Join Prism Book Alliance® as Atom Yang goes Outside the Margins today.
Last month, I went to a restaurant to listen to a new acquaintance’s husband sing in his band. It was fun and I met some new people. The next day, I chatted about the event with a friend who also went.
I talked about how I often pause—just a moment—before I introduce my partner as my partner rather than just introducing him by name.
This incredibly supportive friend couldn’t understand why. “Isn’t everywhere [in this liberal town] gay-friendly? Why would you have to worry about it or even state it? I don’t tell people that I’m a widow, or Japanese.”
You see, for her, being gay was so normal, she couldn’t conceive of intolerance or making a point of being gay (“out and proud” as it’s called). It wasn’t about tolerance for her; it was just the way things were like blue eyes or straight, black hair. No need to worry or draw attention to it.
I tried to explain that being a widow didn’t have the stigma of being gay. She acknowledged this, but I could tell she still thought I was being paranoid—maybe even cynical.
She had grown up and worked and retired among a diverse group of people. Her family, being of Japanese descent, was given the “choice” by the government of either being interned during World War II or moving to Utah (where they were far from harbors). But that was a long time ago, and America has learned, right?
After the election, she told me how unsettled and disgusted she felt—how could so many people elect somebody who clearly espoused racist, homophobic, misogynistic, sexist, etc beliefs? This was not the America in which she thought she lived.
It was, however, the America in which I’ve always lived.
Don’t get me wrong. I work hard to create the America I want. I strive to build community, to find safe people, to be a safe person, to defend my values, and to attack (nonviolently in speech and action) those people and institutions intending or actively hurting me and mine.
I know “not all of the United States is like this” and that “she won the popular vote.” I don’t need this splained to me, and I don’t need my perception acknowledged or countered.
My perception, like that of my friend who couldn’t understand why I’d think twice before revealing the most important relationship to me in the world to someone I didn’t know would be friend or foe or DGAF, is based on years of experience and admittedly, confirmation bias (picking things that only confirm what I believe and ignoring other evidence).
You see, in my America, I don’t call myself Asian-American or Chinese-American. There is no hyphen because I was taught by my mother (a refugee and survivor of war) that I would never be fully accepted, and this has been reaffirmed by random people throughout this nation, for all of my life.
The United States is a club to which I (and many, many others) have limited membership.
Three days ago, I went to see Dr. Strange where one of the main supporting characters in the comics was whitewashed and genderbent (played beautifully by Tilda Swinton, one of my favorite actors); the director acknowledged the mistake (wow) but his reason for not casting an Asian woman?
She would be perceived as a dragon lady. The first time I watched the movie (I’ve seen it twice, it’s more fun the second time around), I felt distracted by this, and didn’t think Swinton’s character, played by an Asian person, would have been perceived so villainously—the character was written to be flawed and complex. (But see, when you only have a few roles Asians can play, they don’t get to be anybody.)
That’s kind of abstract, isn’t it?
Here’s what happened to me at the theater: A trailer for The Great Wall (starring Matt Damon as the hero, directed by Zhang Yimou who has directed such gorgeous films as Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, etc) showed, where all the actors, including the Chinese ones, spoke English. Immediately afterwards, kids several rows behind me made noise to the tune of “ching chong chung.”
I didn’t say anything to them. I didn’t get them kicked out. I’ve done that before. But I wanted to watch Dr. Strange. I wanted to come and watch a movie without feeling like a second-class citizen. I wanted to get some good ol’ fashioned American Hollywood entertainment with a whitewashed character about a comic book hero I dressed up for Halloween when I was nine years old. Note: Mocking people for the way they talk, move, or are is a form of oppression.
That was three days ago.
Two days ago, I went on a fundraiser involving a tour of some stunning homes. The attendees were largely upper middle class white women above the age of sixty, most likely educated and professional (or retired).
A woman waiting for the shuttle with us started a conversation with my partner and me, and during the course of it, the subject of the actual pronunciation of my (real) surname came up—many names are modified for foreign languages; I’m fine with that—and she asked me how to pronounce it accurately.
