Fitting Characters and Scripts
In the days following my confession, my mom asks three questions.
- “Wait, but I don’t understand. You make it sound like you’re saying you want to live with a man.”
- “I think you’re confused. How would you manage to get taken care of? Who would cook for you?”
- She double-checks that I am not playing a cruel joke: “Wait, how do men even… you know… with each other?”
My responses, in order: 1) “Yes, Mom, that’s it.” 2) “I can cook for myself.” 3) Nervous giggles. “Mom, you should ask someone else to explain the mechanics.”
Four summers later, over the crackle of the phone connection on my bike ride home, in the rays of an 8 p.m. sunset, Mom asks me where I’m pedaling. I tell her it’s been another long day at work. I also tell her how I am spoiled. Tonight, my boyfriend of three years is making sure that dinner is ready for my arrival home. Her response: “See! This is why you should find a good woman.” She doesn’t mention her own fatigue from preparing decades worth of meals for my father.
Queerness was a concept so new to my family that we didn’t have the language for it. Hence my labored typing in my mother tongue, a written script I had never fully learned.
I started the first line of my coming out letter: 妈, 爸. Mom, dad. It took me a while to decide to type two characters and not one. Originally, I was just going to write to my mother, not to both my parents. Tackle the easy target first, I told myself. My father wouldn’t take it well.
I grew up in fear of my father’s fist. He didn’t raise it often, and never against my mother, at least not in my memory. One night in sixth grade, my dad and I had fought about something; I don’t remember what. Our quarrel ended when he switched from Chinese to English. “Fuck you,” he yelled. My mother came between us. She shared the same look in her eyes, afraid that punches would fly. I fled upstairs, grasping my pillow and spotting it with the few tears I could muster upon going to bed. My parents had knocked the ability to cry out of me a long time ago. “Good boys don’t do that,” they said in rapped Chinese and belt flicks. My mother signed me up for tae-kwon-do. My brother, five years younger at six years old, tagged along to a class when my mom picked me up. He decided he wanted to learn too. We’d dress up in the white uniforms and insert the funny hardness of jockstrap cups into the straps. “You don’t pack power into your punches,” she told me.
My mother would look at the both of us, shake her head, and bemoan the fact that I could never learn the karate forms like Mike could. I recognized that look. She stared at me with the silence of disappointment when I tried to help assemble a new piece of furniture, never able to figure out which holes the screws fit into; or when I would run to her, wailing that Mike had just side-swiped me a bloody nose in another fight; or when I would place last once more at a swim meet, the pool and my insecurity of bigger boys in Speedos among some of my chilliest childhood memories.
My father was rarely around. He was always working as hard if not harder than his younger American colleagues in the chemistry department, trying to climb up the rungs of the academic ladder that they had reached years before. He was chasing tenure; my mom was chasing Mike and me between fights; we were chasing the American Dream.
My mom couldn’t get very far. “Why do you even bother earning that 破钱?” he’d ask her about the odd job that she’d have that year, whether it was decorating cakes at a supermarket, dusting rooms in a hotel, or cleaning glassware in a laboratory. To my father, the jobs were the same: 破钱. Broken and poor money, to translate 破 literally. He meant chump change, shit money. “You might as well stay at home and raise the kids well,” he said. I’d try to defend my mother’s work in these arguments, which seemed to occur daily upon the click-clack of the garage opening at 8 p.m, my father’s arrival home. “We get good grades,” I’d say, brandishing the geometry problems that she helped me with.
I thought—wrongly, it turned out—that my mother would understand my queer agenda better than my father would. But Kevin, the first Chinese American man I met who came out to his parents, changed my mind. “You want to protect them as much as you can,” he told me. “It might be better if they have each other to talk to.”
He was right, I told myself. The thought of my mother bearing the news alone hurt me too much.
I had called Kevin three days prior to my coming out. A mutual friend had introduced us. My coming out had not gone well, Kevin told me. He was almost forty, and he told his parents a decade prior. “Mostly, they just deny it,” he said. “They still ask me if I’ve found a girlfriend yet.” But he didn’t regret the conversation.
I don’t know about your folks,” Kevin started. “But many parents, especially Chinese parents, like to feel like that they’re in control. And you’re about to tell them something that will flip their world upside down.” He didn’t state the obvious. For immigrant parents, for my parents, their kids are their everything, their reason for picking up everything to chase a better life, not for themselves, but for the next generation. In my letter, I recognized my parents in language so superlative, it seemed foreign to me: “You are the world’s best parents. Raising me could not have been easy. I will always be grateful to you all.”
“Think about how you can give them some modicum of control,” Kevin said, with the confidence of a PR professional selling a controversial idea. I listened. Begrudgingly, my letter said that they could decide if I’d come out to Mike and to our extended family. “That much, you can give them,” he said. My mother would tell me afterwards, “Now, whenever a family friend mentions your name, and asks me how you’re doing, I just hope that they won’t pry about your love life.”
