The Romantic Mask

Paris, City of Love, where we lay our scene of adventurous study abroad college students. Me and the girls were out in a little bar late at night. The lights were cool, a featured musician was playing acoustic, and my friends and I were ready for some dessert.

Apparently the musician was attractive. Apparently the waiter, too. The gals were checking them out, evaluating amongst themselves, Who was cuter?

I had nothing to contribute, so I waited until I did. The basics of what made men attractive, I always had to guess. All I could think about was how uncomfortable evaluations of appearance made me feel.

“Yeah, I never felt anything just from looking at someone, I don’t know,” I shrugged, hoping the conversation would shift.

“Wait, really?” gasped the girl in front of me, wide-eyed.

“Mm,” mused the other girl sitting next to her. “I’ve heard of asexuality, or demisexuality, before.”

Did she just say…? I don’t know how much my surprise showed on my face. I hadn’t heard it aloud like that before, so simply. There was respect in her nod as she regarded me.

“Wait, but I don’t think that’s what it is!” said the first girl quickly, as if to defend me from the label.

I neither confirmed nor denied, only considered. I hoped no one else in the group had heard; I didn’t want to be this unrelateable other in an already foreign land. Sometimes, hearing someone else say a word aloud that you’ve only read about in secret leaves you speechless.  

We enjoyed our drinks and ice cream and spoke no more of it.

Paris was amazing, and the study abroad trip was the first time I even thought of the possibility of travelling on my own in the future (previously, it had only been something I associated with honeymoons and family). When I wasn’t hanging with the gals, bonding over French chocolate and postmodern art, I enjoyed time exploring on my own just as much. I felt like I was on an adventure, sauntering by the Seine, surrounded by architecture I had first seen in animated films. I felt animated, myself. Colored chalk beneath me, street music around me, the romance and passion of the city got to me. I fell in love with life.

This trip was where I also wondered just a bit more, if I’d better get used to being alone. Am I really asexual? I thought.  Is it really that normal to love at first sight, that there’s a whole other label for people who don’t get it?   

There’s a poem by Shel Silverstein that remains one of my favorites no matter how old I get:

“She had blue skin,

And so did he.

He kept it hid

And so did she.

They searched for blue

Their whole life through

Then passed right by—

And never knew.”

Since I was young, it gave me encouragement to be myself because somewhere out there was my match. Don’t hold anything back because it would make a significant other happy.  

It’s just that for a while, I thought the mask was asexuality. And, (if you’ll pardon the irony) that I was afraid of showing my skin. That I was just suppressed, that I was in denial, that I just hadn’t met the right one yet. That “asexual” was just a word for holding back, while God had this whole soulmate set up for me and everything. Though I still feared there wasn’t anybody for me.

“Oh don’t worry, you will meet a guy someday, and he’ll fall so in love with you,” my childhood friend said as we ate together beside an old favorite fountain. Her words were like a glimmer of light from a wishing well. Just this sincere hope that I could inspire love with my existence.

I never dated in high school. I lived comfortably with “focusing on studies” and “purity” and “I’m not allowed” as excuses not to go on dates. I wasn’t exempt from admiring people, but all I ever wanted was to be friends. It was never on account of appearance making me feel a certain way, either. I remember when a new kid came on campus, and the girl-squad I hung out with at the time would gossip over how hot he was.

I was a blank. I didn’t get it. Why did people’s treatment of a newcomer have to depend on great hair or great…other parts? Yet somehow it was always a big deal to everyone, at least when I hung out with girls. It was all anyone could talk about, even when playing games.

“Truth or dare. Truth? Okay, if you had to kiss anyone on Disney Channel, who would it be?” These games never quite reached their creative potential, I thought.

“Oh I wouldn’t kiss anyone, I said.

“If you had to,” they insisted.

There was only one way out of this. Thinking of a fictional character he played, I said, “I guess…Ricky Ullman?” I came up with something, some girls agreed and we moved on.

Am I missing something?    

Never talking about sex in church made it interesting. I remember the mischief of randomly flipping to Song of Songs with my best friend in the back of the room and stifling our laughs at what the heck these verses were describing. Eventually the book would be redeemed for us as an example of positive sexuality in the Bible. So in that sense, if physical desire was one place a lot of Christians could finally understand the reward of waiting for God’s love, was I missing out for dreading the idea of mandatory marital sex? On the other hand, there was one time we youth took a quiz on what spiritual gifts we would have, and most of us got “celibacy” as one (I think because we had been conditioned to take dating only as a mature gateway to marriage, and sexuality as a secret, and so shied away from talking about it). Though we all knew celibacy was subject to change once we really got out there as adults, I remember messing around in the church copy room with my friends muttering, “How is that a gift? That you’ll be alone forever?”

