Last Sunday marked the first day of the Lunar New Year, the most important of the Chinese traditional holidays. Prosperity and good luck, cleansing and renewal, and honoring your elders and ancestors are all part of the Chinese New Year tradition. It is a highly anticipated holiday, with much preparation, symbolism, and tradition. And children raised in the Chinese culture learn to behave impeccably on this day, for what happens on Chinese New Year day may foreshadow future events. Say the right thing, do the right thing, and think good thoughts, and all will be well.
The impeccable behavior, the deep spiritual, philosophical, and historical symbolism, the level of preparation – all of this occurs within a highly collectivistic culture. Even Hong Kong, which was under British rule for many years, is significantly more collectivistic than the United States – and the rural, outlying areas of China are even more deeply collectivistic. People from collectivistic cultures tend to see themselves not so much as individuals, but as part of a larger interconnected web. The harmony and stability of the larger group, from a collectivistic standpoint, is far more important than any one individual’s goals or preferences. In China (at least from a traditional perspective), the seventh day of the New Year is a collective birthday, given a much higher level of importance than any one person’s individual birthday. Sharing dishes at a restaurant or at home is another illustration of collectivism. In my opinion, the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics is one of the most powerful examples of collectivism in action – perfectly choreographed and orchestrated, with every single participant acting as part of a larger, cohesive whole.
Asian-American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) LGBTQ people often face significant challenges within the context of collectivism. Years ago, when I was completing my dissertation research, I interviewed a Chinese woman from Hong Kong about her experience with homophobia, and this is what she had to say:
In Hong Kong and Asia the family ties are a lot stronger, and you don’t want to upset your parents. It’s a cultural thing that they don’t talk about it. They think homosexuality is wrong, and they base it on family and traditions and how nature is supposed to be, and because of propagation.
She was not out to her family, and she had no plans whatsoever to come out to them. Essentially, what she said boiled down to this: You honor your elders. You respect tradition. You get married and have children. And, above all else, you don’t bring shame to your family by dishonoring them.
These are deeply rooted Chinese traditions. The Confucian tradition of filial piety, the first virtue of Chinese culture, is all about respect to one’s family and one’s ancestors. Taking care of your parents, conducting yourself properly so as to bring a good name to your family, behaving obediently and avoiding rebelliousness, and ensuring male heirs by getting married and giving birth to male children – all of these are part of that core tradition. And from a traditional Chinese standpoint, being LGBTQ goes against all of that. If you dishonor your family in any way, you will be shamed – which is why being out, loud, and proud is so hard for many LGBTQ people in AAPI communities.
So if you hold these cultural values deeply, how does that impact one’s LGBTQ identity? In 2010, Pizza Ka-Yee Chow and Sheung-Tak Cheng from the Hong Kong Institute of Education published a study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology titled, “Shame, internalized heterosexism, lesbian identity and coming out to others: A comparative study of lesbians in mainland China and Hong Kong.” Shaming, according to Chow and Cheng, is an incredibly powerful tool often wielded by Chinese parents, and LGBTQ people are more likely than their straight counterparts to experience shaming at an early age. If, in a traditional Chinese family, a young girl snubs her nose at expectations of feminine behavior, or if a young boy is far more feminine than masculine, then shaming by their parents and elders is inevitable. As quoted by Chow and Cheng in their article, “Conforming to these [gender] norms is essential for maintaining harmony in collectivistic societies” (Chow & Cheng, 2010, p. 93). In their study, people who had been subjected to the longstanding cultural tradition of shame – particularly those who lived in mainland China, in contrast to those from Hong Kong – were not commonly out to their families. They had high levels of internalized shame. And they were more likely to be negatively influenced by the homophobia of others, which was associated with high levels of internalized stigma about lesbians. As Chow and Cheng put it, “They are the ones who see themselves in more negative ways globally, and when they encounter prejudice and discrimination from others, they are more ready to incorporate such stereotypical views into their already negative self” (Chow & Cheng, 2010, p. 101).
Given the longstanding traditions of honor, respect, and harmony, being out, open, and proud of who you are as an AAPI LGBTQ person is potentially a steep challenge. Yet I am continually awed and amazed by the resiliency and creativity of our people. In New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, for example, the LGBTQ community has introduced a new tradition of bringing a queer contingent to march in the Chinese New Year parade, a powerful symbol of the progressive alongside the traditional. Red envelopes containing money might be exchanged among same-sex couples for good luck. Or, these envelopes, containing “the money used to suppress the evil spirit” (loosely translated) might be presented to a local gay and lesbian center or marriage equality group – groups that could use the money to “suppress the evil spirit” of discrimination and oppression. Or a family photo could be taken in front of the home – whether it’s a same-sex couple with their children outside their house, or a “chosen LGBTQ family” photo taken outside of a community meetingplace. The possibilities of finding ways of being visible and honoring tradition are endless.
The San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade is this Saturday, February 23. Gung Hay Fat Choy. May prosperity be with you.