What's Your Story: Growing Up Queer and Asian
On the first day of first grade, I came home and excitedly told my sister that I had a crush on a male classmate. I don’t actually remember coming out to my sister at six years old (though present day David is quite proud of the fact), but my sister recently recounted the story. Perhaps because having a same sex crush, in my six-year-old-mind, was inconsequential. I was completely oblivious to the potential ramifications of being queer, and even more incapable of understanding what it meant to be both queer and Asian. In that moment, ignorance afforded me a courage that eluded me for the better part of the next 18 years.
In that moment, ignorance afforded me a courage that eluded me for the better part of the next 18 years.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time trying to be my parents’ perfect Chinese-American son — speaking to Aunties and Uncles in fluent Chinese, testing into advanced math classes with peers two years my senior, and spending summers studying for the SATs. I felt that in order to make up for the sacrifices my parents made when they immigrated to the U.S., I had to fulfill (or even exceed) their expectations of me. There was an insurmountable debt to repay for their sacrifices, and although I knew I could never repay in full, it was my duty to try.
My parents often told me how 乖 (“guai” - well behaved) I was with the other Aunties and Uncles, and how the Aunties and Uncles lamented that their own children were not more obedient like me. Jealousy, as many of my fellow Asian Americans know, serves as a form of social currency for our parents. Where your child attends college (and subsequently med, law, or business school) cements your social ranking and affords you bragging rights ad infinitum. Their jealousy provided me with the external validation I craved, giving me the psychological currency to chip away at the ever growing mountain of guilt-laden debt I was accumulating. The closer to perfect I could get, the less bad I’d feel about my parents’ sacrifices.
I became obsessed with “should-ing” all over myself, guiding myself by what I should do instead of what I innately wanted to do — which ultimately made coming out to my parents so difficult. If I loved them, I reasoned, I shouldn’t ruin their dreams of having a perfect son and invalidate their 15+ years of immigrant struggle. If I loved them, I should keep my sexuality a secret so that I could make them happy. I bartered my psychological sanity for theirs, surprising myself with how adept I became at haggling happiness.
What my parents didn’t realize in moving us to Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, is that they moved us to perhaps the most liberal White suburb in America. Known as “tree city” for the past 40 years, Swarthmore is a place where Birkenstocks and Patagonia apparel are adorned year round, Earth day is actually celebrated in public schools, and pursuing one’s personal passions is championed. It was the perfect foil to the traditionalist and constricting bubble my parents created at home. I learned that it was okay to be “selfish”, to pursue an interest simply because you wanted to and not because you needed to.
Coming out was the death of their Chinese son and the rebirth of an unwanted American alien.
This learning largely manifested itself in the form of music. Due to an well-funded arts program and encouraging music teachers, I was able to take lessons for any instrument I desired. Although my parents were happy that I showed an interest in music, they were only encouraging of it to the extent that it would look good on my application for colleges. Once I picked up my fourth instrument, they began to grow cautious of my musical passions, fearing that it would detract from my academic success or worse — lead me down the path towards music school. Even still, I insisted on learning more, justifying my “selfish” endeavor to both myself and my parents by convincing my school to give me academic credit for the lessons. Although I had to justify my musical passions by aligning my selfish want with my dutiful should, it was still my first dissent from my parents’ expectations.
The process of coming out to my parents felt like a similar escape. Much like music, I initially felt selfish — and subsequently American — for wanting to reveal my LGBT identity. I struggled to find space for my sexual identity within my Chinese immigrant parents’ rigid framework of success. “Could I argue that being gay would help me be seen as a more diverse applicant to both college and corporate recruiters?” I wondered. “Maybe I could compile a list of Asian Americans who were “still successful” despite the fact that they were LGBT”. Each reason I thought of was less compelling than the last, as I knew that my queerness did not fit into their conventional Chinese values.
