The Box

As I was driving over to her house, I was thinking about what I might say. We had been building toward this moment for the past few months, if not years. In fact, probably all our lives. We grew up in the same church, attended Sunday School together. We even made music together. Sweet, sweet church music. She played the keys for our ragtag praise/garage band while I led sweaty and passionate worship sets every Sunday for our youth group on my starter-kit Fender acoustic guitar. Between the two of us, we only knew 9 or 10 chords: G strum—D strum—C strum—JESUS!—G strum—D strum—F#m strum—JESUS! There wasn’t much to it, really. But what I’m trying to say is that she knew all my secret chords. And I knew almost all of hers.

She held one back. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t pry this one out of her. Jessica lived the classic double life. At church, she played the role of sweet, blameless Christian daughter, older sister, and unnie for the younger girls in the youth group. But away from all that, she harbored forbidden desires. She talked to me once about wanting to get a tattoo on her left shoulder (a dolphin or a heart, I can’t recall). She had a thing for bad boys too, though she’d never admit it. She was more AC Slater than Zack Morris. More Pacey than Dawson. Not many people knew this, but she even had an Eminem poster on her bedroom wall (her favorite track was Stan). This is why she never let anyone into her room. It was a room of secret, smoldering, and shameful desires. Not many people knew this about Jessica, but I did. I knew because I was her best friend.

I was not a bad boy. I was as good as they come. People would tease us all the time. “Ooohhh, are you dating??” they’d goad. “Ludicrous!” I’d respond. “Do you think I’d risk this hard-earned trust by being one of those typical boys who…one of those boys who date girls??” To me, to date was to lust, and though I lacked the conviction to pluck out my own eyes, I’d never once think to degrade our precious friendship. I had seen her Eminem poster (from the hallway) because she let me. Why would I ever give up that level of intimacy?

But Jessica had hidden something from me, and it drove me crazy. As far as I was concerned, my best friend status was on the line; I simply had to know what it was.

I knew she had a secret because any time I’d say something nice to her, she’d hide in a hole of her own making. “No, Chris. You shouldn’t get too close to me,” she’d say. “You think you know me, but you don’t. I’m not good and you are.” She saw me as the pre-fallen Adam, glorious and unashamed. She was Eve, felled by the serpent, the half-eaten apple hidden behind her back. She was Mandy Moore and I was Shane in a Walk to Remember. As her best friend, I knew that she would never flourish holding onto this shame. I was very mature for my age to know something like this.

So, when my Nokia ringtone sounded off one balmy, Southern California afternoon, I knew what Jessica was about to say. “Chris,” she started, her voice trembling. “I don’t think we can be friends anymore. I don’t think I’m a good influence on you.”

I had heard enough. I told her I was coming over. Before she could object, I hung up the phone and gunned my ’98 Honda Accord straight to her house. When I pulled up to her house, I had no set plans, no strategy. I started by calling her.

“I’m in the driveway,” I said solemnly. “Ok,” she whispered.

She slipped quietly into my car; I could tell she had been crying. Though I had no idea what this “thing” she held onto was, I took a leap of faith.

“Whatever it is, I want you to go and get it. Right now.”

I surprised myself with how decisive my tone was. I projected control and calm, a maturity beyond my years. She nodded and went back into her house. When she re-emerged 20 minutes later, she was clutching a small box, approximately 12×12 inches, to her chest. It was smeared with dirt. Whatever it was, she had buried it in her backyard. I had the wisdom to refrain from asking her what was in it.

We had to drive somewhere so I instinctively started driving toward Huntington Beach. It proved to be the right decision for both practical and cinematic reasons. For one thing, the 40-45 minute drive measured out to about 9-10 songs on the mixed CD I had recently burned for her. With this CD, the literal soundtrack of our friendship, we didn’t even need to speak. Instead, Paula Cole did all the speaking for us:

I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over,
I want to know right now, what will it be?
I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over,
Will it be yes, or will it be sorry?

The Goo Goo Dolls. Third Eye Blind. Savage Garden. I was telling her a story, and in this story, everything was going to be alright. Sarah McLachlan crowed, Jewel cooed. Eagle-Eye Cherry pleaded with us to save tonight, while Natalie Imbruglia’s anthem struck a more defiant tone. We chased it with a cool sip of BBMak.

