This article is also available in Simplified Chinese.
It was a rather unexpected and unwanted disruption to my Sunday morning.
I was on my way to lunch with a friend when I received a long Wechat message from my dad. When I travel back to China, we don’t talk that much. And he rarely calls me in Australia. It’s left to my mum to share any news.
So, I figured such a long weekend text must be something dire or urgent.
He was reminding me that I needed to get married. What’s more, he thought he’d found someone for me. She’s around my age, had studied abroad, and owns her own apartment in a big city.
I didn’t know how to respond so asked my friend for advice over lunch. He’s also originally from China and also gay.
His look was one of concern.
My friend’s mum had died by suicide not long after he came out to her. She’d been suffering depression so his sexuality wasn’t the only factor but as you’d expect, her death took a heavy toll on him. They’d been particularly close.
He often thinks he should not have burdened her. Chinese parents often struggle with news that their children are gay. Many feel that they have somehow done something wrong.
My friend’s advice to his young friends now is to think twice before coming out.
I’m now in my 30s and I still haven’t told my parents I’m gay.
I know they’re regularly asked by their friends and family why I’m still single. You might think it would be just easier to tell them. I don’t think they would resort to suicide, but I do think they would struggle to accept me and would probably blame themselves.
Like many of their friends, they think there’s something wrong with gay people. Some blame bad parenting, others think it’s a genetic problem. Either way, it doesn’t reflect well on them.
I know a Chinese student who’d only been in Australia a few months before deciding to come out to his parents. They blamed the Australian lifestyle and threatened to cut him off.
Of course, some parents are more practical in their response.
I have a friend who confided in his mum. She was supportive but advised him against telling his dad. Recently, on his mother’s advice, my friend has been looking for a lesbian to arrange a fake marriage ceremony at his hometown. In this way, the parents can proudly declare their children are married.
That’s often the greatest expectation of Chinese parents: that their children will marry and continue the family lineage.
If you’ve got this far in my story, you might be feeling rather pessimistic, but I think there is reason for hope. In my heart, I believe all parents love their children and ultimately, love will create a path for understanding and freedom.
Take Auntie Wang from my work. She tells me she was once very conservative. She flew to Sydney from China immediately after learning her son was gay, hoping to ‘correct’ him. During a huge fight with her son, she told him ‘go to jump into the sea’.
Her son stormed out and went missing for a day.
Auntie Wang soon realised it’s better to accept her son rather than lose him forever. After returning to China, she made an effort to learn more about homosexuality from an NGO set up to support parents of LGBTIQ children. She came to understand it’s not a disorder, or the result of a parenting fault. In fact, it’s just a natural course for many people.
She says she’s now closer to her son than ever before, and made sure to be at his wedding.
I think her case shows what’s possible when parents have access to information about what it means to be gay. That might seem silly to people in Australia, but in China, it’s just not something properly understood by many.
For Chinese families, coming out is a slow journey to coming home. It’s a process of letting your parents understand you and homosexuality itself before finally accepting both.
I think before coming out, you should think about whether your family is ready to start that journey. Every relationship is different. In my case, I’m not convinced the time is right.
I did message my Dad back that Sunday: “Thank you for thinking of me, but if I’m with someone I don’t love, neither of us will be happy, right?”
I am hopeful that one day they will see the real me and I can truly return to a home that accepts me for who I am.
Garrison Cheng came from mainland China and now calls Sydney home. He works in media as a journalist and producer with a focus on Chinese communities in Australia. He also helps manage ANTRA, an NGO for Chinese LGBTIQ+ communities. He has a passion for food and is a strong advocate of the Chinese saying: ‘Most problems can be solved over a good meal. For things that can’t, make it two meals.’