The Red Pill of Awakening
This is not quite a coming out story, more like a sexual-awakening story. I didn’t have a singular life-changing “AHA!” moment. Rather it is a slow and progressive journey that wouldn’t have happened if certain decisions weren’t made at various crossroads of my life.
Before I start sharing my rawest, deepest whatever, I’ll give you a quick summary so you have a brief contextual idea of me. Born and bred in Malaysia (lived in 4 different little towns), I went to Singapore for my Bachelor’s degree and worked there for another 8+ years before going to Tokyo, Japan for my Masters on a government scholarship. Then I came to Taipei, Taiwan to do my PhD in 2011.
Okay back to the main narrative.
Maybe it’s inconceivable for the younger generation to imagine how it is possible that I never questioned my sexuality; not even during those awkward teenage years when we were all supposed to be raging hormonal sex-crazed animals. To these questions I must confess to being a very detached and severely repressed teenager. In fact, I sorta came out of my induced-sexuality-coma only when I was 33. The irony is that I have been setting off other people’s gaydar for YEARS. Like Neo in The Matrix, I was offered two pills (in my case, the Internet was my Morpheus). I took the red one and I’ve been in the ‘rabbit hole’ ever since. When I finally had enough courage to come out to my best friend over MSN Messenger, she replied, “finally, woman! what took you so long!?!”. In my defense, I would like to present three pleas. First is my family situation and the environment I was in. Second is my age and the ‘era’ I grew up in. And the third is my ‘great talent’ at compartmentalizing different parts of me.
I know it’s cliche to always point a finger at family and/or parents whenever we didn’t turn out ‘right’ or whenever we have some unresolved issues buried deep inside our psyche, yet in a collectivistic society, there’s no denying that both family and parents play a critically decisive role in shaping the life of Chinese kids, especially in pressuring children to do things their parents wanted so as not to lose ‘face’ among their relatives. My family is not religious but we are very traditional. From a very young age, my mum never failed to remind us to “study hard and be somebody, so that people will not look down on us”. Like most Chinese fathers during that time, my dad was the sole breadwinner and disciplinarian-in-chief. As the eldest in the family, I was constantly reminded to set a good example for my younger brother and sister. In school, I was to study hard and get good results. At home, I was to help with house chores. My pride made sure I accomplished both beyond reproach. Yet, I never got any “well done!” or “we’re proud of you!”. My parents were staunch believers of ‘tough love’. This seemed to be the modus operandi of parents of that generation: never praise and always put down your kids less they think too highly of themselves. Also, we were a family that did not display physical affection. We don’t do hugs at all. If you had tried to hug me 10 years ago, I would either run and hide or be as stiff as a post. As a family, we can talk about everything and anything under the sun, just not touchy feelings or messy emotions. I was raised to be rational, stoical and responsible. I was to be the rock and the exemplary child. I know now that that isn’t who I really am but the years of conditioning kind of caused me to automatically gravitate to these default emotional ‘modes’.
For me, family is forever synonymous with ‘responsibility’. Thus it wasn’t very hard to see why I seek validation, acceptance and emotional support outside of home. In school, I got plenty since I was the ‘model’ student. I always knew when to be good, when to rebel, and how far to push the boundaries. My teachers loved me and my classmates and other students adored me. Since I was young, I was two different people at home and in school. To my parents and relatives, I was this detached but “good” daughter who did all the things that were expected of me and never gave my parents any school/boy trouble. I was different from the other girls but my good academic results and extracurricular achievements more than made them overlook this little ‘flaw’. To my friends, I was the loyal friend who would do anything (except anything monetary) for them, and might even use my good standing with our teachers to get things/favors for them. Unfortunately because of my dad’s job, we moved around a lot. I studied in 3 different states/counties before I reach high school. I’ve made and lost so many friends by then that I stopped believing in ‘BFF’. Even so, everywhere I went, I never stopped trying to fit in and seeking acceptance from people outside my family. That was the theme of my growing-up years.
