On Being Gay and Asian
It’s always difficult growing up feeling a little bit different from everyone else. I am Chinese. I am Asian American, and I was never really aware of the fact that I was kind of different except upon my entrance into college. I grew up in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood in sunny southern California. The schools I attended were diverse and there were probably more Asian students than there were Caucasian students. Luckily for me, I was able to experience this diverse melting pot with no qualms between races or any sort of ethnic squabbling. We all hung out with each other, the whites with the blacks, with the Hispanics, and the Asians. After my carefree years of high school I decided to enroll at UC Santa Barbara. For those unaware of the university, it is in a rather affluent area that is predominately Caucasian. Located right next to the beach,UCSB was know to be a school of debauchery, yet still maintained a high level of academic integrity.Upon entry to Santa Barbara, I was surprised to see what I would find next.
Just like any other university, my introduction into the world of UCSB began with freshman orientation. My mother trekked up to Santa Barbara with me to see first hand where I would spend the next four years of my life. As I was checking in, we both surveyed our surroundings and noticed that it was rather homogeneous. Almost everyone there was Caucasian, and my mother and I were clearly the odd ones out. She looked at me and said in Chinese, “I have never seen so many beautiful white people in one area at one time.” I had to agree with her statement as I marveled at the beauty of not only the people but the campus itself. From that point on, I slowly started to see myself as being different.
Fall quarter came soon enough and I was thrown head first into my freshman year at college. I made friends, I studied, and I partied just like any other college student, but I soon noticed a trend at UCSB. In my high school years, I was accustomed to there being a wide variety of ethnic diversity. Not to mention there really was no racial segregation, so to speak, in which everyone hung out with each other. At UCSB, I found this to be the exact opposite. I can’t say that this applies to all cliques at UCSB, but I noticed that all social groups seemed to be incredibly homogeneous, the Asians with the Asians, Hispanics with Hispanics, and so forth. This troubled me since I was accustomed to something that was the exact opposite of that. I, of course, only perpetuated it by hanging out with other Asians. What made it worse was the level of ignorance that most of the student body possessed. On Saturday nights my friends and I would prowl the streets going from house party to house party. On a regular basis, random groups also out and about would throw racial slurs at us or incredibly ignorant comments regarding our race. This was incredibly abhorrent to me because I thought in this day and age, who really acts like that? Other incidents occurred that did not personally happen to me, but happened to other friends that I was absolutely horrified at. All these experiences combined of course made me well aware of my race. I felt like I did not belong, and I often wondered what it would be like to be Caucasian rather than Chinese. College was a time of confusion for me as I struggled with my ethnic identity. However, the true learning experience came post college.
In the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn, I had a hard time landing a job just like many post-grads to this day. More importantly, the industry I wanted to get into, film, is already hard enough to break into. Since I was unemployed and had an incredible amount of downtime, I started thinking about another important subject of growing up into adulthood, sexuality. I grew up in a rather traditional Chinese household that of course emphasized heterosexuality. Throughout high school and beyond, I was aware that I had a slight attraction towards women but I never could come into terms with it. I had crushes on female friends of mine, yet I convinced myself we were just “really good friends.” It’s not normal for one to constantly think about their “really good friends” and crave for their attention 24/7. Heterosexuality is heavily preached in mainstream culture, and following said guidelines, I followed the herd and dated men. Throughout my relationships with men in the past, I always thought something was off. I was never really THAT into a man emotionally, but I liked the idea of companionship. Since I had an influx of free time I started toying with the idea of bisexuality. I told my friends that maybe, just maybe, I might be bisexual and that I wanted to explore the idea. Luckily for me, my friends were very open to the idea and went out with me to gay bars in the West Hollywood area.
Going out to West Hollywood opened up a whole new world for me. I had never been to a gay bar prior to that, but I had always been fascinated by them. It is an entirely different culture that I found to be refreshing. After multiple explorations of West Hollywood and the Los Angeles gay scene, I slowly came into terms with the fact that maybe I was gay. I found an emotional connection with women that I have never before experienced when I was with men. I soon realized that it was time for me to come out officially and accept myself as a lesbian.