I parked the car near the pier. At this point, I knew what we had to do. For the first time in our friendship, I grabbed her by the hand. A shock of electricity shot straight up my spine. She was letting me, perhaps even wanting me, to hold her hand. I was in uncharted territory.

I led her down to the end of the pier. We hadn’t said a word in about an hour, so I broke the silence.

“We’re here,” I whispered. She began to cry.

I didn’t know what to say, but the way we were standing there at the end of the pier—the proverbial edge of the world, nothing in front of us but horizon and ocean and the seagulls cawing, the sea salt breeze lapping at our skin and sending gentle ripples through her hair—it all reminded me of Kate and Leo. Taking their cue, I found my words, at last.

“You have to let go, Jess. You have to let it go.”

She gripped the box tightly to her chest as the moment finally came, the moment she both dreaded and needed the most. She didn’t move for what seemed like 10 minutes. I was beginning to think she hadn’t heard my perfect line.

Just as I was about to repeat myself, I heard a distant splash. She buried her head into my chest and began to sob. She had done it. People, especially the ones who were fishing on the pier, were staring.

“Let them stare,” I thought. This was too important.

But then, I looked over the edge and to my abject horror, the box was still there, floating, and floating rapidly toward shore.

I turned her so that her back was to the water.

“You did it Jess,” I said abruptly. “Now, let’s go home.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the box tracking next to us as we walked the length of the pier, slowly but surely making its way to the beach. I knew that if she saw it, everything would be ruined. And by ruined, I mean, symbolically ruined.

Fortunately for me, we made it back to the car without incident and Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger restored my confidence that destiny was firmly on my side that day. As we drove away, the weight of the box became lighter, and we both understood that a chapter in our sweaty adolescence had come to a close. Shame had transfigured itself into a 12×12 box in the sand, the contents of which some unsuspecting child might have stumbled upon—God only knows. All I know is that Jessica breathed a little easier that day and we remained good friends terrified of touching each other for the rest of our youth group days.

When I found out what was in the box 17 years later, all I could do was shake my head and chuckle. There was a truth then that remains the truth today: Hope floats, but apparently, so does shame.


About the Author: Christopher Paek is interested in authentic Asian American storytelling. He writes less often than he should, but he makes up for it by devoting part of his time encouraging other Asian American writers to share their stories.

Photo by: Pat Nolan via surfline.com

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Ivy League Hollers Part #1: Tales of Harvard “Dating”

An excerpt from the standup routine I call, “Ivy League hollers: Extremely intellectual flirtations that never go anywhere”.

Scurvy

So, this is the thing they don’t tell you about Harvard freshmen.

They might be incredibly smart, extremely accomplished, but this is also the first time they’ve ever had to plan their own breakfasts.

And it’s a free flow spread at the dining hall, so you can choose what you want to eat.

So obviously by the end of the year one of my classmates has scurvy. Cos’ the only thing he ate was Fruit loops.

I’m like, I can’t date any of these people? They’re small children!

So yeah. 18th century pirates and Harvard freshmen. The demographics of who gets scurvy.

I guess the thing is you can’t really blame him. Fruit Loops has the word “fruit” in it.

I will never forget when the guys on the top floor of my freshman dorm finally rolled their laundry down the stairs.

They hadn’t done laundry for the entire year. I don’t know what they’d been doing, rewearing things? Constantly buying new underwear? Anyways, there wasn’t a lift and it was four storeys.

This enormous ball of stinky laundry rolled down from landing to landing, slowly gathering speed and velocity. It left a little trail of socks.

It should be obvious to everyone by now that at Harvard, there is very little sex.

The White Rose Holler

So, when I first got to Harvard, I was shocked that everybody was so good looking.

Then I realized it was just because I’d been brainwashed by white supremacist advertising.

After a couple of weeks, I could tell who was actually good looking and who was just white.

Also, as a Singaporean, I didn’t know what an “Hispanic” was. They just looked like everyone else to me. They could be white, they could be brown, they could be black. So why did they have their own category?

Also, I kept getting all these white guys mixed up with each other. They all looked the same.

It was all very confusing.

