They gave me one shot at making it.
At dating any boy and going all the way to the end with him. But if I failed, if that one relationship somehow fell apart, I would have to admit to my family that gay relationships are not meant to be. I would have to move on.
Five years since I came out to Mom on that rainy January afternoon, I’ve felt lost and I’ve been dishonest. I’ve broken my heart and I’ve covered up the messy cracks with lies. I’ve been sorry, and I’ve been trying not to be. Like many other college students at the brink of adulthood, I am a creature of choice, and I can’t help it.
While frightening, the selfish allure of uncertainty, the “what nexts,” is something that I simply cannot give up, not even for my family. My small teenage world of dance invitations, cheap eats, summer internship searches and secret boyfriends is filled with decisions and priorities that I shuffle and reshuffle, lose and pursue, trip over and learn from. It is the only world I am not an imposter in.
But as I wake up early from blurry neon nights at New York gay bars to throw up quietly and get myself together for 7:00 a.m. meditation with my aging mother, it is more than guilt that I feel. Beyond my own identity, I find that interpreting what is inherently my “choice,” with respect to doing my part in a politically and socially changing America, has always been worlds apart from what my parents and grandparents approve of. What seems to be natural, everyday conversations with peers suddenly erupt into intergenerational arguments, distrust and heartbreak at home, and sometimes, I wonder if it’s that I’m incapable of being loved in certain ways.
Over the years, however, I learned that it was time to stop debating with the older generations if I wanted them to respect my decisions, and more importantly, if I cared to value their side of the story, too. It wasn’t my place to be angry.
The world that many low-income Asian American immigrants grew up in was a stagnant, choiceless one. My parents and grandparents, like many of yours, scrambled to piece together the most basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs while admiring the world beyond their sweet potato farms – enduring cultural revolutions, genocides and poverty in their home countries before making treacherous journeys to the United States.
As children, they didn’t have a liberal education that urged them to view the world’s issues through a sunlit prism; they didn’t have access to diverse friend groups or a vocal cancel culture that kept them on their toes. Instead, the cultural DNA that emerged from their trauma is tightly strung, silent and scientific, focusing primarily on the biological survival and proliferation of the family unit.
For the older generations, success is seeing their children have all the choices and opportunities they never had; seeing us pick which college to attend in the fall or how we want our steaks done at Applebee’s, even if they themselves will never get the chance to walk across leafy green campuses or order anything above $20 at a restaurant. It’s hard to admit it sometimes, especially when family tension runs high and our voices are thick with gravel, but all the choices that we have today are possible because of the choicelessness that came before. We were yellow before we were all the other colors of the rainbow.
In America, however, this inherent choicelessness that the older immigrant AAPI generations have known for a large part of their lives is suddenly met with a different type of illusory choice that they cannot touch. Media influences, and perhaps most importantly, their own children’s Americanization, want them to choose and pick a side during complicated conversations they never imagined having. In their minds, discussions about emotionally charged political topics are outside the scope of what they deem essential to their families’ survival. They are the metaphorical cliffhanger, a distraction from the straightforward path that they had intended for their children.
Two years ago, when the murder of George Floyd saw an invigorated solidarity with the Black Lives Movement — “What did I say about getting involved in activism? Do you need to hear the story about Tiananmen Square again?” This March, when Florida signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — “Back in my day, no one was gay, and people just married whoever their parents liked.” And last month, when millions of American women lost control over their own bodies, regardless of whether they supported the physical act of abortion or not — “As long as no one in our own family is getting pregnant, why should I care about some pro-choice or pro-life problem? Besides, no dating until marriage.”
To our conservative families, everyone else can be gay — and everyone else in the world can be an activist or an artist — but as long as their own children aren’t gay, as long as their family stays together, then they are okay. This laissez-faire, turtle-shelled approach is a learned defense mechanism more than it is an inherent attitude, the conditioned result of growing up in regimes where government intervention was usually punishing or dishonest. In a place where trust in representatives was broken, where lines between crime and individuality were dangerously blurred, commitment to a closely knit family circle was what motivated people to move forward in the face of oppression and stay out of trouble. Neutrality was a response to predatory instinct.
This head-down commitment meant that external passion and performative art rarely ever made their way into the vocabulary of older generations. Our parents and grandparents do not understand that some of the decisions we make are not choices that we can simply take on and abandon at a whim. In the building blocks of our identity, they see frivolous sociopolitical crosswords, so when their children suddenly start presenting them with all of these “choices,” they can feel overwhelmed, reverting to the default of their cultural DNA.
But this is nothing new. Human choice psychology suggests that the more choices we see, be it clothes or teammates, the harder it becomes to reach what we perceive to be the “right choice.” It takes so much mental energy to examine all of these choices that sometimes, the “chooser” — in this case, a group of people who haven’t been given the time to process, reflect, blunder and learn from feedback — simply goes with what is most familiar.