When I ultimately came out to my parents, they expressed their regret for ever bringing me to America. I would never have come out and “killed their son” had they raised me in China. To them, my coming out hit them like a death in the family. My father likened his grief to that of when his own father died, and my mother mourned for a month straight. Coming out was an American privilege I was afforded due to the sacrifices made by my Chinese parents. Coming out was the death of their Chinese son and the rebirth of an unwanted American alien.
Since it seemed there was no space for a queer narrative in Chinese culture, I desperately hoped that American society — LGBT communities in particular — would allow me to be a part of theirs. The queer American narrative was riddled with tantalizing instances of positive affirmation and acceptance; campaigns such as It Gets Better and organizations like The Trevor Project gave me hope that America would accept what China would not.
I quickly came to realize that even among LGBT communities, there seemed to be a finite amount of love and acceptance to give, rationed disproportionately to White cis-genered gay men. Ask any Queer Person of Color (QPOC) and they can probably provide you with multiple anecdotes in which someone has told them: “Sorry, I’m just not into [your ethnicity]. I’m not racist, it’s just a preference.” Racial preferences (read: racism) were not exclusive to the realm of dating — friend groups seemed to delineate along the lines of race as well. One of my queer mentors in college, who is also queer and Asian, explained to me that he would only hang out with other QPOC and actively avoid queer parties on campus because they were often ignored in favor of their white peers.
In the rare moments I was seemingly accepted by the community, it was under the pretense that I was different for an Asian male — that I was somehow not as Asian for what my facial features belied. At my first queer party in college, I distinctly remember an upperclassman exclaiming to me, “OMG, the *cute* Asian is here!”, simultaneously making me feel ashamed of my ethnicity and perversely proud of being an exception. Sentiments such as these were offered as genuine compliments, a twisted perception that cultural bleaching to become more White was a universal aspiration among people of color. These “compliments”, however, only further reinforced the notion that I would never be fully American — a perpetual foreigner in a country that I was born and raised.
Tired of the repeated rejection and social othering, my queer Asian friends and I decided that we needed to start actively asserting ourselves within the LGBT community; if the space did not exist for us, we would carve it out ourselves. We created an advocacy group on campus called Penn Queer and Asian (Q&A for short), secured funding to sponsor our bi-weekly events and grow our community, and even conducted an ethnographic photo journal project to tell our unique stories to the broader LGBT community. We began demanding our long overdue right to have a voice in LGBT activism.
While progress was and unfortunately still is slow, we saw an immediate and tangible change within our own group of queer Asian friends. The bi-weekly events gave us an opportunity to hear stories from people who looked like ourselves and helped validate our own experiences. We did not have to compartmentalize ourselves in order to relate to each other’s stories. We all had queer friends and heterosexual Asian friends who could relate to disparate aspects of our narratives — e.g. coming out to our parents or growing up with tiger parents, respectively — but with Q&A, we could tell each other stories about coming out to our tiger parents, stories that were queer and Asian rather than queer or Asian. For once, we could be unapologetically ourselves and be understood, wholly and fully.
This is the story of a queer Asian American fighting to create a world where love and acceptance are fundamental rights, not privileges. This is my story.
Hearing each other’s stories provided me with a psychological comfort I never realized I could have. It helped me understand how important it is to create opportunities for people to share their experiences, so that others may take solace in narratives that mirror their own. As much as I’m accepted by my friends and family now, I remind myself of how it wasn’t long ago that I was pinned against a fence and bullied for being gay, or how kids on the playground would pull back their eyelids and ask me how I could see through such small eyes. People who go through experiences like those need to see examples of others who have as well, so that they know they are not alone. So, I tell my story in hopes that others might read it and feel more fully understood, more fully seen. This is the story of a six year old immigrant with courage beyond his years. This is the story of a teenager struggling to balance the expectations of two contrasting cultures. This is the story of a queer Asian American fighting to create a world where love and acceptance are fundamental rights, not privileges. This is my story.
David Lai is a Philadelphia area native and current Los Angeles resident. His interests include queer theory, music, re-imagining sociocultural architectures, and CrossFit. Feel free to drop him a line for any and all Philadelphia recommendations, or if you'd just like to chat!