I used to say that I have a girlfriend. She lives abroad so we don’t talk much. She lives abroad so we don’t visit each other much. And she lives abroad with a big time difference, so we don’t get to text much.
But all along, she was imaginary, created in my mind as a shield of social pressure, but more than that, from my inability to accept who I am.
I grew up in a rural province in China, went to a military-like high school where I was expected to study 14 hours per day. Let alone discussing sexuality; we were never allowed to even talk about sex in the first place. However, on one summer morning jog in the boarding school where I spent three years of my adolescence, I heard him call me by name for the first time. Then, it was one jog after another, one meal after another, one study session after another. One day, I found myself spending my entire second year of high school with him. Fast forward to graduation, when saying farewell to all my closest friends in high school, I felt guilty that I could never tell them how I felt towards this particular guy. I left high school shouldering that sense of burden, dishonesty, but also my inability to express a part of me that I thought will forever be just a secret.
I transferred my degree after my second year of studying Engineering. I left home behind, thinking the further I go, the freer I would feel. In the first week at my new university in Australia, I was already nostalgic. Having to eat the only food available at 4 PM on campus (vinegar flavored chips from the vending machine at the gym), it was not necessarily the sweetest memory to have. To look for a sense of belonging, and to challenge my comfort zone, I joined a student club called AIESEC.
Today, after great progress, I still unconsciously have an inferior feeling towards white culture. I didn’t grow up listening to the music, hearing the jokes and freely talking about my opinion on politics. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against different cultures, but the feeling of not fitting in automatically pushed me to change, shut my mouth and make extra efforts to understand what was actually going on. One day, at a social gathering after an intense day of marketing events, my team and I sat down together and eventually the favorite topic among a bunch of college kids – relationships – came up.
“Chuck, how come you never call your girlfriend?”
“Because she is sleeping by now.”
In my head, I am saying to myself I need to stop using that excuse. I live by integrity, but from time to time, the fact that I need to lie just to protect myself has started to gradually kill a part of me. One day, after much pondering, at a social game, this shy Chinese international student finally spilled the truth. The drinks in my hand shaking, my voice trembling and my heart at my throat, “I am gay, I don’t have a girlfriend.” I immediately regretted my words, expecting a full flush of judgements, doubts and shocking questions to my face, but none of that happened. My friends were not surprised at all.
To date, I am grateful for my fellow AIESEC friends who facilitated that inclusive environment for me to accept and express who I am.
My journey in AIESEC took me to India. That was five years after I came out. I have to say I was concerned. Will they accept who I am? Will I be too weird? Will people understand? However, I only realized in this journey that I had been labeling myself too much. Like millions of others, I am not just gay. I am a hardworking Chinese kid in the team that started to annoy everyone, I am the chef of the team that experiments with food for my teammates, I am a 25 year old who is passionate about education.
From “I feel guilty that I am gay” to “I am proud to be gay” and until now, “I am not just gay“, my self-identification has evolved so much around this single label that has become just another personal trait.
After spending a year in India with a team including one Brazilian, one Nepalese and 13 other Indians, one of my teammates told me something I will forever remember. She said, “thank you for showing who you are. In the future, I will be proud to have a kid, gay or straight, that can just be himself or herself.” Then I realized, it was not just my personal journey to accept who I am, with the fortune I had to surround myself with inclusive friends, but I felt it was also my responsibility to stand up, be visible and show other people that it’s not just okay, but it is purely human to be who we are.
It’s not a gay or straight thing, it’s a human thing.
As Wilhelm von Humboldt famously said, “The aim of existence is a distillation of the wildest possible experience of life into wisdom.” That wildest experience will only start from the courage of us accepting who we are, because our lives are as beautiful as our courage is.
It was only when I found my courage, that I discovered the beauty of authenticity.10