SEXtember: Of culture, sexuality and bubble tea
WHAT would it be like growing up a gay gweilo in Taiwan? For SEXtember Gareth Durrant talks ‘gaylos’ and ‘gaysians’ – and tells his story of learning Chinese through Mandopop, as well as coming out to his host family.
I’m pretty enthusiastic when it comes to anything Formosan. Don’t get me started on bubble tea, Taiwanese politics, or even modern Taiwanese literature, because I can go on for days. To make matters worse, I tend to use the word ‘we’ with wanton abandon; ‘we invented bubble tea,’ ’we experienced fifty years of Japanese rule’. It’s a bad habit that not only gets me in trouble, but it also confuses people.
You see, on the outside there is absolutely nothing Taiwanese about me. I’m twenty-eight years old, white, bulky, bearded and bald. On a good day I’d say I’m serving Scruff realness, but mostly I look like a well-fed homeless person. On the inside, I’m as gaysian as a gay gweilo (slang for ‘Caucasian’) can be.
Growing up as a gay international student in Taipei was a lesson in liberation.”
My connection to Taiwan is like a secret that I sometimes let slip, then spend another 15 minutes trying to explain. So here is the short version. I went on a year-long exchange to Taiwan when I was seventeen, then moved to Beijing to continue learning Chinese. After that I began my bachelors degree in Taipei and stayed there until I turned twenty-five. I’ve spent more of my adult life overseas than at home. The fact is, my formative years – all that growing up and coming out – happened for me in Chinese.
Mandopop was my primary language learning material – that’s the equivalent of learning English solely from Kylie Minogue lyrics. The first time I ever said ‘I love you’ to another guy was in Chinese. The first gay club I ever went to was a firetrap just down the road from Shandao Temple MRT station. I came out to my adoptive Taiwanese parents and introduced multiple ‘special friends’ to my septuagenarian Agong and Amah (grandparents).
It took me a while to work through it all, but these days I’m totally okay with being a cultural axolotl. It’s given me a pretty unique perspective. Growing up as a gay international student in Taipei was a lesson in liberation. My foreignness was a get-out-of-jail free card, and my sexuality meant I had access to a welcoming queer community that wouldn’t have been available to me if I were straight. There were only ever a handful of international students at my university and we all stuck out. I felt that I was never gonna fit in anyway, so I took that as permission to be myself.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t really go around calling myself gaysian. The word gaysian, a term made popular by Australian writer and journalist Benjamin Law, is more than a witty compound word. It speaks to the entangled nature of culture and sexual orientation. For a lot of people it alludes to the fact that gay Asian men face multiple layers of stigma. But if you’re white and gay in Asia, that intersection of culture and sexuality can make things easier (read: privilege) for people like me.
It would be presumptuous of me to write about the experience of queer international students in Melbourne with any authority. I’ll leave that up to Meld’s queer readership. But I think we can all agree that no queer fish out of water breathes easily.
Privileged as I was, I still white-knuckled it through most of my university life. That probably had more to do with studying calculus in Chinese than it did with racism or homophobia. I know what it is like to be alone overseas and barely sleeping. When you work twice as hard as the local students to get grades that are only half as good – the last thing you want is to feel excluded. It is hard enough juggling the complexities of studying abroad, so it seems especially unfair to have to walk the tightrope between too gay and too foreign as well.
No one needs a lecture about the intersection of cultural identity and sexual orientation from me, someone who still needs to have a good hard look at how he uses first person plurals. It’s not my place. But it is SEXtember and if you are a queer international student in Melbourne, what better time is there to tell your story?