By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
The dim computer screen blinked back at Timothy Wang as his fingers flitted across the keyboard, typing in the web address for www.gay.com. Once the social networking website loaded, he skimmed the online profile photos, seeing only a sea of white faces reflecting back at him. Wang finally settled on a white guy that he thought was cute. He invited him into a private chat room.
“Hi,” typed Wang.
There was a pause in response as the cute guy scanned Wang’s profile photo.
“I’m not into Asians,” came the reply.
And the guy exited the chat room.
Born in the countryside of Shaanxi Province in China — in a tiny town called Xixiang, a town so little that it’s barely on a map — Wang initially knew only other Chinese and a rural life. With a father pursuing graduate school in the United States, Wang lived with his mother in assigned housing from the Communist government, where the two shared a bed in a single-room dormitory with no indoor plumbing.
Wang’s life changed at age 12 when his father was able to bring the family to the States. The three settled down in Logan, Utah, where Wang was thrust into the American school system. He came home crying after his first day.
“I tried learning English in China, but the teachers in Xixiang are not great,” said Wang. “So I learned English after I came to the U.S. But [speaking a foreign] language is not my strongest suit, and even today, I still speak with an accent.”
Adjusting to Utah was a challenge he dealt with for many years.
“I’ll be honest, growing up in the middle of Utah — I felt different. Sometimes, I wished there was something I could do to make myself white, especially when living in the middle of Utah. I didn’t want to be white to appeal to other people. I just wanted to be white so I could be like everybody else.”
An outsider in Utah
In 1993, the Supreme Court of Hawaii made waves by nearly legalizing same-sex marriage. It was argued that a refusal to grant marriage licenses to gay couples was sex-discrimination by the state’s constitution.
But voters in Hawaii overwhelmingly passed and approved an amendment that empowered the state legislature to ban same-sex marriages. The state eventually exercised that control. Same-sex unions, however, were allowed to exist.
Debates waged around the country, examining the issue. And in a small, conservative high school in Logan, Wang listened as a classmate contended that gay marriage is disgusting.
Wang didn’t say anything, but anxiety paralyzed him. He thought his classmates suspected his worst fears. “I’d think, ‘Oh my god, they know — I might be gay!’ ”
He’s had an inkling since he was 13. When classmates casually shouted “You’re so gay” insults to one another in middle school, Wang wondered what the word “gay” meant. At the time, he thought maybe it referred to him in an intangible way.
“Before America, being gay was a foreign concept. It’s something no one talks about in China. And I knew nothing about it at the time,” said Wang.
“As a teen, I thought I might be gay, but didn’t feel comfortable thinking about it. Like everybody in high school, I wanted to fit in so badly. But I was still always questioning myself, never identifying as gay because I didn’t want to be. I refused to acknowledge who I really was, and it made me depressed.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sophomore stood at 5’11″ with the bluest eyes Wang had ever seen. With his natural all-American good looks and blond hair, he looked like he practically fell out of an Abercrombie & Fitch clothing catalog.
His name was Bryant, and he was beautiful. He was also Wang’s best friend and first serious crush.
It was during his sophomore year at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., that Wang realized he could no longer suppress his identity. “I had a huge crush [on Bryant] — it was so strong that even I couldn’t deny [being gay] anymore.”
While welcoming an incoming group of MIT freshmen over dinner, Bryant randomly made a joke that Wang was gay. Angry and horrified by the comment, Wang stormed back to his room. His other best friend, Beau, found him, and that’s when Wang came out to someone for the first time. “I have a crush on Bryant,” he whispered.
Although Wang’s feelings were not reciprocated — Bryant was straight — his two best friends supported Wang during his first few weeks after coming out, even accompanying him to gay club meetings.
Wang came out to his friends and parents within a month of each other. His parents’ reaction was less encouraging.
“[My parents] told me I was confused at first. They thought I was going through a phase that I would grow out of with time.”
Wang simply told his parents, “There is nothing you can do [to make me straight]. This is me.”
It took a long time for his father, a biology researcher, and his mother, a stay-at-home wife, to accept this.
And though his parents have grown to tolerate Wang’s sexuality, there is still difficulty in accepting him fully.
“It’s not black and white. There are gradients,” said Wang.
“When my parents met my first long-term boyfriend, they had no interest in him. But as time passed during the seven years we were together, they started warming up to him. My dad actually started talking to my [then] boyfriend. And when we broke up, well, my mom cried over the breakup,” said Wang.
“That was a shade of gray for them,” said Wang. “It’s taking time, but they’re gradually moving towards acceptance.”
Someone like me
Ironically, when Wang and his parents first watched “The Wedding Banquet” — a film about a gay Taiwanese man in America who marries a Chinese woman to appease his parents before his plan backfires — from a VHS tape passed among the local Chinese community in Logan, they were unfazed by the gay relationship on the screen. Wang was 14 at the time.
He, however, watched the film with sweaty palms, transfixed at seeing not only an Asian protagonist, but a gay one as well.
“I was so in denial about myself, but ‘The Wedding Banquet’ made me realize how Asian Americans don’t get much portrayal in the media,” said Wang. “Even less with Asian American males. And gay Asian American males are below that.”
As an MIT graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science, and having worked in the Seattle and Bellevue area for a time, Wang never saw himself as a writer. But he was one day driven by a desire to write. And he didn’t have to think twice about what.
“I started to write fiction from the gay Asian American perspective, and my story came out quick. I finished the first draft in three months. Writing is a hobby for me, so I didn’t even think about getting it published until my friends encouraged it.”
For the next two years, Wang polished his story by taking notes on the writing styles of other authors and teaching himself how to edit from guide books, such as “The First Five Pages,” “The Elements of Style,” and even “Writing Fiction for Dummies.”
His finished book, “Slant,” which came out this year in June, has pieces of himself woven into the supporting characters, but only one real aspect of Wang lives in his gay, Asian American protagonist.
They both have conservative, small town roots. Themes in the book explore Wang’s observations in the gay community from an Asian American perspective, such as racial preference for partners, stereotypes, and acceptance.
“Racial preference happens all the time in the gay community, especially online. There’ve been so many times when people just directly tell you that they’re not into Asians at all.”
But with that comes a reverse conflict, the concept of a gay stereotype known as a “rice queen” — a non-Asian, gay male who prefers and fetishizes Asian partners.
“It can be a double standard, especially for Asian Americans who sometimes identify more as American than Asian and don’t want to be treated or viewed like foreigners. When someone likes them simply because they’re Asian, it’s discriminatory in a way, too. But it’s also only a double standard if it’s black and white. Again, if you think in gradients, it’s basically the extremists, the ones who prefer something, that are truly offensive.”
The book title “Slant” has two meanings: It refers to a derogatory name used to describe Asians by the shape of their eyes and to the protagonist’s desire for elective eye surgery to appear whiter, and it also depicts the protagonist’s skewed view of the world, a negative perspective where love is a weakness and acceptance remains elusive.
For Wang, it’s taken a long time to finally level out his slanted outlook on personal identity.
“It’s still a work in progress, but I have become more comfortable with being gay and Asian. Writing helps, but it’s mostly being with people who focus on the individual.”
He also believes relationships, like the one he’s currently in with his Irish boyfriend, have also helped him come to terms with focusing less on how people perceive him.
“Once you stop focusing on what the whole world thinks of you … then it’s easy to be comfortable with yourself. With relationships, you don’t worry about what others think — you just care about the other individual. Care about one person and what they think. That’s what matters.” ♦
For more information, visit www.timothywang.tumblr.com.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.