Coming out to traditional Chinese dad?
July 18, 2012 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Coming out dilemma: how do you tell your traditional Chinese dad (ESL) that you're gay?

My partner ["BF"] wants to come out to his father ["Dad"]. However, we're concerned that due to language difficulties, Dad may not understand the vocabulary, especially the subtleties of loaded words like "gay". And even if Dad understands the words, he may not understand what it really means, in terms of the idea that a man could actually be in love with another man, etc.. And then, even if Dad understands what it means, he may be absolutely devastated/furious.

Other complicating/snowflake factors:
Dad lives 4 hours away, meaning it either has to be phone call, email, or inescapable awkward visit. Also, Dad is kinda lonely, and we're worried this will make him feel even more alone (especially if he ends up being hostile to BF). Finally, BF is Chinese, I'm white.

- BF: Chinese, late 20s, professional, dude. Shy and sweet. Native English speaker, understands Chinese but does not speak. In relationship with me for 6 months (<3).
- Dad: Early 70s, ESL (not a great english speaker/understander, but gets by), devoutly Buddhist, divorced, lives alone. He clearly wants to reconnect with BF (and is clearly proud of BF's accomplishments) but they've drifted apart for multiple reasons. Lives about a 4 hours drive from BF and me.

Also featuring:
- Me: White, late 20s, professional, also a dude. Loud and forward. Will do absolutely anything for BF (love him), including staying out of it if necessary (not easy!).
- Sister (of BF): Supportive, knows about the whole situation. Same language situation as BF.
- Older Cousin (of BF): Lives abroad, speaks Chinese, dude. 99% chance that he is gay (mentioned a boyfriend years ago, has pictures of semi-clothed dudes all over his apartment, owns small dogs), but it's never discussed in the family so we can't say for sure. May POSSIBLY be able to help with translation and cultural issues (assuming he's willing, and that we're not wrong about the him-being-gay thing), but has not been spoken to about this situation yet.

Any advice about how he/we should go about this would be incredibly helpful for both of us.

Additionally, if you have any experiences (from yourself or others) you can share to help understand what we're potentially facing, it would be appreciated. I'm thinking specifically:

1. You've had experience coming out in a traditional-Asian-parent context
2. You've had experience breaking any culturally awkward piece of information in a traditional-Asian-parent context
3. You've had experience coming out in any traditional parent context
4. You've had experience coming out/breaking any culturally awkward piece of information across a moderate language/understanding barrier
5. Any other analogous situation
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Would you like to mail me? I think I can help you/your BF but it may be too long for here.
posted by Yellow at 8:11 AM on July 18, 2012

I think Step Number One for me would to be to come out to Older Cousin and ask Older Cousin's Advice on how to deal with this and how this issue is discussed with The Older Generation. Right?

My little sister wrangled me into the living room and made me tell my parents when I came out to her. I'd have been fine not talking about it for a little while longer, but she sort of forced the issue so whatever.

The most important thing to remember is not to react to a parent's response. My dad's responses were initially all very Catholicky. Very "the Church does not believe that your sexuality is a sin, but instead that you are just called to live a celibate life!" And my initial response to that was "hogwash!" It took a long time, but it turns out that all my dad's weirdo pseudo-religious ramblings were NOT about my sexuality, but were about his own. So for years, I dealt with what I thought was pressure/judgment from him when I was really just detecting the same pressure and judgment that he had been placing on himself for his whole life. So remind BF that his father's response - whatever it is - is not about BF, but about Dad.
posted by jph at 8:14 AM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Half-serious suggestion: can as many of you as possible get together and watch The Wedding Banquet?
posted by mskyle at 8:23 AM on July 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't know where you live or if you know these people, but I have quite a few friends and acquaintances who are fluent in Chinese and English. Find someone you trust (because it is personal, after all) and ask them for help translating this in as carefully worded a way possible to minimize confusion. Maybe even a bilingual mefite will be able to help you out.

And I agree with jph--remind the BF that whatever his dad's response (assuming you've conveyed exactly what you intend to), it's about the dad. I'm not gay, so I can't offer insight into that, but I find that 99% of the disagreements I have with my parents happen because they have hangups.

And don't hesitate to reach out to friends and relatives for support. People are generally always more willing to help out and be there for you than we think they are. Good luck.

owns small dogs


posted by phunniemee at 9:15 AM on July 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

Is there any reason you have to have this conversation all at once? With the language barrier, it would go over much better in person. I speak Chinese and have a close relationship with my mom, but still had to have the conversation in stages because of her ignorance about what it means to be gay. Homosexuality isn't much talked about, at all, among most of the traditional Chinese people I know. They hold a lot of misconceptions about homosexuality.

