How Has Coming Out As Gay Changed The Meaning of Chinese New Year For Me

Nigel and his husband Jason at the San Francisco City Hall on their wedding day.
Nigel and his husband Jason at the San Francisco City Hall on their wedding day.

I came out to my mom when I was 20. She’s the first person in the family whom I opened up to. I was in my freshman year in college and I was deeply in love with my then boyfriend. I’d imagine that after graduation the two of us would elope to somewhere in Europe where gay marriage is legal and settle down there. I felt like I should let my mom know.

Of course, being the conservative Chinese parent, she wasn’t pleased at all. “This is like my worst nightmare come true!” she said. You see, back then my boyfriend and I would pose as bros in front of other people. We were both in the closet at the time and our relationship was kept a secret even from most of our peers in school. We would stay over at each other’s place and have meals with each other’s parents while acting like we’re best buds.

It took my mom a couple of years before she came around, understanding that it’s not something that could be changed, or that it’s anyone’s fault that I turned out to be gay. The last time we spoke on the subject, she said to me, “As long as you’re happy and healthy.”

I came out to my younger sister some time after I told my mom, and then my dad about two years ago. My sister, who was in her late teens, was more okay with it. My dad on the other hand was completely traumatised. The coming out has definitely caused a strain in our relationship, and up till this day he’s still trying to deal with it.

For the rest of my extended family, I sort of came out to them digitally. Three years ago I started becoming more open about my love life on social media and many of my cousins who are my Facebook friends kind of figured it out on their own. Though, there was this one time when I tried to come out to one of my cousins face to face. It was during 2014’s Chinese New Year. This cousin is one year older than me and she’s my childhood playmate. I thought she would be the best candidate in the family for me to test the waters. 

“I’m actually seeing somebody right now, and the person isn’t a girl,” I dished it out to her while trying to maintain a casual and relaxed tone. “It’s a guy,” I added. I can’t remember her exact reply but I recall her expressing some slight disapproval. I felt let down as I had expected so much more from someone like her, but I tried not to let it show. Perhaps this episode was why I didn’t go on and come out to more people in the family.

But realistically speaking, it’s not feasible for me to come out to my relatives one by one, given that the size of my extended family numbers around a hundred people. You see, my paternal grandparents had 15 kids and my maternal side had nine. With each generation, the family tree branches out two to three times more. Albeit its size, my big Chinese family remains very connected and close-knit. I guess that’s one perk of living in Singapore, a tiny city-state where driving from the east to the west takes less than a hour.

Growing up, I was most fond of the massive family gatherings we would hold where everyone comes together to catch up, to share a feast of home-cooked specialities, and for the kids to play and bond. But through the years I’ve also noticed a few family members who have but quietly fallen off the family’s radar. It would start with us seeing less and less of them at each year’s string of family gatherings — birthdays, weddings, baby showers, temple visits, you name it — and eventually, they just kind of disappeared. They stop turning up altogether, even for Chinese New Year, the most important festival of the year for the family. These “disappearance” acts are of course frowned upon as they are seen as a lack of respect and regard for the rest of the family, especially the elders. However I think shaming and gossiping only further isolate those who are out, making their reappearance even less likely.

There are of course many explanations/excuses one could give for skipping Chinese New Year. For instance, some people like to use the two-day national holiday to go overseas for a short getaway, even if that means they would miss all the reunions. There are others who intentionally evade the festivities because of financial reasons. You see, for people who are married, they are expected to observe the custom of giving out red packets, also known as ang baos, to the younger generation as well as their unmarried peers. The ang bao serves a symbol of good luck and blessing for new lunar year. Usually, the bigger your family, the more ang baos you have to pack to give out. For this year, my mom told me that she’s prepared to give out over half a grand worth of ang baos. For couples with kids, they have a lesser worry since their kids will be receiving ang baos too, so in a way, the money flows back. But for those without kids, going to Chinese New Year gatherings could be quite a costly affair. If they choose to skip the festivities, that would mean a few hundred dollars saved, which could be used for… a short holiday (see point no. 1).

Growing up, I had always looked forward to Chinese New Year because the ang baos meant extra pocket money. But as I grew older, the idea of receiving ang baos started to lose its appeal. Last year’s Chinese New Year was especially painful as I felt like a grown-up playing the role of a child. I’ve graduated from college and entered the workforce and am no longer financially dependent. I consider myself to have risen to the same rank as the other adults in the family, and I suppose other members of the family feel the same way too. However, because I was unmarried, my elders had to give me ang baos in observance of the custom. Well, I should be happy about getting some money, but deep down I only felt embarrassment. I accepted the ang baos out of respect, but at the back of my mind, I wondered if people were thinking the same thing as I was: When will it be my turn to give out ang baos?

The question bothered me then, and it bothers me even more so today, given that I’m now married. Last August, I moved to San Francisco and got married to my partner, Jason. Most of the younger members of the family know about it, but the older generation who do not use social media are probably clueless as to why I moved away and why I am missing this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations. 

Even though I miss home dearly, I have to stay in the U.S. because of the red tape surrounding my new immigrant status. Also, I have a new puppy to take care of.

But to be honest, I am pretty relieved that I do not have to face any of my relatives this year. I suppose I can finally understand why some people choose to skip all the reunions and festivities. They simply want to avoid the stress of facing the relatives and being questioned about their current job, their last job, their dating love, their sex love, their baby plans, their divorce, their salary, their kid’s salary, so on and so forth. 

Though, I really do wonder what would happen if I were to go back one year and announce that I’m giving out ang baos instead of taking them. Effectively, I would be coming out to everybody in the family, all at once. And it wouldn’t be just me coming out, but my parents would have to “come out” too. They would have to acknowledge that it is what it is — I’m their gay son and I’m actually legally married to a man.

As of this moment, I’m not sure if my big Chinese family is ready for the truth. And as long as they are not, I don’t think I’ll be able to return for the yearly celebrations which I most love. I do think I would be comfortable with purposely lying about myself or acting like I enjoy getting ang baos. I don’t think that would be wise.

So for now, I have little choice but to become one of them — those who have but disappeared.

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