My time in NUS (Singapore) was more complicated. I wasn't just trying to make new friends and fit in, I also had to cope with the culture shock of a small town Malaysian girl navigating the big metropolitan city. At that time, I was too busy trying to find my footing - juggling my studies and my extracurricular activities, and worrying about my high tuition and living expenses to even think about which gender I’d like to sleep with. With all the juggling and worrying, I somehow managed to graduate. From an overwhelmed undergrad I became an ambitious workaholic. I found a job that I really liked and I was very good in it. In short, I was having a lot of fun at work and got along superbly with my colleagues. ‘Home’ became an afterthought and I only went home once a year for Chinese New Year because I needed to keep up my ‘good girl/daughter’ image. And the constant prodding about my lack of love life by my relatives every time I went home never quite bothered me as I’ve learned through the years to just nod and smile whenever such questions were raised. My life then was mundane yet fairly rewarding and fun, as I was occupied with work, books, computer games, TV series, sports, and friends. And truth be told, I was more than happy to trade my future love/family life for a good career and a fat bank account! So during all those years in Singapore, finding ‘The One’ was never high on my to-do list.
Then Japan happened. Having worked for almost 9 years in the crazy IT industry, I was burnt-out. I went to Japan with only one thought: to enjoy this 2.5 year ‘paid vacation’ to the fullest and get a Masters degree as a bonus. I wasn't going to waste time and energy trying to make new friends or fit in anymore. Heck, I wasn’t even going to work that hard for my degree or in learning the Japanese language. I was going to utilize the crazy amount of free time a student has to read as many books as possible and watch as much TV & movies (from the US/JP/HK/TW) as humanly possible.
At this point I would like to remind you again that I grew up in an era where information only came from printed media and TV. I first used Mosaic and then Netscape Navigator to access the world wide web in my undergraduate years. Mine was the era of BBS, Gopher, FTP archives and ICQ. It was the dawn of the Internet as we know it now. Everything was text-based because to download a photo (or ‘graphics’ as we called them then), even just 1Mbp, took ages with those 56k dial-up modems. Information didn’t flow freely as it does right now. Especially so in Singapore, when anything non-heteronormative is scrubbed clean and/or surgically removed/censured, all in the name of safeguarding family-values and respecting traditions. As for my birth country, even though its Constitution says otherwise, Malaysia self-proclaimed a Islamic country, so I think no further explanation is needed to explain how homophobic the country is. Thus for the first 33 years of my life, I was practically living in two different but strict patriarchal and traditional societies with no clue at all of the ‘possibility’ of being anything other than a heterosexual.
When I got to Japan, I found the Internet to be both incredibly fast and unbelievably free, because unlike Singapore, there is no Internet censorship or surveillance in Japan. Suddenly there’s no worries of ‘Big Brother’ looking over my shoulder at what I’m doing/reading. Suddenly I can surf any and every site I ever wanted. Suddenly I don’t have the societal obligations to mingle/hang-out. Suddenly I have all the time in the world to explore. Finally I summoned enough courage to look at this (missing) part of my life squarely in the eye. Finally I was in the right mental state to look deeper within me and reflect on my life. Finally I was asking myself those difficult questions that I’ve been avoiding all my life.
Growing up, I was never the conventional gentle petite Asian woman who puts her family first. I didn’t miss home and was never close to my parents. Plus I was ambitious (I mellowed quite a fair bit), opinionated (am still very), aggressive (I choose my battles wisely now), and stubborn (persuadable if you know the buttons to push). And what you see is indeed what you get but you are only seeing the part of me that I am allowing you to see. Only a handful ever saw the crazy and/or emotional side of me. I am an easy book to read, provided I give you ALL the pages, else you’ll be reading only what I want you to read. And being an introvert sort of curtailed my proclivity for socializing and meeting new people. You can say that I am (way too) comfortable being on my own and I’ve no lack of hobbies to keep me occupied in my little solitary universe. I can go days without actually talking to or meeting another human being. Thus I thought with all my idiosyncrasies, likes/dislikes and unconventional traits, I was just “weird” and “eccentric”. I never thought I could be gay. As much as I love reading, and consider the number of materials/books I've read, I never found anything about same sex attraction. Simply put: I didn't know “gay” exist!