The first stage was talking about gay people to her and telling her about my gay friends. She had a lot of really offensive questions, but addressing those concerns respectfully and calmly went a long way towards her eventual acceptance of what I told her. Things that came up: her belief/fear that people could turn you gay, concerns over HIV, and her belief that gay people shouldn't adopt. These conversations happened sporadically over the course of a few months, in between conversations about everyday topics.

It was only when I felt sure of her opinions that I told that I'd been bi my whole life, and that I might be bringing home a girlfriend at some point. She had a lot of questions and I addressed them as calmly as I could, all the while reiterating that I'd tried many other options and had come to know myself. She ultimately concluded that she loved me and wanted me to be happy, even if I picked a "second best" relationship with a woman.

With my mother, it's more about action than talk; I could explain and argue with her all day long and get nowhere. However, I'm pretty sure she'd be nice to anyone I brought home and stop arguing with me when I ask her to--and that's all I can really ask her to do. Your BF's father is a generation older than my mother. You may be asking for too much to hope he understands things like "men can be in love!" right away. Shoot for being treated respectfully when the two of you visit and let things develop from there.
posted by rhythm and booze at 10:28 AM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Half-serious suggestion: can as many of you as possible get together and watch The Wedding Banquet?

I actually had the same thought - and if his father is a Mandarin speaker, that might help too (the movie is in English and Mandarin).

But as much as I love The Wedding Banquet (everyone should see it, gay or straight - it's so good), maybe that's something to share after you boyfriend has come out to his father.
posted by jb at 10:33 AM on July 18, 2012

The older cousin's orientation is irrelevant, yes? If your BF and his older cousin have a relationship, maybe a good first step would be for BF to approach cousin, come out to him, and ask for advice with talking to BF's dad. He can frame it in terms of "please help me with the language"... if the older cousin IS gay, he will likely come out as well! But regardless, BF can go from there with some family support.
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:53 AM on July 18, 2012

Half-serious suggestion: can as many of you as possible get together and watch The Wedding Banquet?

I too, thought this. At least watch the movie, it might be nice for your BF.

I have a friend who decided that coming out to his very old world, traditional parents would just be drama that didn't have to exist.

He never denied who he was, he always brought his boyfriends around, but actually verbalizing "I'm Gay" was something that he didn't feel he needed to say. After all, his straight siblings never had to sit down with their parents and discuss their sexual preferences.

What would happen if everyone just lived their lives out in the open, exactly as they wanted?

What would change in how your BF relates to his Dad, and with you in a family situation?

If you'd go with him to visit his dad, why not just do that?

Instead of coming out, just be out.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:30 AM on July 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

Seconding what Ruthless Bunny said, Instead of coming out, just be out.

My friend from college (male, Chinese-American) has been with his boyfriend (also Chinese-American) for more than 15 years. They never came out to their respective parents (ESL folks, also), but the gay couple jointly hosted parties and vacationed together (even with the parents!)

Who knows when the parents caught on, but there was no need for drama, and everyone is comfortable with the situation.

That said, both families are Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong, and of the same socioeconomic group.

I also agree that the coming out process is a marathon, and not a sprint.
posted by Pocahontas at 6:09 PM on July 18, 2012

However, we're concerned that due to language difficulties, Dad may not understand the vocabulary, especially the subtleties of loaded words like "gay". And even if Dad understands the words, he may not understand what it really means, in terms of the idea that a man could actually be in love with another man, etc.. And then, even if Dad understands what it means, he may be absolutely devastated/furious.

It's true that his father will probably not be up to the details and PC-connotations of "gay" vs. "homosexual" vs. "queer" etc. but probably not that much more than a natively English-speaking member of the Westboro Baptist Church. I think you're unduly concerned about the language barrier. You say he can understand but not speak, and his father "gets by." I would be astonished if between the two of them they couldn't get across a simple idea that's already known in China. You might be better served if you were to focus more on the conceptual and emotional concerns rather than the linguistic.

This isn't quite the advice you were asking for, but I'm actually more optimistic about the Ruthless Bunny option. My father often says that there are things which can be understood but not discussed and things which can be said but not meant. (It sounds more profound in Chinese.) Honestly, I wonder whether the idea of a coming out talk as such might not be culturally situated.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:27 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

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