AS SOON AS I GOOGLED “Chinese porn,” I knew it was a mistake. I’d been living in Guangzhou for six months and in order to Google anything, I had to sign onto a VPN which made it seem like my computer was in LA and not behind the Great Firewall of China. Which meant that when I Googled “Chinese porn,” I got the same search results as some semi- or fully-racist dude in his house in the valley trying to get his solo game on, when what I wanted was the kind of porn someone in China would watch. Chinese-made porn for a Chinese man in China. Totally different.
To find that, I would need to sign out of the VPN, get myself over to the Chinese search engine, and learn how to type porn in Chinese. But would that even work? Could you just Baidu porn in China? Probably not. I’d probably have to go onto the Chinese Dark Web, which I had no idea how to access. Or I could just go back onto the VPN and make my computer think it was in Hong Kong and find porn there. Would Hong Kong-style porn be as pleasing to a man in mainland China as it is to a man in Hong Kong? Do sexual styles and preferences change when you take a train for two hours and then cross a narrow body of water to arrive in another territory? How territorial is porn?
I hadn’t actually watched any porn since a sleepover party in the early ’90s. The porn was on a VHS cassette Becky L. had “borrowed” from her father. When the film started playing, I scooched down in my sleeping bag, and closed my eyes out of fear I was doing something very wrong, and then I fell asleep.
I was under the covers this time too, in the dark, sweaty bed cave I’d made so that the man who did or did not exist, the man who I was watching porn for, the man who was watching me, would not see the porn. That would have ruined it—if he’d seen the porn. Once I realized how hard it would probably be to find genuine Chinese porn, I erased my search history, closed the computer, pretended I had been taking a nap and that I had just woken fresh-faced and eager to do whatever it is that people do all day. That was always the question. What do people do all day? I decided that they take a shower. I took a shower.
My husband had warned me about the cameras before we moved to Guangzhou, saying that there would or wouldn’t be video cameras hidden all over our apartment and that someone in the Chinese government would or wouldn’t be watching us at all times. He told me that there was no point in having a password on my computer because the cameras would see what was on my computer screen. That’s how good the cameras that did or did not exist were.
“Will the person watching us speak English?”
“If there’s a person watching us, he’ll speak English.”
“Will any of these videos end up on the internet?” I asked.
“No, that only happens in Russia,” my husband said.
“That’s all I care about,” I said, and at the time I meant it. What did I care if some man wanted to watch me all day? He’d be watching, I knew, for information. I had been an English major. I had no information. Yes, my husband works for the State Department, but as far as I can tell, he also knows nothing of value.
“The other thing is that we really shouldn’t argue as much. We shouldn’t yell at each other when we’re at home.” I thought this was a joke. “This isn’t a joke.”
The next day I was hanging out with the kids in the playroom of our temporary housing, and I asked a woman who’d lived in Chengdu if she thought that she’d been watched when she was there. I’d met the woman a few times, and when I told her we were moving to Guangzhou she told me cheerfully that I should ask her anything at all about moving to China. She was a few years younger than me, but a more experienced diplomatic spouse. She had that ground-down ease that seems to come when you’ve given in to having no control over your life.
“You know, I never really thought about it, but one night, my husband and I got into a rather loud argument, and while that was happening we heard someone ring the doorbell. It was a man we’d never seen before, and he said that he was there to fix the bathroom. Nothing was broken in the bathroom.”
“That’s weird,” I said.
“I think maybe he was worried about me,” the woman said. For a moment my mind rejected what this woman was trying to tell me. No, why would this very cheerful spouse who I barely knew tell me that her husband was abusing her and that the Chinese government had intervened to save her? By the time I caught up with myself, and realized that yes, she was probably telling me what she was telling me—that her husband was abusing her and maybe I should offer help in some way—she’d already walked away to pick up her fallen toddler, and then she waved goodbye. I never saw her again.
The first few days in Guangzhou, I forgot all about the person who was or was not watching me. I was jet-lagged—far more jet-lagged than the children, which was a new twist. These little creatures who never slept at the right times finally did, but their Boss of Sleep was a walking zombie.
After a few days, my body remembered itself. I slept. I ate. And finally, I had to take a shit. It was then that I remembered the cameras. Sitting there, on the toilet, I thought I could feel someone watching me trying to do what no man had seen me do since I was a small child. It was daytime, and each bathroom had windows with frosted glass and no curtains. I sat on the toilet for twenty minutes not shitting. I had to go, but the deep-seated part of me that didn’t want to be seen taking a shit was winning against the animal part of me that had to take a shit. Eventually I heard screaming in the other room, and I pulled up my pants and ran to separate the children. I waited until the sun set and then took my dump in the dark of night, barely able to tell if I’d properly wiped my ass.
