I called Jimmy last Thursday at his office to confirm that our third trip to the local administrative offices to renew our Chinese visas, residence and work permits would be coming off without a hitch that afternoon. The first two trips had been annoyingly futile because the "system" was down. "Not to worry," he reassured me, "the Immigration Bunny will get there early to make sure the computers are working." As he sat in his low-walled cube several co-workers nodded in recognition. Everyone knew who Jimmy was talking about when he mentioned the Immigration Bunny.
Jimmy works for an American company which is building a new factory here in Dalian, China. While we are living here, our immigration business is facilitated by a third-party company who gathers and completes most of the paperwork and only bothers us to show up when passports and warm bodies are needed. Normally Mr. Li meets us and guides us through the simple process of showing our faces to the police. But lately Mr. Li has been accompanied by an assistant, the Immigration Bunny. She is, like many of the northern Chinese, very tall and skinny. Quite attractive. The cold weather lately prompted her to put on a short white fur coat, black miniskirt, black patterned tights, and stiletto-heeled white boots covered in strips of white fur. In America, she would be getting offers from slow-rolling cars. In Northeast China, she is one of many who dress this way. My Southern belle Mama would've called it trashy or flashy or both. Big hair is often involved. And yet this is a woman with a fairly staid job, mostly dealing with grim-faced policemen in uniform who sit behind desks all day. No one blinks an eye.
One of the more fascinating subjects for the outsider to ponder in China is sex and the strangely mixed signals (to a foreigner) that seem to be emanating from the Chinese regarding sex. I don't pretend to understand sexual norms in any country, but I often note how different they are between China and my native U.S. I wonder, am I picking up the right signal? Am I just applying my foreign standards inappropriately? Comparing apples and oranges, or, er, melons?
In contrast to the flashy clothing, there is a cutesy nature to the behavior of young Chinese women. A young woman dressed like the Immigration Bunny might seem simultaneously provocative and childlike. She might carry a Hello Kitty purse, for example. And while the China Daily featured headlines earlier this year about the Nanjing professor jailed for organizing orgies, this week the Global Times highlighted the fact that homosexuality hasn't been classified as a mental illness in China since 2001. So which is it, China? Open? Not open? The contradictions are everywhere. My otherwise bland Chinese neighborhood features not one, not two, but three stores labeled "sex shop." But, among the other common epithets thrown at Americans on Chinese message boards, "pornographer" is very popular. We have pornography, they have sex shops sans pornography, because pornography is strictly illegal in China. I clearly need to investigate more.
Ok, some investigation has already been done. We are indeed pornographers. I've verified it. (As a former telecom engineer I thanked my lucky stars every day for it.) So the cognitive dissonance of American life is that we can both tolerate a thriving pornography industry and mock women for "trashy" clothing; in Chinese life it is that a young woman can be simultaneously childlike and provocative. But, ick, as a woman, I don't know which one bothers me more.
So it is time to investigate the sex shops. Today, I can only muster the nerve to lurk outside and take photos. Maybe I can decipher the Chinese characters (the only English is "sex shop") on the signs. If I Google them, will my apartment be raided?
And by the way, the cop behind the immigration desk was very attractive. Tall and serious. So at least Americans and Chinese have this in common: uniforms are hot. I could only manage a photo of a photo of him and not a particularly flattering one at that. So you'll have to trust me.