Then I started figuring out people’s names.

There was this guy called Israel from Puerto Rico. He was obsessed with Singapore.

“Singapore is smaller than Puerto Rico, but you guys are independent,” he said.

“Every time the Puerto Ricans say we’re too small to be independent, everybody says, but look at Singapore! They’re smaller than us, and they’re independent!”

I definitely had a crush on this guy.

One night, when I’d had a couple too many Bailey’s with my roommate, I left a white rose outside his door, because he had the Jose Marti poem, on his Facebook profile.

Cultivo una rosa blanca
en junio como enero
para el amigo sincero
que me da su mano franca.
 
Y para el cruel que me arranca
el corazón con que vivo,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo;
cultivo la rosa blanca.

The next morning, he’s in the dining hall and he sits down with me and my roommate.

“So… someone left a white rose outside my door last night,” he said. “At first, I thought maybe I got punched,” (Getting punched means you’re invited to try to get into a club). “Then, I thought maybe it was a secret admirer”.

I shot a warning glance at my roommate, who is already collapsing in giggles.

“Then, I thought maybe, it was a death threat.”

So, I’m just sitting there, trying my best not to collapse into laughter.

The next week, I print out a tiny map of Israel and stick it in the middle of an orange and leave it outside his door.

The next year, he goes on the Harvard College in Asia Project (HCAP) and he goes to Singapore. “You guys really have your shit together,” he tells me. “I’m not sure if we can get our shit together the way you have your shit together.”

But I’m like, “But you guys have bioluminescence.”

It’s only a matter of time, guys.

The Magical Realism Holler

So, when I was a sophomore I meet this guy. He’s Guyanese-American, and he’s Lutheran.

The thing about him is that he transferred from Brown. Because he was TOO HAPPY.

He was like, “Judith, I don’t know if this is working out. I run every morning, my work is excellent, I’ve made some of the best friends of my life… and they let me do whatever I want to do. This goes against my Protestant Work Ethic. I think I need to transfer to Harvard.”

So, I’m like, yeah. Good choice. Cos’ Harvard is a misery factory. Four years of unrelenting soul-crushing competition with 1600 other type-A personalities. What do you expect?

Good job.

So obviously this guy is a writer.

When we meet, he’s doing this summer program at Pembroke College in Cambridge, and I find him through a Facebook friend for a floor to crash while visiting from London.

When I get to his room, he isn’t there, but he’s left me a note on his computer.

I leave a note for him on the computer, dump my stuff and then head out.

This happens four or five more times.

Then I finally meet him and he’s this Indian guy who’s into magical realism, like me.

Three years later, he’s working at the ACLU in NYC and I have an interview with a publishing house, so I crash his place again. I take the Chinatown bus from Boston to New York.

I get off the bus and stand in the alcove against this wall where the Chinatown bus stops and read Jane Austen’s Persuasion while waiting for him to show up.

He’s actually waiting for me in the opposite alcove reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

When we finally look up from our books and see each other, we go get dinner at a Malaysian restaurant.

At which we find out we were born on the same day, in the same year, at the same minute, on the exact same second, on opposite ends of the world on tiny islands.

So, he’s basically my Caribbean twin from different parents.

We walk around NYC and buy two butterflies made out of grass to honor Nabokov and get matching t-shirts with the see-no-evil monkeys on them.

We agree that we should never get married because what will happen is, we will fill our Brooklyn apartment with so many books that we will get snowed in, and we might never leave.

Also, for the sake of the universe, just in case it implodes.

So yeah, he started writing a novel about the same time I started writing a novel.

So, I don’t believe in magical realism, but magical realism believes in ME.

The Kebra Nagast Holler

So, when I was a junior there was this Scottish grad student who was incredibly cute and was thinking of converting to Catholicism. We were sitting in a Moroccan café and chatting.

“I was just pondering the mystery of the trinity,” he said “and how I didn’t understand how the third person of the trinity issues forth from the first two. How is the holy spirit a person if it emanates from the Father and the Son? Then I realized that every soul in the universe comes about that way. We all come from our fathers and mothers when they conceived us.”

And I’m like, “I want to go to Ethiopia to find the lost ark of the covenant. So, the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon, and she’s Ethiopian and filthy rich, right?”

