First Act - Part 3, My Father's Son
Updated: Jul 14
Suffice to day that when I came out to my family, they didn't take the news that I was gay very well.
The year was 1994, when the Ontario government introduced proposed legislation that would have extended spousal benefits to same-sex couples. Controversial at the time, it garnered considerable public debate and often made the news. The bill was defeated in early June - just a few weeks before Pride weekend.
It was no surprise then, that Pride celebrations had a very political bent that year. I was 25 at the time, and had been living with my then-boyfriend - whom my family assumed was a roommate - for just under a year. Our place was downtown - only about 20 minutes by car to my parents' home in the suburbs. I would often go home on Sundays for family dinners but stayed pretty independent as one expects when they're entering adulthood.
So when my mom called one day out of the blue, I thought it was strange. She wanted to ask how I was doing... whether I was eating enough (a very common worry for Chinese parents), etc. I assured her I was doing fine.
Then she said in Cantonese, "Ok, well, that's good. It's just when I see what's going on in the news these days, I worry about you. You're not involved with that stuff, are you?" She was, of course, referring to Pride and the political controversy around the recently defeated proposed legislation. In other words, she was asking if I was gay.
When I came out to a handful of my friends initially, I was about 16 and had read books and other guides on how to break the news to parents, especially those who would not respond well. My family is quite conservative and religious. Many sources said that if parents start asking about the topic, they are ready to actually hear your truth.
So, with this in mind, I said something like, "Well, actually I'm gay, Mom."
I don't actually know if she was prepared for that answer, even if she finally suspected that my "roommate" was something more. There were lots of back and forth on the phone and then my dad got on the line to talk. Most of it was, "How can you do this? Did he (roommate/boyfriend) corrupt you? Why are you doing this to us? You know this is wrong!"
After a while we ended our conversation without settling anything. A few minutes later, my sister called. The conversation mostly repeated itself. Then my other sister called. And then my other sister.
Over the next few months, I would be afraid to go home on Sundays to have dinner. I felt like I was going to the lions' den each time, expecting an attack in the form of a verbal argument at any moment. At the beginning, we did argue. But I was at a disadvantage: my Cantonese was not good at all and my parents hardly spoke English. My sisters, even though they came to Canada at the same time as me, retained most of their Cantonese and were ok in English, so by default, they were the ones I communicated with.
There were many times that I did feel attacked and unable to defend myself with arguments that I had practised in my head, albeit in English. I was upset many times as were my family until we decided to write letters instead, so at least we weren't reacting right in the moment. My sisters held the pen for my family, but the message came from everyone. I responded by writing in turn and argued as best as I could, sometimes with emotion, sometimes with logic. Neither of us was willing to give ground. At one point, my sisters arranged for me to speak to an "ex-gay" by phone. In exchange, they came to a PFLAG meeting with me.
I was not surprised that it was Exodus International my sisters connected me with - an organization that sought to help people get rid of their gay feelings and desires. They arranged for a member to speak to me by phone. They should have chosen a more seasoned person because with every argument he made about how being gay was bad, I was able to counter him. Not only did he fail to convince me, by the time our conversation ended, I felt like I had sown doubts in him about the ex-gay movement.
Unfortunately, my outing with my sisters to a PFLAG meeting was just as unproductive. They sat and listened politely. But they simply coduldn't get their heads around that anyone would be proud of their gay family members.
After exchanging a few more letters, I had had enough. If they continued attacking me and expressing their disapproval, there was no point to writing any more letters. We agreed to disagree and we hardly spoke of it again.
If my mom had not called that day, it was my grand coming out plan to ease into the whole thing. I imagined I'd meet a guy (check), introduce him slowly to family (check) and slowly integrate him into our lives. By then, they would have been fine with the two of us (not so check).
I only had two long-term relationships before I met Jeff. Sadly, Jeff never got to meet my family in our time together. But when he died, especially under the circumstances, I expected my family, at least my sisters, to be by my side when I needed them. When I called them that day, two of my sisters did come and I appreciated it, but almost being strangers, I didn't receive the support I needed from them. Days after, my sisters told me that they would not come to the funeral because they "didn't know him." I was devastated and deeply hurt. Even if it was symbolic, it was important to me. If it were not for my "chosen family," I would not have made it through those tough times. And so, I cut them out from my life.
This meant that I had to grieve the loss of my family relationship while grieving for Jeff at the same time.
But in that time, my Dad was the only one who tried to reach out me. While I avoided my sisters, I did try to have Sunday dinners with him and my Mom. To me, my parents were of a different generation and deeply rooted in their culture. I was resigned to the fact that it was beyond their ability to embrace me as their gay son, so I tried my best to be their "normal" son with a non-existent personal life.
