Christmas Eve in 2007 found me catching a red-eye to Kaoshiung from San Francisco, returning to the Taiwanese port city I’d left five years earlier. It was my first time meeting my cousin Freddy, who already seemed like my best ally in the pageantry of reunion. Everyone at the family dinner was in a frenzy of asking if I’m getting an MBA or a master’s in engineering, dating a Taiwanese girl or a foreigner. I’d just broken up with my first boyfriend at age 22.
Freddy was mercifully disinterested in all that. He was a stocky, bearded concert promoter with a mouthful of horse-yellow teeth. Among a family of dour engineers, that counts as swashbuckling. He lavished me with anecdotes of ’80s Kaohsiung, when his Eagles cover band played at tobacco-choked bars. Like me, our family barely knew how Freddy spent his days. He ran wild near the university scene until one day he returned home with a Korean wife and a gaggle of record producer friends who terrified my family.
“Guess how much I raised to invite Sigur Rós to Taiwan?” Freddy asked, obviously wanting me to ply his glamorous trade. His face was mottled from a sixth-wine flush.
“Hundred thousand USD?”
His wife held their baby near us. The baby suddenly insisted on the word “Apple! Apple!” and threw a slice of pear at my shoes.
“Pear,” Fu said, feeding her another nibble from a Ziploc.
I should note here that many of my cousins married in their early twenties. My sister and I were then surrounded by everyone’s plus-ones. People wondered why I had never brought home any dates.
“I finally meet my little cousin. What a surprise,” Freddy said, pouring me more wine. “You know, I have a sixth sense about people.”
“What I mean is I hang with creative types. You give off, ah, a surprising vibe.” I wasn’t sure what he was insinuating, but that night, he would repeat that eerie phrase many times.
He meant well, I think. There was a campus gossip’s unctuousness about him — he plied secrets from you just for the joy of prescribing drunken advice. Later, in a fit of wine-soaked magnanimity, he’d tell my parents that he would never choose to have a gay son himself, personally, but it was OK if they had one. With that one idle conjecture, I’d become an entirely different person in my family’s eyes.
Since the first dumb pangs of puberty, I’d rehearsed coming out to my parents with all my weapons, my darted words and humanist morals. I’d heard them wave the word “faggot” in front of countless TV shows and dinner parties like the burning end of a cigarette, and I’d stashed every homophobic thing they’d said in a vat of my private resentment against them. I was ready to fight.
But after I’d left for college an ocean away, I saw my parents so rarely that I didn’t ever want to ruin our brief reunions by coming out. Besides, my mother’s big 60th birthday was coming up, and I was home to celebrate that. I’ll tell my parents when I found the man I wanted to marry, I thought.
A drunken word by a nosey cousin had now foiled all that.
By the time my parents and I drove home from that Christmas dinner, I was jet-lagged. I hadn’t been back in Kaohsiung for two years, and my parents and I were relearning how to speak to each other in my mother tongue. I noticed, strangely, that they were in no mood to talk. Mom was 10 whiskies in. My sister shot me meaningful glances the whole time.
When we got home, my mother collapsed on the couch and asked my sister for a pitcher of water, clutching her temples.
Then my sister pulled me aside to my bedroom and told me to turn up my music, way up, so no one could hear us.
“No matter what, I think dad might be on your side,” she said. “Mom, I’m not so sure of. They heard about you.”
“That you might be gay.”
“Might,” I said.
“That sort of killed them,” my sister said. “I can’t pretend for you anymore. I’m leaving tomorrow. Please take care.”
When I’d come out to my sister a year earlier, it was a perfect non-drama. But we both knew that Old World family values, like perfectly manicured lawns, take violent pesticides to maintain. My mother objected to my sister’s ex-boyfriend because he was genetically disposed toward manic depression. We counted on my father being the liberal one. He had a degree from Brown and grew up in the States.