When the information floodgate finally burst open for me in Japan, I read everything I could find on the Internet, anything from the history and the ‘suspected causes’ of homosexuality, the debate of nature versus nurture, how people tried to ‘get rid’ of their gayness, discrimination and criminalization of homosexuality throughout the ages, to where the Church and other religions stand on this issue. At the same time, I was desperate for any LGBT representation or visibility, especially in Asia. I don’t want to be told that homosexuality is a ‘Western’ disease, or that there’s no gay people in Asia. The only visible non-straight artist in Asia that I could find was Hong Kong’s Leslie Cheung, and unfortunately he has already passed away tragically years before. After all the readings, I searched for shows/movies that were labelled ‘lesbiany’ from the Internet. I wanted to see how people like me act, behave and live. To quote from the opening song of “The L Word”, I want to see “the way that we live: talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, f*cking, crying, drinking, riding, winning, losing, cheating, kissing, thinking, dreaming”.
Being a control freak, the world I thought I knew came crumbling down. I realized that I cannot control what people think/say about me, but I can control how I act/react to my being gay. I’m learning to be more spontaneous, allowing myself to be more affectionate and showing my affections more readily. As someone who loves strong and smart female characters on TV (Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, Bionic Woman, Scully, Xena, Charmed sisters, Buffy, etc), I realized that I don’t just want to BE them, I want to BE WITH them. I wasn’t looking for Prince Charming, I was waiting for my Warrior Princess, Sexy Secret Agent, Smart FBI Agent/Doctor or Talented Witch. As someone who values honesty and integrity, I realized I was repressing an important part of me. All the long-buried/ignored feelings and memories suddenly bubbled up to the surface and made me look back at past encounters and relationships in a very different light. I realized that there has always been hints, here and there, suggesting that I was never straight. As someone who prides herself as being rational and logical, I often thought that I was too levelheaded to ever fall in love. I realized then that I was looking at the wrong gender all these while. I do get tongue-tied and my heart does skip a beat (or two) around certain ladies. Being a bookworm who read everything except romance novels, I realised that it was the heteronormative ‘guy-save-girl’ cliche that I loathe. I don’t mind reading about strong smart women being saved and/or saving their lady soulmates. As someone who prefers menswear because it’s difficult getting clothes that fits me, and often gets mistaken for a guy, I realized I’m not peculiar and there’s nothing wrong with being me. I’ve learned to embrace my uniqueness and stopped seeking acceptance from people who doesn’t matter.
It was hard to overturn everything I’ve believed or thought I knew. All my life, I’ve learned to ignore or store my feelings away, especially if they are in conflict with my familial responsibilities. During that 2.5 years in Japan, I felt all kinds of emotions, many for the first time. Apprehension. Perplexed. Perturbed. Overwhelmed. Shocked. Denial. Anguish. Queasy. Recognition. Reconciliation. And then quite unexpectedly I fell for a straight girl and that sort of muddled my journey to self-acceptance quite a fair bit. It took me more than 2 years to get over the heartache and finally accepted the fact that I like/love women. I also realized that I am actually an emotional person and a romantic. I can be patient and accommodating if I want to. My heart is not stone-cold and I am more than capable to love with all my heart. I have finally found and acknowledged a part of me that I didn’t realize I was hiding/repressing. Everything made sense now.
Finally. For the first time in my 35-year life, I feel whole. I am whole.
Epilogue: To date, I’ve only told a few close friends that I’m gay and no family members knew, although a few may have some inklings that I am not straight. Currently in my early forties, I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t really give a damn about what others think anymore. And I’m doing things that I want to, not things that I should. Nonetheless, everyday is both a struggle and a triumph. In many ways, I'm still ‘learning’ to be a lesbian, something that I'll most probably be doing till I draw my last breath. Furthermore, I’ve yet to navigate that treacherous process of coming out to my family. Will I do it soon? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I’ve made myself a promise: If anyone was to ask me directly about my sexuality, I will tell them the truth. So far only one brave soul dared (LOL). Also, maybe I’ve mellowed with age, family no longer feels as much of a chore as it was before, and I’m slowly re-connecting with my parents. Slowly.
I hope by sharing my journey, more people will know and understand that everyone’s journey is different. We just have to find our own way through this sexuality maze/haze in our own time. By sharing this deeply personal story of mine, I hope to encourage the LGBT+ community to look pass the ‘how/when’ (did you know you are queer), and just embrace the ‘who’ (we are all queer). Also, please do not judge or question how ‘queer’ we are by the things we didn’t do. There’s no minimum qualification number that we must hit before we can identify as queer. Do acknowledge our collective similarities yet at the same time please remember to celebrate our distinct uniqueness. After all, as sung by Lady Gaga, ‘No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track baby, I was born to survive’.
(Editing: Hannah Fazio)