Rethinking Romeo & Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is, of course, the iconic ‘love story’ in our culture. But now I think it’s appeal comes from something other than passionate love…

Meanwhile, Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is the most popular Chinese-language novel primarily about a romantic relationship.

When I first saw someone suggest that Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is to the Chinese-speaking world what Romeo and Juliet is to the English-speaking world, I disagreed because the stories are so different. Sure, both are about a passionately romantic relationship, are melodramatic, and have noteworthy sword fights. But the characters and storylines are quite different.

However, after seeing that Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ gets referenced in Chinese-language media the same way that Romeo and Juliet gets referenced in English-language media, I am starting to think that the people who compare them have a point.

And that made me wonder … why Romeo and Juliet? Why Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ? Why not one of the zillion other stories of passionate love out there?

I’m starting to think it’s not so much because the characters are so passionately in love with each other. I’m starting to think it’s because of the characters’ relationship with their societies.

In Romeo and Juliet, the main characters are going against Verona’s social norms. In Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ, the main characters are going against Chinese social norms. Presumably, the characters are resisting their societies’ values because their love for each other is that strong (though the main character in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ, having previously been homeless, also seems to think that since society failed him him, he doesn’t need to listen to society).

Every society I’m familiar with has a set of rules and taboos about what kinds of relationships are acceptable. Many of these rules and taboos are irrational, and make a lot of people suffer. Yet many people still feel obliged to comply. I think Romeo and Juliet and Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ are so iconic not because the characters are so passionately in love with each other, but because they are brave enough to resist arbitrary social rules and pursue their own personal happiness.

Of course, while Romeo and Juliet are breaking their society’s rules, they aren’t breaking our society’s rules, so it’s okay. While some socially conservative people don’t approve of what the characters in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ do, most people in the Chinese-speaking world think it’s okay (at least, the young people think it’s okay). If the characters were breaking the rules in a more radical way, they would be too dangerous to go mainstream.

Since Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ has never been published in any European language, the only way to read the novel in English is this fan translation. There are actually some interesting asexual themes in the story. I might write some posts analyzing the asexual content, if I think people would actually read them.

This is Difficult for Me to Say

Trigger warning: sexual harassment

I have been a victim of sexual harassment.

This is difficult for me to say.

I considered it to be a minor form of sexual harassment. In fact, in order to shield myself psychologically, I told myself it was just a misunderstanding. But deep down, I knew what it was.

Why did I want to tell myself that it was not sexual harassment?

Well, as I discussed last week, society has some really messed up ideas about sexual purity. While it’s easy for me to reject these ideas academically, rejecting them when it’s personal and I feel vulnerable is not so easy. It felt that, if I admitted, even to myself, that I were a victim of sexual harassment, that it would be some kind of horrible, shameful stain on myself.

And that’s rubbish.

The fact that I was the victim of sexual harassment? That says nothing about my character. That says absolutely nothing about my character. It does say something significant about the character of the harasser.

And this is a characteristic of rape culture – it’s the victim who gets ‘dirty’, is blamed, shamed, etc … and the perpetrator stays ‘clean’, as people either ignore the perpetrator, or ‘splain away the perpetrators actions. I did this myself in my head ‘oh, he probably wasn’t aware that he was making me uncomfortable…’ (yeah, let’s ignore the fact that he was in a position of authority over me, which meant I was hesitant to confront him directly, and he would have had to have been astonishingly clueless to not know that his behavior made me uncomfortable).

I think this might be the single most messed up thing about the way society perceives sexual purity. Though I think it’s wrong to shame consenting adults for doing harmless things, at least consenting adults have control over whether or not conform to society’s ideas. Victims of sexual harassment (or worse) don’t have that control … and this ‘sexual purity’ even lets the perpetrators off the hook.

I had assumed that I was alone. Then I overheard that he had sexually harassed some other people. I hadn’t realized that I had potential allies. If I had known, maybe I would have handled the situation a little differently. Then again, he was in a position of authority, so maybe not.

The more I read about cultural change, the more I think that people telling their stories is an essential part of the process. My story is not nearly as horrible as many of the other stories out there … but no matter how ‘minor’ the sexual harassment was, it was still unacceptable. And if adding my own little voice dislodges rape culture by even a thousandth of a hair, then post will have been worth writing.


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Virgins Don’t Exist

When I was in high school, I had a classmate who claimed that virgins don’t exist.

My first thought when I first heard him declare ‘Virgin’s Don’t Exist’ was ‘Excuse me, I am a virgin” (I didn’t say this out loud, I just said it in my head).

But as I got to know him and his life philosophy better, I understood that he was critiquing the idea of virginity itself.

He didn’t mean that there weren’t people who had never had sex. That would have been ridiculous. What he meant is that people who have had sex are not fundamentally different from people who have not had sex, therefore the concept of virginity should not exist.

