Prisons are not for introverts

By Petra Ondrisakova

“You can read one magazine per day. But all they’ve got are magazines with pretty girls and all other things you can’t have in prison”, said Lujza Zhang when thinking back about her jail time in Japan. “If you have a pen, then you can write. So I was writing poems.’’

Sitting on the floor, sipping on the wine in her room in the centre of Groningen, Lujza doesn’t seem to have a hard time talking about her adventures. The half Chinese, half Slovak girl keeps switching from explaining how she plans to decorate her room to talking about being arrested, race-motivated violence and depression.

Weird,  racially different and gay

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Archive: Lujza Niril Zhang

Her parents met in Beijing, where her mom studied for a year. She was a sinology student, but she sneaked into every lecture in a Beijing art school and met the man she later married. For Lujza it meant growing up with both artists for parents and traveling a lot from an early age. When Lujza talks about the year she lived in China, her description is similar to the descriptions of her prison time. Boarding school rules and the bars on the windows seem to be the strongest memory. “The regime was strict and I came from the different environment, so I was the only one able to see it. And people in school were saying ‘Oh she’s the European girl, she’s different’. Then after a year I went back to Slovakia and people there kept saying ‘Oh, she’s the Chinese girl, she’s different.’ That pretty much describes my life.”

Besides living in China, Lujza has spent most of her life in Slovakia – a country which is not used to foreigners. Racial discrimination and xenophobia seemed to be a daily issue for her, accompanied with racially-motivated attacks and hate speeches. After a discussion about racism and her childhood, she laughs: ‘’I’m honestly not even mad at all those kids bullying me. I was weird, I was racially different and I was gay. Now I’m like – okay guys, I kinda get it’’.

Modern geisha

When she realized she was not able to fit anywhere, she decided to commit her life to low-cost traveling. Her first adventure started six years ago with a 15 euro plane ticket to Sweden. What was initially just a short visit to see a music concert in Sweden turned into a two week adventure around Poland, using cheap bus tickets and couchsurfing. This popular website, where people offer strangers to sleep on their couches for free, became the most important feature of her travels.

The turning point came when she was 20 and got an offer to work as a bar hostess in Japan. The main job of so-called “modern geishas” is to entertain bar customers with conversation, flirting and singing and after an inner fight with her introverted side, she decided to take the offer and move to Japan.

‘‘I was the worst hostess ever, I was so rude. One guy knew I was Chinese, and he told me that the massacre in Nanking never happened’’, she explains, referring to the historical episode in 1930s when the Japanese army brutally murdered 30,000 to 400,000 residents of Chinese Nanking. “It’s also called The Great Rape of Nanking and I was thinking about those tens of thousands of women – young ones, old ones, pregnant ones, small girls, living their worst nightmares and then there was this guy sitting in a bar, convincing me it’s a hoax. So I told him to fuck off.’’

A wake-up call came after a few weeks of work in the form of a policeman knocking on her door. Japanese police found out that a number of girls in the bar were working illegally, including Lujza.

She was arrested and jailed together with ten other Eastern European girls. She describes the conditions inside as “inhumane”. “They started to refer to us as a number. We all see Japan as this amazing, developed country but the prison was a circle of psychological and physical abuse. They even refused to get me a lawyer at first”. Sharing a small room with two other prisoners, no beds, no furniture, and only one toilet in each cell became the everyday reality for all the bar workers. “We went out to see the sun 5 times a week for 20 minutes. Weekends meant that you wouldn’t see sunshine for two days”. After a month she was moved to the immigration prison and got better treatment.

“I spoke Chinese, so I became one of the ‘Chinese girls’ there. What made my life harder when growing up, actually saved me in prison”. When questioned about specific experiences she shakes her head. “I don’t really want to talk about it. I never even told my mom the worst things”.

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Archive: Lujza Niril Zhang

The worst case scenario

She was released after two more weeks in immigration prison and deported back to Slovakia. But another prison came in form of depression. “I tried writing and drawing, but nothing helped. Until I realized I have to continue traveling and pushing myself to new adventures”.

For the last two years she has been living on the road, hitchhiking and couchsurfing. Lujza has slept in over 50 different houses and hosted more than 100 people in her own place. Her idea of a full house and young people around convinced her family to offer their flat to strangers as well. Apart from that, she changed their summer house to a kind of ‘hostel’, where she spent one summer with different people arriving every day. How is the introverted girl, with an interest mostly in art and bad childhood memories able to handle this?

“I just wanna see the world. And I keep telling myself – what worse could possibly happen?”

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