The easiest way to get me to cry is to show me anything both queer and Asian. It doesn't even have to be Chinese, though it's worse when it is. One time I stayed awake until four in the morning watching Happy Together, which isn't even in Mandarin, the only Chinese dialect I speak, and ended up texting basically incoherent, emotional thoughts to my girlfriend through tears the entire time. She woke up to more than 60 unread texts the next morning.
I am so far removed from feeling like I have a community that understands me that the second I get a scrap of representation, I become overwhelmed.
In the queer community, there is always racism and a lack of nuance about the intersectionality of my experiences as a queer Chinese American. In the Chinese community, my queerness is a shameful, taboo subject, unacknowledged in public in order to save face.
Queerness is swept under the rug in the Chinese American community. In my experience, most first-generation Chinese American immigrants refuse to acknowledge these issues, and when they do, their responses are often based on harmful misconceptions stemming from a lack of education on the topic. My mom didn't realize that gay people could love just like anyone else until she saw an indie film about German lesbians when she attended UC Santa Barbara. Before that, she had seen gay people mentioned only as statistics in news articles about AIDS. That's the level of personal removal and ignorance most first-generation Chinese Americans have.
Community psychology shows that people who are alienated and excluded by society and their community are more likely to be mentally ill. I have personally experienced this and observed it in my queer Chinese American peers, especially because we are marginalized for multiple aspects of our identities. Asian Americans in particular are known to already have high rates of depression and suicide due to the extreme academic pressure put on us. I spent years closeted in Chinese circles and struggled with being unable to reconcile these two integral parts of my identity.
On the one hand, I don't remember much about coming out to my mom—to be fair, she doesn't remember it, either. As early as sixth grade, I would come home bursting to talk about a myriad of social issues, queer ones included. She got a crash course in LGBTQ+ terminology. To the best of my recollection, we were sitting on the stairs and I just said, "Mama, I don't think I'm a girl." That was it. She knew how important this was to me, and she trusted me to figure myself out.
On the other hand, I knew I couldn't discuss it with any other Chinese people, including my father, who lives in China and visits only occasionally.
A few months ago, I got tired of hiding my queerness and began telling people about my girlfriend. Me having a girlfriend does not come close to encapsulating my understanding of my gender and sexuality, but it is enough culture shock for most people by itself. The reactions have varied from homophobic jokes to startled congratulations.
In March, I introduced my girlfriend to a Chinese family friend. I thought it went okay—but the next day, I had to painstakingly explain again that she was, in fact, my girlfriend.
"Who was that close friend you introduced me to again?" she asked.
"Oh, the girl? She's my girlfriend," was my response.
"Are you sure you're saying the right thing? You must mean guimi." Guimi is a term for a woman's closest female friend.
"Ah, no actually. She's my girlfriend, like a boyfriend, except she's a girl," I said.
"So you two are close friends?" she said.
"No, we're dating. We like each other. I'm gay. Well, not exactly gay. I'm okay with boys or girls or, um, other," I said. I really didn't want to get into nonbinary genders quite yet.
"Oh, then you aren't gay, you should just call yourself straight, you don't need to associate yourself with them." And so it continued.
If you are queer and have tried to come out to someone, you know how it goes: the rote conversation about how I'm far too young to know, about how we are basically just best friends, about how we are definitely nothing more. As if I haven't already thought for years about all of that before coming out.
These conversations are exhausting. Sometimes they hurt, even if the other person means you no harm. This family friend didn't mean me any harm. She just didn't know how to handle it.
When I first came out to my grandmother as transgender and bi/pansexual, she told me that she did not support me "choosing to walk this path" and hasn't really acknowledged the issue since. She is important to me and cares for me deeply, but she has also been surrounded by traditional beliefs her entire life. In her mind, being queer is wrong, and being open about this shameful aspect of our family would cause us to lose face.
The Western understanding of "saving face" is focused on individual pride, whereas the Chinese understanding is focused on filial piety. Chinese society is firmly rooted in traditional family structures, and the modern Chinese mind, consciously or unconsciously, prioritizes family honor.
However, an important part of that same family system that drives people to worry about "saving face" also states that children are expected to respect and honor their parents and, in return, their parents are expected to care for them. A healthy relationship with parents is critical for a child's mental health.
For the queer folks I know, queerness is an important part of our identities that shapes our experiences as we navigate our lives. It is virtually impossible for me to form a close relationship with someone unless they understand that. I have a distant relationship with my father for several reasons, including that my parents are divorced and he lives on the other side of the planet, but a major reason is that I never felt safe expressing my true self around him.
My father's rigidly traditional Chinese ways of thinking make it hard for me to connect with him on a personal level. When I was 13, he visited for a week. That summer, while we stumbled through a terribly awkward 40-minute drive to the old trains in Snoqualmie, he told me he was worried that I'd get involved with drugs, alcohol, and sex. He suggested that maybe I even had a secret boyfriend.
