A new book called China In Drag, by BBC editor Michael Bristow, provides an insightful glimpse into China’s colourful history and current way of life, woven together by the adventures he shared with his cross-dressing Chinese teacher.
I interviewed Michael to find out about his time spent living and working in China and how a cross-dressing Chinese pensioner shaped his experience there.
Firstly Michael, I loved your book! I’d say there’s probably no other story like it. When you arrived in China seven years ago, I bet you never imagined that a cross-dressing male Chinese pensioner, who taught you Mandarin, would provide the backdrop to a book you would pen?
I didn’t know what to imagine when I arrived in China with my wife and baby son in 2005.
We went to study Chinese. We didn’t know what we’d do afterwards, but we were ready for any adventure that we could find.
So, in some ways, writing a story about a cross-dressing Chinese pensioner fitted in with that very broad agenda.
That’s the beauty of travelling; you never know what’s going to happen to you.
China In Drag, a story about a cross-dressing Chinese teacher, is out now.
When the cross-dressing teacher agreed to be included in the book, did he have any idea how he’d be portrayed?
The short answer to that is, no. But I think we are good enough friends for him to feel comfortable to allow me to portray him in any way I want.
He presumably thought our friendship was strong enough that he didn’t have to vet what I wrote.
You say that it’s not always easy for foreigners to form real, deep friendships with Chinese people. Given many foreign English teachers only stay in China for one or two years, what advice can you give them to help them make friends with Chinese people?
You cannot always force friendship on people, but make a start by getting to know as many Chinese people as possible and listen to what they have to say.
Friendships will hopefully grow naturally from that. Getting to know Chinese people also enriches a foreigner’s experience of China.
What was it like meeting the so-called Father of Pinyin, Zhou Youguang? (Note to readers: pinyin is a writing system that allows Chinese characters to be written in the Roman alphabet, making them easier to pronounce.)
It was a very humbling experience, particularly because by the time I met him he was already well over 100 and had seen and done so much.
Zhou Youguang was a very modest man and played down what was by anyone’s measure a most remarkable life, full of achievement.
His work has benefitted so many people, but it didn’t go to his head.
Author of China In Drag, Michael Bristow, met the Father of Pinyin while living in China.
You mention that spitting in China has only in recent years started to become taboo in Chinese society. What other changes did you notice during your seven years in China?
That’s a difficult question to answer because there were so many changes happening in China while I was there. Really big, important things, such as the reduction in poverty and the increasing opportunities people now enjoy.
In terms of cultural differences, I think the more China is connected to the outside world, the more people’s habits come into line with what other foreigners do and think. That works in reverse too; we learn from Chinese people.
I think you sum up the contradictions of China perfectly: “Contradictions can be found in all places, but I always felt they seem to exist more happily together in China. A person could do or say one thing one day and the opposite the next day, without any sense of hypocrisy.” How do you suggest foreigners navigate this quirk of China, especially ESL teachers?
I don’t advise this with everything a person encounters in their lives, but I think if you are going to be in China for only a shortish time you have to accept that things are going to be different from home, and you just have to put up with them, and enjoy learning about the differences.
That’s part of the fun of travelling; finding out about the different ways people live their lives.
Back to the cross-dressing Chinese teacher. You say you were disappointed the teacher had not confided in you earlier. Why is that? And what do you think was the straw that broke the camel’s back?
No one likes to think their friends are keeping something from them, however sensitive the subject; that’s why I was initially a bit disappointed with the teacher.
In the end I think he told me because he came to trust me enough. I don’t think it was one incident that led him to that conclusion; he must have felt more confident with me over time.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the teacher realised China had thousands of people – or more – who liked to cross-dress. Do you know if there’s been any research done on this? Is the plight of a cross-dressing Chinese bleak or bright?
I didn’t come across any specific work related to cross-dressers, although as I mentioned in my book the UN has sponsored work with Chinese NGOs into how people treat those with sexual and gender differences.
Groups are forming across China, so I’m sure their experiences will be shared and there will be more research in the future.
I found it sad that the teacher isn’t 'out' to all of his family. To me it shows that face is still uber-important in China, more so than being able to express yourself freely and openly. Do you think it’s also a generational thing, which will hopefully change? And do you think the teacher will ever be comfortable cross-dressing in front of his family?
Face is extremely important in China, more than any visitor can imagine at the beginning of their trip.
I’m not sure people will change too much in the near future either; it’s too engrained in society.
Face is very important in China and engrained in society, according to Michael Bristow.
I once read a book written by a Chinese commentator in the 1930s and he said face and guanxi (connections) were the two things that had to change if China was really to modernise.
I think that still holds true, although I hope things will change with each passing generation.
You say “In China there’s no strong religious challenge to those who deviate from the norm. Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism are largely silent on these [sexual orientation and gender expression] issues.” If that’s the case then why aren’t there more cross-dressers in China?
The objections, as I see it, don’t come from religion, but from the government, which is wary about allowing any group, whatever their members stand for, promoting their cause too overtly.
China’s leaders also promote standard family values as a way to keep society stable, something that continues prejudice against minority views.
Before you went to China you had a mental image of what the country would look like, but the real China rarely lived up to those expectations. With that in mind, how can people coming to China for the first time (like English teachers) best prepare?
China is not the country of the traditional scenes painted on plates, and cups and sauces.
In the cities at least, it is now very modern, even the bicycles that everyone had not too long ago have now largely disappeared, although bike-sharing companies means they are making a comeback.
But even though China looks modern it doesn’t mean to say people don’t think very differently to Westerners.
I had a laugh reading about the teacher’s excitement when his family had their first telephone installed in the early 1990s, only then to be annoyed by the constant disruptions it brought him. Thinking about China’s meteoric economic transformation over the past few decades, and its people’s insatiable demand for consumer goods and a better life, what do you think the next paradigm shift will be?
Another difficult question.
China’s leaders have seen the future and realised that technology will change everything about the way we live, and it’s trying to become a world leader in scientific innovation. Look how they have leaped beyond credit card payments to buying things with your mobile.
China is leading the way when it comes to paying on your phone.
It’s hard to guess at what the next change will be, but you’ll probably see it first in China.
You list pollution in China as one of the main reasons for leaving the country. Had pollution not been an issue, do you think you would have stayed much longer?
I don’t think so. I spent nearly eight years in China and had decided to come home for many reasons; the most important being that I wanted my children to go to school in Britain.
Finally, will you see the teacher again?
I'm hoping to see him this year.