“I think it is,” said one of my friends. “It’s not being alone, it’s like something special between you and God, without needing anyone else.”  

Soon enough, college at a Christian university happened, and while I immediately loved my school, I remember the shock of finding out the culture of “ring by spring” was not a joke. Suddenly, as if I lost the cards up my sleeve, I lost my excuses not to date, unless I really wasn’t interested, despite gravitating toward a mostly male group of friends.

You’d think it’d be easy, not having to worry about achieving anything “more.” But what I yearned for felt so specific, and either misread or underappreciated. If I rejected the romance zone, I feared losing friendship over it.   

“Wow. I just find it funny how most girls around here wish for boyfriends, and you have the opposite problem!” a gal friend told me in the safe space of her dorm.

“I know, right?” It was funny, especially as I thought it was something I would want once I was in the new chapter of college. I had come into school knowing I wanted cross-gender friendships just like I grew up with, but I didn’t anticipate being so different for it. I think I was the only one actually anxious and surprised when friends who had only met that year started dating and people would comment, “Finally!

I knew I was supposed to be happy for what everyone else saw as the inevitable, but I felt more cornered into the idea that sex and romance was the ultimate way to experience love. I felt anxious that my dating friends wouldn’t need me anymore. Once they married, they’d be family without me.    

This was the age the magic was finally supposed to happen, the desire supposed to awaken, and I still didn’t get it. The romantic love of fairy tales, which I’d always fantasized about as something I would someday understand, suddenly became a stranger to me in adulthood. I could make-believe, but I felt like I was losing not only a fantasy, but relateability.  

But the more I researched about asexuality, the more I knew I wasn’t crazy for valuing friendship that much, more than anything in the world. More than flowery valentines, I just wanted with all my soul and being to prop my feet up beside friends for life, toasting and adventuring into uncharted travels of life. That was the blue skin I kept hid, on this search for friends like me who’d understand.

And if I wanted that closeness, I had to live authentically, and take off the mask of romantic expectation.

I remember the unexpected way the words caught in my throat before a couple of other queer friends. I was shaking, afraid of breaking their perception of me, afraid of becoming this unrelateable other in a community I loved. Then, when one friend said the word asexual out loud first, that opened it up for me. Sometimes hearing someone else say the word out loud brings your voice back. “Guys, I’m asexual.”  

“GO YOU,” was the immediate response. Followed by me talking way too fast as if the floodgates have opened, in front of friends I trusted, smiling at each other. And it was different from the way people had smiled before, teasing me for resisting romance. This was empathetic, and real, and this was love.   

I remember the sweet sense of wonder I felt going into winter break and immersing myself in ace positivity online. It was like the childhood glee of finding magic and keeping it a secret.  

I carried that glee over into the new year, slowly coming out in different spaces, enchanting myself into a dress of purple, black, white, and grey, feeling like a sorcerer with a shiny black ring on my middle finger. I was comfortable in my blue skin, having named it for myself at last.

One day in musical theatre class, we did a scene from Beauty and the Beast, and to my surprise I got cast as Belle. I was giggling on the inside as the characters talked about getting her to love the Beast in order to break the spell. I lightheartedly told my friend later, “That would really suck if she’s not straight!”

But then my friend said something enlightening to me: “Well, I don’t even think it’s about physical attraction, because the beast is not physically attractive. It’s about influencing each other, growing to love each other mindfully, intellectually, spiritually…” Because the Beast isn’t punished for not falling in love in the first place, but for not actively loving people around him. The lesson he has to learn isn’t how to force attraction, but how to be empathetic and inspire love around him.

While the Beauty and the Beast story we know is a love story, it could have been romantic yet asexual love. It could have been intentional, platonic love. Or unconditional, altruistic love, helping one another out of a mess. Maybe even demisexual love, if their physical attraction develops after they’ve gotten close enough for the spell to be broken.

So if I ever get caught under a magical spell that can only be broken by true love, I’m not doomed for life. I’m not as outside of fairy tale love as I think. I have the love of my friends, my fellow travelers, my crazy writers, my rainbow community, my theatre troupes, my newfound church, my inspiration. As I saunter down chalk-colored streets, laughing, kissing absolutely no one at the top of the Eiffel Tower, who knows, I might even find another with blue skin.