“Uh huh.”

“But she’s disheartened because even though Ethiopia is booming, it can’t compare with Solomon’s Jerusalem. So, Solomon leads her to her bedchamber, adjoining his. He places a jar of water in the centre of the room. ‘No one will touch you,’ says King Solomon, ‘if you do not drink my water.’”

“Naturally, Solomon has lined the room with aphrodisiacs and dehumidifiers, so the Queen wakes up in the middle of the night bloody thirsty….”

“And…?”

“So, she drinks. They have a son. Who later steals Moses’ ark from Israel.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope, Addis Ababa claims they still have it.”

“Raiders of the Lost Ark, eh?”

“Indiana Jones is rubbish. This is the real deal.”

Of course, like everything else at Harvard, this doesn’t go anywhere.

He got engaged to a woman called Mary and is discerning whether or not to become a Jesuit.

The Worm Vulvas Holler

In my senior year, I have a crush on a biologist.

He spends his entire summer cutting up worm vulvas.

That’s kind of hot.

Well, If you’re into that kind of thing.

A bunch of Singaporeans go down to the new pub in the basement of Annenberg.

We start playing truth or dare.

I tell a truth. I have a crush on someone.

Of course, everybody wants to know who it is.

He’s right there. So, I tell him.

A week later, he comes to my room.

“We’re not in junior college anymore,” he says. “I just wanted you to know, what I really love is science.”

So yeah, that didn’t work.

The Social Studies Holler

I went to Switzerland with his brother during spring break.

We flipped a coin to decide between Sweden and Switzerland.

I wanted to see all the countries mentioned in our stupid Social Studies textbook to see if their situations were really applicable to Singapore.

In Murren, we found a Singaporean restaurant halfway up the side of the mountain.

There was a Singaporean chef inside who had migrated here in the 80s.

He said Goh Chok Tong had promised the Swiss standard of living by 2020, and he didn’t think he’d deliver, so he just up and moved here.

He assumed we were boyfriend and girlfriend and made vague allusions to the fact that we shouldn’t have sex.

He fed us a meal of very bad Singapore noodles and lent us his sled.

We were both seniors, so we pretended we eloped.

When we got back to college, we told everyone we had got married.

Nobody dared to ask if we were joking.

He was the kind of guy who pretends he can open other people’s mailboxes because of his military training, when actually all he does is check which ones are not locked properly beforehand.

And I’m the kind of girl who tells people at the literary magazine that the peach pit which I carry around came out of my mum’s vagina when she had me, is called a “kai xin guo” and that every Singaporean is born with one.

How can you tell I’m not telling you an elaborate fabrication?

You can’t. That’s half the fun.


About the Author: Judith Huang is a failed comedian trying to make a comeback from being a serious science fiction novelist. Her first novel was shortlisted for a prize, much to her disappointment.

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“Whatever It Is, Don’t Be Afraid of its Plenty”

CW: Emotional abuse, suicide.

When I found out that Mary Oliver had died a few weeks ago, I closed the door to my office and cried at my desk. I fell in love with Oliver’s poetry early on in an English literature class during my first semester of college. “In Blackwater Woods” started out as a recitation assignment but eventually became a prayer. I whispered it between classes. I scrawled its lines onto multiple scraps of paper, slipping them into notebooks and coat pockets.

“To live in this world,

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal,
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.”

(In Blackwater Woods)

I was drawn to her simple invitations – to look up at the world around me, to be astonished and deeply grateful, to care for creation and the tender earth of my own body. Over and over, I returned to her for wisdom and comfort: after leaving an emotionally abusive relationship; in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting; when I felt alone and aimless in a new city; as I grieved a friend’s death by suicide.

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”

(Wild Geese)

Her words channeled life when I was inconsolable; they were spiritual direction when I was unmoored. I didn’t know she was queer at the time. To be fair, I didn’t know I was either.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment I knew I was bi. What I do remember is the first time I honestly acknowledged that terrifying and beautiful feeling of the universe opening up inside of me. Early on in 2017, at a dinner, a friend casually threw a “You’re queer, right?” into our conversation. We had just been laughing about first dates and relationship mishaps, but every part of my body froze; no one had ever asked me that question before. I stared at my plate for a few seconds before answering, “I think – I’m not sure.” She smiled and pushed a pile of french fries towards me.

