Lunar New Year, a time for prawn crackers and fortune cookies? Not quite!
For millions of East and South East Asians, the festival reunites families to feast on traditional dishes and exchange red envelope gifts, to bring good luck in the year to come.
What this means for my British Chinese family is a congregation of 30 odd relatives around a buffet of Hong Kong Cantonese dishes. With our appetites satisfied, we’d typically spend the rest of the night in groups of four, scattered across multiple rooms and hallways, testing our newly found New Year’s luck in countless rounds of mahjong.
However, despite all the smiles and laughter, this can be an incredibly daunting time for LGBTQ+ people, as they brace themselves for an onslaught of questions from nosey relatives about their dating life, potential partners and future plans. The last thing you want to do at Lunar New Year is misspeak and embarrass your parents in front of so many people.
It’s typically the same line of questioning each year from parents and relatives…
“Are you dating?”… ”Do you have a nice girlfriend?”… “We just want to see you bring a nice girl home.”… “I know a girl that you can meet – she’s free tomorrow for a date”…
Over the years, I’ve built up my catalogue of ‘convincing’ excuses…
“I’m too busy with work at the moment.”… “I’m still young”… “I’ve not found the right person yet”… “I’m still making friends in the city”…
But after a while, the constant questioning and lies in response start to wear you down.
In traditional East and South East Asian cultures, being LGBTQ+ is considered shameful, a failure in your ability to have your own biological family and continue the family lineage.
Growing up, neither my parents nor extended relatives ever discussed LGBTQ+ issues. With homophobia and transphobia so prevalent in East and South East Asian culture, there was nothing to discuss – why would anyone even “choose” to be LGBTQ+ and bring this level of shame upon their family?
In Asian cultures, the actions of children reflect on their parents and you are taught from an early age that your actions have an impact on your family’s honour and reputation in the community. Therefore when it comes to LGBTQ+ identity, it does not only highlight the “weaknesses” of you as an individual but also the failure of parents to raise a “successful” child. For some parents, it’s the end of the world when their children are queer.
If you consider these Asian collectivist values together with the cultural attitudes towards LGBTQ+ identity, you end up with a toxic combination that many Asian LGBTQ+ people struggle to deal with.
When I was coming to terms with my gay identity, I remember becoming overwhelmed with fear. Not fear for how it would impact me personally, but fear for the immense shame it would bring my parents and family for disobeying the Asian cultural expectations that were ingrained in me from birth.
At first, I coped by conditioning myself to isolate these aspects of my identity and accept that they couldn’t harmoniously exist together. In LGBTQ+ spaces I would dissociate with my Asian identity, and in my family and home life, I would suppress my gay identity.
It was manageable for some time, but ultimately any form of identity suppression takes its toll on your mental and physical wellbeing. I learned that I needed to find a balance between these conflicting aspects of my identity. A comfortable equilibrium. A way of being my authentic self without creating tensions within the family unit.
There is still some way to go and maybe, with the pandemic, I can consider myself lucky that I can put off this stress. It’s unlikely that in the coming years I’ll be able to turn up to the Lunar New Year reunion dinner draped in a rainbow flag. But I’m hopeful that in time, with more LGBTQ+ representation and education in the Asian community, perhaps in the future I’ll be asked:
“Martin, when are you bringing your boyfriend home? We’d really like to meet him.”
(Note: The term Asian in this article is used to refer to East and South East Asian communities. We acknowledge that in some countries the term extends beyond the communities discussed.)