The complex road to freedom for gay Chinese migrants in Australia

This article is also available in Simplified Chinese.

When I moved from China to Australia as an international student seven years ago, I had a simple plan: Give myself a new start.

Being gay, I figured a western country would be more tolerant and that I could finally live life without constantly worrying about what others thought.

The prospect was more than exciting. In my mind, it represented freedom.

It didn’t take long for reality to set in. It turns out that leaving behind everything you know is far from easy.

Like many migrants, I struggled with adapting to a new society and a new language; it was difficult to find work, especially when trying to balance study; and most of all, I struggled to make ends meet.

My first two years in Australia were far from fun.

After rent, I had a little more $20 a week to live on. My idea of recreation was visiting supermarkets to see what was on sale. But even then, I often couldn’t afford the things I really wanted. My daily frustrations grew.

I’ve noticed a regular misconception in Australia. Many people think that all Chinese students who study here come from wealthy families and are flushed with cash. Sure, I’ve seen the queues outside Louis Vuitton too, but I can assure you that most of us come from ordinary homes. Everything we have goes towards our international student fees.

In other words, freedom isn’t cheap. My dream to live a happy life as a gay man was soon replaced by a dream to just be self-sufficient.

My story is common.

I have a friend from a similar background to me. He’s gay, Chinese and also came to Australia for a new life.

Between semesters at university, he works ten hour days, seven days a week at a Chinese supermarket in Sydney. It’s hard work, but he seems happy. The money he’s making puts him a step closer to independence.

But money isn’t the only issue.

The language barrier really can be terrifying. To this day, I can still get anxious when speaking to native-English speakers. Am I pronouncing the words correctly? Is my grammar correct? Is it an appropriate thing to say?

Simple things such as ordering food can make me sweat. Will they grow impatient if I don’t understand something basic? The touch-screen ordering system at McDonalds removed so much pressure!

If you’re like me, that anxiety can hold you back from making new connections. And that’s a problem when you already feel lonely.

One of the most torturous aspects of growing up as a gay may in China is that sense of hiding. I  came from a place where people don’t talk about gay issues. In fact, many avoid gay people completely. That leaves you doubting your own identity, while cementing that constant sense of loneliness.

But here’s the thing. My original dream wasn’t misplaced. Our sexuality really can help set us free, by helping to combat many of the problems I’ve described.

I remember the first time I attended the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

I was a volunteer along the parade route and was shocked to see how liberated, proud and uninhibited gay people could be. I was made to feel welcome. People waved and smiled at me. There was a hug on every corner. Yes, before COVID. There was a genuine sense of belonging.

I had a similar feeling while watching my straight colleagues cheer when Australia legalised same-sex marriage. I’d secured my permanent residency just a year before the vote. It reminded me of the reason I left China in the first place. I quietly wiped away tears.

A vital lesson for Chinese gay people arriving in Australia is to reaquaint themselves with themselves. You no longer need to hide. Your identity is who you are, and can help set you free.

But I go a step further. I sometimes picture myself as a new-born baby. Born again in a new country. It’s been a simple way for me to grow my confidence. It’s fine for three-year-olds to scramble their sentences, I tell myself. After I accepted that, I started to feel more relaxed about having conversations in English.

I’ve since made new friends, joined a Chinese gay association, and work with a team of supportive colleagues.

Chinese gay people in Australia sometimes have to live with the status of being a “double minority” in terms of both our race and our sexuality. But a minority is just how others see you. Uniqueness is how we look our best.

In my time here, I’ve faced everyday hurdles and some crippling challenges. But I know now that they can be overcome. Ultimately, the process allows us to accept and embrace ourselves.

And in the end, that really is how to find freedom.

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.’