Editor’s Note: The following piece was chosen as the winner of NextShark’s personal Essay Contest 2019. The views expressed in story are the writer’s own.
“Give me your bowl,” Mother commands me. As I lift it towards her, she plops down a ladle-full of the fish ball, potato, egg soup that we always have on Lunar New Year. Scrunching and sniffing my nose after the first bowl, I finally notice the ten-plus relatives around a table that’s supposed to fit six. They start to pester me with their usual proceedings.
“How’s school?” “Fine.”
“Does this taste good?” “Yes.”
“Do you have a someone you like?” “No.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” *laughs it off* “NO.”
“Does anyone like you?” *laughs that off even more* “NO!”
This usually happens to the older children at the table — being questioned by middle-aged Chinese detectives. Why does Auntie 1 want to know my private life, why does Uncle 3 ask about boys, and why does Auntie 5 try to explain to me how to protect myself from boys? Because dating in your teens is looked down upon in my culture. Women are supposed to date in their early twenties and get married almost immediately after graduation from high school. Poof. A whole life wasted on a dude, cooking, cleaning, caring for children, the dude that comes home late at night and makes up excuses about having “meetings.” So when they kept asking about my personal life, I was confused. Do they want me to be in a relationship or not?
Even if I was, I couldn’t have admitted it. Not because of the Chinese-female-dating-stigma but because of this thing called the Chinese-family-will-throw-you-out-if-you’re-a-homosexual. Which I am.
Mother had me when she was twenty-one, a few years after she immigrated to America. Being so young, she didn’t know how to care for me and simultaneously work more than 85 hours a week. So I was shipped back to China. My maternal grandparents raised me until I was four, when I came back to the motherland. I reunited with my Mother in New York but later moved down to Georgia, where we still live. I started school at five. My English was quite broken and it was hard to make friends. Kindergarteners can be cruel. They’d look at me with furrowed-brows and scrunched-up noses, making the face that meant they didn’t want to talk to me. But one girl on my bus was assigned to sit next to me, and coincidentally, was also in my Kindergarten class. We became best friends. Well, that’s what I thought at first.
One Friday, in the Spring of Kindergarten, on our bus ride back home, she started dozing off. Her head slowly drooped, her chin resting on her chest. Gradually, her head landed softly on my right shoulder. My heartbeat flew to 170 beats per minute. For some perspective, that’s exactly my heartbeat now when I run on the treadmill for three minutes on 5.5… Anyhow, as a five-year-old, I was confused as hell. Homosexuality is not just a taboo in Chinese culture, it’s an abomination, worthy of shunning. Sexuality is never talked about in my family because it’s assumed that all members are hetero. Faced with these confusing feelings, I did what any five-year-old would do, brush it off and ignore it. But it’s like ignoring the leaking roof of a house — the holes go from small to substantial and the water goes from trickles to waterfalls. You can’t ignore a flooding house.
Middle school was horrible. Puberty was worse. Parts of my body didn’t listen to me anymore. My chest got bigger despite my pleas for it not to, my thighs started touching each other, and my face became a minefield of red pimples. Puberty is also when boys started to become a big topic amongst my friends, who are all girls. I was not out to anyone yet. I don’t think I was even out to myself. In sixth grade, I concocted a flashy and exciting “crush,” on a boy. I tried so hard to like him. To make it seem real, I even told all my friends. I tried to feel squishy inside when he slightly brushed my fingers, like I had when the girl on the bus rested her head on my five-year-old shoulder. I tried. I tried. I tried so hard. It didn’t work. I don’t know if my heartbeat could be slower than during sleep, but it sure felt that way. My heart wakes on its own, so I can’t ring an alarm in its ears. It won’t wake up.
Fast forward to ninth grade when I came out to everyone except my family. There are reasons. Apart from the consequences of coming out to my homophobic family, which probably includes me getting kicked out, I love Mother, and she loves me. Mother never voices her love instead, she just loves. The majority of her life was spent making a better life for me.
Her first few years in New York were hard. In China, she had dropped out of grade school to help her family on the farm and a small business, if you could call a shack with dry goods a business. When she got to New York, all she understood and reciprocated was “Hello” and “Thank you.” With some searching around, she found a job as a server in a Chinese restaurant, where she learned little by little that no matter how well she took care of her customers, how many times she greeted them, how earnestly she thanked them, tips were meager. She earned barely enough to live by herself. Thank goodness the restaurant owners allowed her to take leftovers home to provide a few days of food. Work was (and still is) 12 to 13 hours a day, on her feet, clearing plates, ordering food, cleaning tables, sweeping floors, and putting up with rude customers. After work, she would phone her mother in China.
“Is everything okay?”
With tears streaming down her face, she couldn’t make a sound that gave her crying away. She didn’t want to worry her mother. She was 18 then. A year younger than me. Twenty-two years later, she still works at a Chinese restaurant, trading her physical body for money. For me. In the last two years, her fingers have gotten infected with periungual warts that throb so painfully she wakes up in the middle of the night. But she still goes to work, five or six, sometimes seven, days a week. For me. She never tells me she loves me, but I know it. Her fingers tell me.