“And that’s okay.”

But it didn’t feel okay. I wanted so badly to be sure – to not hesitate. To be proud and speak my truth, as scrambled and squishy as it was then. Really, I was afraid of how that it could change my life. I was afraid of what it would mean for my participation and leadership in the church. I was afraid of how my partner might respond. What if none of the labels fit quite right? What if no one believed me because I had only ever dated cishet men? And what if it upended who I thought I was and who I believed God to be? There was so much unknown and out of my control. Owning this uncertainty was like wading into new waters, and I had a feeling that if I kept going, there would be no turning back.

Two years have passed since that otherwise perfectly ordinary moment. Being a part of and supporting communities and spaces like #QueerlyBeloved, #FaithfullyLGBT, Brave Commons, and PAAC Family has taught me that queerness is so much more expansive than I thought.  I know that queer kinship and connection and community can transform us if we let them. Like God, queerness holds endless possibility and like God, it takes the world into its arms. Queerness is fierce and tender, illuminating all that is sacred and disrupting false dichotomies. There are days when it feels like it would be so much easier to ignore this part of who I am, but I know that my life is richer and more complex and full because of it.

I still carry so many questions that I can’t answer but I have promised myself that I would follow Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life: to pay attention to that terrible, beautiful feeling of the universe opening up inside of me – and “not be afraid of its plenty”.


About the author: May realized she loved to write in the fifth grade, when she unintentionally plagiarized one of her favorite books, “The Phantom Tollbooth”, for an essay assignment. She got into a lot of trouble (obviously) for it but has tried to keep writing since. She has many hobbies but her favorite right now is borrowing too many library books at one time.

Cover Image: David Marcu via Unsplash

 

A Life of a Pastor; Or, a Journey of Sexual and Spiritual Reconciliation

Note: The names of the pastor and the church have been modified to protect their anonymity.

Trigger warnings: Non-LGBTQ+ affirming rhetoric

 

          In my first meeting with Pastor Richard, he gave me a book entitled, People to Be Loved, Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue by Preston Sprinkle. The title refers to the fact that “if the church is ever going to solve this issue, it needs to stop seeing it as an “issue.” Homosexuality is not an issue to be solved; it’s about people who need to love and be loved. To be completely fair, I haven’t read the whole book. But from what I’ve read, it accurately represents Pastor Richard’s perspective on homosexuality. It calls Christians to love people completely and fully, to listen and understand people in same-sex relationships, and to care for gay men and women just as you would care for any other person because that is what God and Jesus intended.

However, Pastor Richard and Preston Sprinkle also call for a distinction between loving and condoning. According to Pastor Richard, to love does not necessarily mean that you approve of every action that a person commits. Pastor Richard is the head pastor of New Hope Quincy, a church that identifies as non-affirming. This means the church will accept and love members who are in same-sex relationships but ultimately believes that homosexuality is a sin.

Now, Pastor Richard’s non-affirming attitudes were a bit disappointing for me to discover considering that I identify as bisexual.

I attended high school in Massachusetts as a boarding student for four years. At the end of senior year every student is allowed to participate in a “senior project” where they embark on a month long project of their choosing: some wanted to learn to play chess, others shadowed doctors, and some created a fashion magazine. The sky was the limit. My project idea was to shadow Pastor Richard for a month at New Hope Quincy, a Covenant Evangelical Church that I had regularly attended for about a year prior to the project period. Because I attended a boarding school, I discovered and attended this church without parental influence. I entitled my senior project, “A Life of a Pastor,” as the goal of the project was to discover more about a career that I felt inclined towards but understood very little about. Around two weeks into the project period, my counselor and my project sponsor both agreed that being in a non-affirming space was psychologically detrimental for my health and removed me from the situation.

According to my counselor and to my project sponsor, Pastor Richard was “brainwashing” me. I went in feeling fairly confident in the idea that my sexuality and spirituality could coexist without conflict, and that I could live life in a same-sex relationship without being considered sinful. I had a very affirming attitude towards my sexuality and Christianity. Yet, I came out of meetings with Pastor Richard doubting whether I could be gay and Christian. I started to wonder if God hated me, or if I was a bad person.

