Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GirlPowerYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.
By Aimy Tien
I’m cleaning the remnants of makeup and tears off my face when my father accuses me of hating my parents. “That’s why you don’t want to live in Colorado. That’s why you don’t want to come home and study here and be a doctor.”
It’s almost one am. We are three hours into this phone call, and I am tired, not just because of the conversation, but because this was Pride weekend—my eighth Pride, my third as an out queer woman (well out to everyone but my immediate family), and my first Dyke March. Dyke March is more low-key than the parade, no floats or gigantic balloon displays, just women and allies marching through the streets chanting about social justice and celebrating. After the march, I spotted an Angry Asian Dyke sign propped against a tree in Humboldt Park. With queer women as far as the eye could see, the sense of community was overwhelming. The rest of the weekend was a blur of rainbows, undercuts, and dancing at Backlot Bash, an outdoor queer woman party. And now, it’s Sunday night, I’m exhausted and I’m on the phone responding to my parents’ third in a series of increasingly angry voicemails.
Hour three of this call and the joy of the weekend is almost gone. My shoulders slump against the wall, and I let the sound of the Red Line rushing by my apartment settle me. I’m too tired to lie. “I’m not comfortable in Denver, Dad. It doesn’t feel like I can be honest there.”
“What do you mean?”
I think of the mantra I’ve been holding on to, “You can’t lose in a fight about your own happiness. You can’t lose in a fight about your own life.” So I say it.
“Dad I date men and I date women.” The train rumbles by. “You hate men and women? I don’t understand what that has to do with—“
“No, no, I date men and I date women.” The call drops, and I remind myself of a conversation I had six months before, sitting on a couch on the 8th floor of one of Columbia College’s buildings. Instead of discussing how to integrate writing and the arts into my scientific life, I was explaining to Megan, my former professor, how to be a bad Asian daughter.
Three major ways to be a bad Asian daughter: 1. Be queer and out. 2. Get a tattoo. 3. Give up a career in medicine. I was two for three, well 1.5 (queer, but not out to my immediate family, tattooed), and I desperately needed Megan to tell me how I could have a career as a writer and artist and still salvage my good Asian daughter status. I needed to balance my own wellbeing and the respect my parents deserved.
To be clear, before this conversation with Megan, before the breakup, I had already planned to come out by bringing, Liv, my girlfriend who was busy committing polite Vietnamese phrases to memory, to my parents’ for Christmas. Because what are the holidays if not an opportunity for awkward, shocked silences and raising my mother’s blood pressure? But Liv and I weren’t together anymore and, now, I had to work the holidays and wouldn’t be flying to Denver.
My mother is the oldest of eleven, ten girls and one boy. Eight of her sisters live in Colorado along with my grandparents and an ever-growing brood of cousins bookended by my thirty-nine year old brother and my three month old cousin. Between the four generations running around the home, there’s enough drama for several seasons of a terrible reality TV show. Well, only if the American public is willing to read subtitles.
All the children in my generation were expected to achieve. We needed to become doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers—professions that would honor the sacrifices our parents made when they fled communist Viet Nam—the years in government housing, the 18 hour work days.
I then explained to Megan the hierarchy of good Asian daughterhood. At the top, straight doctor, followed by a straight pharmacist or dentist which was about level with a queer doctor. Straight engineer here. Straight lawyer much lower. And the queer tattooed artist that I was becoming? That was equivalent to a criminal. Being a queer doctor would end up with my disowning, but I had a chance of being welcomed back if I put on a white coat. Medicine was my compromise.
Megan pulled me away from my spiraling thoughts. “What are the things you need to be happy in your job? What are your dealbreakers?”
Financial stability. The opportunity for community engagement I believed in. Time to write. “I can fit it in,” I said, “I’ll write after I finish my MD and my PhD and my residency. I’ll find the time. Who needs sleep?”
But how would I? So much of my time was already spent dreading the idea of being a doctor. Every day I pushed back a lump in my throat and ignored the churning in my stomach and the tension in my shoulders.
Megan told me, “You can’t lose in a fight that’s about your own life. You can’t lose when it’s about your own happiness.” She was right. I couldn’t lose this fight, but there was more than one—more than one way I could shatter my parents’ image of me—and I wasn’t brave enough to do both at once, not without Liv. Being queer would be harder to explain without a flesh and blood woman at my side. So the doctor battle first.