It’s funny, really. Knowing all of this, I know she would support me no matter what, but I’m still afraid. Not afraid of being kicked out. Just afraid of not being accepted by the woman who gave up her life for me. Afraid I can’t make her proud. Afraid she won’t let me take care of her when she can’t take care of herself. Afraid…
In my junior year of high school, I had to attend a Science Olympiad competition, which meant I had to arrive at school for the bus in ungodly hours (6?) of the morning. Mother drove me. I scooted into Mother’s black and white car under tender stars and a crescent moon. Mother seemed tense, gripping the steering wheel a little tighter than usual, hunching her back more than usual. As looming street lights approached the tires grumbling down narrowing neighborhood roads, we were silent until my mother posed a question: “Karen, you don’t like girls, right?” My heart crept up my esophagus, threatening to spill dark secrets, but I stared deathly straight ahead as if the moon could tell me the right answer. By god, I knew the right answer — “yes, of course I don’t like girls,” but the right answer isn’t me. I’m just not right. I’m wrong. Quickly, my mother added, “as long as your sexuality is correct, everything is fine.” The wind stung my eyes, blurring hues of the streetlights into a rainbow. I guess everything’s not fine.
The one who poured her blood and sweat upon
the bedsheets of my childhood —
the rustic floors, threatening to give way,
an apology long due.
I’m not sure I can find my
the man of my dreams —
chivalry till the end,
gleaming with romantic fervor,
No I don’t think the two boys
laughing behind us —
blue Sparks bouncing off each other,
Pride glistening with tears
demeaning — diseased.
I really don’t know the
Correct Sexuality —
please don’t like girls —
that you pleaded to the gods,
to rip open my intestines again and
inject inside of me.
All I know,
all I’ve ever known is
love the specks of dust left behind
in the dusk after the pouring rain —
the rainbow —
the flares of electric passion and desire
radiating from the core of an imperfection — me
the urges, lust, need
to hold her hand
and squeeze back with quiet ferocity
to love —
to love the love you taught me to be
the love–that maybe one day —
you will love.
Mother definitely suspects. Granted, my appearance makes it hard not to suspect. I cut my hair to shoulder-length in fifth grade and it got shorter every year. I even tried a buzz cut last year, which was horrible by the way. I stand with my undercut. In third grade, I started dressing myself. In ninth grade, I started buying my own clothes, from the men’s section. Since then, my style has evolved quite a bit. From pastel pink jeans and neon green polos to light blue turtlenecks and maroon suits. I’m not sure when Mother started suspecting, but I’ve put the issue of coming out at a standstill. I had originally planned to come out after my high school graduation, but after the news of admittance into Dartmouth, I didn’t want to ruin that. So now I’m in my second term of college, and she still doesn’t know. But she should because her coworker is my girlfriend.
To think the hands that worked so hard to provide me a better life also served, unwittingly, as my matchmaker. Two years ago, I worked at another Chinese restaurant, separate from where Mother worked. After a few months of persuading, I agreed to quit that job and join her because money came easier at her place. I started working January 2018, and my current girlfriend, Zoe (her American name because she doesn’t want to identify herself), started working in mid-April 2018. She is a native Chinese and legally came to America to better provide for her parents. Life in China is much better than it was during Mother’s time, but the cost of living is too high for even a college graduate, so she decided to come to America. One of Zoe’s relatives was the owner of the restaurant, so she secured a job there. If Mother hadn’t persisted, I wouldn’t have jumped-ship. I would never have met Zoe.
Now this is very awkward for Zoe. A few days ago, at work, Mother remarked that I looked a lot like this Chinese celebrity. For some reason, Zoe lamented to Mother, “If your daughter was a guy, I could call you mother-in-law!” Mother laughed, “Sounds good! You’ll be such a good daughter-in-law!” Initially, she replied jokingly too, affirming that she would love to be Mother’s daughter-in-law. Immediately after Zoe replied, she busied herself clearing plates while she cooled her mind. Oh my god. That cut way too close to home. Little did she know.
For me, relationships are hard and easy. Zoe became the “friend” who I’m always going out with and whose house I’m always at. This “friendship” facade is harder to maintain when things get physical. Everything becomes private. Secret. Holding hands in public was a no-no since there’s always the possibility of bumping into a relative. My house was off-limits since she thinks it’s awkward sleeping next door to Mother. I bet.
Most things happened in her room. After a night of karaoke, it was getting late, so she asked me to stay over. Silently thanking god for this opportunity, I agreed. Mother asked me where I was at midnight, and I told her I’ll be staying at Zoe’s. She didn’t question any further. Just my luck! She lives with her relatives too and her walls aren’t very soundproof, so the noise-level needs to be controlled. At 3AM, she woke groggily. “Let’s be together,” she confessed to me. I agreed. “I like you too,” I replied coolly while my insides were frantically keyboard-smashing. I didn’t sleep that night. We went in reverse-base order. We slept together first. Then a couple days after, our first kiss happened in her bed. I don’t think we’ve ever held hands. One time, we were cuddling and watching a movie when her aunt knocked. We immediately untangled from each other, smoothed our shirts, and put on our innocent faces. Thank god her aunt knocked. Please remember your manners and knock. Sometimes, I imagine being open about my relationship. Would being able to hug, hold hands, make out in public make things better? I don’t know.
I think things are great now.
Lunar New Year is approaching, and I’m anxious to spend my first one away from my family. I’ll definitely miss the food: dumplings, rice cakes, scallion pancakes, lobster, fish, longevity noodles, eggs, and sweet, sweet white rice that you can’t get here. I’ll miss Mother always trying to fill my bowl with food. I’ll miss Zoe. I’m not sure if I’ll miss anything else though, definitely not the million-Auntie-Uncle-interrogation. But surrounded with food, filled with faint but lingering smells of cigarettes and beer, and bombarded with everyone trying to scream over each other, it almost seems okay for them to ask me about boys.