My neighbor Yinyin
October 31, 2023

I want to write more about Yinyin. I’ve written about her before, but I referred to her solely by the first letter of her surname. For some reason I felt the need to protect her identity. There’s of course no need for that — the number of people who know who she is and are reading my blog is vanishingly low, and on the unlikely chance that any of those people are reading this, they’d be able to figure out who I’m talking about regardless of what I call her.

I mentioned previously that Yinyin’s apartment is filled with clothes, but I didn’t mention that the reason for this: she’s a fashion designer. She takes clothes, then mutates them in some way so she can sell them on Taobao. Hoodies get their hoods turned into massive Cthulu masks. Shoes get turned into handbags that zip back into shoes, in case one your shoes gets stolen by some sick shoe-collecting pervert at a party and you need a backup shoe.

Sometimes influencers discover Yinyin and make videos denouncing her as a misogynist. The first instance of this that I was around for was over some diaper looking thing Yinyin had made. Someone said that it was clearly a chastity belt (贞操带) for reasons that are quite mysterious to me. This resulted in all the influencer’s followers attacking her, posting her address, and making all sorts of threats. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Why can’t people just wear their weird ragged garments that look like they’ve been dragged through the streets without strangers ascribing some misogynistic motive to the clothing? Even if it was a chastity belt, I don’t really get what’s wrong with that. I mean, it’s true that I have a very hazy notion of what a chastity belt is — though I suspect the average person on the internet has an even hazier notion than I do. It’s clear just looking at pictures of the thing that it wouldn’t do a very good job of keeping anyone chaste. If anything, I would have guessed it was some kind single-use shorts that one could easily tear off should they ever be in a sexual situation that demands nudity with a speed conventional shorts and underwear cannot provide.

That said, for all the people who hate Yinyin, she also has a lot of fans.

One of my girlfriend’s many jobs is as a photographer’s assistant. This particular photographer does ads for fancy French fashion companies. The photoshoots for these ads have all sorts of people involved beyond just the photographer and her team. There’s the people representing the client (who often represent several foreign clients) as well as miscellaneous people hired for the peculiarities of each photoshoot. So Xiaoxi is constantly running into strangers one might deem fashionable. At one of these photoshoots, some boy with a massive blow-dried mullet the color of rainbow sherbet was wearing the same shirt as her — the same shirt that I’m wearing now as I type this — an oversized sports-jersey-like shirt with a giant red-hot Dwarfen-smithed mythril band encircling a lobster emerging from an explosion. The lobster’s dark pink exoskeleton looks vaguely like the sinewey biceps of a brain that’s escaped from its hosts body and taken to going to the gym five days a week.

Xiaoxi and this real-life Final Fantasy character got talking. It turned out he knew all about Yinyin — as well as Xiaoxi’s other fashion designer friend, Mianmian. He’d just moved to Shanghai and didn’t have very many friends, so Xiaoxi started inviting him to parties she DJ’d at. She gave him Mianmian’s Wechat, and he immediately sent her 50 messages about who knows what. Xiaoxi was going to give him Yinyin’s Wechat too, but Yinyin refused to talk to him. Instead Xiaoxi brought him to the house in secret when Yinyin was out. When he walked into the living room for the first time and saw the racks upon racks of clothes he got all excited and asked if we were taking him into Yinyin’s bedroom.

Spending everyday in the presence of Yinyin is perhaps a privilege that many would die for, yet I am constantly wasting it. When I first started finding myself in this apartment the three of shared, Yinyin made quite an effort to talk to me. She told me all about “the man who folds blankets” (叠被男), a man she’d had a drunken one night stand (约炮) with, who was so polite as to fold the blanket for her the next morning without her asking him to. In fact, she had no way to ask: he was an Australian who spoke no Chinese, and she speaks no English. She told me all this within 30 minutes of meeting me. I asked her if it was awkward having sex with someone without being able to speak the same language. She told me she never feels awkward. Throughout this whole conversation she was constantly flapping her arms Chicken-dance-style. This is an exercise/stretch she often does.

(I met the Australian a few days later. He was the gentlest person I’ve ever talked to. As these things often go, Yinyin eventually determined there could be no love between them so they ended all interaction.)

