didn't consider myself a missionary for almost any of the time I lived in China. It was clear to me that I was there with my parents, who felt called to missions in China, where as I did not.

So anyway, on this trip we were supposed to get out in the neighborhood and practice our new vocabulary and whether real or perceived, I felt like I was supposed to be evangelizing too. There were two shops that I visited - one sold earrings, which I still have two pair of. The other was a hair salon with a few chairs in front and a brothel behind a curtain. I managed to make myself a fixture in the front room in the most awkward way possible. It was clear that they didn't really want to hang out with me and/or figured I didn't get what the whole establishment was about.

I remember their tired smiles and quiet scoffs - who was I? It was obvious to everyone, including myself, that I was in no place to question their lifestyle of desperation. I can't even articulate how awful that whole scene was and the tangible joke of it. For many prostitutes in China, they choose their jobs because it's by far the most money they can earn and they have children far away whom they send support to. I'm ashamed that I attempted to make them explain to me why they were there. I didn't pose it quite like that, but I certainly went in with a missionary agenda, and I hate  that style of missions. I detest that model of thinking that I know better than them and that somehow I'm going to love them out of their situation, when really, I wasn't loving them at all. We were all enduring a terrible hour at a time for the sake of some idea I felt compelled to live up to, or at least try. In reality, they didn't deserve to be treated as my guinea pigs, and I had no way of comprehending anything about their situations, especially at 15. It was one of the most ridiculous, naive, and conceited things I've ever done. I don't know how to describe further what those several visits were like, or why I feel so negatively about them.

I believe Jesus can work through idiots and the culturally insensitive, but I also know that Jesus would not have tried to jam two unfitting puzzle pieces together for 15 minutes and then check it off his list. A part of me is repelled by the logistics of the trade of prostitution, but a lot of me is just sickeningly sad remembering the vacancy and callousness of the woman I met caught up in it. It makes me think of that Nirvana song, "Jesus doesn't want me for a sunbeam", when in reality, I know that Jesus wants every one of those ladies as his sunbeams, and wants me for a sunbeam too, even when I abuse his name and what he truly stands for. 

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