The New Complementarianism

Featured photo courtesy of Steven Lee — go check out his work at https://artistsyl.weebly.com/ or at his Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/stevenoclock/.
Model: Max Chang

As an Asian American man, wanting to be viewed as desirable is not based in superficiality, but an urge to abolish structural racism that disguises itself in desirability and sexuality politics.
– Phillipe Thao, “Crazy Hot Asians: Redefining Asian Male Desirability

I’ve recently been in conversation with a fellow gay Asian friend regarding my problematic attraction to white men. I once half-joked that simply given the demographic of gay men in the United States, the probability of me ending up with a white husband is fairly high. I then proceeded to joke how I’d definitely change my last name for him so I could benefit from his white privilege.

It’s really strange — for all the work I’ve put into undoing the internalized homophobia and racism of my upbringing, I’ve still yet to extricate myself from the idea that the circumstances of my birth dictate what I should or shouldn’t do on a moral level. What began with toxic gender complementarianism now presents itself as a matter of racial complementarianism — something just as bad and twice as complicated.

All three of my past boyfriends have been white. Off the top of my head, all of my close queer Asian friends’ partners are white. And I honestly can’t recall the last time I saw a gay couple where both were Asian American.

Whenever I’m feeling particularly single, I go on YouTube to watch videos featuring cute gay couples (because I love myself), and I admit that every time I see a gay couple where one is white and one is Asian, something about it just strikes me as good. Something desirable, something to aim for — and it’s only been recently I’ve discovered how deeply rooted my tongue-in-cheek joke about ending up with a white guy actually is.

It’s disturbing how quickly my life has turned into a gay version of Yellow Fever. About every other week someone makes some ignorant assumption about my romantic life based on my race as I get messages on my dating apps about how much a guy “loves Asians”. There’s even a term for it: so-called “rice queens” are typically white queer men who exclusively date Asians.

Asian women have been dealing with such harmful stereotypes for just as long, and in the gay male community we share similar paradoxes — we’re expected to be submissive yet independent, demure yet intelligent, exotic yet familiar, sexy yet totally asexual. Before I can even get a word of English in, I am but a stand-in for thousands of people who share my skin color and sexual orientation.

And you know what? As much as I hate it, some part of me doesn’t resist. I realize I am part of the problem, and it certainly doesn’t help since I happen to fit the gay Asian stereotype so well. On some level, I get a kick out of code switching my way through the dashed expectations of white men. Thanks to a combination of Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome, my thoroughly American upbringing, and my two degrees, it can come as a surprise that my English vocabulary is more expansive than a lot of white Americans’. That I can quote Plato and analyze poetry and talk centuries of dead European composers.

At the same time a brilliant success and a horrible dishonor, the assimilated Asian American is an expert navigator of two cultural identities and yet garners the full merit of neither.

The problem is not with dating white men — there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem is the way I’ve been centering my desire on white approval and benefitting from white privilege by mastering the navigation of Western culture. In some twisted way, being on a white man’s arm would be making myself into my own trophy for winning at the assimilation game. That is white supremacy by any other name.

The process of decolonizing one’s desires comes with a life of powerful paradox. For me, as a relatively small and physically fragile gay Asian man who is easily crushable, white desire is a mixture of both a fear of being overpowered and also of a craving for security within the folds of white privilege. I deliberately avoid dating anyone significantly taller, older, heavier, or stronger than me in order to minimize power difference.

But in my self-perceived weakness I also let a sense of internalized racism get the better of me: more often than not, I succumb to the belief that I’m not worthy of being desired in a dignified manner, and the cheap fetishization I’m frequently the target of is the best I’m going to get. Intellectually, I know it’s false. But after years of living in a world where whiteness is a prerequisite for beauty and models of healthy Asian masculinity are woefully underrepresented, it’s often easier to let myself be reduced to an exotic object than it is to fight back.

Every once in a while I’ll look in the mirror and really like what I see. I learn to savor those moments. And as the months go by I find myself thinking it a little more often, and I have to stop the negative thoughts from intruding on my self-appreciation. I was never ashamed of being Asian American, but really loving the Chinese body I was born with is a goal I yet work to attain.

Because I know at the core of my heart that just because I don’t look like the majority of my Hollywood crushes doesn’t mean I’m not a different kind of beautiful. That my personal worth is completely independent of who I’m dating — let alone the race of the person I’m dating. That though in the end it’s certainly possible my future husband happens to be white, it wouldn’t be because I did both of us a disservice by underpinning my desire on his whiteness and my non-whiteness. It’d be because I fully recognized my strength as an Asian man and responsibly decolonized my desires.

It’d be because I’m worthy of dignity, respect, and a boy who recognizes that I’m amazing as hell. Full stop.