The letter incorporated other cliché tidbits, like a twisted version of a breakup note: “It’s not you, it’s me.” “It’s not your fault.” “I will understand if you’re angry.” I hoped that the concessions sounded less kitschy in Chinese than in English.
In my mother tongue, I only had the words my parents had taught me. In a family where affection came in careful doses of soy sauce, fussing over my weight, and a daily dinner table where all of us were always present, I was trying to learn a new language for this occasion: one that described my attraction toward men, and another for the bond with my parents.
I invented sentences in my mother tongue: “I hope you can accept that I am your queer son.” “No matter how you react, I will always think of you as my parents.” “I will forever love you.” The last phrase was the hardest to verbalize. I wrote it like a son breathing the words at his last day at the hospital bed of his parents, afraid that we might never see each other again, that this would be my last chance to break the taboo of affection aloud before our separation.
In the week at home between coming out to my parents and leaving for graduate school, I went through the motions of routine with my mother. We’d get in the car and make the fifteen-minute drive to the first stop on her shopping circuit.
She wanted to go to Macy’s for the 50% off clearance sale, or to Meijer’s for the ground beef that a family friend said was on special for $1.99/lb. that week. Or most likely, she’d say she was going to both stores, announce that I was going with her, and then we’d end up going to Meijer’s and Macy’s and the four other stores in the mall where she had merchandise to return. I’d roll my eyes by our third stop. “Another store, Mom? This is the last one!” But at least I’d still go. She had long given up on asking Mike to come with her. He preferred video games. My mom would turn to the both of us in the kitchen, her arms spread out in 45-degree angles to her body, as if they were holding the shoulders of two kids both four-feet-tall. “Come on,” she’d say, lightly switching her body weight between two knees. She’d smile in half-jest. “I feel happy when I can show my two sons out with me 上街.” 上街 literally means going on the street. It translates to English either as 1) shopping, or 2) taking to the streets. My mom only does the former. She protests shopping prices, not global capitalism.
Only between produce aisles or the men’s clothing racks could I see my mother with a fire in her eyes, a purpose I found absent in arenas of her life outside of mothering.
On the start of these trips, my mother would always hand me the keys to the car. She avoided driving whenever possible. I was not sure if it was because my dad insisted that she couldn’t handle the steering wheel, or because she herself didn’t have the confidence. “Mom, you just have to get on the interstate one or two times,” I’d tell her. “You can do it.”
But still, I’d take the steering wheel whenever it was just the two of us. Besides, I preferred the control, even if my mother would yell at intersections and grip the inside handle of the passenger side door when I whirled the steering wheel. I became a city boy after I left Kentucky at eighteen, learning to travel through Boston congestion by bike. The red icons on the butts of cars and traffic lights meant “stop” for everyone but me. The skinny rubbers of my tires whizzed through rush hour. My body contorted itself into the space between stalled side-view mirrors. My torso veered the handlebars from lane to lane. I mastered the zigzag across city streets like I learned to navigate life, shrinking the needs of my body so that its physical transgressions could go unnoticed. When I biked, I didn’t have to follow the straight, white lines that the world had dashed onto the roads. I was invincible, accountable to no one. Biking was an adrenaline rush. It teased me with freedom absent from the rest of my life. On my visits home, I’d steer my parents’ Toyota Camry like the $75 red road bike that a pot dealer in Cambridge Common peddled to me.
“Too fast!” my mom would say. “Slow down. Do you know how to drive?”
“Mom, I’m not going that fast,” I’d reply, ignoring that my quick turn might have made her stomach lurch.
My mother did everything she could to keep order. Shopping circuits were part of that habit. She made sure our fridge always had at least two or three family packs of meat. I was never short a pack of gloves when I’d inevitably lose them every December on my bike, because she would have had bought extras when winter gear went on clearance in summer.
She piled another stock of food and clothes every week into the Camry trunk, as another poor mom might fill her shopping cart with a mountain of merchandise every Black Friday. My brother said that her trips to Macy’s indicated symptoms of an unnatural obsession with shopping. My father called it a side effect of being a woman. They never shopped with her, nor did they spend Sunday mornings with her, as I did. We’d sit down at the dining table with the thick bundle of newspaper. As others do with crosswords, our fingers would mark up the clearance items in store circulars.
Armed with a mental map of that weekend’s sales, my mother and I would then get in the car. In America, my family has only owned Toyota Camry cars, the vehicle of utility. We could stretch out the Camry to run for decades on end, because it never racked up much mileage. The Camry only went to stores or jobs three miles away, not to mountains or cities three states away. As much as I counted down the minutes at Meijer’s when my mother knocked the rinds of watermelons, listening for their echoes of sweetness, I found our wandering up and down grocery aisles comforting. This was routine: comfort in monotony and familiarity.