Even when I wasn’t shitting, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched and that the person watching me was a man. I knew that this feeling wasn’t just a feeling. It wasn’t just a strange weight on my skin. A smarting pinch to all my actions. An energized air. It wasn’t a haunting. It was based in fact, this feeling. There were probably cameras in our apartment. And given the demographics of China, it was probably a man watching the feeds.
I thought about the man while I ate. I thought about him when I parented. I thought about him when I napped in the middle of the day. I thought about him when my mother called and I didn’t pick up. I thought about him when I had sex. I thought about him when I didn’t have sex. This man, probably a man, who was watching me, or maybe not—he was always in my thoughts.
And what did the man think about what I was eating? What did he think about the way I spoke to the children? What did he think about the frequency with which my husband and I had sex in the dark? I could only judge myself the way I always had. I wasn’t a man who worked as a spy for his government. I could never know what kind of person he liked to see on the screen, just as I could never understand why some men had wanted me and some hadn’t when I was single.
The kids were at school all day, but I wasn’t alone. My husband came home after doing 200 visa interviews and needed a little time to unwind, but I wasn’t alone. I was seen. And because of this, I did my very best version of a person doing her best. I cooked chicken. I wiped down the walls for dust. I read so many stories to the children that I lost my voice for two hours. I didn’t yell when my daughter tripped me on purpose. Who was this very tired yet lovely person?
After one week of this charade, I was reminded of my sister, who would call me crying after a nasty fight with her nasty boyfriend who’d been cheating on her and blaming her for his cheating, and I’d beg her to break up with him. I’d use all the logic. I’d use all the feelings. And she’d say, with so much resolve, “I’m really going to do it this time,” like a character on a TV show I would never watch. An hour or two later I’d go on Facebook and see that she’d posted a selfie of her and her boyfriend with the caption: “Me and my boo. I love him so much.” Or, “How does a girl get so lucky?”
I found this hideous, to allow your representation of your life to be a complete lie. What is the point? Didn’t she want to be seen for who she was? Who would ever know her?
This man who was or was not watching me was not even my boo, and yet I was making my life a lie. And worse, a lie he probably wasn’t even that into. “Hey boo,” I said to the cameras, “I need to take a shit.”
I’d been living in China a few months before I stopped leaving the house unless absolutely necessary. It wasn’t the moderate air pollution. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get Baidu maps to work on my phone. It wasn’t that I wasn’t up for the challenge of figuring out when it was kosher to bargain and when it wasn’t. It wasn’t the difficulties of crossing a street. It was that every time I left the house, the man who was or wasn’t there couldn’t see me. When I tripped and fell walking by the river or said something perfectly in Chinese or almost got run over by a car—none of it mattered.
But I didn’t want to be this version of a Diplomatic Spouse: she lives her American life in her American bubble. The End. I judged such women. And so at the height of my confinement, I thought of a plan to ruin my relationship with the man who was watching me. I would make myself so disgusting in his eyes that I would feel a burning embarrassment whenever I was at home. This shame would force me out the door.
To start off, I got naked. I don’t consider myself bad-looking, but I know my weak spots, and I exacerbated them. I mushed my stomach skin—permanently stretched out from the pregnancies—as if it were silly putty for a while. Then I cut my toe nails, making sure my old-lady feet were exposed in the harshest light possible. I checked out the dimpled skin of my fattening thighs, thinking that whatever I focused on, he would too. Then I dramatically scratched my butthole. I took a naked dump. And then I lay down on the floor on my back trying to figure out what to do next. I could see that my breasts were sunken into my body and knew that my pubic hairs had long escaped the pubic region. I was full-on gross, and, for a moment, I felt relieved.
Eventually I dressed. While performing my shameful antics, I’d forgotten to drink water, and I had a terrible headache. The second the children entered the apartment, I felt a buildup of all the irritations I’d contained starting to brew into a toxic gas.
“How can I feel proud of you now?” I yelled at some point to my son because he had yelled at my daughter. My son cried. So did my daughter. And so did I, and I felt, finally, completely seen for the monster that I am, a woman who is short with her children and has bad feet and only makes chicken once in a while. I let the shame wash over me and felt not like a weight had been lifted, but that I had stolen the weight back. It had been mine to begin with. The weight of having to be me. In my life. In China.