~

The truth is I’ve been questioning the validity of the intersectionalities between my two identifies for years. Pastor Richard wasn’t the one who introduced the doubt in my mind that being gay and Christian wasn’t okay – rather, he enhanced and preyed on an insecurity that had already been ingrained in me since childhood.

I was raised in an Evangelical Chinese Christian Church and my parents fundamentally believed that being gay was bad. When I was in elementary school, my parents wouldn’t let me watch Glee or Modern Family because of the gay characters. I remember one specific moment where we were watching a 60-minutes show where a woman had been married and divorced over fifteen times. I made a comment that I didn’t understand why all these men divorced her – that I would marry her if I could. My mother and brother were immediately aghast and told me that was inappropriate because women couldn’t marry women. My parents treated gay people like a disease that needed to be contained and not spread.

Eventually, in middle school, my family transitioned to a more liberal evangelical church. With the church’s influence, my parents grew in their understanding of homosexuality. They decided that they would support gay marriage and gay rights—because everyone deserves human rights—but not support the “gay lifestyle” itself. Their beliefs at this point mirrored Pastor Richard’s exactly: they would love the sinner, hate the sin.

So, when I started questioning my sexuality during my sophomore year of high school, it led to a lot of shame and self-hatred. A constant question that ran through my head was whether or not God hated me. After a lot of prayer and rumination and study of the Bible, I came to the conclusion that rationally, if God meant love, it wouldn’t make sense for God to condemn same-sex love.

I gave a speech in front of my high school during a Christian Fellowship assembly that detailed this exact experience. One of my lines stated that, “I wasn’t liberal despite my faith but rather liberal because of my faith.” However, my philosophy was  merely to ignore all the texts in the Bible that condemned homosexuality, which felt heretical to me. According to my evangelical teaching, the Bible should be regarded reverently. We should always turn to the Bible as the ultimate source of guidance in our lives.

I felt instinctively and morally that I needed to accept and affirm LGBTQ+ members, but I felt a contradiction between what was written in the Bible and what I felt was right. I didn’t know how to reconcile these two: how could I hold affirming values when the Bible itself was not affirming?

~

         At the beginning of my senior year of high school, I elected to write my history research paper on John McNeill, a Jesuit priest who wrote one of the first affirming commentaries on the Bible. He did an in depth analysis of each of the six mentions of homosexuality in the Bible and concluded that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah actually describes the sin of pride and of men raping other men. Paul’s texts in the New Testament used Greek words for homosexuality that otherwise were never mentioned in other literary texts. The phrase homosexuality in Hebrew couldn’t be separated from the connotations of pagan worship and sexual abuse of men who were conquered in war. Therefore passages that we believed to condemn homosexuality were actually condemning rape. There is no example of the Bible addressing a loving, committed same-sex relationship, as we understand it today.

Writing this research paper introduced to me to the possibility that the Bible, read in its plain text, could in fact be affirming. I didn’t have to disregard the Bible in order to hold affirming values.

I had finally reached a place of peace about my two identities. I came out to my mother, and ended up choosing a college based on their LGBTQ Christian group. I became much more open about my two identities. Along with the help of several other students, I hosted a joint Christian Fellowship and GASP (our school’s Gay Straight Alliance Club) meeting in which I addressed my identies as both bisexual and Christian. Although I was still attending an un-affirming church near my boarding school, this church had never explicitly mentioned their attitudes towards homosexuality. At this point in my life, I was confident and comfortable in my two identities up until the start of senior projects.

In my first meeting with Pastor Richard, I asked about the church’s views on homosexuality. Pastor Richard admitted that they did not identify as an affirming church, and in all his studies of the Bible, the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality. He told me that there couldn’t be multiple truths, meaning there weren’t multiple Christianities that could be true. There was one objective truthJesus’s truth.

He asked me questions like whether I was the type of gay that was super proud of their gayness and would wear the label on their sleeve, or if I was the type of gay that merely felt that their sexuality was an aspect of their life.

One would expect me to hightail it out of there. However, Pastor Richard’s opinions were very familiar to me. They were what I’ve grown up with, and his opinions aligned fairly well with my parents’ opinions.