Our family did what TV comedians or my classmates make fun of Chinese people for, what society demands that good immigrants do to survive. We worked, we were stingy, and we didn’t have fun, or at least how families have fun camping or going on cruises. We didn’t have room for that kind of stuff. More than anything, we learned not to disturb the peace. No flamboyance, no veering outside the lines, just hard work following the rules.
The night of my coming out, I sat at our family desk and cranked out a coming out letter like a last-minute term paper. My younger brother would be out at a youth orchestra practice that evening for a few hours, and I knew I could only get my parents to sit down for this conversation if we were the only people in the house.
The Internet, as always, could be trusted with its magical gateways to procrastination. I browsed the spectrum of coming out letters on forums like EmptyClosets, from fairy-tale endings to lifelong family estrangements. As research annoyingly does, my reading inspired more questions than answers. Do I really want to go through this? I wondered for the umpteenth time. Am I really gay? These questions unzipped my pants and placed my hands under my waistband. My ears tensed for any movement from my parents downstairs. My eyes glazed over two women going down on each other. I could sometimes get off to lesbian porn, but the few iterations of stop-and-go that day left me up sore and unsatisfied. I don’t find women attractive in that way, as much as I love them.
I got back to Google Translate: my emergency and anonymous Chinese tutor, if also an incompetent one. In one sentence, I committed a five-year-old’s mistake, forgetting two extra strokes to one character (门, not 们). So it read “son of a door” instead of “your son.” I also didn’t know how to say in Chinese “I like men.” It wasn’t the right kind of “like,” for it made my taste for men sound like as a desire for nicely salted chicken wings, not the carnal appetite that one has for flesh.
All said, I was proud to write in my mother’s tongue. I had never written in Chinese so quickly before. After weeks of premeditation and a lifetime’s worth of silence, the words slurred out like diarrhea. But when I sent the file to print, the paper jam button started to squeal. The crochety machine was rebelling against the crooked orientation with which I frenzy-fed the old inkjet with paper. It refused to be the messenger of taboo material.
On the second try, the printer spat out my letter as a mess of Wingding boxes. It wasn’t going to do Chinese characters. The time at the bottom right corner of the monitor was not forgiving. It reminded me that my brother was due home in minutes.
I formatted the Word document in PDF, and finally the printer complied. Two copies, one for mom, one for dad. I ambled down the stairs. My legs reminded me at every step that they could head back up. The bell still has not rung, echoing my words with the school therapist earlier that year.
“That’s what terrifies me so much about coming out,” I told her, our chairs turned in the textbook arrangement of 45 degrees toward each other. “It’s like ringing a bell. Everyone hears it. You can’t take back the sound.” I thought of Paul Revere’s midnight ride: the clapper tinkled against metal, and the British were outed. Everyone knew at once.
On the stairs, I considered crumpling up the letter and feeding it into the shredder, all in a matter of seconds. But my feet carried me down to the living room, ready to get it all over with. My dad glanced up from the day’s episode of the Chinese teledramas that helped my parents whittle away every evening.
“You need anything?”
“I don’t know. You need anything?”
“No, no. I’m good.” My feet had already pivoted their way back to the stairs.
She must had gone to pick up Mike. The phone rang. My younger brother was on the other line. He said that he is going to head over to a friend’s house post-rehearsal. I sighed relief and dread in one breath.
When I came down again at 11:45 p.m. that evening, my mom was on the La-Z-Boy, entranced by the shouting of Ming dynasty warriors, metal clashing against armor. Neither of them looked up. It confirmed what I already knew: Chinese dramas captivated my parents more than lesbian porn captivated me.
“I wanted to talk. But I know it’s late.”
“No, no, we’re not tired.” They both turn to me.
“Uh, can we actually sit at the table?”
There was one table in the entire downstairs of our house. We never spent any time at the dinner table apart from our nightly ritual of eating. Dinner was the slurping of rice into mouths, bowls clanking against the wood of my parents’ chopsticks or the metal of spoons, Mike’s and mine. Occasionally, my dad would complain that the green beans were still uncooked, or that my mother didn’t make enough meat. She’d call him the biggest baby of the house. We didn’t have serious conversations at dinner, or for that matter, outside of mealtimes. But this would be the most proper place for us to have the conversation, I told myself.
If I didn’t have the language to counsel my parents, then someone else would have to be my translator. Before coming out, I crawled the Internet for support books written in Chinese for families of LGBTQ kids. It was 2012, and only one such book existed in my parents’ mother tongue. Beloved dad, mom: I am a gay wasn’t available on Amazon, eBay, or any of the usual suspects, but a Chinese-language only website that shipped books from Taiwan. I’d have to wait ten days for the book to arrive. No one had written reviews to vouch for its helpfulness. The book was in traditional Chinese, not simplified. It would have to do.
