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16 Feb 2007

chinese new year: no more drama

Fridae columnist Tan Chong Kee 'fesses up to being a bitch during testy Chinese New Year family interactions in his younger days and ponders what his comebacks would be to those all too familiar questions this year.

A few years ago, an aunt came up to me during one of those Chinese New Year family visits and said: "So when are you getting married?" I replied: "The moment I find myself a good man." Hell ain't that the truth. Good men are so hard to come by these days, I better marry him the moment he appears or someone else will get to him before I do.

Another Chinese New Year and another aunt, this time one who knew I'm gay asked: "So when are you going to have a girl friend?" I replied: "well, since I don't like girls, I guess the answer would be never. But if you come across any good boy friend material, please don't forget to introduce."

Yeah, I can become a little testy after answering too many of those when-are-you-going-to questions during Chinese New Year. I mean, if they come from distant relatives who do not know, telling it like a joke and then making them realise I'm serious can be fun. But coming from people who already knew but still wanted to stuff me back into the closet, I get a little testy.

What makes me uncomfortable is when these questions pop up when my parents are around. One Chinese New Year at their friend's house, before I could even answer that question, I saw them already cringing from the corner of my eyes, like they are ashamed that I'm not ashamed of being gay. You know how parents are sometimes, they take it so personally. But that does make my usual flippant remarks seem inappropriate, so I just had to tell it straight: "You see aunty, I'm a homosexual and prefer to date men than women."

The saddest time is when my granddad cried because he thought it meant I will be alone and would never have my own family, and there was no way I could convince him that even if that were true, I was and still am very happy to be gay - he simply couldn't fathom the possibility of gay marriage and parenting, etc., so I didn't go into it. It was such a beautiful and poignant misunderstanding that I still think about it often during each Chinese New Year, and know that he really loved me.

And then one year, a younger married cousin gave me an angbao (small red packets containing money given to children and singles during Chinese New Year), I guess getting a kick out of the role reversal of a more junior family member giving a more senior member an angbao by virtue of his marriage to a woman. Since I have been the over-achieving grandson in the family and the eldest one to boot, it must have been difficult growing up under that kind of shadow. So I was very happy to accept the angbao from him to let him feel at least a little more on par. If he does it again this year though, I will have to be more demanding. After all, putting only $2 in the angbao to get that kick is a little cheap, don't you agree?

The most touching time though is one year when an uncle quietly told me to bring my boy friend to visit at his open house. That made me feel more part of the family than I had ever felt for a long time.

Chinese New Year can be that time of the year when your relatives' feelings about homosexuality bubbling up on to the surface and become expressed. For me, it is a time to get to know my family in a way that is harder to do during ordinary times.

When each of these New Year rituals encounter homosexuality, a choice needs to be made, and possibilities open up. Who gets to eat at the New Year's Eve dinner? Who gets acknowledged? Who gives and receives angbao Through the choices that you and people around you make, you start to know them and yourself a little better.

I am not talking about knowing who is accepting and who isn't, although that is very interesting to observe, and some people really do surprise me. What is even more interesting is getting to know what someone chooses to do when they feel uncomfortable; and how I respond when I sense their discomfort.

In my younger days, Chinese New Year brought out my inner bitch. The attitude was: I'm gay, deal with it. That tough guy attitude meant I was still grappling with being comfortable with it myself, and was trying to shield myself from possible disapproval. It was an important stage to go through though, because it gave me time to build my self-esteem by sending a very clear message to everyone that there was nothing wrong with being gay. Subsequently, no one has ever said anything derogatory within my earshot, except my brother, but then, he has issues. In fact, it was those who couldn't deal with my revelation that looked a little silly. After all, if you think a good-looking well-educated guy in his 30s and, later his 40s, who all these years is never seen with a woman, is single because he couldn't find a girl friend, then you can't be very bright.

Seriously though, can you imagine coming out to your whole extended family at Chinese New Year and not have it degenerate into melodrama? Now you know it can be done.

Fast forward to 2007 when I'm older and hopefully mellower, I wonder how I will answer these when-are-you-going-to questions. Maybe I'll still crack a 'the moment Schwarzenegger signs gay marriage into law' joke (it's true, the latest gossip from Sacramento is that he is viewing the upcoming gay marriage bill in California "favourably." Go Terminator Go!). But maybe, I would allow myself to be vulnerable, and say: "you know, I don't know. I have dated so many guys, and I know I will marry the man I love one day. I only wish I knew when."

