Despite being born in North America, I am still incredibly connected to my Chinese culture. I am both Chinese and American and I do not minimize either identity. I do not go to China often, but whenever I do, I feel like a foreigner wearing the wrong skin. One time, on a trip to China to visit relatives, my mother decided to meet up with one of her old university friends. At the time, the One Child Policy was in effect, but this family friend had two children. Her eldest was a girl, like me. Her youngest was a boy. She paid a fee to be allowed to have another child. As my mother had her hands full with just raising me, teasingly, she commented that having two children must be impossibly tiring. The response made me regret the cosmic accident of my sex. I wished to only have one child. But my firstborn was a girl, so I had no choice. She turned to her daughter and said, “I hope this one does not have to go through all that pain, and has lots of sons.” The message rings clear: girls are deadweight to families, to society.
Girls can soften the edges of our misfortune through heterosexual marriage. As a young Chinese girl, the more traditional parts of my culture tells me that my value exists only if I marry a man. This is tangled with the principle of filial piety: family duty is to carry on the family name. A child must obey the wishes of their family as a child is in the world because of their family, so they owe them a debt that can never be repaid. Women who love other women? Basically spitting in the face of an antiquated tradition that believes we need men to provide for us, and more so to achieve a whole, happy family.
None of my white classmates could ever put me neatly in a box; it did not stop them from trying. The Chinese kids keep to themselves, the Chinese kids only speak in Chinese so we can’t understand, the Chinese kids say homophobic things in class. Much of their rhetoric was stereotypes. But honestly? For many of them, who cares if they were true? Who cares if we only speak in Chinese? Their ideas about China’s unprogressive nature were steeped in the white gaze. Since I did not want to side with the ill-informed white liberals, I found myself saying nothing when the Chinese kids did say homophobic things, thinking I was doing the right thing by standing with my Chinese peers. What broke me was when my white classmates saw me as “just another one of the Chinese kids”, homophobia included.
I was a dual outsider. I was an outsider to my Chinese peers because I was queer. I was an outsider to my so-called-progressive white friends because of my ties to Chinese values. Without any support networks, I looked towards queer online influencers for guidance. They provided me with affirmations that being gay was indeed okay. All of them were white, however. None of them knew how to deal with the Chinese immigrant expectation of having a canonical family full of sons.
Disheartened about the lack of queer media representation from immigrant and Asian queers, I decided I would be the trailblazer. I gave talks about my identity at my all-girls high school for Pride month. Insidiously, during a month meant to celebrate me, other queer people and our intersections, the Chinese international students outed me online. Through cyberspace and a chain of WeChat messages, it reached my mother and I was robbed of a chance to tell her myself. Everything private became public. My identity became dinner table fodder. I had Chinese aunties who did not know me assuming that I would take advantage of their daughters. My invitations to the sleepovers always seemed to get lost in the mail. It was not just the abstract concepts — queerness and Chinese filial piety — at odds, but I was a walking contradiction.
During my mother’s lectures when I was growing up, especially when I made a mistake, she would bring up the fact that she moved to North America for me. Not as leverage, but as the truth. She did. So I never wanted to do anything that made it so I was a burden. In my mind, queerness was a burden, something that prevented me from being the perfect Chinese daughter; I believed that being true to who I was equaled failing my parents and their sacrifices.
My mother’s bone to pick was not really with my sexuality. What made her mad was my sodden public image rubbing off on her. Losing face in the Chinese community is a slow death spread by word of mouth. Her main complaint was that she would never be able to post wedding photos if there were two brides. Her over-achieving daughter that once was on track to making her proud became nothing but a ghost on her online trail.
My mother came to my room one night, her face screwed shut as if in physical pain. Her phone was in her hand aglow, probably from reading messages on her social media. She asked me if I could be attracted to men, and grow up to have my own nuclear family, even if just for her sake. I said yes. I was reminded of how I never had toys as a child. In fits of grief, I told my mother she did not love me. I was not aware of her empty bank account. Now, she tells me that I do not love her because of something I cannot control. All history, even family history, repeats. I was taught family love is unconditional and I must stick by the family’s side even if it hurts. It was my sexuality or my family. Did I value my happiness or my mother’s happiness more? The constant double life of acting the perfect Chinese daughter exhausted me and I stopped choosing her.
I do not bother bringing up my sexuality to the family anymore. I date women in secret. People tell me I should try to get my family to come around, but I am tired. Instead of looking at my failed pleas for acceptance like trying to reconnect with family, I started looking at it like trying to earn my existence with people who never wanted me for my true self. It makes silence easier. If no one from my family gets a wedding invitation, they only have themselves to blame.
Looking for solace, I sought out friends in LGBTQIA+ Youth Councils and went to Pride events around my city. I made friends, queer and allies, who listened to me explain the unique intersections within my identity. The warmth drowned out the ice. There is safety in posting anonymously about sexuality on the internet: I do not know them, they do not know me and if they leave, I never expected transient online friends to stay in the first place. Eventually, I did get to know other members of the queer community in real life and it exceeded all expectations. They feel like family.
Collectivist cultures keep family ties alive. What people forget sometimes is that within a collectivist society are individuals that need to matter just as much as the unit. After my public outing, I became the sore-thumb to an otherwise traditional, un-westernized Chinese family. I am not going to apologize for who I am anymore just to prevent someone else from losing face. I am not going to look for acceptance at the hands of a blood family that will not accept me. I love my family. But I also love myself, and I have been on the backburner for too long. I will wait. Not forever though. I have so much life to live outside waiting for acceptance.