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Three Snapshots of Salience

A series of poems written for a homework assignment exploring personal identity.

I. Peccatoris

It’s safe to come out when the sun has gone down —
when there’s no one to see you, to hate you, to burn you
and you’re tired of being everyone’s everything
during the daylight: when it’s not safe to come out.

You put on your masks when the world awakes:
perfect son, perfect student, perfect brother, perfect friend…
your daylight is no life to you, for you are someone else.

But you try, and you wait, and you wait day by day
for the sun to go down, and when the night falls,
you rise,

but all you ever do is walk,
walk,
walk…
because all you’ve ever done is run.

Run to church, run to school, run to play, and run back home,
run from sin, run from work, run from joy, run from — love —
and walking is all you can do anymore.

You’ve run out of tears. You’re tired of crying:
you’re not even sure what to cry about now.
The night’s all you have, though midnight is burning,
so you savor the air that you’ll lose in an hour.

Breathe deep, breathe slow.
Two decades to ask, who am I?
No one knows.

II. Ad Orientem

You’re not alone in the dark, so you’ve found:
there are dreamers, and hopers, and lovers, and givers,
and they’ve taught you how to breathe again.

The streets are alive with the sounds of the night,
and they beckon you in with warmth and delight.
Their house is a strange one — a bit queer, if one will,
but it’s home nonetheless, and you’re welcome within.

You find yourself asking if shoes are okay,
if they hug their parents, or if they eat rice.
(Isn’t that a bit nice?)

What did their parents worship? What are their weddings like?
Did they grow up speaking in more than one tongue?
Is there family they can never speak freely among?

Once again, you’re alone, yet surrounded by friends:
bit-by-bit, they turn you around to face West.
So you’ll talk like them, walk like them, love like them,
yet explain to them that

red is for joy,
gold is for wealth,

but white, strangely, is for death.

III. Corpus Christi

you’ve never quite understood why it is
that humans kiss. quite frankly, it’s gross.
you thought you’d figure it out for yourself
when you finally did it, but the closest thing
you can compare it to is pressing two warm oysters together
and you don’t like oysters.

you’ve never quite got the hang of arms and
legs, clumsy! tripping over things that don’t, exist and
your body is a broken car for your brain.
weighty. stiff.
aching —

If only your hands and your feet would obey!
Dance free, take flight, like notes off a page!
Your daydreams are full of a song at command,
but jostled awake, all thoughts crumble like sand.

But raise;
you’ve only got arms to raise in praise, and fingers
graze sheer grace in the Body and the Blood.
“God has no hands but yours”, as they say.

you’ve never quite been so full of light,
flesh being more than casing for your soul and
the only thing you have to love with.

A Taste of Home

Moving to a new place is hard. You leave your community, your family, behind; your apartment is dusty, and the heat is oppressive. But you get to know your roommates, you sweep the floor, and slowly it starts to feel like home.

The ache in your heart never seems to disappear, but you scrounge together the ingredients you have — a box of vegetables you ordered online, too ugly to be sold at a market but perfectly good inside. Onions. Garlic. Carrots. Green beans.

You brought pieces of home with you: rice, which you put on the steamer, and a packet of Japanese curry — it was your dad’s signature dish. He made it every family gathering, every time you came home from college, and just any time you ever asked.

It takes you almost two hours to finish. You salted too late, you’re missing the chicken, and you forgot that vegetables have water in them. The sun has long set by the time you fill your bowl, but you know it was exactly the right dish to make.

You’ve forgotten why your heart hurts so much, but it only takes one taste to remind you. Your eyes unexpectedly sting with tears, and you cry for the first time in a long while. Because you did it all on your own, and so long as you have the arms to cook, and the mouth to eat, you carry your father with you.

Because when you eat, you live. But more than that: so does he.

The Weight of a Body

Sometimes I feel I am barely a body,
a tenant by chance in a lodging of flesh.
Its hunger, its sweat, its carnal desire
seem to weigh down the flight in my chest.

A temple, a gift, a lease on this life —
I’m supposed to be finite and yet satisfied?
And what of this nagging, persnickety tug
on my heartstrings? Damn, he’s so cute I could die.

I’m more mind than meatbag, or so I might think;
I’m inclined to decline the things it requests.
I’ll mind-over-matter it! That is, until
the weight of my body makes clear its behest.

The things that I’d do to be by his side…
WAIT NO. You stop that. Dumb body. Behave.
Just take a deep breath and try to be cool;
he’ll think you’re a weirdo — or worse yet, he’s straight.

I’ll try to remember that bodies are good,
though twisted and tongue-tied’s my talking untucked.
I wish I could scrape off the rust in my brain,
’cause right now it’s busy repeating “oh HECK.”