You know what's so funny about Chinese New Year after I came out? It is still about eating too much and non-stop gambling with the cousins. Some traditions you can never change.

Dr Tan Chong Kee will be conducting a Dating and Relationships Workshop on Mar 1, 7.30pm at Mox Cafe and Bar. Admission is free. The workshop is organised by Safehaven, a gay and lesbian Christian fellowship. For more info and to sign up, visit www.oursafehaven.com.

Reader's Comments

1. 2007-02-16 19:08  
Mmmm nice
2. 2007-02-16 19:54  
This article looks so suspiciously familiar, I'm pretty sure I've read it somewhere before...
3. 2007-02-17 01:38  
I read an ealier article on CNY giving advice to "escape" overseas and to "fool" the family. Although I am not particularly proud of these advices, I understand their relevance to many Fridae readers.

I now read your article and see how honest you are with your sexuality when you are with relatives, and I must say I truly respect you for that.

And please let me share my family's stand about visiting relatives during CNY. My family (parents and siblings) does not believe one has to visit relatives for the sake of CNY. The point is, if a family member enjoys spending time with relatives, then he'd bother to visit relatives now and then, and not only during CNY. And if a family member does not enjoy visiting relatives, then he is not expected to visit relatives. We certainly don't want to force anyone to "show face" and yet hating every minute while being there.
4. 2007-02-17 11:08  
5. 2007-02-17 11:13  
After all, putting only $2 in the angbao to get that kick is a little cheap, don't you agree? ==> totally agree on this one ... lol
6. 2007-02-17 14:59  
reaffirming and reassuring to read, and motivational too in the sense that we are being told over and over again, it will all be alright to finally come out to our family members and the biggest demons of it all live but only in our own minds; nevertheless, words are too easily dispensed too. i have been fortunate enough to be hiding away overseas during the early days of such questioning; but this being my first cny home, the prospect of such interrogations begin to scare me once again.. *shrugs* :P

good read btw, thanks.
7. 2007-02-18 01:04  
ai ya... why piss family members off during chinese new year? just say no girlfriend la and continue munching on food and drinks. Act gong gong. :)

8. 2007-02-18 13:08  
my parents , sisters and relative keep bringing up the question why i'm still not having gf yet ..

perhaps i should just bring a female friend to pretend my gf .. sigh ... any taker ? :P
9. 2007-02-19 12:07  
I shall come out to my extended family soon.
Thanks for the aticle.
I think coming out to one's family is a trial on a gay man's path towards self-acceptance.
Unfortunately, most of us are too 'chicken' to deal with the difficult encounters.
10. 2007-02-19 12:31  
to some extend all human beings are curious creature. once satisfied, their desire for curiousity becomes no longer desirable. so even though coming out is a personal choice, but if u answer those questions honestly once and for all, then there is no further questions. isnt that simple.
11. 2007-02-19 19:32  
There are a number of gays and lesbians in our extended family,myself, a lesbian aunt, a gay cousin, and a few others we suspect but have yet to confirm.

Most of our relatives stopped asking (I guess my 60 year old aunt bore the brunt of "when are you getting married"?) questions. I watched with some amusement as some people still gave her ang bao's out of tradition (especially newlyweds half her age).

Overall, I think Asian families can be quite accepting if you allow them to be. I firmly believe it's us gay people who don't give them enough credit, and instead keep THEM in the closet by not addressing the issues openly, candidly and honestly. It's not about "announcing it to the world" or "waving a flag". It's simply about being true ot yourself and not having to apologise for not fitting into someone else's expectations or standards.

Chinese New Year is fun when you've let go of all your own personal baggage, and start really connecting with relatives and family members you only see once a year. Those who run away are only being in denial.
12. 2007-02-20 18:35  
Keep CNY alive! The more we can keep to traditional chinese values i.e. minus our naive intepretation of christianity without any cultural context (as shown by the Anglican Archbishop Chew's recent actions and comments), the more tolerant and progressive a society we can make of Singapore. Xin nian kuai le to each and everyone.
13. 2007-02-20 22:53  
very eloquently and well written with a touch of wit!!
14. 2007-02-24 10:48  
ALL the BEST to ur Piggy year! May ya find The ONE! ...

Bunny UP ..
(ps: i keep quiet when my parent are around... not that i am getting into closet... just that i didnt wan hurt their feelings ... if given the choice i rather shield them from the unfriendly remarks from not so ...erm.. kind relatives laa...)

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