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I cannot write my own name.
No, not that one. I write my English name daily on the margins of assignments, on tests, on permission slips handed in for school trips and photos. My Chinese name is the one I cannot write, not with all its strokes and dashes and little boxes. I look at it and feel a disconnect; three little symbols that are beautiful and meaningless.
I want to understand them, but I cannot read Mandarin.
We never speak of it.
I made the mistake of asking once, at the dinner table on a quiet night. I was younger and wide-eyed and couldn’t understand how my parents could ever be wrong.
“We do not support it,” they said. “We cannot. It is against our beliefs.”
I looked into my vegetables, at the chopsticks I held incorrectly in my hand, and absorbed their words into my head. I didn’t agree with them, but then I also didn’t know how to feel.
I do not remember the first time I went to church.
Our preacher wore white-collared shirts and neckties and black pants, uncreased. He was Chinese, yet Canadian-born, like most of us children. He seemed ageless in a frozen kind of way. I don’t seem to remember him ever visibly growing older, despite the decade he spent with us.
He was our connection to God, the first and final word of His teachings. Any of us with questions came to him. The church was our playground and he was our teacher, way cooler than the teachers at school. His pulpit made a great hiding-place during long nights of fellowship.
“You westerner,” they laughingly call me. “Laowài.” I was born in Toronto, and will never pass for Chinese-born despite my Chinese heritage.
I tell them to stop. I don’t tell them how I will never pass for a westerner among ‘actual’ westerners (read: actual white people.) I do not fit in among the westerners and I do not fit in among the Chinese, no matter how hard I try. I am an anomaly. I cannot even write my own name.
(That word, laowài, actually means foreigner. I don’t know which is more hurtful - being called a westerner when I am not, or being called a foreigner, alien from my own people.)
I had a crush on a boy during kindergarten. He kissed me in front of the whole class. “I want to marry him,” I told my mother with the confidence of four-year-olds.
Despite that incident, I had never felt attraction to boys in that way. In eighth grade, my friends watched an anime and swooned over the characters’ ridiculously sculpted abs and arms. I watched and felt uncomfortable. I didn’t understand what my friends found so ‘hot’ about them.
There had been that discussion at the dinner table years ago, and the fact had always lingered somewhere at the back of my mind. But I didn’t think about it until the day it returned to smack me in the face.
“Though it is allowed in this country, we do not support it,” said our preacher in his Canadian accent, so similar to our own. “The Bible says it is sinful, and many studies show that it is, in fact, a choice.” There was no reaction from the congregation, all made up of elementary to high school students like myself.
“God is Love” was the first thing they taught us. Our preacher had always been the messenger, the one to carry God’s words of love back to us. But as I sat in my seat that day, my heart in my stomach, I couldn’t think of why I felt so devastated. I had, deep down, known this all along. Why did it still come as such a shock?
(As I reflected back on this incident much later, I thought I managed to understand why. He was our preacher. He was supposed to be the embodiment of love, but instead he stood up there and preached us hate.)
I spent three weeks of summer break at band camp, once. All day we sweated and toiled in our combats hefting instruments around the fields. It was sweltering hot, and ultimately one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.
I was one of two people of colour in our tent. I befriended a girl. She was not the other person of colour.
We played MASH. Under “boyfriends”, she filled in Yao Ming, Ching Chong, and Ling Lang, or some variation of these. Under “careers”, she wrote, “noodle and chopstick maker”. That was what she called me over the next few days, and I smiled, laughed along, and never even thought to question it until my other tentmates pulled me aside and asked how they could help her stop.
I looked up the word “asexual” on the internet one day, and thought, “This is how I feel.”
I came out to my mom. “You are too young to know,” she said, and forgot all about it.
I was frustrated but resigned. It could’ve been much worse, I thought to myself. I could’ve actually been gay.
I wondered why I never had crushes on boys like my friends did. Wasn't I still heteroromantic? I decided it was because the boys in my school just weren’t my cup of tea.
(I watched a video on YouTube once that presented something like “women’s standards of beauty throughout history”. The topic didn't matter to me. I saw the soft lines of the models’ bodies wrapped in their leotards and wondered why I couldn’t stop watching.)
We stopped going to church. We don’t have the time, my parents said. It is too far away.
That preacher eventually married and left. His new wife seemed nice. I couldn’t help but wonder if she shared his views on certain topics.
I am not entirely clear on what my Mandarin name means. It's something like peace, or prosperity, or good luck. Good vibes in general is about the gist of it.
I first wanted to kiss my best friend in eighth grade.
(Once, back in elementary school, she held my hand and wanted to try walking to our classroom with our eyes closed. She liked to talk, and I liked to listen; I would watch her eyes gleam, hear her voice brighten, and see her hands shape all the images that she saw inside her head. She cared and cares for me, and to this day I still can’t understand why.)
It took another two years for me to realize.
It didn’t feel as hard to accept as some might think. But there were times when the dread crept in and the full scope of my situation hit me.
(My father might never walk me down the aisle.)
With dread came doubt. The doubt is most common.
(But what if I’m faking it?)
There were times when I felt dirty.
(You sick pervert, one message read. Drink bleach, said another. And uglier words, slathered in loathing, from my own mind.)
Some part of me contemplates being angry at God, of asking Him why He made me like this when already I am foreign and awkward in my own skin. Is this a punishment? Will I rot as the sinners do for this thing I can’t [can I?] control?
(But we are all sinners. It is human nature to sin. And He forgives us despite everything, and I eventually learn that this part of me, at least, is not sin.)
I speak of it for the first time to two girls at my school. They run an interview page for the school’s students and ask me questions. The words inside me spill out, and I am almost late for math class due to the sheer amount of them.
They leave my face out of it, but take pictures of my distinctive galaxy shoes to post alongside the interview. Some people, at least, will know that it is me. I am shaky the entire process and for a full twenty minutes afterwards, but feel light as air.
I gradually come out to my friends. It is less of a reveal and more of an update in the things I talk about in everyday life. They mostly take it in stride. (A good few come out themselves, in turn.)
I read. I ask. I talk. And I learn that my God loves me and that His love conquers all.
I attend a poetry slam at a writing camp. It is, and will remain, one of the most powerful things I have ever experienced.
A girl speaks. She is Chinese. Her poem is an apology. She speaks of losing her family’s language and how she cannot write her own name.
She says all the things I never knew how to say. Tears (of awe, of shame, of wonderment, of sheer exalted relief) come at the memory of it.
I cannot write it. But I can say it.
I still feel torn in two, but a wise friend says it is possible to be both.
I sit in a group of twenty others in the same community and together, we speak of it.
I relearn how to speak with Him.