Everything I’m about to tell you is the truth. Or at least a version of very real lies I have told myself. All I remember is the rain. It’s grey. I’m hunched over in my car, illuminated by my iPhone screen, furiously googling. It’s only 4 pm but it feels like nighttime. Melbourne winters can do that.
‘I’ve been meaning to tell you,’ I mutter in Mandarin, repeating after my Google Translate. I had been practising for weeks. My Mandarin, the first language I learnt, is forever trapped at a grade two level. Fine for important tasks like ordering food at a restaurant but crippling if you want to have a half-serious conversation with your immigrant mother. I type in ‘gay’, ‘queer’, ‘homosexual’, ‘lesbian’ into Google Translate, and picked the one I could pronounce and remember the easiest.
I had already called her earlier in the day. I’d waited weeks, picking a time when I knew my dad would be out of the country. It was windy, and I shielded the mouthpiece as I spoke. ‘Are you home later? I have to talk to you about something.’ ‘Is it serious?’ she asked flatly. She says everything flatly. Emoting is not a skill that comes naturally to my mum, or to me. ‘No, don’t worry, it’s not serious.’ A pause as the line cracked and hissed. Suddenly, I wondered if she knew. Mothers always know. Before I could panic, she cut in. ‘Can you buy some cat food for Bam Bam on the way? There’s a sale on at Coles.’
In my car, I’m cowering. I think of excuses to get out of this moment. Avoidance has always been my strongest coping mechanism. I think of more ways I could lie to my then girlfriend about why I still haven’t told my parents about her. Lie after lie after lie. Suddenly we’ve been together for three years and she gives me an ultimatum—do it or we are over. I think of my last attempt to tell my mum, where instead of telling her, I chickened out and we went suitcase shopping. Needless to say my girlfriend was not impressed when I returned home sheepishly, rolling my brand-new suitcase right next to the closet I still slept in.
I launch myself out of my car, each step sodden with rain. My mum opens the door and immediately scolds me for not having an umbrella—‘This is why you always get a cold.’ She looks down at the tins of cat food and frowns. I had gotten too many tins of turkey. Bam Bam doesn’t tolerate white meat.
I step into the living room and notice the London Olympics opening ceremony is starting—I recorded it for you, my mum said. I’m touched by this gesture. I used to love the Olympics as a kid. I take a deep breath. She’s standing in the doorway and I don’t wait for her to settle. I’ve been meaning to tell you, I said. My mouth was full of saliva. Are you sick? My mum asks, concerned. I shake my head. It’s now or never. My housemate, who you’ve met? She is actually my girlfriend. The words tumble out of my mouth. My mum is silent, completely still. I notice her leaning ever so slightly against the doorframe for support. Seconds pass—it feels like decades. I’m confused. In all my research watching coming-out videos on YouTube, it always ended with an embrace. Every cell in my body willed her to come closer to me.
Why are you telling me, she said eventually. Fuck! I thought, I didn’t say the line! She must not have understood what I meant! ‘I am a homosexual!’ I half shouted, quoting Google Translate verbatim. She twitched, like she’d been whipped. Silence. I don’t think people say that any more, she responded slowly. It wasn’t until months later that I realised I had used a very old-fashioned un-pc phrase, basically the equivalent of saying I am a faggot, to my mother. More silence. Your dad did ask if I thought you were, but I said no. She paused. I think you get it from his side of the family. She was so cold and matter of fact, like she was talking about my eczema, or high blood pressure, or other unsavoury traits that I have inherited from my dad’s side of the family.
She suddenly rattles off a list of every single female friend she’s met to ask if they were also gay. I realise she is essentially asking who I have slept with. I say, none of them. A blatant lie. She sighs. You’re very fortunate we came here. This wouldn’t have been possible for you in Taiwan. But here, there’s freedom. She trails off, and finishes sadly: ‘Your life is going to be so difficult.’
Immigration is a violent act that echoes through generations. The burden and responsibility of the immigrant child is to atone, to show their parents that the choice of uprooting and leaving their homeland was the right one. To give proof that their sacrifices, their years of loneliness in providing a better, easier life for me, were going to be worth it. Instead I’d become all these things my parents did not want. A filmmaker instead of a lawyer. Gay instead of straight. I’d chosen the path of most resistance.
She moves to the kitchen. Do you want some tea, she calls out. I hear her fill up the kettle. Bang around the cupboards. Then silence. And with a sudden, jarring stab of pain, I realise she isn’t coming back. That she would rather wait in the other room and watch a kettle boil than come back to sit with me, her only child. My eyes water as I realise I am no longer her perfect daughter, and that by coming out there was never a chance I could be.
Your life is going to be so difficult.
I am 11 years old. My school had invited my mum to come in to teach calligraphy to my grade six class for ‘World Day’. Out of the corner of my eyes I see some boys snigger at her as she teaches a blindingly white class how to write a version of their names in Chinese. I burn with shame. I wanted no part of that culture. Is she your mum?, a girl asks. No, I say. Avoidance and lies. I know my mum heard.
I am 15 years old. My dad and I say goodbye to my mum at the airport as she’s deported indefinitely for visa issues. I don’t tell her I’ll miss her because I’m a self-obsessed teenager. I don’t tell her I love her because I’m afraid she won’t say it back. See you soon, I say. She doesn’t return to Australia until I’m 20.
I am 23 years old. It’s 2 am and I’m in a bedroom, chatting up a storm with a girl who asks if I’m gay. ‘Er, no!’ Lies and avoidance. She’s confused. ‘Then why are you in my room?’ I fall deeply in love, and five years later she breaks my heart.
I am 26 years old, silently weeping in my room after my mum cancels a dinner where I was suppose to bring my girlfriend over for the first time. ‘I’m too tired, maybe another time,’ she says. I’m too much of a coward to push her to accept me. I’m too much of a coward to feel anything but relief. Lies and avoidance. Nature or nurture, we are always a product of our parents.
Your life is going to be so difficult.
In Confucianism, family is a central pillar of Chinese identity. Westerners often fail to understand how entrenched this hierarchy is. The superiority of the elder over the younger. It is the duty of children to take care of their parents at all costs, even if that means sacrificing one’s own life. Choosing happiness of the self over duty, the act of coming out, is a very Western concept. And in coming out, I was pitting the two halves of me against each other. The Chinese part full of self-hatred for failing my duties as a daughter. The Western part crippled by my desperation for my mum to accept me, to tell me she loves me regardless.
To this day, my mum and I still haven’t spoken again about my sexuality. I see my parents for dinner once a week. We eat, they interrogate me about my career and then send me home with containers of food—the ultimate display of an Asian parent’s tenderness. I’ve learnt to cherish and quantify that love. But unlike the coming-out narrative of Western culture, unlike those YouTube videos I have watched, there is no neat ending to my story.
When I was young, I used to think it was a curse that I belonged nowhere, tethered to no country. Like queerness, immigration was a choice I didn’t make. I have no doubt I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to come to terms with my fractured identity. And slowly, maybe those fractures in the in-between will cease to be a deep hole in my heart, but a vessel in which I can hold my own memories. A place where love and family can finally coexist and not be siloed. A place where I can finally celebrate my own process of searching, of becoming exactly who it is I am.
Note: A version of this text was written for and delivered as part of Queerstories, Sydney Writers’ Festival 2019.
Corrie Chen is an award-winning filmmaker and a highly sought-after director of Australian television. Her recent directing work includes Homecoming Queens, Five Bedrooms and Seachange.