Happily ever after? With how much I love my life, I’m just getting started.


Ellen Huang is a recent graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University with a BA in Writing & a Theatre minor. She writes twisted fairy tales, directs original skits, reenacts Disney scenes on demand, swims in the ocean, practices pyrography, dresses thematically, jokes about things she’d never do (guess), and owns a cloak. Much of her fairy-tale-inspired work is grounded in themes of progressive faith and platonic love.

Website

At the Corner of Queer and Here

In the spirit of transparency, I would like to disclose that this piece is doubling as a dating personal. I eat meat, date other women, go to church, and practice the art of monogamy in the Pacific Northwest. On my days off I can be found imbibing in the Kool-Aid of Crossfit, reading something off of The New York Times Best Seller List, and working my side hustle that chains me to a pager (hint, not a drug dealer). I’m also an ABC (American Born Chinese, for the people in the back), but my parents grew up in the Philippines and speak a Chinese dialect only made known to the mainstream recently with “Crazy Rich Asians.” My dating pool dwindles from limitless to impossible with each swipe left. With each intersection of my identity, thousands are felled in the proverbial sea. Each new layer I peel leaves my nose running and eyes stinging until I am reduced to a slobbery mess. This is not to be mistaken for the process of peeling an onion.

I often find myself standing at many intersections looking both ways before I cross. I have absolutely no desire to get hit by a bus à la Regina George in Mean Girls. The halo brace is not a lewk I think I can serve. So I tread lightly in the spaces I occupy. Sometimes, I don’t even cross at the intersection. I stand at the corner like a Wal-Mart greeter, waving in the friendliest, most welcoming manner I can muster until someone acknowledges the part of me I wish to present. I only present what I have deemed safe for human consumption, given the situation, the time, the context. I often find myself withholding pieces of my identity out of fear. In queer spaces I am often “not queer enough” because I am an active participant in a religion that has traditionally been oppressive to many like myself. On the contrary, in Christian spaces my lifestyle is an abomination to many.

But as cumbersome as each piece of my identity can feel (I know, the Crossfit can be polarizing), each piece is essential in my identity. An example of this would be my day job as a nurse. This primarily female-dominated job requires me to be okay with bodily fluids and playing with sharp objects. If I were okay with bodily fluids and playing with sharp objects, I would be a serial killer. If I were okay with bodily fluids in another female-dominated trade, I would be a porn star. For the record, I am neither a porn star nor a serial killer. The cross section of nursing requires these three elements. Without one component, my profession becomes something entirely different. Without one piece of my identity, I become someone else entirely.

To my previous point, I am well aware certain omissions have certain implications. At some points, I’m not sure what is worse, getting hit by a bus because I am standing in the intersection or being mistaken for a porn star because I’ve left out a piece of my identity.

But nevertheless, I am right here. I have been here. I’ve made myself a home at this intersection. It is a space I can authentically and wholly be myself, moving beyond survival into a space to dream. Not just any kind of dreaming, but the kind that happens when safety is a given and you know where your next meal is coming from. Even then, this can be a lonely place, more often than I would like to admit. Those periods of loneliness are alleviated by the people who have helped make this place my home. They have helped me settle at this intersection by the truth they speak and the love they give. Love is given in the form of affirmations, disappointment, things to eat, and things to drink. Love given in the form of disappointment is doled out in the you-know-better-than-that after flirting with old flames. Disappointment comes from my community remembering who I am and what I am worth, when I have forgotten. Like many, my heart can be reached through my stomach. There was a time I opened up the pantry to find a quart of maple syrup paired with a note that says “I’m sorry your week was crappy, hope this makes it sweeter,” from my roommate. My mother’s love manifests as dismay when she hears that I grabbed a burger at In-N-Out on the way home from the airport when she had been cooking my favorite dishes all evening. A pinch of this and a pinch of that had been simmering on the stove all evening. But, oh well, at least her daughter was home safe and seated at her table. There has been an abundance of love given and received. Because of this abundance, there is more to give. Here at the corner of Queer, Asian American, and Christian is where I reside and all are welcome. We have weighted blankets.


Janine Sy is everything she says she is the in the piece above. She is constantly on the prowl for new music and new podcasts to listen to. Recommendations can be sent to janineruthlaosy@gmail.com.

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