It’s okay, it’s fine. EVERYTHING’S FINE.
He’s laughing; that’s good. He believes I’m not a socially-anxious-overanalyzer-who-focuses-way-too-much-on-everything-that-could-go-wrong.
At least then today I’ve made a new friend!
But don’t hold your breath — you’ve talked far too long.

As soon as it’s over, I’m proud of myself.
I didn’t seem crazy or over-the-top.
The weight of my body keeps dragging me down,
but I’m thankful for vocals that know when to stop.

And though I’m confounded by much of my form,
it’s taught me a lot about knowing oneself.
The hunger reminds me of how much I’m blessed;
the sweat keeps me humble and thankful for health.

The hole in my heart is a question to ask —
will I still find meaning in life lived alone?
Yet surely it isn’t a sin to desire
the weight of a body pressed down on my own.

I wonder if Jesus felt weighed down like me.
Does being embodied mean feeling askew?
Or maybe it’s simply a matter of space:
that I am a body to be here with you.

Ephemera

Today I fell in love with phantoms,
serenading sand and light,
watching from their weeping ashes
memories of joy and strife.

We built ourselves a house of paper
wilting underneath the rain,
kneeling in a soft cathedral,
singing hymns to ease the pain.

Taking up our fists of gravel,
burnished dust, and frozen stone,
carving out a refuge world
from a war of flesh and bone;

Steadied by those iron bastards,
whetted arms by sparkèd force
blazing into hellish glory
shedding corpse by silver corpse.

Those haven walls became our downfall —
buried by the broken glass,
dust to dust from earth surrender,
scattered by the sky to pass.

Yet flowing on, our phantoms echo
through the silent stream of life,
building us a new cathedral,
safe from every storm and blight.

But even strongholds fixed of iron
crumble to the sands of time;
still every moment founds the next,
an ever living-dying rhyme.

The phantoms which I call beloved
are known to be ephemera,
the phoenix ashes spread among
the flowers in memoriam.

So to your grave I take my love,
my hate, my joy, my guilt, my peace…
knowing each new path begins
with letting go. With setting free.

Be Not Afraid

screenshot2016-11-09at10-05-31amLast night I delivered a short homily to my college’s choir before our first performance of the annual Christmas festival. This is the full transcript of that.

The Lord be with you! Therefore: let us not fear — that’s this year’s theme, right? Fear not. Easy.

Personally, when someone tells me not to be afraid, I admit it’s not actually very helpful. It feels almost dismissive, like they’re unwilling to take my fear seriously. I am afraid of a lot of things — spiders, dead things, peanut products — or on a more serious note, I am afraid of failure… of loneliness… of my uncertain future.

Some fears keep us alive. Some fears keep us from living.

We’re all deeply afraid of something, so “fear not” can sound like an impossible task — as if it’s some sort of rule we’re expected to follow. And as someone who suffers from anxiety, I tend to think this way a lot. But sometimes we need to be reminded that these are words of comfort.

This is God’s promise to us:

When you walk through the waters, I’ll be with you;
you will never sink beneath the waves.
When the fire is burning all around you,
you will never be consumed by the flames.

When the fear of loneliness is looming,
then remember I am at your side.
When you dwell in the exile of a stranger,
remember you are precious in My eyes.
(Excerpted from Philip Stopford’s “Do Not Be Afraid”)

It’s not a matter of if we face fear, but when. And when that time comes, how will we respond? It’s unrealistic to assume we can will our fear away — in fact, I think that’s dishonest.

Rather, “fear not” isn’t the end of it. Listen to the words of Joshua 1:9…

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for YHWH your God is with you wherever you go.

“Fear not, for I am with you”. Therefore, be bold.

All of us are afraid of something, whether it’s of making a huge, life-changing decision, or of coming in fortissimo on page 2 of Virga Jesse. But I encourage you not simply to “fear not”, but to own that fear. Face it head-on, for you are not alone. God is with you and for you. All of us are with you and for you. Be strong and courageous — so boldly we pray:

O branch of Jesse, You have blossomed in fullness of both divinity and humanity, restoring peace and reconciling in Yourself the lowest with the highest.

Tonight, as we rejoice and sing on behalf of Your people, remind us that You are with us wherever we go, whether in the valley of the shadow of death, or in the candlelit glow of a Presbyterian church.

Lord, help us to not be afraid; help us to be bold,
for You have redeemed us,
You have called us by our names.
We are Yours,
we are Yours,
we are Yours.

Amen.