Ten years in hiding, I still didn’t feel ready to rise up to that one word, all the pomp and glamour I imagined it meant, all the begging for forgiveness, the wild Wildes, too-red lips, and pious bookstore syllabuses — right then, I was just a tame, boring man sitting in his boxers on a swivel chair, dreadfully tired, wanting a water. I wasn’t ready to be more than that for anyone.
I never set out in life to beg for anyone’s tolerance. I didn’t need that. I wanted admiration. I’d left Taiwan for San Francisco five years ago, and it suited me fine. I’d done my shame-purging with my college friends, and had no interest in revisiting those waterless years when I felt like a monster in hiding.
If my father wanted to ask, I wasn’t going to lie.
In the living room, my mother drank more whisky, watching Robocop 2 in silent devastation as I staying up until sunrise reading music blogs clogged with vicious anonymous comments.
The next morning, my dad came in with a blood pressure meter. He wanted to monitor my congenital heart condition, which my aunt had died of. He was that kind of father.
“Been cutting back on sodium in your foods?” he asked.
“No drinking? That’s no good for your heart. If you’re feeling festive, sip two beers.”
“I know,” I said.
“Three if it’s really wild, like a birthday or someone’s job promotion. As your cardiologist said, no sprinting, no diving —”
“No heavy lifting, OK? No energy drinks —”
Beyond these walls were monsters, dragons, new-fangled dangers — growing up in America’s slummier Chinatowns stayed with my father, garnished his sense of the world’s malice. He kept his television remote control in its factory shrink-wrap, in case it suffered scratches.
My systolic was 175, diastolic 90 — an old man’s numbers.
“Looks like you’re getting worse,” he said. “Your heart’s getting worse.”
It wasn’t. My heart was leaping. I tried to calm myself.
He measured nine more times, ripping Velcro from my skinny arms, fastening them again, trying to achieve the numbers he wanted. Each fastening and unfastening of the ticklish arm band, he muttered more things about sodium. Gatorade was a death sentence, pickles, a grenade of woes. My father lived in WebMD factoids.
Then, lovingly stuffing the blood pressure meter back into its mint-condition cardboard box, he asked.
He asked in a way that so that the burden of uttering the word “gay” was his.
“Your mom didn’t sleep at all.”
“Freddy wondered if you might be — if you were maybe gay. Of course not.” He blinked a few times. “Are you?”
I simply had to nod. I told the truth.
My father looked indecisively at the window, considered what that meant. Then he cried. He did not know how to look good crying. I’d only seen him in tears twice, at his own father’s funeral, and the time when my mother, in a fit of anger, tore apart all their wedding portraits and honeymoon photos. Old men were loose with their tears — young men too, but no one at his age weeps openly. People his age worked 70-hour weeks.
I knew, then, that this moment was not mine. I was past my worst years. This was no time to plead the loneliness of my adolescence. For him, right then, I could not add to the waterworks. I had to hold his hand through this.
We had to escape the house before my mother knew what was afoot. I grabbed blindly from my middle school wardrobe, dressing myself in 10 seconds flat and coaching him on how we’d sneak past mom. We ran past the living room and I said we were going for lunch. Dad reneged and barked, “Bicycle trip!” in a wobbly croak, for no particular reason.
“Bicycle trip?” my mom said. “Wearing that?”
I looked down to see myself dressed in baggy raver cargo pants, a T-shirt emblazoned with a cigar-smoking bulldog, the words “BIG DAWG ATTITUDE” written under his spittled jowl. My middle school shirts were three sizes bigger than my current ones. My dad faced the wall, shuddering the whole time.
We chose the first café that occurred to us. We ordered waffles in a blur, either walnut or honey. Through all this, my father remembered that he liked these flavors, and asked the waitress if he could have them.
“We still love you,” he said. “But please don’t tell your mother. Her 60th birthday’s coming up so soon. Give me time to think it over. You know how she feels about—”
“— I know. Trust me, I do.”
There is truly never a good time for these things.
