Take Me To The Lala Jiuba
Adventures of a queer newcomer in Shanghai.
It’s nearing the end of August 2016. Playlists featuring tunes about big planes and smooth roads hum from well-worn speakers while a frazzled-looking young woman kneels on a compression bag, muttering to herself and trying to squeeze the last bit of air out of the small vents. Failure would mean she would have to leave one or more of her flannel shirts at home. Failure was not an option.
That woman was me. After switching the playlist, finding success with the vacuum bags, and noticing how quickly my suitcase was filling up, I started being more cautious with my packing. As the fifty pound baggage limit inched closer, graphic T’s were tearfully placed back in their drawers. Only one pair of skate shoes could come with me. A few plaid button-downs simply had to stay behind. I faced an internal struggle when I opened up my sock drawer for the last time, but finally decided that my thick rainbow tube socks could join me at a later date. Shanghai Pride wouldn’t be until next June, anyway.
Eventually, the flannels, SnapBacks, and my prized denim jacket made the cut, and I was off on a new adventure: I was moving to Shanghai to attend an International Graduate Program in Politics for two years. But another adventure was looming, too, and I was equal parts nervous and excited to begin the search for a queer community in a city where LGBT issues are still kept rather quiet. I had only a vague idea of who my future classmates would be, just knowing that any group of people from all over the world brings with it a myriad of opinions and levels of familiarity with the LGBT community. As a bisexual identifying woman who is considering LGBT issues as a Masters thesis topic, I knew that going back into the closet wasn’t an option (and I wouldn’t want to!), but I also knew that it would probably be prudent to not go shouting “Hey y’all! I’m gay!” from the rooftop of my all-women’s dorm.
Four months later, I’m happy to report that everything was a-okay. Shanghai is a progressive city with regards to LGBT acceptance in China, and the community certainly seems to have each other’s backs. As any queer millennial would do in a new city, I wasted no time in hopping on Tinder and the Chinese equivalent, Tantan. I practiced my Chinese with new matches, met other foreign queer people in the city, and even made a couple of friends.
Now I have a wonderful girlfriend (I failed as a millennial and we did not meet on Tinder), and although the two of us have quite literally stopped traffic by kissing on the sidewalk, no one has ever bothered us or been openly homophobic—something I had become accustomed to while being out in parts of the U.S. With the support of my roommate, my friends, and a little humor, coming out to people in the program and beyond has been easy and occasionally good for a laugh.
I’ve learned that a good answer to the common “why don’t you have a boyfriend?” is a simple “because I have a girlfriend!” and I’ve spent a surprising amount of time explaining that she’s my girlfriend, not my “girlfraand!” Much of my extended friend group—both queer and otherwise—even joined me at my favorite lesbian bar to ring in the New Year. In Chinese, “lala (拉拉)” means lesbian, and “jiuba (酒吧)” means bar, and I’ve rarely been more proud than when The Crew said they’d had a fantastic New Years Eve at the Lala Jiuba. Shout out to Roxie for a great space, a great party, and a great night.
I still don’t proclaim my queerness to Shanghai from smoggy rooftops—the roof of my dorm probably isn’t safe to stand on, anyway—and to my knowledge I’m still the only out individual in the building. But while my time in China is still new and fresh by expat standards, learning to be queer in this unfamiliar metropolis of twenty-three million has been an exciting part of my Shanghai adventure. I moved here at a time of increasing acceptance for queer people in China, and I can’t see wait to see what this wild city cooks up to offer the LGBT community in the coming years. And don’t fret, my friends: my rainbow tube socks are en route from the U.S. right now, giving me plenty of time to pick out the perfect flannel for Pride.