I met Jia on a Japanese gay dating app called Nine Monsters. Like me, he was from China – a 21-years-old freshman at a university in Tokyo, Japan. I was in Japan for a gap year, after spending the three years before in a biology laboratory studying my masters degree. At that time, we lived close to each other, in Jiyugaoka. “Jiyugaoka” means “the hill of freedom”. It i’s a comfortable, middle- class area, with many stylish cafés located nearby. An oddity amongst Tokyo’s many suburbs, it felt more like Europe than it did of Asia, with streetscapes inspired by Venice and Paris hidden amongst Japanese-style residential houses and narrow roads. It was rainy when I went there in the Sspring of 2017. Locals were enjoying the falling cherry blossoms, gently reflected in the puddles of water along the road they drifted into. The rain was heavy for a while. Then it stopped.
He messaged asking to meet me in front of the train station. I remembered the perfume he wore on that frosty afternoon – Acqua di Gio, the water of youth.
I’ve forgotten how the conversation started. Probably, we discussed the weather, then talked about the previous dates I’d had in China. I had met different types of gay people during my time in China. And I had used different Chinese gay dating apps. The last person I met before travelling abroad was an international student from a Muslim family in Kenya. He spoke better English than me. Before him, I thought cosmopolitan was just the title of a magazine.
My new friend in Japan said he didn’t have as much experience as me and laughed.
We first went to a soup pasta shop called Conana. Under the rays of the day’s waning light, the city was golden, and the road filled with people rushing to and about. There were no high-rise buildings in that area, so my mind was distracted by the sunset. The sunset dyed the sky orange, then inked the clouds slowly like a luminous watercolour.
After dinner, Jia suggested going back to my place.
Raindrops fell into black night. We were walking under the yellow street light. Some bars were preparing to open, and some shops were closing.
He was quiet and walked swiftly.
I realised that he might want to see me only for a sexual encounter.
“Do we need condoms?” I asked.
“Maybe, yes”, he said.
We stopped halfway to my place at a 7-11. The cold white light glowed through the window. Staff carefully set a box of condoms into a small paper bag and printed the receipt for me. On the surface of the bag, I saw a line written in Japanese: throw it alone within the bag after use. I wondered if it was referring to the condom or the hookup. Either way, the message was clear: be secretive.
My apartment was a modern Japanese style loft room. I could see the neighbour’s living room from the window because of the short distance between buildings. They were watching television without any sound by reading the subtitles.
“Anything for you?” I checked the fridge.
He looked stressed and stood beside the bed. No chair was in the room.
I took a seat on the bed. He got close to me but was still standing.
I suggested he sit. He sat down by facing a different direction without eye-contact and put his arm around my back. He whispered that he had tried sex before, but it had been terrible.
“We don’t have to,” I said. “We can chill and talk about anything you want.”
He kissed me and held me tightly.
When I touched him, I found his body was built better than I’d thought.
“You’ve got nice muscles.”
“Yes, I went to a Chinese Kung-Fu school as a child.”
“Really? The training must be very tough.”
“My mum noticed I was a little bit different and sent me there.”
“So, you came out as gay to her?”
“No, I didn’t. My mother thought I’d become normal after physical training.”
“I came out to my mother in high school,” I said.
“I want a mother like yours,” he replied.
That was not the first time that I’d told my story.
My mother looks younger than she is. Although she had a boyfriend in college before she met my father, she believed her personality was more attractive than her appearance. When she was in her mid-thirties, my mother stopped using any make-up or wearing any accessories. She cut her hair short, which made her look younger than she is.
My mother knows how to enjoy life. Some of her female colleagues worked as Avon ladies or sales for other brands during their time off work. But she took me to the park on weekends. We’d watched a movie together and then talk about it.
There are long winters in my hometown, which makes the autumn short like a beautiful gift. When you finally open it, you realise it’s gone. It was a Sunday afternoon in the autumn of 2005, my first year in high school. I put a DVD on in our drawing-room. The sunshine was bright and warm, so I had to block it by drawing the curtain.
“So, what do you think of the movie?” I asked my mother when the DVD stopped playing.
“It was touching. Have I watched some television drama with the same actor?”
“The film has two leading male actors,”I said.
“Both actors are great. I can see the passion between them. But also, the tension,” she said.
It was a film called Lan-Yu, a Chinese movie about a romance between two men.
“Are you open to the possibility that one day I’ll get into a relationship like them? I mean, with a boy.”
“Why not? Have fun when you are young,” my mother said.
I didn’t like the concept of “coming out”. I couldn’t hide somewhere because there was no place to do so. When I was in primary school, I was verbally bullied by school kids because of my soft voice. But I became immune to horrible words, and somehow still managed to have a decent school life. When I grew taller than other kids, their verbal bullying became muted. Instead, they invited me to play basketball with them. However, I turned them down. It was not easy to trust someone who’d once said horrible words to you.
Years later, one guy in my class had a crush on me. His feelings scared him, so he made up stories about how I’d taken advantage of him sexually, but I don’t think having lunch together in the cafeteria fits the definition of having sex in any culture. It was in the final year of my bachelor’s degree. He gave me a lesson about homophobia. Some classmates treated me better like I was very fragile in this situation, but more classmates gazed upon me like I was dangerous. Most students on both sides enjoyed the juicy rumours.
My parents also heard about the situation from their friends. My parents’ friends had heard from their children who were also at my university. At that time, my parents went to the gym together after work. My father didn’t know my mother had known about my sexuality since high school, and he told her not to worry. The conversation occurred in a taxi on the way home. According to my mother, he said it was normal for two men to live together like a couple. He didn’t use the term homosexuality. “But you knew your father’s attitude on your sexuality,” my mother said.
Two days after that first night date with Jia, we went to a queer gift shop together in the Shinjuku Ni-Chome, Tokyo’s famous gay quarter. It was a very short road which people could easily miss while walking by. On the outside wall was an advertising campaign poster celebrating same-sex love. The two of us stood in front.
He didn’t mention anything about his father, but he showed his mother’s photo to me on his phone screen. She stood with pride in the middle of several young students at an academic conference.
“My mother is tough. She is a professor at a university,” he said.
He showed me his student card.
“Do you think my name is like a girl’s name?” he asked.
Then his mother’s phone call interrupted us.
“Keep silent because my mom is calling on the phone,” he said.
I left him alone with his phone. I saw a small sculpture of Buddha bundled with rope. I took that to the cashier.
After the phone call was over, he came back, his gaze carefully avoiding the covers of gay porn DVDs in the store.
“How was your mom on the phone?”
“She said she can send more money monthly if I get a girlfriend.”
“Cool. Have one.”
“I just told you what she said –- more money monthly if I get a girlfriend”
Then he took me to a cinema for the movie Moonlight. He cried at the end of the film. We walked on the street at midnight.
“Let’s do something that we can’t do in my hometown. Like walking hand-in-hand,” he suggested.
“I think it’s okay in China,” I said.
“But the feeling is different,” he replied.
“What do you feel now?”
He blushed and didn’t say anything. I felt his hand sweating.
“Why did you cry at the end of the movie?” I asked, trying to break the silence that had grown between us. Under our own moonlight, tinged with neon from the lights around us, Jia turned around and looked at me.
“They didn’t get together in the end,” he said, as we continued walking into the night.