And he had a point. My mother, the youngest daughter among five brothers, learned since childhood that the more she spoke like a man, the more respect she amassed. She, the devout tomboy, made a point of sneering at every effeminate woman or man she encountered on TV. Anyone who queered the ideal of masculine stoicism disgusted her. Chauvinism does strange things to women and men alike.
“Your cousin Freddy said you’re too sensitive,” my father said. “Mom always said that too. You’re too sensitive for a man.”
As if the ideal man shouldn’t be. I wanted to ask him if he’s ever been to a Chelsea bar and seen how “sensitive” the average gym queen was. Are you kidding me? Sensitive. And were Thomas Jefferson and President Lee Teng-hui heroic for their callousness?
He asked me if I was out to all my college friends in America. Yes.
“But Taiwan can’t know about you,” my father said. “We wouldn’t be able to live here anymore.”
“I have no intention of ever moving back,” I said with the thrill of vindictiveness against the island I’d always planned on loving.
“But how about us? Your mother and I?”
And I knew: I could uproot myself, seek my authenticity, self-actualize, self-fulfill, self-assert, change my name, seek all those beautifully selfish things the American Dream offered, but in Asia, the peanut gallery of my relatives held my parents hostage. Mom and dad are too old to move to Maui and start life anew. They’d committed a lifetime to making shitty conservative friends, having stunted conservative relatives. People like me are blemishes on the family’s genetic résumé. And I knew also that my mother would use my “defect” as ammunition against my father’s genetics; his depressive brood; his suffering, complaining immigrant parents; his weird bachelor brothers with no dental care. My mother would use me to insult my father’s family.
Everyone would use me as ammunition to attack someone else in the family.
We finished our waffles in the café, deciding that I would stage my return home for my mother’s benefit.
At home, my mother’s face was the sallow of old wax. By not denying the truth, I’d done this to the woman who devoted her life to me.
So I denied it, as my father and sister begged me to.
“I heard what Freddy said about me — completely untrue. Why, are my jeans too skinny or what?”
I couldn’t exaggerate to you how much my mother’s face lit up, or how much I wanted, for a shameful second, for my lie to be true. I began to tell her a story, got into the groove, told it with what could be called pizzazz, or maybe just mercy. A monthlong fling with a Korean girl became a year (“I liked her; she had a cocaine problem”). Immediately she laughed with relief.
“I wouldn’t know how to deal if you were, you know, that,” she said. “I wouldn’t know where to start. All night I thought, What now? Should we move out of town?”
“I wouldn’t disown you if you were,” she said. “Not like if you married a fucking mainland Chink.”
These were the people I loved. They said “Chink” and they said “faggot.”
My sister had to leave Taiwan to go back to Chicago. And at her send-off dinner, mother was beaming with relief, fluttery with talk. We seated dad in mom’s blind spot. He excused himself from the table often to weep in the bathroom. His face was all wrong for our ruse, his eyes too red and wet. Everyone was inventing calamity about me when mostly I have been the same person for years.
We drove straight to the airport after dinner, to send my sister off. My father played “Rainy Night in Georgia” on repeat. It was too much, too tawdry. I’d only heard anyone sigh so often in clumsy short stories. This did not pass my mother’s notice. She pulled me aside at the airport and said, “I’m worried what the job market is doing to your dad.” She said, “You should call him more often. He’s so stressed at work.”
By midnight, dad sent his first email to me. The title was “HIV realities and anal mucus membranes.”
“Did you read my email?” he said before bed. His eyes were rimmed liver-red.
“What email?” my mother asked from the living room.
“About job searches,” my father said, closing the door behind him too hard.
Then he asked me again: Did I read his AIDS email?
“Believe me,” I said. “I’ve read way more on it than you ever will.”
“Not true,” he said. “You’ll never know what it’s like to worry for your son.”
“I want to become a father someday,” I said in a small voice that interested no one.
The door creaked open. My mom’s head poked in. She asked, “Everything all right?”
“Yes, I’m going to bed,” my dad said.
