February 18, 2019

WANG | Tackling LGBT Topics as a Chinese American

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When I was younger, I found myself in a Shanghai bookstore looking up at a tall bookshelf that seemed to be only that large to mock me. Oddly, I had an urge to get to the top shelf. So, I climbed.

Well, it ended poorly. I only got a foot on the shelf before wiping out and bringing down with me an impressive amount of material. Luckily, no one heard me because I was in the back, and my family had left me alone. I shuffled to clear my mess of Chinese comics and crude drawings that didn’t seem to belong in the bookstore. Most of it was uninteresting and staid, the kind of material even local papers hesitated to put in.

But there was a strange, amateurish picture that stood out to me even then. It was of a man coming out to his parents, and to reassure his parents that he’ll find a wife to appease them, he repeats the famous Deng Xiaoping line: “It doesn’t matter what color the cat is, so long as it catches mice.”

I didn’t get it. I could barely read the words, let alone understand the humor. I pushed it to the back of my head where it stayed, until last week, when I came upon Deng’s quote again while reading up on LGBT rights in China. LGBT culture and my failed attempt at climbing Mt. Bookshelf suddenly slid by each other like tectonic plates. I screamed. It only took 10 years, but I finally understood the joke.

The joke’s implication bothered me though. Why did it matter if the cat caught the mice or not? And why were we so concerned about the cat’s life in the first place?

There’s an estimated 20 million gay men in China right now, and 90 percent of them have married a woman. There’s a new trend where gay men and women get married to cover for each other’s sexuality. During holidays, the women can bring the men to dinner, and vice versa. In some cases, when the parents weren’t watching, the husbands and wives drifted apart to their real partners. But the real gut punch wasn’t that they hid; it was that they hid and failed because their parents caught on to their charade. The parents just didn’t care enough to act because they got what they wanted: A husband for their daughter, a wife for their son.

Growing up with other Asian friends, LGBT issues were to be tiptoed around. Unabashed Asian acquaintances might call the LGBT community “defective”; others found the whole topic unbecoming. A not so subtle strain of homophobia poisons the atmosphere of Chinese culture, and I’ve found it easiest to simply drop the topic.

I can’t speak for every Asian nationality, given my limited experience, but in Chinese American culture, I’ve noticed a special focus on family. Older generations are to be fiercely respected and taken care of. The nuclear family is important, and the stability and reputation of the family is crucial to an effective society. These values are only magnified in immigrant Asian American families who have branched out in this country alone. It’s your typical model minority way of impulse control — reveling in the idea of a model family with no tolerance for deviance. Image is crucial. Your reputation amongst friends is prized above all.  Being LGBT or even loosely affiliated with the community just isn’t a part of that model.

So I guess there’s two truths I’ve learned working as an intern at the LGBT resource center. One, you don’t get to choose what, or who, makes you happy. And two, there will always be someone unhappy with what makes you happy, because they’ve simply prioritized their own happiness over yours. It’s an ugly pill to swallow.

I recently attended the Creating Change conference in Detroit, a national conference for LGBT activists from across the country. Glee exuded from attendees, with one visitor even leading a chant in an elevator. It was exultant; instead of fitting in and staying hidden, they fitted out, to stand out and be loved.

While there, I attended a workshop on Asian Pacific Islanders of the LGBT community. We sat in a circle and talked — and more importantly, listened. It was cathartic to be there.

One of the speakers talked about his aunt who came out. Instantly, she disappeared from all family talk. One day she was there; the next, she never existed. The family decided it was to better ignore the issue than confront her. He hasn’t seen her since.

As for him, he was a pastor who had come out to his delegation, but his struggle was greatest coming out to his family. It’s strange to think coming out might be easier to strangers, but it reflected the dangers of being excluded from your family.  He was lucky. His family stuck by him, and while it’s been challenging as a process, they’ve been there for each other.

One woman struggled for the longest time with her feelings and figuring out how to appeal to her ultra conservative parents. At first she feigned interest in men despite her heart saying otherwise. In the end, she did what was best for her by entering a relationship with another woman. But her dad, who was a stern pastor for a church, threatened to resign as a way of blackmailing her to end the relationship. He wondered endlessly what his congregation would feel about him once word got out. It’s also fair to wonder if even he even gave the same consideration to his daughter.

She ended up raising a child with her partner. And while they did visit their grandson from time to time, they refused to acknowledge her wife. But despite the emotional damage they assailed upon her and their absence in her life, she refused to give up on them. She was patient. At one point, I wanted to say: “You don’t need them!” But the truth was, she did. For most of her life, they were her world, a close-knit family until she came out. Now she wasn’t sure if they’d ever talk again.

For her and her parents, it came down to a cat and mouse game of who would give in first. If she gave in and abandoned the wife, they would take her back. They’d finally be proud, and if it hurt their daughter grievously, so be it.

So we’ve come to this: Silence has replaced concrete conversations in our culture that can help us build understanding. When given the choice to confront these issues, most people choose to look the other way.

To some, it doesn’t really matter how you feel or how you love. What matters are your looks, your family, a picture you can pass on to friends and relatives and glow with pride. In the end, it’s the success story everyone longs for. I’ve heard my whole life that nothing is quite as important as your parents, your relatives and the bonds we share. But if we’re refusing to accommodate family members for who they are, what good is this preaching? What’s actually important, I’ve realized, is image. The number of lives that are trampled in the process doesn’t matter one bit.

William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Willpower runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com.