One Chinese word that’s guaranteed to make my husband laugh is sāo (骚). Most Chinese-English dictionaries translate the meaning he’s thinking of as “flirty” or “coquettish” — words that don’t come close to describing what’s really on his mind.
I’ll never forget that first apartment John and I rented in Cleveland, an apartment that schooled me in the true meaning of sāo.
One afternoon, while in the bedroom, I suddenly heard the unmistakable moaning through a heating vent. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” she screamed, a phrase that rose in volume with every creak and bounce of their bed. I couldn’t believe the show from my first-floor neighbors — either because it had been years since I lived in the US, or perhaps because all of my previous apartment or dormitory-style buildings had much thicker walls. Of course, I couldn’t help but tell John, who smirked when he finally heard the girl’s screams. Not long after, he gave the two girls downstairs a new nickname — sāo qīngnián (骚青年). Qingnian means youth or young person. But sāo, as I came to discover, is also a way to describe people who are more uninhibited when it comes to sex.
Our first floor neighbors weren’t the last to regale us with their sexual escapades — and remind John of the word sāo . We also had an upstairs neighbor who started dating a guy. One afternoon, while John was working in our office, he heard a banging noise upstairs, as if someone was running on a treadmill. But once he heard a guy’s loud groan at the very end of the banging, John realized it wasn’t the sort of “working out he had imagined. We’ve also done our share of camping in parks all across the United States — and heard our share of outdoor exhibitionists, “sāo” folks who boinked out loud, complete with tents that shook with ecstasy.
In a way, though, perhaps it’s easy for John to see the “sāo” in my country. Many Chinese still view America through a “Sex and the City” filter, believing that our sex lives are as spicy and salacious as the plotlines in that popular series (even though, for most of us, it’s not the reality). “But it’s not as though people in China don’t do crazy things in bed,” I once said to him. “Maybe the difference is, in China it’s more hidden at times, harder to see.”
Meanwhile, years of living in the US have uncovered sides of my husband I never saw in China — such as how he’s the one who suggested we buy that Nerve.com Position Of The Day Playbook: Sex Every Day In Every Way, or how he dared to kiss me in public last summer in a crowded bus station in Hangzhou, China. While I don’t know that he’ll ever be as “sāo” as the neighbors we’ve known in the US, I am certain of one thing — he’s never been more sexy to me, in any language.