“Don’t worry about the stock market so much,” Mom said. “Connor, Aunt Eva heard you were back and wanted to see you Thursday night. You are going to see her for dinner.”
“I have a high school reunion Thursday night,” I said.
“Cancel it. It’s for Aunt Eva. Also I booked us Sunday brunch with Uncle Joe. And Grandma wants you at a party for Elise’s baby.”
We retreated to her smoking balcony for the rest of the night, where she burnt menthols one after another. Apropos to I’m not sure what, she wanted to talk. If there was any night that I didn’t wish to be examined closely by my mother, it was that one. Because she had just recovered from hearing rumors of my sexuality, she wanted to relay to me other close calls in her life.
“Toughest day was a month after marrying your dad. There was $40 in our bank, I was still new to America and painting our house alone. Forty dollars in a strange country. Can you imagine? Then the worst: I got a call from your dad midday — he was diagnosed with cancer, and was expected to not live past the year. He was also fired from his job.”
“What did you do?”
“I just sat there and thought about it. I didn’t call my mom, or sister, or friends. What could anyone do? You deal with it.”
Her laughter belied pride. I felt myself lurching forward to tell her. But I held my truth. Her big 60th birthday was coming up. She was savoring her past six decades. It was not my time.
By 4 a.m., my inbox was cluttered.
Subject line: “Re: Mucus Membrane.”
Subject line: “Maybe you’re bi?”
Subject line: “Have you considered that why you can’t get it up for girls is because of your heart condition?”
Timestamps ranging from 1 to 3 a.m. He had been lying in bed, emailing me from his cell phone.
I thought, Why don’t you ask newlyweds in our family if they crammed each other’s unwashed genitals into their mouths? Would that be socially appropriate?
“Pursuant of our convo: I read and re-read your reply three times. I’m sorry you felt so completely isolated for a decade of your life. As a rational, facts-based man I have to say — the vagina has one purpose: to fit a penis and push babies out. The anus has one purpose: to expel waste. You may forget, but I studied biochem at Brown…”
I couldn’t read more. I didn’t want to know that science has apparently taught my father a frat boy’s insufferable idea of sexual selection and social Darwinism. It was not his fault he sounded like the enemy.
In the next week my father reminded me often, for my own benefit, that I was a dangerously absorbent bacterial orifice. My imagined San Francisco bachelor life offered itself to his sordid imagination. He cited fruit flies in their evolutionary perfection, said that lab exercises proved that alpha males possessed an insatiable need to pass their DNA, while omega males did not deserve to leave their genes. The words “DNA” and “gene survival” were fawned over, worshipped, paid the highest masculine compliments. The word “deserved” — that laughably unscientific word — was never questioned.
I told him fruit flies suffered no loneliness, nor dashed hopes, nor spurned love. Nor does a fruit fly read in bed wondering what happens when everyone around him married off, nor decide one year into puberty to shut himself into replaying Zelda over and over until his mother broke down and asked him to please, please, please tell her what’s wrong.
Then I thought: My father did not have a chance. He didn’t grow up with luxuries of reading Judith Butler and Foucault. He toiled among bankers, famous adulterers, scions — our whole family made itself solvent through his soul’s erosion working in the financial sector. And so he juggles slights learned from lawyers’ and frat boys’ jokes, scratching a hurt incomprehensible to him.
It would be another year until I learned that my mother, foul language notwithstanding, was actually the less bigoted parent. Both of them would return to being their normal loving selves in time, but right then, I wondered if they’d ever become decent.
The next morning, I escaped to a city park to read novels about struggling baseball teams in spurned Midwestern towns. I borrowed my father’s spare phone, in case he was seized by a mid-workday panic attack and wanted to talk. In that week, he had those often. The park’s ground was covered in rosy bathroom tiles webbed with hairline cracked from earthquakes. The vegetation skewed toward Bunyans and Chrysanthemums. It was mid-morning in Kaohsiung, and Filipino maids carted the senile out into the sun, their IV drip bags waggling in the soft wind as they were retaught their names over and over. By the artificial waterfall, a Tai Chi class practiced hip pivots.