I felt that Pastor Richard’s opinions had some validity to them. He told me that one could interpret the Bible however one wanted. Because I was bisexual, I wanted to hear that the Bible was affirming, and so that’s the conclusion that I came to. Pastor Richard told me although the truth may be hard to hear, we still need to attempt to seek the truth without biases.

Additionally, I didn’t feel any hate or disgust from Pastor Richard. In fact, I felt the complete opposite. When he constantly reminded me of God’s overwhelming love for me, I felt an outpouring of love from Pastor Richard. He even prayed for and fully supported the idea of a joint meeting between Christian Fellowship and GASP. Pastor Richard didn’t speak like a homophobic person— he used politically correct language. I never felt uncomfortable speaking with him.

All my interactions with Pastor Richard and the church were full of love, making it more difficult for me to recognize the psychological damage Pastor Richard’s language and attitudes were having on me.

In my meetings with my counselor and sponsor, I was beginning to question whether it was okay to be gay and Christian. I felt that I had to give up my Christianity to be gay, or vise versa. After a mere two weeks with Pastor Richard, my confidence completely fell apart, and I no longer felt that the two identities could coexist.

My counselor and sponsor, thankfully, recognized the detrimental effects Pastor Richard was having on me. They modified my senior project so that I no longer had to see him. I, on the other hand, felt as if they were taking drastic measures. I knew that I felt worse about myself and was crying more than usual, but I didn’t feel as if Pastor Richard was necessarily to blame because all he had shown me was love. I felt as if I couldn’t blame him for merely wanting to bring me out of what he believed was a lifestyle of sin.

~

I didn’t feel completely comfortable with the decision to leave New Hope Quincy until I spoke to my mother a few weeks after about the issue. Although my mother’s beliefs align with Pastor Richard’s, she asked me if Pastor Richard made me feel bad about myself. I told her that he did. He made me feel as if I was somehow dirty or wrong. My mother told me that “If God made you this way, then I have no right to approve or disapprove. We are all limited. If Pastor Richard makes you feel bad about yourself, then it is time to stop seeing him.”

After some distance from Pastor Richard, I’m finally able to recognize the toxicity of my interactions with him. In the weeks following my experience with Pastor Richard, I made changes in my life that helped me further on the path of embracing these two identities and ultimately loving myself for who I am. I decided not to attend a gap year program that would have been potentially un-affirming as well. I sought out Facebook groups for queer Asian American Christians (shout out to PAAC Fam!) and found a whole community of like-minded people on the internet. I also signed up for LGBTQ Christian conferences in the following year. I even had a conversation with a friend who knew Greek who verified all of my previous research on the Greek translations of the word homosexuality.

We’re all on a journey of discovering our spirituality or of discovering our sexuality or maybe of some other aspect of our identities. This was the story of my journey, and I wish you the best of luck on all of yours.

~

Jessica Wang grew up in Madison, WI and moved to Boston, MA at age 14 to attend Milton Academy, a preparatory boarding school. She is currently embarking on a gap year before college and plans to attend Yale University as a part of the class of 2023. Her writing has been previously recognized by Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the Ruth Berrien Fox Award, The Apprentice Writer, the 11th Annual Smith College Poetry Prize, and Hyphen Magazine.

Photo by Shelby Miller on Unsplash

 

The New Complementarianism

This piece was originally published on Liminal Glory

As an Asian American man, wanting to be viewed as desirable is not based in superficiality, but an urge to abolish structural racism that disguises itself in desirability and sexuality politics.
– Phillipe Thao, “Crazy Hot Asians: Redefining Asian Male Desirability

I’ve recently been in conversation with a fellow gay Asian friend regarding my problematic attraction to white men. I once half-joked that simply given the demographic of gay men in the United States, the probability of me ending up with a white husband is fairly high. I then proceeded to joke how I’d definitely change my last name for him so I could benefit from his white privilege.

It’s really strange — for all the work I’ve put into undoing the internalized homophobia and racism of my upbringing, I’ve still yet to extricate myself from the idea that the circumstances of my birth dictate what I should or shouldn’t do on a moral level. What began with toxic gender complementarianism now presents itself as a matter of racial complementarianism — something just as bad and twice as complicated.