I always felt that I had to be true to myself, and in doing so, I had to be out and open to everyone I knew. I started by telling my friends first. All of them were very accepting of my confession and they bluntly stated that they pretty much always knew. Since my family is incredibly close knit, I had to go down the line and tell my extended family first and last, my parents. Telling my cousins was relatively simple, and all of them were very accepting. I then told my brother who was at first apprehensive, but then he stops to think for a moment and says to me, “You know what? It actually makes a lot of sense.” However, knowing that I had to tell my parents soon afterwards really scared me. My father was never a really prevalent figure in my life, so I was more concerned about the reaction from my mother, who raised me on her own. I had tested the waters prior to approaching her and she seemed rather accepting. I joked around with her once and asked her whether or not she would disown us if either me or my brother were gay, she said she wouldn’t because that’s just how we were born. It was an incredibly progressive statement for her to make considering she is an older first generation Chinese woman. Even though she said that, I still had qualms, because at the time, I’m sure she believed that having a gay child would not be an issue for her. The moment finally came when I had to sit down and talk to her. When I revealed my secret, she was apprehensive at first and could not believe it. She said to me, “You dated guys before, how can you be gay?” I told her that those relationships were meaningless to me and that really was not an important factor. We hemmed and hawed back and forth for awhile, and in short, I still think that she is in denial of my sexuality. I have brought girls I have dated in the past home to meet her and she was completely accepting of them. Although secretly, I know that she still harbors that idea that maybe one day I would get this whole “gay thing” out of my system. I can’t complain about my coming out experience because so many others had it much worse. My mother still loves me and tells me that she accepts me for who I am, but at the same time it still kind of hurts knowing that she is in denial of who I am.
As I ponder my new self realization, I started to think about what it must be like for other people to come out. More specifically, I begin to wonder what it must be like for other Asians to come out. I knew my experience was rather different in comparison to other gay Asian Americans, but I did not have very many gay Asian friends to talk to about the issue. I started graduate school at USC doing documentary filmmaking, and through that medium, I was able to explore that specific subject. The requirement to finish my master’s was that I had to complete a short documentary film, in which I choose the subject, coming out amongst Asian American women. Using my own background and my other musings on the subject matter, I set out to find other Asian American lesbians. What I learned, strayed far from my initial questions.
Growing up as a Chinese American, I was well aware of the nuances between our culture and those of others. We focused heavily on family, honor, social perceptions, and so forth. As I met and interviewed my subjects, they all seemed to dwell on that same point. However, there were several differences between what I knew and what my subjects knew, as I saw how drastically different our coming out experiences were. My subjects were concerned about perception and how others in their community would view their coming out. For example, if you come out as gay in say the Vietnamese community, the community is small enough for word to spread, and therefore once it was out, that community would look down on you and your parents. They have the belief that being gay is equated to bad parenthood, which is clearly a poor reflection on your family and yourself. I never thought about that nor did I care about what other people thought of me. I always had the mentality that if someone were to judge me for who I was, then they wouldn’t be someone I would care to know. The key word for this being “saving face,” or protecting your honor/prestige and your social well being. I soon noticed that although I interviewed my subjects in different places at different times they all seemed to use the same buzz words and talk about the same subject matter. Even though they came from different backgrounds, they were all fundamentally similar.
There was one topic that began to stick out in my mind and made me question my own ideals. All of my subjects essentially said that they were worried about coming out because of how it would affect their parents. They were worried that their parents would lose face and honor in front of their community, therefore being judged negatively and treated differently. That idea never appeared in my head until they mentioned it. To me, I felt that their misgivings about coming out was an incredibly selfless act that I myself could not even fathom. I felt incredibly selfish in how I approached my coming out. After all these long years of my mother supporting me, I couldn’t even think about how my coming out would affect her? I could only think about my own selfish needs when I came out. However through that epiphany, I was able to overcome my misgivings about how good of a daughter I was. I still love my mom to death and I would do anything for her, that’s no different, but I should consider how my actions may lead to repercussions for her and my family. Through these musings, I deciphered what would essentially be the theme of my film.
Essentially my film was about coming out, but the stories about family and how coming out could affect family relationships really became the crux of my piece. It sounds incredibly stereotypical to talk about the emphasis Asian cultures put on family, but really it’s quite accurate. Family is essentially everything, and anything you say will eventually go down the grape vine and spread to all of your other family members potentially affecting them. What I thought would be a simple coming out piece, became more about the traditions of Asian culture and how it affects families in a westernized country. It was enlightening to see how these amazing women, however different their backgrounds were, all essentially had the same viewpoints. Through these realizations, I started to look at my own family, and I soon realized how incredibly lucky I am that my immediate family, as well as my extended family are so close to each other. They all love me more than words could describe as I equally love them. I guess this whole rant comes to my eventual self realization that hey, it’s cool to be me, and it’s cool to accept me for who I am. I used to loathe the idea that I may have been different ethnically or because of my sexuality, but really in the end, I am incredibly proud of my heritage and my sexuality. My family and friends love me for who I am, and so should I.
This is who I am. I am Chinese, I am Chinese American, and I am a Chinese American lesbian.