This went on for two years. Sadly, cutting them out of my life cost me just as much in emotional and mental energy, if not more.
One day, my sister called to say that Dad was in the hospital because he had a serious flu and taken a tumble in the house. Of course, I put my Dad first and went to see him, knowing that my sisters were all going to be there along with their husbands. Dad was awake and semi-alert when I saw him briefly, but we learned the flu wasn't a flu - blood tests showed he had leukemia.
They had to transfer him to another hospital for care overnight, assuring us we could see him there. The next morning, we were able to see him at the other hospital while we waited for further test results. When I saw him, he said he was looking forward to having lunch with me downtown soon and asked when would be a good time. It seemed really important to him. "Don't worry, Dad," I said in my broken Cantonese. "I will make time. Just get better and we'll plan after that, ok?"
That was the last time I spoke to him, because an hour or so later, a doctor came to us in the waiting room and told us Dad had passed on.
My grieving for Dad was very different than for Jeff. I visited Jeff's grave every year on the anniversary of his death and if I happened to be in the area. I only visited Dad's grave maybe twice. In Chinese culture, visiting someone's grave was not a quiet time of reflection. Conversations would continue which I found a bit rude. And, to show respect to the departed, you would bow three times in front of the grave, which felt awkward and unnatural to me.
But I don't visit mainly because I think about Dad all the time, and I feel like I carry him with me, and is even an integral part of me. It was really only after he passed that I really appreciated how he tried to reach out as much as he could and to keep the doors open between me and the rest of my family when I wasn't talking to them.
One time Dad and I went shopping at a mall just to walk around. I saw a coat I liked but decided it was too expensive as I had just left school and hardly had any disposable income. He tried to buy it for me and when I said no, he was upset. At the time, I was trying to show my independence as an adult living away from home and with a job. But what my Dad was trying to say to me was that he loved me.
In our culture, there was no way for him to say those words. The only way to express it was through gestures. We never really communicate directly to each other... we often use symbols. Like it's a sign of a good child to offer a piece of food at dinner to a parent by putting it in their bowl. It's an example of "filial piety" - a term I learned in university when I studied Chinese history. Simply put, it means being good to one's parents and respecting them. But it's more than that - it's a core value of Chinese culture... to honour one's parents and by extension the family, and to also be good and honourable in the community.
As I get older, I realize more and more how much of my father's son I am. I am incredibly impatient and so was he. He angered easily and so do I. He worked as a commercial artist and was also talented in fine arts. When we first came to Canada, the Chinese community was still relatively small. Dad was known for his artwork; he painted a giant Chinese dragon which was displayed at one of the banks in Chinatown. I believe it's still in storage somewhere. I inherited a talent for drawing from my Dad. In fact, I considered going to an arts high school, but being the practical man he was, my Dad didn't exactly like the idea. He thought if I took up art as a career, I would destine myself to a lifetime of poverty.
Well into my late 40s, I took up photography which was his hobby too. In fact, I recently discovered a couple of images he created in New York in 1980 closely matched mine made in 2018.
I didn't anticipate how much I would miss my Dad and how much he meant to me. Making him proud made me very happy because while Chinese parents love their kids, they are forever putting them down. In our culture, when coming across an old friend or acquaintance in the street, adults would invariably compare their children - right in front of them.
For example, in such a situation, my Dad's friend would compliment me, like, "Oh, he's so big and strong and handsome now!" To which my Dad would obligingly reply, "Oh, he's nothing but useless around the house," or some other delicious put-down. And then my Dad would turn the tables and compliment the other person's son/daughter, and the other person would also put down their own children the same way. That was the game - to brag about oneself or their family was a complete no-no. It was a race to see who could be more humble.
It wasn't until MUCH later as an adult that I finally won Dad's approval when I studied journalism at Ryerson and got a job as a reporter upon graduating. He was also happy years later when I got a job in politics, where it was - and is - mostly still a white man's world. I was a communications assistant for the Ontario Liberals who were in opposition at the time. For me to break that barrier was a big deal to a first-generation immigrant who was more often than not viewed as an outsider. Even though Dalton McGuinty wasn't yet premier at the time, my Dad got a thrill from meeting him when I was touring with Dalton in north Scarborough.
Just as Jeff's passing was sudden and expected, so was my Dad's death. They happened within just two years of one another; I don't think I had fully recovered from losing Jeff before I lost my Dad too. I believe this, too, was a contributing factor to my depression.
But there one was more challenge I had to endure still.