All three of my past boyfriends have been white. Off the top of my head, all of my close queer Asian friends’ partners are white. And I honestly can’t recall the last time I saw a gay couple where both were Asian American.

Whenever I’m feeling particularly single, I go on YouTube to watch videos featuring cute gay couples (because I love myself), and I admit that every time I see a gay couple where one is white and one is Asian, something about it just strikes me as good. Something desirable, something to aim for — and it’s only been recently I’ve discovered how deeply rooted my tongue-in-cheek joke about ending up with a white guy actually is.

It’s disturbing how quickly my life has turned into a gay version of Yellow Fever. About every other week someone makes some ignorant assumption about my romantic life based on my race as I get messages on my dating apps about how much a guy “loves Asians”. There’s even a term for it: so-called “rice queens” are typically white queer men who exclusively date Asians.

Asian women have been dealing with such harmful stereotypes for just as long, and in the gay male community we share similar paradoxes — we’re expected to be submissive yet independent, demure yet intelligent, exotic yet familiar, sexy yet totally asexual. Before I can even get a word of English in, I am but a stand-in for thousands of people who share my skin color and sexual orientation.

And you know what? As much as I hate it, some part of me doesn’t resist. I realize I am part of the problem, and it certainly doesn’t help since I happen to fit the gay Asian stereotype so well. On some level, I get a kick out of code switching my way through the dashed expectations of white men. Thanks to a combination of Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome, my thoroughly American upbringing, and my two degrees, it can come as a surprise that my English vocabulary is more expansive than a lot of white Americans’. That I can quote Plato and analyze poetry and talk centuries of dead European composers.

At the same time a brilliant success and a horrible dishonor, the assimilated Asian American is an expert navigator of two cultural identities and yet garners the full merit of neither.

The problem is not with dating white men — there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem is the way I’ve been centering my desire on white approval and benefitting from white privilege by mastering the navigation of Western culture. In some twisted way, being on a white man’s arm would be making myself into my own trophy for winning at the assimilation game. That is white supremacy by any other name.

The process of decolonizing one’s desires comes with a life of powerful paradox. For me, as a relatively small and physically fragile gay Asian man who is easily crushable, white desire is a mixture of both a fear of being overpowered and also of a craving for security within the folds of white privilege. I deliberately avoid dating anyone significantly taller, older, heavier, or stronger than me in order to minimize power difference.

But in my self-perceived weakness I also let a sense of internalized racism get the better of me: more often than not, I succumb to the belief that I’m not worthy of being desired in a dignified manner, and the cheap fetishization I’m frequently the target of is the best I’m going to get. Intellectually, I know it’s false. But after years of living in a world where whiteness is a prerequisite for beauty and models of healthy Asian masculinity are woefully underrepresented, it’s often easier to let myself be reduced to an exotic object than it is to fight back.

Every once in a while I’ll look in the mirror and really like what I see. I learn to savor those moments. And as the months go by I find myself thinking it a little more often, and I have to stop the negative thoughts from intruding on my self-appreciation. I was never ashamed of being Asian American, but really loving the Chinese body I was born with is a goal I yet work to attain.

Because I know at the core of my heart that just because I don’t look like the majority of my Hollywood crushes doesn’t mean I’m not a different kind of beautiful. That my personal worth is completely independent of who I’m dating — let alone the race of the person I’m dating. That though in the end it’s certainly possible my future husband happens to be white, it wouldn’t be because I did both of us a disservice by underpinning my desire on his whiteness and my non-whiteness. It’d be because I fully recognized my strength as an Asian man and responsibly decolonized my desires.

It’d be because I’m worthy of dignity, respect, and a boy who recognizes that I’m amazing as hell. Full stop.

Jason Tong (pronouns: he/him/his) is a Chinese American choral musician and composer currently living in Los Angeles. As a gay cisgender man and baby Episcopalian, he spends his spare time writing about the intersections between faith, sexuality, and race. When he’s not working on decolonizing his identity, he’s learning about languages and dreaming of becoming a polyglot. Read more at Liminal Glory. 

Photo by Abdullah Öğük on Unsplash