Chinese Roots, Queer Kinships, and the Writing That Bends Toward Home
In Mandarin, the words for “family” and “home” are the same: 家. To go home, 回家, is to return to your family. For all of my life, this has been true for my parents. My mother is the middle child of six and my dad the youngest of four brothers. Blood ties have been the strongest tethers in their lives. For as long as I can remember they have looked forward to a homecoming that restores a bit of their past. I have envied that certainty — anchored in a land, a history, and a people they know as theirs.
The first time I remember visiting Taiwan, I was eight years old and discovering cousins I never knew existed. My father’s father, 爺爺, still lived in the apartment where Dad and my uncles grew up. In the living room where I imagine they roughhoused and studied and strived, I stuttered through the names and terms for each new relative.
A few years after that trip, 爺爺’s Alzheimer’s took hold. When it did, mine was the first name he forgot; it has been for all the aging family members I ever met. I am the lone stranger raised in the West, drifting in and out of family photos every few years and evanescing from living memory. I have wondered what will happen when my parents grow older and whether they’ll recognize the androgynous figure forcefully cobbled from their DNA. I wonder what language we’ll speak by then — the smooth Chinese of my childhood, the compound Chinglish of my adolescence, or the English that has crept steadily onto all our tongues.
In English, “home” can be a noun, an adjective, an adverb, or a verb. Homing is the act of navigating towards home. I grew up in Phoenix, but my parents never taught me English. They were afraid I would inherit their accent — that my intonations would be freighted with recollections of displacement and unbelonging. Language is so malleable for children, though, and it took only a few rounds of playground mockery for me to ply the memory from my tongue. I studied Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow, and I molded my words to the sounds of Wishbone. I began a westward trajectory that would take many years to divert.
By the third grade, I had consumed all the books in the fantasy corner of the school library. Amid pages that opened to witch covens and dragon lairs, I discovered the first representations of queerness and gender fluidity that weren’t steeped in shame. For a long time, the only definition I had of “gay” was one of mental illness. Trans was beyond my lexical horizon. Even my tomboyishness was unspeakable — as in, “why do you have to be like that?”
I have spent much of my life blaming my parents for this. I relegated them to the Asian conservatism in which they enrobed themselves. This was the only version of “Asian” identity I knew. Of course, the “model minority” trope is a colonial production; but so is my family history.
My mother’s mother grew up in the shadow of Japanese Empire, where the colonial government segregated Taiwanese schools by ethnicity. My father’s father left China during the Cultural Revolution, where homosexuality was criminalized, pathologized, and heavily persecuted. Until 1990, the World Health Organization classified homosexuality as a psychological disorder, and it did not declassify transgender identity as such until earlier this year. If I had known how to reach through my bloodlines into the embodied knowledge denied by Western textbooks, I would have seen the scars that come with difference. I would have felt the raised flesh that memorializes trauma.
When I abandoned my parents’ house, I refused to admit that they had looked down the barrel of my future and seen the bouncer who yanks me from the women’s restroom, the cop who harasses my girlfriend and me, and the drunk bros who tackle me off my bike slinging “fag” like a cudgel. It is now 2018 and the U.S. government — the self-proclaimed beacon of democracy — is erasing trans identities, detaining immigrant children, and implicitly and explicitly endorsing acts of misogyny and white supremacy. This is the world my parents feared I could not survive.
If there is anything I have learned in my years of homing, though, it is that queers have dreamt into being shelter and kinships that were otherwise unimaginable. They have recorded histories and scripted futures in fugitive tongues. In Chinese, the term for writer is 作家. Split into its constituent parts, 作 means “to make.” 家, of course, means home. Translated literally, 作家 means “to make a home.” In concert with the trans and queer dreamers who have harbored me, I write towards home.
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