I realized that December I was committing. I was going to be a bad Asian daughter.
After that conversation with Megan, the first time I spoke to my parents was New Year’s Day. It slipped out. I didn’t really have it planned. I can be dramatic.
But I didn’t have it planned.
“Mom, I have something to tell you. I don’t want to be a doctor.”
Silence on the line. Nothing for thirty seconds. “Your father needs to come on the phone.”
In the seconds before my father arrived and the first of many hours of yelling and guilt trips began, I felt this wave of relief wash over me.
For the next several months, my parent tag teamed one another in having discussions with me about my future and my lost potential. But I was feeling gleeful and free, ready to shed my research job as soon as my contract ended. I rode that wave of joy all the way to Pride month, to this conversation about my sexuality with my father.
“You date men and you date women?”
“We’ve talked about a lot of things today. Let’s talk tomorrow night.” Click.
The next night, my father starts out so well. “You were always so independent and strong as a child.” Then it goes south. “Maybe you want to date women because you need someone to take care of?”
“Why do you even think you are interested in women?
“Probably for some of the same reasons you are Dad.”
He fervently wants me to go therapy, but he promises that if I’m sure, it’s okay because I’m his daughter and he loves me no matter what. I’m elated even if he doesn’t want me to tell my mother yet because I never expected my father to make that much progress in one conversation.
You can’t lose in a fight about your own happiness. Maybe it’s more than not giving up. Maybe winning is inevitable.
Fast forward six months after that call. It’s the day after Christmas, and my mother is driving me to the airport to fly home to Chicago. I’m replaying last night’s conversation where my father instructed me not to tell my mother because he believed it would hurt her more than it would help me. A woman sings about loving another woman on the radio, and she likes the song so I take this as a good sign and segue into a discussion about the separation between gender presentation and sexuality.
“I date women, Mom. I wear dresses. It doesn’t matter.”
The silence is longer than when I told her I wasn’t going to be a doctor. She moves to the express lane.
“You said you date women?”
We’re not looking at each other. We’re staring at the cars around us, at the dashboard, at anything, but me biting my lips and her furrowed brow. She turns off the radio. My mother spends the next 35 minutes hitting every cliché in the book. I’m confused. It’s a phase. Chicago is a city of sin. Predatory lesbians. I haven’t met the right man. I’m seeking attention. None of them are sticking, so she switches up her tactics, delivering a combination of insults (kinh tởm), threats (your father would die if he knew), and irrational explanations (you’re so desperate for friends and partners that you think this will make it easier. Clearly, she’s never actually tried to date women).
I don’t blame her. This is a surprise for her. It’s a shock, another in a year of unsettling news from my lips. Another checkmark in that bad Asian daughter list.
She pulls up in front of the terminal entrance. I’m brushing the tears away and telling her that I can answer any questions when she’s ready. She doesn’t even let me finish before she tells me that I’m not her daughter anymore. It’s expected, but that doesn’t make the whiskey on the plane go down any smoother.
Two months later, the same day I get an offer for a job that will finally allow me to completely escape medicine—my father reverses his opinion and joins her.
I may have lost my mother temporarily or permanently, who knows.
I may have lost my father too.
I’ve definitely lost any chance at being a good Asian daughter.
But this summer I got to walk home, holding hands with the woman I had fallen in love with. I got to share a bottle of wine and debate and sigh over the L Word’s Bette and Carmen before watching Orange is the New Black. I got to trade lazy kisses with her until she remembered that I was supposed to be writing, and she teasingly banned me from her lips until I finished a draft.
Now, I get to be honest. I get to love. I get to love not just the people around me, but I get to love what I do. I get to write.
You can’t lose in a fight about your own happiness. You can’t lose in a fight about your own life.
Aimy Tien fell into storytelling due to a combination of an irrational childhood fear of lions, a Val Kilmer film, and an overactive imagination. Now a Chicago-based performer and writer, Aimy focuses on creative nonfiction and short stories. She received a creative writing fellowship from the Luminarts Cultural Foundation, and her collection, Mosaic, was one of the top entries for the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award. Previous work can be found in The Wheel, The Character Project, and other online publications. She has performed with 2nd Story, Outspoken, and other Chicago-based organizations. Amy can be followed on Twitter and Instagram at @aimytien.