Language has always been a difficult matter in my family. Not the words themselves, but conversations. Feelings. Sharing what’s personal, meaningful. My mother, father, and I moved from China to a small town in Mississippi when I was barely old enough to form memories. The predominant culture was centered around church communities, football, hunting, patriotism, and a strong spirit of American self-determination. Growing up, like many immigrants, I grappled with the cultural juxtaposition of my Chinese heritage and my new U.S. home.
My Chinese immigrant parents had straightforward expectations of me: get good grades, a stable job, and of course, a respectable husband. For immigrant families like my own, these are the key achievements for survival in a new world. There was no room for deviation from this model, and few ways to peacefully disagree if any aspects of my life did not align with these set goals. I learned not to talk about my feelings. Instead, I focused on building this “perfect” future.
One call changed all of this.
It was my sophomore year of college, and I had been secretly in my first heart-fluttering queer relationship for almost a year at that point. I might have mentioned my person-of-interest by name to my parents twice ever, and only in reference as a “friend.”
I was on one of my rare Skype sessions with my mother and she asked regarding my “friend,” “Do you love her?”
I was in shock. I looked at her back through the computer screen for 15 full seconds before I realized it was too late to lie.
I croaked out a “Yes.”
I fumbled through the next few months. I hoped that with the apparent hidden perception my mother had, she would eventually accept me. But I found a more uncomfortable truth. In the weeks following our chat, I tried twice to discuss my new revelation. I attempted to talk to her about what queerness was and what it meant for me. She thought I was going to get AIDS.
When I realized she didn’t fully understand when I described what it meant to be queer in English, I printed out resources from PFLAG for parents of LGBTQ children written in Chinese, hoping that would help. It didn’t. Each time we tried to talk, it ended in us crying and feeling angry and misunderstood. We found ourselves unable to communicate with the words we had. What did it even mean for me to “come out” to her, when there were no right words to speak it?
But we still spoke, just not of queerness. My mother actually opened up to me. She began telling me the stories of why my parents came to the U.S., about her difficult family life, and (while it sounds cliché) the unbelievable sacrifices that they made to give me the opportunities that I’m so privileged to have.
My mother may have revealed these stories to guilt me into feeling the obligation to live up to my parents’ expectations through a reminder of their sacrifice, but I think she also finally realized the damage of never speaking out loud about the hardships that they were going through. She realized the effect of never allowing space or precedence to talk about difficult emotions.
My mother told me, “I want to get to know you better.”
Our once every three weeks fifteen minute obligatory calls grew into hour-long once every two weeks calls. I send pictures of my food and adventures to my parents on WeChat and we now even communicate using long strings of messenger stickers.
I’m not sure where my mother is at with reconciling with my queerness and my decision to be in a relationship with a woman, but in some ways, the desire for acceptance has faded into the background. Our conversations made us both realize that neither of us knew about who the other was, despite so many years of existing in the same home. I realize that I can’t force a person who I didn’t fully understand to understand me. Instead, my new focus is to keep having these hard conversations where language allows it and maybe, finally, we’ll find our own definition of acceptance of one another, in our own words.
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