A God of Love and Surprises

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
– 1 John 4:18 (NRSV)

Exactly one year ago, I publicly came out as gay. Today I’m formally coming out in full moral support of same-sex relationships. You probably saw this coming (especially if you read my latest post), and if you know me in person this is no surprise. But I felt it might be helpful to tell the story of how I ended up here — though if you’re looking for a theological exploration, I’m afraid that’s for another time.

Back in the summer of 2015, a friend I found on an online group for LGBT+ Christians was considering becoming a Catholic priest, and one day, he struck up a conversation with me about celibacy. I confessed to him that I had only tentatively parked myself on Side B and maintained celibacy because it was the “safe option”.

In truth, something felt very off about my experience with “lifelong” singleness. I felt trapped by my faith, forced into a vocation I never desired for myself. And though I tried to convince myself I could learn to love it, I could never shake the feeling that I was living a lie.

My primary concern through everything has always been to remain faithful to God. I never set out to prove any particular viewpoint right or wrong — I just wanted the truth, but in order to do that I needed to look further into affirming theologies. A lot of what I came across didn’t strike me as very convincing, but I was willing to dialogue with this new friend of mine, who ever so graciously walked me through his beliefs. We respectfully disagreed and began to learn from each other’s experiences.

Continue reading “A God of Love and Surprises”

The Art of Being Broken

9439696-vintage-metal-world-globe-lies-cracked-and-broken1Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
– Matthew 5:4 (NRSV)

Things are very much not okay right now. There’s so much crap going down all over the world (see: wars, hurricanes, political shams, etc.) that it’s hard to tell if I just notice all the bad in the world now that I’m older, or if things really are getting worse. It’s become very hard to hold onto hope amidst all this chaos.

And then there’s my wreck of a personal life. These past few years have been the most growing I’ve ever experienced, but they’ve also been the most trying. This year in particular has wounded me the deepest, and I’ve never felt closer to the brink of falling apart. In the span of the last 12 months, I:

I might as well buy a t-shirt that says “emotionally unstable” on the front. Living under the weight of everything above, plus generalized depression and anxiety, has taken its toll on me. I am an expert at pretending to be okay, but I can’t continue to do that every time someone asks me how I’m doing. Because the truth is this:

I am broken.

Continue reading “The Art of Being Broken”

A Posture of Mercy

college-photo_15333Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
– Matthew 9:13 (ESV)

Three years ago, I fell in love. It was Preview Weekend at Westmont College and the air was alive with excitement, with perfect Southern California weather beaming down on a group of hopeful students just dipping our toes into the pond of postsecondary education. I had never felt so welcome before, so at home — so loved. My mind was reeling with the possibility of attending such an amazing place, and as soon as I returned north I sent my application in. I chose to love Westmont, and it was one of the best decisions I’d ever made.

But much has changed since then.

I used to wear rose-colored glasses when it came to my school. Choosing only to see the good, I found it easy to accept the rules and regulations expected of me when I became part of the community. And yet I still vividly remember sitting at my desk, my eyes fixated on a single sentence on my computer screen:

The college does not condone…occult practices, drunkenness, theft, profanity, and dishonesty…sexual relations outside of marriage and homosexual practice.
– 2013 Westmont Community Life Statement (bold added for emphasis)

This was before I accepted my sexual orientation, and still I found myself reading that one clause over and over just to make sure I didn’t miss something. I didn’t know what even constituted “homosexual practice,” but it made me nervous. Several conflicted minutes passed before I hesitantly clicked the “agree” button. Deep down, despite my tightly locked closet, I knew that rule was directed towards me.

And perhaps this made sense — a boy who spent his life feeling estranged, unloved, and dissociated from himself ran to a place of security. A place where he could find himself, find joy, find Jesus.

I trusted Westmont because I thought it would be that place. I hungered for the true knowledge and love of Christ, and I fought down my hesitation because I thought Westmont would be the place I finally tasted it. And for a while, it was.

Continue reading “A Posture of Mercy”

The Illusion of Breath

“Do you see it too? Sometimes it looks like he’s still breathing; we’re so used to seeing the motion that our eyes trick us into seeing an illusion of breath.”

My brother and I stood at the side of the bed where our father’s still body lay. Half an hour prior, our family had gathered to be with him as he drew his last breaths. The morning sun was shining through the shades, casting a warm glow around the room. After 61 years of struggling, our dad had finally finished his journey, and for what might have been the first time, he looked truly at peace.

The two of us hadn’t spoken much as we stood by the bedside, but I nodded my head in agreement with my brother. Every little movement in my dead father’s direction prompted me to look harder, to keep searching for that wisp of breath that could have been his. The natural rising and lowering of his chest was no longer there, but my eyes couldn’t seem to give up expecting it — as if somehow he’d suddenly wake up, gasping and flinging his eyes open like in the movies. But he didn’t.

Continue reading “The Illusion of Breath”