My mother never read books, no matter the language. But I imagined that my coming out would mark a climactic moment, perhaps so much that my parents would contradict their old habits. The book would arrive after I left home. Looking back, I don’t even think that they bothered to open the pages when it landed on their doorstep.
I timed my coming out so that I departed five days after for graduate school abroad. Long enough to talk with my parents if they wanted to; short enough so that we wouldn’t bear the pain together, physically. Short enough, too, so that I wouldn’t be imposing too much on my high school friend, a Taiwanese woman who agreed to shelter me when and if I got kicked out after the confession.
The letter made it to both my parents’ hands, as if I were a teacher giving two students a reading for class. But when I started reciting my own words, I became the ten-year-old seeking validation from his parents as he trips over characters whose tones he can’t quite remember. He mixed together his faux-fluency of Chinese and the broken language of queerness in his mother’s tongue. He didn’t look up from the paper, gripping it like the only buoy that would keep him from drowning.
No one shed tears, as usual. No one interrupted, which was not usual.
“Thanks for sharing,” my dad said in Chinese when I made eye contact again. He sounded like the American teacher he is not. My father never initiated such platitudes of gratitude, phrases of distance I felt with English-speaking adults.
I couldn’t imagine what he as about to say, this fist that talked about women who need to cook for men and boys who can’t cry.
“We are your parents. We gave birth to you. We raised you,” my dad paused. “Then, it is up to you as to how you live your life.” I recognized his voice but not his language. Chinese did not permit choice. “We want you to be happy. Only you know how you can be happy.”
We had the longest dinner conversation I can remember. My father and I, that is. Uncharacteristically, my mom kept mum.
“So do they know what causes homosexuality?” my dad wandered into the fuzzy realm of science and philosophy—a world that excluded my mother. She didn’t think about such things. It would be my father who will spend the next few days in the office reading Internet articles on neurology and sexual orientation. He would try to convince himself that it was not his son’s fault. My mother would just let the conversation simmer and stew, until she finally comments on the news, days later. “It’s as if I had found out you were a cripple,” she will tell me.
No fist was raised, no belt was whipped, no glass was shattered. My mother did not yell herself hoarse, as she would have when my ten-year-old self got into yet another fight with my five-year-old brother. That night left me gratitude: the species of gratitude that is fully aware that it could have been a hell of a lot worse.
Later that night, as I linger on the stairs, I overheard my mom whispering. “Why did you pretend that it was all okay?” “What else am I supposed to do?” my dad hissed back.
When I came out to my parents, they didn’t condemn me to hell or send me to conversion therapy. They didn’t hold value judgments against me. They just thought I was being naïve, idealistic. “Don’t make life harder for yourself than it already is,” my mother told me some days after, both of us slouched into the plush discolored couch in our living room, scooped up from a neighbor’s curb. “You’re already an outsider in this place.”
Shortly after coming out to my parents, I am driving my mother to Meijer’s and Macy’s and wherever else. She starts telling me about her childhood. Reminiscence isn’t routine; she usually doesn’t believe there is much use in rehashing things long past.
“I remember when I was in grade school. The girls used to always hang out together in one group, and the boys in another. I was really close to some of my girlfriends. But in tenth or eleventh grade, it all changed. One by one, my close girlfriends started dating the guys we had never talked to before. Before long, all of us were paired off.”
When my mother tells this story, I imagine two teams huddled on opposite ends of the basketball court, one of teenage girls and the other of boys. She played a lot of basketball in her student days. At 5’10”, my mother had always been tall, and taller than my father, a fact he could never recognize nor admit. I don’t know much about her days growing up in Beijing, but I picture her as a social butterfly, the center of attention. Her few schoolmates that I met on trips back to China would talk about how my mom always had people around her. High school classes in China were incestuously close. Teachers, not students, rotated classrooms on the bell in China. The same group of fifty or sixty students would stay in the same room for math or history or Russian, hour after hour, year after year.
I picture her as one of the last ones picked on the basketball court. “I never really wanted to start dating. But when I lost all my girlfriends, it became time.”
“When I was your age, China didn’t have gays,” she chews her words slowly. My mother and I can talk about things in the car that we can’t in the house. Our voices don’t travel to my brother and my father, and the two of us don’t have to look at each other between the front seats. “Everyone just got married. No one could just decide to call themselves gay.”
Unwittingly, my mother teaches me in this conversation her generation’s word for gay: 同性恋. I look it up in an online dictionary, three characters in my mother’s tongue. Same, sex, and love. By itself, the final character, 恋, can refer to feelings between two people of any gender.
Followed by the Chinese character for home, 恋 takes on a meaning that doesn’t exist in the English language: a deep, untranslatable longing for family.
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.