This piece collects six spaces of intimacy as people migrate between continents and cultures.
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Room for Intimacy
Monday, 28 April 2014, Shanghai.
Young Hui asks me to join him in the early afternoon because he wants to introduce me to a friend.
Coming out of the subway, my attention is drawn to the dilapidated buildings around us, older and lower than those rising a bit further. We enter a small alley leading to the humble building of his friend. As Young Hui knocks on his friend’s door, I notice a small opening in the wall. Located directly on the corridor, this room’s only window has been lined with newspaper, probably to preserve some intimacy.
The door opens, revealing the four or five square metres in which we are invited to join not one, but three men. Young Han, whom I have already met, shares the room with their common friend, Young Tou. The latter (in his twenties) is lying on the room’s only bed, with a third man named Old Lu, who is in his fifties. Both look asleep under the sheets. The bed occupies more than half of this tiny room, now containing all five of us.
I am invited to sit in the most comfortable place, on a corner of the bed. Young Han serves me some tap water, which he asepticizes using a small electric kettle arranged at the foot of the small table. Young Hui notices three zhong zi, traditional stuffed rice cakes, hanging against the wall on a hanger hooked to a wire. He takes one, removes the leaves enclosing it, cuts himself a piece and then invites me to eat some too.
When I ask, Young Hui tells me that the two men in bed are friends. I ask if they are a couple, and he repeats the same answer, silently confirmed by Young Han. I openly worry that we might disturb them, as they still seem asleep. But I am the only one embarrassed by the situation. “No worry, we remain here and chat,” they say. The two resting men do not protest, even when the slight movements of their bodies suggest they are half asleep.
My sense of “intimacy”, lost, collides with unknown dimensions.
Old Lu is the coordinator of large construction projects. He lives in a central district, in a modern building that looks quite upmarket. Shanghainese, like his parents, he received a university education – an even rarer opportunity in his generation than today – in English and classical Chinese.
Young Tou worked in a factory in southern China, before trying his luck in Shanghai. Today he is a waiter in a karaoke bar. Although he is not sure, he thinks he will probably return to his countryside, because “there is everything there, and if [he] hasn’t acquired anything here, why would [he] stay?”
He also plans to get married. From a very young age he has been planning for this, while being aware that he would need to achieve a minimum economic status first. Old Lu is married and lives with his wife. He likes her, he even has feelings for her, to the exclusion of any other woman, he adds. He identifies as bisexual. As a teenager, he experienced a “strange” and disturbing attachment to a boy in his class, which he could not understand.
The path to intimacy often requires knowledge.
Young Tou has had three girlfriends in the past. He is even still in love with the last one. Only when he arrived in Shanghai did he come to know about homosexuality, after spending a few nights in a sauna room. Through a friend met on the internet he discovered gay places, especially clubs and bars in the city centre; he likes them because they allow him to think of nothing.
He doesn’t know why he is now part of the gay scene, or “this circle” as he calls it. He even still wonders if he is really a part of it. He doesn’t want to do sexual things like penetration or fellatio, which he finds “dirty” and “weird”. Because he wants to get married, he does not want to go too far in his relationships with men. Though he has already practiced mutual same-sex masturbation.
Old Lu comes to see him about twice a week, when he has time. They “stay together”, “touch” each other a little”, but they “don’t penetrate each other”. He describes their relationship as that between “big and little brothers”.
Later, once the two men are awake, we leave all together. We spend the evening at the nearby karaoke bar. Old Lu, ignoring my protests, foots the bill for Young Tou and for us, at the restaurant and the karaoke bar.
Sometimes, a good partner is one who can get you out of your place (at least a little).
Lucas Monteil is a sociologist and political scientist, currently a post-doctoral research fellow at LAMC, ULB. After a PhD research on the construction of male homosexualities in contemporary China, he joined the BelMix research group in which he studies the socio-demographic evolution of Belgian-Asian couples in Belgium and their dynamics of contextual mobility, intimate and family life, and partner affiliation.
This compendium of stories on spaces is the fruit of long-term collaboration among the members of the BelMix research team, based at the Laboratory of Anthropology of Contemporary Worlds (LAMC) at the Université libre de Bruxelles. The team has been studying migration and conjugal mixedness in Belgium and selected Southeast and East Asian countries. Recently, BelMix has expanded its analytical gaze to include other cases and situations of mixedness beyond the Europe-Asia social spaces. It aims to bring new insights into the dynamics and evolution of present-day societies as well as the changing meanings of intimacy and the family.
For more information about BelMix’s activities and publications,
please visit the project website.
Space's illustration is by Athos Bayani Flot