I told him that, first of all, I knew better than to get involved with illegal substances, especially because someone close to me struggles with addiction. Secondly, I had no interest in sex. And thirdly, who said I would date a boy?
My dad's response was to laugh awkwardly.
When I asked if he had ever met a gay person, he said that no, he had never met a gay person in his life. I was stock-still, hyperaware of my heart pounding in my chest, my fingernails digging into my palm. There was a slightly confused blankness on my father's face. I decided I wasn't going to come out to him. My mom later told me that at the end of that visit, he said to her, "You need to teach Jing Jing it's okay to be normal." I didn't know what to make of that, but I felt incredibly fortunate to have a supportive, loving mom.
My dad has always put more pressure on my brother to help my mom run the house, even though I am older. He put us in the accelerated program at school, having come from the best university in China himself. The same summer I almost came out to him, I cut my hair, and he spent a solid five minutes telling me about how good, beautiful, traditional Chinese girls wear their hair long. In his mind, things should be a certain way, and those standards are heavily influenced by the society and culture he grew up in.
I'm not completely sure why, but about a month ago, I decided to come out to my dad. Maybe I was just tired. Tired of not knowing him well enough to make educated decisions about our relationship. Tired of feeling like I was hiding this one frustratingly unshakable important part of my life from him when I was open about it with other people.
One minute we're in the middle of an extremely rare phone call, trying to get to know each other better, talking about relationships and a hypothetical boy, and the next I say, "What if it isn't a boy?"
It feels like I am 13 in that car with him all over again.
"What?" he says.
"What if the person isn't a boy? If the person is a girl?"
I hear a simple, "Okay."
I'm a bit stunned. What does that even mean? So I press on.
"But, like, are you okay with that? Is that all right with you? That it could be a girl or boy or other?"
He's quiet for a minute, then says: "I don't think that's a question I can really answer yes or no to, right? It's about you and whether you're okay with it."
I'm a whole cocktail of emotions, a grinning mess of tears. That's such a good answer, you know? Definitely not what I was expecting from my traditional Chinese father—a man who has cried in front of me only once, when I was 8 years old and told him I didn't like math.
I start gushing and tell him that I was so afraid of telling him for years, thinking about what he would say, how his opinion would make me feel, if he would still support my college fund. He says that I should never have been afraid. I'm his baobei nuer, his precious daughter. He will always love me.
I tell him about my girlfriend, a best friend of 11 years whom he vaguely knows from when he was around and we were younger. I explain what "queer" means when he asks about this strange new word. I decide to rip the whole Band-Aid off in one go. I give him the rundown on the history of nonbinary genders dating back to precolonial times and say that I'm not exactly a girl—or a boy. He's surprisingly okay with this as well. The history probably helps, since he's so logical, so reliant on facts.
His first concern is what he should call me. I'm not sure exactly what he means, but I tell him that pronouns don't matter when it comes to him and my mom. With English as their second language, they already mess up pronouns sometimes, anyway. As long as I know they try to understand and they care about me, that's more than enough. I also mention that, when she remembers, my mom calls me her eldest child instead of her daughter in Chinese, and that cracks us up. It sounds like something out of a period drama, but it works, and it makes us happy.
The only off thing he asks during the whole conversation is if I am more of a boy around my girlfriend and more of a girl elsewhere. I say no pretty quickly, and he accepts the answer just like that. No further questions. No insinuations that he knows me better than I do. He takes it all so well that I actually ask if he had expected it.
He just says: "Well... you cut your hair. So I knew you weren't exactly normal."
I burst out laughing. While my image of the cold, traditional Chinese father that I've struggled with for my entire life has been drastically altered over the course of this conversation, some things don't change.
I know he probably still isn't aware of how much queerness affects my life, and he definitely isn't very educated about queerness, but I'll sort that out next time I see him in person. During this year's summer visit, I'll be sitting down with him and my girlfriend, and he'll truly have met a queer person or two for the first time.
Meanwhile, I know only one other queer Chinese American who is out to a parent, but even then, she says her mother often unintentionally invalidates her identity. I hope that someday my grandmother, who has realized by now that I'm dating a girl and am not exactly a girl myself, will be willing to have a conversation about my queerness, whether she agrees with it or not. I hope that someday there will be an open, supportive community for queer Chinese American youth. I don't just hope that for me—I hope it for all those kids who don't have parents as supportive as mine.
• This piece appears in the 2018 Queer Issue as “That One Parent.” See also: “That One Serial Killer” by Dan Savage, "That One Roommate" by Christopher Frizzelle, “That One Drag Queen” by Jinkx Monsoon, “That One Writer” by Sophia Stephens, “That One Filmmaker” by Chase Burns, “That One Coworker” by Trisha Ready, “That One Teacher” by Katie Herzog, “That One Parent” by Jing Jing Wang, “That One Radical Faerie,” by Marc Castillo, “That One Songwriter,” by Eli Sanders, and “That One Spouse” by Natalie Wood.