As I lay down on the grass, my jean’s buzzed and pocket itched. Caller ID: Unknown. It hung up after two rings, waiting coquettishly for me to return the call. I obliged.
On the other end, some girl called me “Mister Muo” in a mewl inappropriate for cable television.
“Mister Muo, where are you right now? Where have you been lah?”
A week into the new year, I didn’t want any more drama.
“I’m his son,” I said. “I’m not Mister Muo.”
She was not a good liar — her voice drew to the back of the room and dropped the flirtatious tone.
“Why do you have Mister Muo’s phone? That’s so strange,” she said.
“Back for the holidays,” I said.
“So strange…. So strange…”
“Can I take a message?”
After a moment’s hesitation she asked, “Are you a student? How old are you?”
“I’m 22,” I said, not knowing why I owed her this information.
She thought about this for a long time.
“Can I take a message?”
I paced around the park, watched children in gaudy uniforms file out of tutor mills. I didn’t want to consider that my father, who preached the disgustingness of homosexuality, was maybe having a disgusting heterosexual flirtation with this woman. I couldn’t enjoy the cheap hypocrisy in that. Hoping it was just harmless office flirtation, I texted her a dumb bloated heartfelt message: “You forgot to leave a name. I don’t blame you. We are all stupid and complicated. Believe it or not, I’m in a complicated fix right now, ha…” In a movie, she would’ve texted back, revealed her name of be Miyuki, age 25, a fashion design student struck by my father’s flattery at a bank-sponsored gala. We would strike up a sad and stupid friendship soundtracked by disgusting twee music. I would ditch town, burn bridges, live a great life, read Dan Savage, Be True To Myself, star in my own triumphant autobiography, all the cameras of the world trained on me and not my family, whose plans of happy retirement are now in jeopardy, whose ignorant family acquaintances would love nothing more than to tear them down.
In reality, she simply didn’t text back, and I simply didn’t want to know. I had another day in Kaohsiung to wrangle.
The night before I flew back to my job in San Francisco, my father crept into my room again. I had said sorry so often at that point that I’d run out of synonyms for it.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said in the collared voice of statisticians, “that you shouldn’t have told all your college friends. They’re just egging you on to jump into a lifestyle they wouldn’t live themselves. Your friends are all straight, you said?”
“They’re the best people I’ve ever met,” I said.
“The thing with straight folks is — they’ll never truly be comfortable with you,” he said. “I’m sorry to say, they never will. They’ll always prefer to trust their own kind. They will marry. They will have kids. You will drift apart someday. I’m thinking you blew it by telling them. Word spreads, they do. What if word spreads back to Kaohsiung?”
I slammed the mug onto the table, snapping its stem. I was a novice at anger, and didn’t know how to handle my hands. The mug had said “I Survived The Road To Hana, Maui.”
“They chose to be with me,” I said with a violence I’ve never known. “They didn’t call me fruit fly, or a creep with an unbeautiful life. They were there. They did not humiliate me to my face. They were never embarrassed to call me their friend. I’m not evil. All I wanted, Dad, was to be a decent man.”
I raised the broken stem of ceramic, trembling. Had I been in a better mood, I’d laugh at this perfect soap opera prop. But right then I relished having violence done to a mug. He broke into tears mid-gait, stumbling toward me.
“Connor,” he said. “My son, my son.”
He wrapped his arms around my shoulders, shielding me. I melted, made inhuman noises of grief. It would be mom’s big 60th birthday in four hours. I’m finally home, I thought. Then, when I budged away, he whispered, “Nothing sexual about this hug, don’t worry, nothing sexual at all.” The comfort of the moment stole out of the window, slipped away, scraped its knees on the pavement below. It was no longer there.
Some locations, dates, and names — including the author’s — have been changed.