I’d planned on leaving the apartment, finally released, the moment my husband came home from work, but when I saw my husband, I decided I wanted to have sex with him with the lights on to seal the deal. Let him see, I thought, let him see two middle-aged Americans getting fluids all over each other with middling enthusiasm.
After the kids went down, I initiated things with my husband. But instead of having a variation on the sex we’d been having for fifteen years, I was inventive. And so was he. We tried positions we’d never tried before, and even the old go-tos felt different. There was that charge again—the thrill of knowing someone might be watching—but instead of a weight, it added a lightness. A newness. I had been perfect. Then I had been gross. And now what was I?
I was anything. I was a comedian one day, telling jokes to the walls in a Borscht Belt accent. Then I was learning how to play the piano using my son’s keyboard. I was crafty, making origami cranes with the children after school. I was sexy. I was mean. The man took it all in, and he also gave it all back. I was amplified. My meaning rebounded.
I lived like this for months. I stopped feeling bad about never leaving the apartment. I stopped judging the other spouses who did the same. I understood.
“You never really know a person,” my sister said to me after her terrible boyfriend broke up with her. I didn’t rub it in. I didn’t say, “I knew him this whole time, you fool.” That is not how sisters talk to each other. I repeated what she said, “You’re right, you never really know a person.” But I was thinking, The man knows me.
The man knew me, he must have known me. He saw every inch of me. Every moment of my life. He wasn’t there to judge. He was there to hear if my husband told me about CIA agents working undercover at State (he didn’t) or to see if one of us had an affair he could use against us (we didn’t, I think). But did he love me? My sister’s boyfriend clearly hadn’t loved her. Or if he had, his love was meaningless. It had zero effect on his actions. He’d had the opportunity to show that he loved my sister, and he’d either been incapable of that or hadn’t loved her.
Maybe I needed to give the man watching me the opportunity to love me. The chance to know that he could feel toward me anything he would naturally feel after watching me all this time. I couldn’t tell him he could love me. Not only had my husband told me that I was supposed to act as though I didn’t know about the cameras at all times, but I knew that I would not be able to handle the silence: the silence of speaking directly to a man I’d been speaking to in my head for months and hearing no response like a knife in the back.
The only way I could think of telling the man that he could love me, if he wanted, was to give him something. And so I decide to do porn for him. To put on a sexy show. To show him what he’d seen every day—my body—but in a new way that was for him. I wanted to show him that I was for him, if he wanted. And that’s why I Googled “Chinese porn.” For research. To make sure I did it right.
After the failed attempt to Google the right kind of porn and the shower, I walked around the apartment naked for a little while. Our apartment was on the fifteenth floor and faced no other tall buildings, just a river on one side and a garden on the other. No one could see in. Suddenly, for the first time in China, I didn’t feel naked. I didn’t feel anyone watching me. I didn’t feel a tightness in my stomach. A tinge. A flush. A shame. I didn’t feel myself echoing around in the mind of another.
And then I felt something worse than shame. What if there were no cameras? What if this whole time, I’d made the man up? What if I’d made myself up for no one? Did no one know me?
I knew where the cameras were or weren’t. All of the rooms had small ledges running along the walls a foot below the ceiling where the lighting sat—a line of fluorescent light bulbs that, at night, reflected in the windows. Once, after a rare outing, I’d come home to find a man “changing the light bulbs,” but he had taken no spent light bulbs away with him. I believed then that he’d been fixing a camera.
Until that moment, I hadn’t minded that we didn’t have a ladder in the storage room. When anything broke, we just called the front desk of the building complex, and soon after a repair man or Chinese spy came and took care of it.
And so I pulled a chair from the dining room table just below where the man hadn’t changed the light bulb. I stood up on the chair, but I was still way too short to see what was on the shelf. I got back down, grabbed some books, and put the chairs’ legs on the books. I still couldn’t see. I remembered the little stepstool in the bathroom my daughter used so she could reach the sink to wash her hands, and I went and got it.
I was standing like this: naked, perched atop a stool, a chair, and several books, still unable to see onto the shelf where the cameras were or probably were or weren’t when I finally hoisted my weight up to my tippy toes and immediately lost my balance and fell far and hard right onto my ass, elbow, and head. I couldn’t move. And then I realized that I could, but I didn’t. I lay there, as still as possible, pain throbbing through all of me, waiting to see if the man who was or was not there would or would not come to save me.
JENNIFER KRONOVET is the author of two poetry collections, most recently The Wug Test (Ecco). As Jennifer Stern, she co-translated Empty Chairs, the poetry of Chinese writer Liu Xia, and she also co-translated The Acrobat, the selected poems of Yiddish writer Celia Dropkin. She edits Circumference Books.