And the more I think about ‘virginity’, the more messed up I think the idea is. In every culture that I am familiar with, the notions of ‘virginity’ and ‘chastity’ are based on some really messed-up ideas.

(Trigger warning for this paragraph only: potential fictional sexual assault)

For example, in Mandarin there is a word (thankfully old-fashioned and rare, but it is still used), ‘zhēnliè’. When I encountered this word in a novel, some characters were claiming that a certain female character was not zhēnliè because she let her kidnappers have sex with her instead of committing suicide (actually, her kidnappers did not have sex with her, but that is beside the point). I think it is incredibly messed up that women would be expected to prevent being raped by committing suicide, and that if they prefer being raped to dying, they are somehow bad people or responsible for the situation (which is what these characters were implying).

Thankfully, there is no word for zhēnliè in English (though I must point out that there are respects in which Mandarin is a much less sexist language than English).

I know ideas about virginity and chastity are changing (for example, in the past, the word ‘virgin’ could only apply to females). But even today, it is still a) tied to the assumption that almost everybody should have sex (losing one’s virginity is supposed to be an important event in one’s life), b) that certain kinds of sex are illicit, and the criteria are not based on rational things like consent and power (im)balances, and c) slut-shaming (which feeds into rape culture).

While I suppose it is technically possible to adapt the idea of virginity into something that is not sexist, not supportive of rape culture, and inclusive of asexuals … why bother? Would a gender-equal culture, based on mutual respect and inclusive of the full range of sexual and gender diversity, really need the concept? Couldn’t we just say that somebody has little or no sexual experience, and leave it at that?

I’d rather just throw the idea of virginity in the trash.

Which makes me wonder how I’d answer if somebody asked ‘Are you a virgin?’ I could reply ‘none of your business’, but I might say ‘no, but I’ve never had sex’.

Language Learning and Perpetual Childhood

When people ask me why I’m learning Chinese, I usually offer superficial answers. I think I have never answered by explaining my deepest, truest reason – I want to grow up again. I want to grow up into a different person, using a different language.

This article in the Economist notes that being a foreigner (by choice) is a bit like returning to childhood – the world is new and fresh. This is true.

It has also been noted that when one takes up a new language, it’s like becoming a child again – not knowing how to speak or read, not being able to articulate mature thoughts, having to listen the adults/native-speakers/teachers tell you about what you did wrong. This is also true. However, in language learning circles I have usually seen this expressed as a frustration “Ahhh! I’m like a child again, I’ll never grow up, gahh!” I, on the other hand, think that this is part of why I find language learning so rewarding.

I have been able to articulate and decipher complex thoughts in the English language for a long, long time. The language is no longer fresh to me. Well, sometimes English feels just a little fresh to me when I’m with people learning English. To them, English is still a new way of expressing thoughts, and the feeling rubs off on me.

My own ‘real’ childhood was a mixed bag. There were times when I was happy, but there were also times I was very unhappy. Some of that unhappiness came from my lack of power over life. My ‘current’ childhood is much happier. I have a lot more freedom, and I am much more in control. Even learning Chinese is going much more smoothly than when I learned English (then again, I have expressive language disorder, which made learning how to speak English a bit tougher for me than most native speakers).

Sure, I didn’t particularly like being a beginner in Chinese – I actually do not find basic Chinese that interesting, and not being able to read a simple street sign is quite frustrating. But once my Chinese got to an intermediate level, I appreciated more and more of the language’s subtleties, and could start to feel a sense of wonder about it. And discovering Chinese language novels – particularly the wuxia genre – has brought back the feelings I had when I first discovered English language novels – particularly the fantasy genre. I’ve written a bit about this in my posts about Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero.

Eventually, if I keep studying and praticing Chinese, I’ll grow up an function in the language like an educated adult. Then there are the other languages in the world … I could keep returning to childhood for centuries. Obviously, since I don’t have centuries, I have to be picky. Maybe I’ll find another way to return to childhood.

However I do it, I do intend to keep returning to childhood for as long as I live.

I Want This Study Done on Asexuals!

I recently read about a study done on women and men about how they perceive men and women’s bodies differently.

How Our Brains See Men as People and Women as Body Parts: Both Genders Process Images of Men, Women Differently

First of all, I am curious how I would score on this study. I’m the kind of person who can’t remember the color of people’s eyes (regardless of gender), so I suspect I look at everybody globally. Well, that’s not true … I probably look at visibly gender-queer in a local way. Whatever my rational thinking says about genderqueer people, I did grow up in a society which enforces the gender binary, so whenever I encounter somebody who is obviously queering that I subconsciously do break them down into parts. I would like to change this.

So you know what? I don’t just want a study which analyzes whether asexuals see women locally just like the general population. I’d like studies to be done on as many queer groups as possible. It would help explain how queer people are like straight people … or not like them. And it would help refine hypotheses about why the general population looks at women differently than how they look at men.