This person, in a profession where one might think its practitioners would be sensitive, said, “That sounds like chopping someone’s head off.” And then she said my name, not trying to pronounce it correctly, but trying to make it sound as harsh and Oriental as she could to make her “joke” work, and made a chopping gesture. Note: Mocking people’s names is a form of oppression.
I didn’t call her out on it.
A friend once taught me that saying “Whoa!” could halt the conversation and alert people of something inappropriate they’ve said without having to go through the entire ordeal. I learned this tool because my friend used it once during grad school when some classmates and I piled into my car to get lunch, and a student decided to make fun of the way I speak. And I don’t have an accent. (And it wouldn’t make a difference if I did.)
Anyway, you know why I didn’t call out the woman in line? I could have. I’ve done it before. But I was there to help raise funds for a cause. I was there to enjoy some awesome architecture and inspiring design. I was there because seeing beauty makes me feel good. I was there because I love going to see houses, ever since I was a boy and my mom and I would go check out open houses and model homes and talk about what we saw afterwards. I didn’t go to be insulted or to argue or to shame or to educate someone.
When I walk down the street and hold my partner’s hand, I am not completely relaxed. Ever. I love holding his hand, but I’m always ready to protect him and myself. Always.
I might have to protect us from these micro-aggressions like I’ve experienced within the last few days by debriefing about the experience or I might have to get in a fist fight or call 911.
Holding his hand—hell, writing gay romance—is political, not because I want to take the joy and warmth out of feeling our fingers intertwined or that I’m trying to make a statement, but because I know it is not allowed everywhere, that we sometimes don’t even allow ourselves, and to do it is an act of resistance and bravery. (My generation used to hold “kiss-ins” instead of “sit-ins” to increase queer visibility.)
My parents survived colonization, war, poverty, and persecution. My friends survived the Holocaust. I am a gay, Asian man. I am aware of what the world can be like, and I am aware of what it is like. I didn’t need the election results to confirm that.
The rights we’ve won were won, not given; they are still begrudged by those who do not want us to marry or vote or adopt or buy a frigging cake.
I am part of a global effort to make the world kinder and stronger. It’s one of the reasons I write, and why I tell the stories I do. I am thrilled to see people of all ages, but especially young people, come out to protest. It’s a show of force—not, “we’ll hurt you back,” but “we stand together (don’t mess with us).” I draw hope from this on the days I’d rather not get out of bed.
I want to make being alive better for myself and my community and for future generations of all communities.
I want to wait out the dinosaurs that are making a last ditch effort to make their way of life and understanding of the world the one reality that rules us all. I am not here to knit them a sweater and help them through the long, dark winter—not that they would accept the gift (they’ve rejected and returned it, in fact, from data about global climate change to knowledge of different genders).
I could but I won’t because I came here to learn and grow and connect and love. I came here to enjoy life and to be of service. I came here because my parents in their optimism chose to come to this country (while it was embroiled in the Vietnam War) for the opportunities it afforded, the dream it offered, and the equality it promised. Note: Mocking the desire and efforts to be included, to be treated fairly, to be spoken of and to with respect and dignity is a form of oppression.
I know there are those writers and readers in the M/M genre who say “love is love.” It’s a nice sentiment. It asks for tolerance; it tries to convince acceptance.
For me, as a queer person of color, as an author of stories about my people, as a man who just wants to hold his partner’s hand walking down Main Street, as a person who’s aware that his life and rights and well being and sense of belonging are challenged depending on who gets elected or who sits next to him in a theater or who chats with him in line?
Love is not merely love.
Love is a revolutionary act.
About Atom Yang
Atom was born to Chinese immigrant parents who thought it’d be a hoot to raise him as an immigrant, too–so he grew up estranged in a familiar land, which gives him an interesting perspective. He’s named after a Japanese manga (comic book) character, in case you were wondering.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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