Chinese student Fei fled to Groningen
‘No one here gives a shit that I’m gay’
It was a warm summer day, and Fei Hong’s mother was supposed to arrive home late. Rebellious, and fearing no one, teenager Fei invited her girlfriend over. Then her mom walked in, mid-kiss, and her life changed forever.
Fei Hong is not her real name. The Chinese student doesn’t want anyone in her home country to know who she is and that she lives in Groningen now. Except for her mom, no one in her family knows that she’s a lesbian.
When her mom found out, she cried for weeks. She thought she had raised a dysfunctional child en begged Fei to go to the hospital, so she could be cured of her disease.
She had known she liked girls from an early age, but, being ashamed, she tried to push those feelings away. Then she fell for her best friend and she couldn’t ignore the truth any longer. ‘She was wearing very thick lip balm, and as a joke she kissed me to smear her lipstick on my face. I was like: wow, oh my god!’
Discrimination against homosexual couples is deeply ingrained in China. In 2009, Fei remembers, certain topics and words were banned on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. ‘Not only those relating to violence and pornography, but also anything to do with LGTB+. The government sent out the message that homosexuality belonged together with drugs and crime.’
The government said that homosexuality belonged together with drugs and crime
It wasn’t always like that. Around the time of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, people were open about LGTB+ topics, Fei says. There were public debates on TV, and radios and newspapers spoke about aids and gay marriage. ‘But now, all that has changed. If you look up information about homosexuality in mainland China, probably the first thing that will pop up is an ad for a therapy to cure you.’
In high school, people talked about her back. ‘They cursed me for being homosexual’, she says. Things didn’t improve after graduation, when she got a job. She had to keep her sexuality a secret. ‘The girl before me in that position was fired because she was a lesbian. And the company wasn’t even Chinese, but European. The people in the higher levels were Chinese, though.’
One good thing that came of that job was that she met her girlfriend there. Even falling in love was dangerous: she worried the girl would report her to her boss and she would get fired, so she had to find out if her work crush also liked girls, without raising suspicion. She dropped hints and asked questions and found that, at the very least, this girl was not against homosexuality. ‘So then I could be more open about it, but I was guessing every day.’
Because they wanted to be together, the two women decided to move to Groningen to continue their studies and live freely. Fei’s mother had eventually come around and supported her. She told Fei never to come back to China, knowing her daughter could never live a full life there. ‘She will not come here though, and she has accepted the fact that we are going to live separate from each other for the rest of our lives.’
Fei expected people in the Netherlands to be very open about homosexuality. ‘Actually, they’re indifferent: being gay or lesbian is not a big deal, no one gives a shit’, she says, laughing. ‘It’s even better than I imagined!’
In the Netherlands, no one gives a shit if you’re gay or lesbian
She also imagined gay couples would kiss and hold hands in the street, like in movies. But she found out that Dutch people don’t really do that, no matter what their sexual orientation is. ‘They’re like, better do it at home. They don’t care, they have no opinion’, she says. ‘They even tell jokes about it.’
One time, she went to her GP and was prescribed a medicine that could inhibit the contraceptive pill’s effect. ‘I won’t get pregnant, I’m a lesbian’, she told the doctor, who responded, jokingly: ‘Well, you never know!’ Fei smiles. ‘I thought that was really funny and shocking.’
But even though she plans on staying in the Netherlands and never going back to China, she still has to deal with difficulties. For starters, she can’t talk to her mom on the phone about her girlfriend. ‘That isn’t safe, because it could be recorded.’
She’s also very careful about who she associates with in Groningen and what she tells people about herself. ‘Someone could report me to the Chinese embassy, and then they would make up any reason and take me. I’d get a warning or a prison sentence and I’d never be able to leave again.’
Someone could report me to the Chinese embassy
It’s not just that she’s a lesbian that makes her a target, but also that she talks about it publicly. ‘In China, people like me have to live in the shadows’, she says. A man and a woman will marry, when in reality, both are dating the same-sex partner of another fake couple. ‘They live next door to each other: when their parents visit, they just switch.’
Although she’s leading a happy life now, Fei recently had an identity crisis. ‘I feel like I don’t belong to the Chinese collective of students in Groningen, but I am obviously not Dutch either.’ That may change in time, she hopes. She wants to stay here with her girlfriend and plans to improve her Dutch, finish her study and find a job.
Fei sometimes feels guilty for leaving behind her old life. ‘My mom used to cry a lot about giving birth to a non-Chinese child, because a Chinese person is patriotic and that means you have to love the Chinese government.’ But all she wants, Fei says, is to live a life where she doesn’t have to hide or lie.
Her mother likes to tell her about the hardships she had to deal with herself, like not having enough food. ‘So what are you whining about, she says.’ But Fei is still rebellious. ‘That I had to leave my country to be myself is something to whine about.’