I find Yinyin’s escapades, the crusades against her, and her multitude of internet crusades against her all quite fascinating. However, often when she brings this stuff up to Xiaoxi while I’m in their vicinity, she always remarks that I’m probably not interested and says she doesn’t want to bore me. I think I squandered the first month after meeting Yinyin, when she was using every opportunity she got to talk to me. My spoken Chinese was still bad back then, and I had trouble understanding her heavily Fujian-accented Mandarin, especially when she wasn’t speaking to me directly. She’s the person who never feels awkward, while I’m eternally in a state of discomfort. When Xiaoxi, with her very-easy-for-me-to-understand Standard Mandarin, wasn’t around to help me navigate encounters with Yinyin, I often hid in Xiaoxi’s room or sat at Xiaoxi’s desk with headphones on. Eventually Yinyin discovered I was avoiding her. There was a period where I thought she hated me. After about a month of this, after the three of us had gotten locked out of the house too many times, she gave me a key and told me I was the one in charge of ensuring we don’t get locked out again. It felt like such an honor to be entrusted with this duty. Yinyin didn’t see me as worthless after all.

It wasn’t just language that made it difficult for me talk to Yinyin. Nor is Yinyin’s interpretation of my seemingly distant attitude towards her entirely correct: I am interested in whatever it is she has to talk about. It’s just, she lives in such an entirely different world from the one I live in — not just in terms of interests or profession — but simply her attitude towards life. I want to know all about it. I just don’t really know how to talk with her. I feel so overwhelmed whenever it’s just the two of us. She’s gotten so used to me being overwhelmed that she no longer tries to talk to me when Xiaoxi’s not around.

It’s of course a little silly to say that Yinyin and I live in two different worlds. We spend much of our time in the same apartment, and this apartment is ultimately Yinyin’s. it’s her stuff that takes up most of the floorspace. It wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say that, materially at least, I live in Yinyin’s world. Xiaoxi has had a minor impact on it, and since I see myself as a perpetual intruder, I feel like the least I could to do is act like I’m not here. Within our stacks of boxes, I have one that’s mine. It’s where I keep my passport and old lecture notes. My life is entirely focused around writing notes for weekly and biweekly seminars on Algebraic Geometry I have to participate in. I don’t ever actually refer back to my old notes, but I put so much effort into writing them that I’d feel a deep sorrow throwing them away. I’m sure I’ll eventually accumulate so many that I’ll have no choice but to rid myself of all of them at once, but until then, they go inside my little box.

Yinyin sees me at Xiaoxi’s desk, with my books all open and a dozen pages of notes spread out. She has no idea what’s written on those pages. I live amongst Yinyin’s clothes. They surround me whenever I’m in the living room. I breathe in their fibres. I brush against them any time I have to get something from the boxes hidden behind them. I suppose I have a slightly better idea about Yinyin’s business than she does about my math stuff — yet it’s still all quite mysterious to me. I’ve never even seen Yinyin’s Taobao shop. It’s not that I’m not curious — I just feel like I’m not even qualified to ask about it. I’m a boring looking white man. I can’t help but feel that when people look at me, they’ll think the reason I’m a boring looking white man is because I want to be one, and not that I’ve found it quite difficult to escape from this fate, despite my best efforts. I feel like me asking too many questions is just another form of intrusion.

I saw the outside of Yinyin’s office once when I was walking with Xiaoxi and her friend Liuyi and they pointed it out to me. Before that, I never really thought much about where it could be that Yinyin went everyday around 3pm. I’ve still never seen the inside of it. I have no idea what she does there. Is that where she keeps the clothes that she actually sells? I very rarely see her shipping things. She never takes anything with her when she goes to the office.

Before 3pm, Yinyin’s usually asleep in her room. Well, she’s usually in her room even when she’s not asleep. The way to determine whether or not she’s asleep is to listen carefully to the noises emanating from behind her door. If it’s a male voice talking about history and literature, then she’s definitely asleep. When she’s awake, she prefers swiping through Douyin. On days when Xiaoxi is gone, and it’s just me and Yinyin at the house, the sound of construction work and trash pickup from outside mix with AI generated voiceovers of compilations of people from Florida doing weird things. I’m often in Xiaoxi’s room, trying to will myself into a nap. The cat Miaomiao comes in and out of the room as it pleases. It jumps on the bed, then jumps onto the windowsill, behind the curtain, so it can stare out into whatever chaos is happening in the construction site across the street.

At the end of the year Yinyin’s moving out. She’s heading out to the suburbs, presumably near where Maque lives. Xiaoxi will have to find somewhere new to live. I guess I’ll see a lot less of Yinyin after that. In college I never had a roommate. I always lived with my parents and either drove or took to the bus to classes. After I graduated I lived alone. So I don’t have much experience living with others, especially not people I don’t actually know that well. Yinyin and I exist in this weird space between intimacy and unfamiliarity. She walks around in her underwear in front of me and asks me to help her carry heavy stuff or open bottles of frozen 余甘 juice, yet we can see each other everyday for a week and not say a single word to each other. Even if I’m too anxious to have an actual conversation with her, I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to fall asleep without the sounds of her eternal podcasts fluttering in from the neighboring room.