To justify their decision to remain stagnant, especially amid whirlwinds of discrimination and rising hate crimes, the older generations have no choice but to turn to the few media outlets or friendship circles they consider safe. Unfortunately, many of the hyper narrow outlets and groups they are part of, such as on WeChat, paint the picture that identities in the minority, such as queerness or interraciality, often do not survive. Violence is biased against Black communities, and unchecked literature glorifies heterosexual relationships and strict gender roles as a prerequisite to material success.
But that is a delusion. Little does the immigration generation know — that without Black and queer activism, without Roe v. Wade and without Asian American athletes and artists, there would have been no Asian American civil rights campaigns, no justice for the Asian American women who find themselves raped, murdered and fetishized, and no spotlight on Asian American culture. The issues that, in their minds, “do not affect them” are the vaccines that have already granted them some protections in this country.
As children, we are quick to associate this disconnect as ignorance at best, and a refusal to love us at worst. But the situation is much more complicated than that. We need to stop confusing conventional love with knowing how to love correctly. Our mothers and fathers are the same people who drive us to piano school and attend our figure skating practices every weekend. They pay thousands of dollars for test prep and they sneak tanghulu into our backpacks. To them, watching us spin quietly and slide forever in an empty ice rink, hands outstretched over our heads, makes them believe that we want to perfect the axel jump, that our definitions of success completely align with theirs. When they see us reading for hours in the backyard, they assume that it is because we simply feel safe with books. They do not know that as children raised in homes where our growing minds and bodies cannot initiate unapologetic development, we sometimes feel safer with characters we know aren’t real. For our parents and grandparents, their disapproval, their hate, their pulling us backwards – to them, that is love.
Yet, the challenging part is believing just that. It is correcting each other’s misunderstandings and confronting the nonfiction. It is revising our own main character attitudes to give the older generations the break they deserve while still holding both sides accountable. This goes both ways: instead of angrily forcing our opinion on a generation with a different history, instead of always seeing intergenerational discomfort as an argument to be won or a conversation to be completely avoided, we should gradually let family in on our breakthroughs of happiness, sharing moments of vulnerability and sadness alike. Guiding interactions with our tongueless animal hearts can be more powerful than quick-witted rebuttals or crafty wordplay — in the same way that our immigrant parents prefer bringing us sliced fruit at 2 a.m. over saying explicit words of affection.
We need to show our parents that we will be okay, that in a world slowly moving away from commitment, we remain committed to remembering a cultural past that gave us choices in the first place. We need to show them that there is more than one way to make it big. While disagreeing with our Asian parents, it is not agreement that we must look for. It’s trust.
Intergenerational tension should never be about whose struggles are more valid. Right now, both worlds revolve on separate axes, remaining exclusive to one another. Yes, we feel hollow when we miss out on living our truest lives, but when have social movements and pop culture been made accessible to older age groups, especially poor immigrants with broken English? Where and to whom do our parents turn when they feel lonely and left behind?
In recent years, most anti-AAPI hate crimes have targeted the elderly. The older immigrant generations are the forgotten piece of the model minority myth, consistently left out of conversations about poverty and struggle because of how wealthy and educated the emerging Asian American community is made out to be in the media. Even though navigating this country has its omnipresent challenges, there is a silver lining of privilege that keeps me and other AAPI youth one step ahead in ways we are sometimes too blind to acknowledge. So as future politicians, trendsetters and leaders, we must operate on two separate clocks — we must work to bring our immigrant parents closer to a changing world that always escapes their fingertips, and we must create the informed, necessary spaces for them to become and belong.
We must remember this privilege, this responsibility, even as we breach into a world greater than ourselves and our families. As we put pieces of ourselves — our opinions and our inherent identities — out there for the world to see, we must expect criticism and judgment that too comes from a place of love and worry. We must expect self-reform and self-education alongside self-reinforcement, no matter how “right” we believe ourselves to be. At the end of the day, no one is completely free from delusion. No one is completely right, and when it is raining hard, when political and social controversy erupts, it is possible for two cracked hearts to beat together under the same umbrella, for the Asian youth and the elderly to find a shot at love amid a thousand choices that we disagree over.
It was never a shot at being gay that my Mom gave me. It was a shot at understanding. Disguised underneath words that others would immediately dismiss as homophobic, ignorant and unrelenting was a genuine attempt at giving — loving — more than she thought she was capable of. And I’m happy with that. I’m happy with sitting in silence on the ground next to the person I love most in this world, meditating and feeling for just a minute longer — before Alzheimer’s pulls us apart forever.
Feature Art by Brian Zhang