Walking through Sproul Plaza in the summer is like traversing Tiananmen Square diagonally — less square footage, but packed with students from the PRC (People’s Republic of China). The men lurch and lunge, two variant strides of the golden son. The women saunter, elbows cozily linked like fawn heading toward Strawberry Creek for a dip.
The University of California, Berkeley makes a mint off international enrollments: $520 per credit, $380 in registration fees, another $300 for international processing, and $55 for document fees. Their coffers balloon; my paycheck shrinks. The tuition of three foreign students equals my salary.
Our class, “Desire, Sexuality, and Gender in Asian American Literature,” meets twice a week in a room that overlooks the Ishi Court. I can’t help but ponder how my students are like Yahi, last members of a tribe.
I define Asian American lit broadly as works written in English by Americans of Asian descent and invite the PRCs to be Asian Americans: to read, think, and write in English. My job is to find readings that let their hidden identities breathe. I tell them: “You’re not under observation like Ishi.”
My invitation to the Asian Americans: be more.
Born Theres and Born Heres stare back. Three are from Beijing, one from Shanghai, another from Hunan. Yukino from Nagoya, Jisoo from Seoul, two Vietnamese from SoCal, an Arab from Texas, a Chinese from Georgia, everyone’s a first generation American. Three identify as pansexual, two as gay, one as genderqueer, the rest are as Sujia claims, “Straight, for now.”
China’s one child policy intentionally blocks sexual honesty. Coming out is damaging, and damning. The only child; they are their family’s sole hope. Who has the luxury of being a black sheep? Every solo child has to be the Golden Emperor/Empress.
“Are you lonely?” I wonder.
Zi-hao’s baffled, “We’re never alone.”
From birth, they’ve been adored and spoiled. Golden Piglet or Thousand Ingots of Gold — son or daughter — they’ll support parents and two sets of grandparents.
The trials of the Born-Heres give them a daring that breaks down the commands of Confucius. The trauma and sufferings of Van’s refugee parents are a noose that prevents him from having his own life. Liane, Van, and Alisa struggle with being inferior Americans, but when in Asia, are demonized for not being Confucian-obedient enough.
The common ground: they’re never immune from the suppression of identity. Education won’t answer the deeper question of why duty is unrelenting. English won’t give them the words that dissolve resentful responsibility. In China, parents protect their children. In America, Asian children must protect their parents.
As introductions, I ask for their names and then their PGPs (Personal Gender Pronouns). The PRC’s are confused; Chinese pronouns are gender neutral. Xiao selects, “Mr.”.
Yet they have no hesitation moving into their English names. Forest loves the cover of foliage, the burn and bloom of fauna. Taylor is hard core about living out her honest pansexual destiny. Tall, lanky Xiao announces that he’s deleting the name David off his Facebook page. “Xiao Jin is a fine name!” he shouts.
I ask for a story of love and another of desire. Scarlet wants to live in a shimmering abalone-toned Victorian. Xiao goes to his first Pride parade. Rian loves her cat and can’t stop meowing, “I want a girlfriend/I want a girlfriend/I want a girlfriend.”
I tell them that this is the 50th anniversary of the summer of love. “Don’t hide. Be yourselves.”
Rian speaks forcefully about China’s underground marriages, where gays are married to opposite sex gays, about the LGBTQ dances, where over 500 people attend to dance with their preferred partners. She’s resolute, “I don’t want to be one of those hidden gays.”
Growing up with her mother’s lesbian friends, Yukino wasn’t worried about coming out. But Japan’s intolerance is vicious and her mother advises, “Be who you are, but have a face-marriage.” Face begets safety. Every day, her mother texts photos of the gorilla Shabani, and asks her daughter to marry the silverback heart throb of Nagoya.
“Look at his large air holes!”
I can’t bear to correct her. “Air-holes” is much more appealing than nostrils. After a summer of freedom, of being their true selves, how will they stuff their hidden selves back into their small air holes?
We read Shortcomings, a graphic novel. Ben’s the disagreeable Japanese-American who performs one act of kindness by pretending to be Alice’s boyfriend and meeting her immigrant Korean parents.
“Pretend you’re not Japanese,” Alice adds.
He asks, “So your parents prefer rapists and pillagers, over homosexuals?”
Alice nods, “Everything is preferable to homos.”
Her parents’ dialogue isn’t translated and we work the language. I pair Van with Voulette, Vietnamese and Arabic speakers for the roles of Mother and Father. I tell them to use the tone of parental power and we switch partners until we’ve heard all the languages.
Continuing the examination of personal desires vs. parental needs, I ask them to list five traits they want in a partner, then five traits they think their parents want in their child’s partner. I collect the lists and say, “You’re committed.”
Then they call their parents, asking them to make the same list. After, the child shares their personal and perceived parental lists. This is an exercise in perspective, and for some, an exercise in conflict.
Everyone waits till the last minute. Rian cuts her Wechat connection with her mother without a goodbye. Yuzi discovers there’d been a first baby, a boy. “If he’d survived, I wouldn’t be here.” Van walks out after his parents go silent about his Black/Japanese partner.
Then the challenge: Consider your parents as once wild and guileless romantics, before they became your parents. “Write their conversation after you leave the room.”
Everyone reads their works. Rian’s parents discuss their daughter’s LGBTQ club. “Her friends, they’re strange. Do you think Rian is strange too?”
When Meila writes about her mother’s love of cleaning, cooking, and decorating the home, I can’t resist asking if her mother wants that life for her. Meila shakes her head vigorously and as decidedly, insists that her mother is fulfilled. Her rewrite renames her mother: diplomat, chef, and designer.
“You do know,” I say. “Confucius is dead.”
Their final is a letter inviting me to meet their parents (including three references to readings that support their desire). The goal is to write an effective letter of introduction.
When Xiao and I meet in Dwinelle’s long corridor to discuss his draft, I tell him how movingly he writes about shame, but that it’s unclear who’s ashamed. “Your father had polio. Your mother was so poor but so resolute, she finished grade school in six years instead of nine, saving on tuition. Your father walked you to school, but stopped 200 meters away so that no one would see his crippled gait. I ask again, “Whose shame?”
Xiao’s eyes glisten.
“As written, it appears to be your father’s shame, but what isn’t told is more poignant.”
I don’t know and don’t ask if they know about his sexuality.
“This is honest,” I say.
Pressing his palms together, he says, “No professor has ever said that to me.”
“What’s your major?”
“What a waste.”
Throwing his head back, he slaps his thighs before releasing a boyish laugh. A young man is coming down the hall, eyes flashing in recognition.
“Goodbye, Professor. Thank you, Professor.” Xiao bounds up onto his long rubbery legs. The friend wears his hair on top of his head like a martial artist. They greet and throw their arms around each other, chattering in a helium burst of Mandarin. I watch the long tails of their shirts dance as they bound down the lit corridor like teenage giraffes.
Header images: Confucius, Lit Up; Confucius, Shut Up. By You Thin Toy, 1993.