U-Haul Straight Boy
That spring of 2008 when I came to China to really see if we had a shot, when it came to the living situation, Guo Jian acted like a U-Haul lesbian. At least years of being surrounded by that community behaviour—where new lovers would move in together within a month or two—meant that I could recognize it, if nothing else. Still, I had spent recent years laughing at it, feeling above it, like I had graduated into a woman who understood her need for independence and would fight for it. After all, it had taken over three years for my ex-partner and I to move in together after a lot of negotiation. Hadn’t I proven that I’d evolved?
Just before I arrived, I discussed with him over the phone the possibilities for housing. During my second trip to Beijing, I had rented a room in a three-bedroom apartment with two other roommates. I was prepared to do the same thing this time. It was easy and cheap, available short term, and I figured I could choose a location closer to his place, as well, for both convenience of seeing each other and a new geographic experience of the city.
He had almost no opinion about these plans.
Then, his friend who was moving overseas suddenly had a sought-after apartment that was becoming available. He swore up and down that I shouldn’t pass up such an amazing deal in a great area of town. It was twice what I had been paying for just a shared room the previous fall, but I figured I could find some other temporary foreigners like myself as roommates and we could all share in the rent. It was actually a three-bedroom place, so it was even bigger than I expected.
He took the place on my behalf. It was going to come available within the second week of my arrival. He said I could stay with him until then.
A week before I arrived, still over the telephone in my remedial Chinese, he put it to me this way:
“Well, you can move into that apartment and find a roommate, but you should know that I’m going to be over there all the time and it will probably make your roommate annoyed!”
“Or, we can move in together and see what it’s like just the two of us, renting out my little place, and then if it doesn’t work out, I can just move back to my place and you can find a roommate. Keep in mind, though, that the rent we can charge on my place will probably be more than half of what the rent on this new place is and I’m happy to contribute all of it and then just split the difference.”
“Or, you can move in here to my little place and I’ll take the big place but I really hate roommates and I wouldn’t be able to afford it alone. Besides, the new place will be empty and I’ll have to use some of the furniture from my little place. I only have one bed. There won’t be much furniture left for you in the little place.”
All of this impossible reasoning was topped off with this this well-positioned garnish:
“But, anyway, the best I could do was to sign a one-year lease. I had to sign it in my name because I’m Chinese and have all the identity cards they needed. I forgot to mention that.”
I was stunned.
This was a sick twisting of him being both helpful and incredibly controlling. It felt like a ploy to corner me into immediate romantic intensity, too, and don’t forget, I was in the throws of an intense break-up in Canada and couldn’t think of anything worse than not having some of my own space.
I was actually angry.
I didn’t have the Chinese vocabulary to properly protest, however. I didn’t know what the right move would be and I tabled the discussion for later.
I remember sitting alone with my drummer, Adam, during one of our strained tours that early 2008 and asking his advice on the housing dilemma for my next trip back to China. As someone who didn’t really understand male motivation, I expressed that it was strange that a guy was acting so lesbian and wanting to move in immediately. Of course, I knew it was a temporary visit on my part, but still. It struck me as contrary to what I imagined men were like.
“He’s right, you know. Just do it. Move in with him. Any other roommate will be annoyed by his constant presence. He’s suggesting a logical option. He obviously really wants to be with you and you will be together all the time regardless of where you live, so why not?”
I was shocked yet again by the advice from one of the few straight men in my life (at the time.) Little did I know that straight men also have (what I deemed then to be) erratic impulses to “play house.”
Are there “U-Haul Straight Guys”?
Turned out that the new apartment was a split-level apartment on the top floor of a 20-year old building. With an upstairs and a downstairs, two bathrooms, three balconies (including one open to the sky that I knew would be perfect for gardening), and a freakishly low rent. It was actually less than twice what single rooms were going for by the time I got back in the spring, as Beijing housing costs were rising like mercury in a summer thermometer. Housing prices, I learned, often contain two rates: a “foreigner” rate and a “Chinese” rate. This place, however, was a very reasonable Chinese rate that I could never have scored with my white face, hence the absence of my name on the lease.
So, after our first cramped week together in his little wee one-person apartment, I shakily made the decision to try it. I felt ashamed of my lack of resolve regarding independence, but I also felt ashamed to find part of myself really wanting to do it, not wanting to be alone in that big city with strangers as roommates, and drunk on the concept of having a home, even temporary. After having felt so pushed out of the home that I loved back in Canada, it was an elixir I couldn’t refuse. I am a Cancerian, after all.
We packed up his little apartment, bought the requisite furniture that we were going to leave as its furnished components (second-hand flea markets are amazing in Beijing!) and then we moved into what I’ve come to understand is a very special and rare apartment in Beijing. The two levels gave us space from each other when we needed it. What’s more, playing house was simply fun. It reminded me of early relationships with women where we relished in the shared decorating and scrounging for housing supplies. It made me feel young and carefree.
We found out that we have amazingly similar tastes in décor, preferring secondhand wooden and traditional furniture over modern furniture, lots of plants, woven rugs, and dishware that doesn’t match. We scoured the flea markets for cool plates, fun bookshelves, a wooden dining room table and chairs, even chopsticks. His meager supply of household items was a bachelor’s stash and we were like two kids filling a toy chest full of spatulas and footstools.
And after that first couple of weeks wore off and we had a semblance of a home happening, we both discovered that we are pretty messy and really hate housecleaning. But, we were messy in different ways. And, to different degrees.
Sadly, I found myself with the higher standards.
And then the fighting began.
That was about the time that I started to be grateful for my return ticket to Canada. I knew I was returning to a broken home there, but I was eager to leave Beijing before my make-believe Beijing home broke too.
And that’s how I told myself I wasn’t being a “UHaul lesbian”: I was leaving anyway.
Tensions were temporary.
Besides, the lease wasn’t in my name, remember?