Robin Liang (they/she/he) has chosen to publish under a pseudonym to protect their privacy. As a queer individual, they navigate their life in various contexts, some where they are not fully out. They dedicate this essay to all those who, regardless of reason, choose to stay quiet about their full identity. We are here, we are real, and it is not shameful to protect ourselves. Happy Pride, and stay safe.
Life is filled with contradictions. It’s easy when you’re young to live in a world where everything seems simpler, where people don’t tear themselves apart over things that are opposing yet simultaneously true. When you’re older and the ugly contradictions begin to sprout from the floor and break the perfect box that your parents, neighbors, teachers have built for you — lovingly so even — it’s easier to pretend they aren’t there.
Because that would mean there’s more outside. It’s as terrifying as it is tantalizing. Step out and you feel sunshine on your shoulders, the crispness of your first true breath of air. But you also feel the biting wind and jagged stone ground. To leave your box hurts, even as you shed tears of wonder.
The box usually starts small. There isn’t much there at birth. For me,the little baby-sized box whispered “girl,” for the shape of the body I was given.I could have been just a “girl” if I’d been born in China. But I was born on American soil, and from the moment I was here, I was a Chinese girl. Distinct.
This is my second box. The two are neither separate nor are they nested in the fashion of Russian matryoshka dolls. They are as one box, simultaneously dual and singular. I could not be only a girl or only Chinese.
This box was just as small as my “girl” box. As I began to walk and talk and explore the confines, I discovered what I saw as basic truths of existence. “Chinese” meant people who looked like my family. “Girl” also meant people who looked like me. Simple enough.
As I grew, my exploration expanded from the floor to the walls. “Chinese” and “girl” became “American Born Chinese girl.”
For the first time I felt pride. We were American, but carried the legacy of intelligent and resilient Chinese ancestors. And I carried the pride and joy of being an American Born Chinese girl.
“Girl,” as adults said, meant smart, sensitive, kind.
Why would I not be proud?
I grew older. Learned of the hate that people can have for me, the violence. The terror that women face on the streets, the unspoken rules. The same rules told to me by my own father, fear for my safety hardening his voice.
Welcome, Asian American woman.
This should be the ceiling of my box. My final evolution. And yet, for once it didn’t seem right. I’d always accepted these identities, taken pride in them. I knew what I was.
But what does it mean to be an Asian American woman? Does it mean my body, the way that people see it, a shape for consumption? Does it mean my mind, laughter when people see the grades that I wore myself to exhaustion for, because of course an Asian girl is smart?
Does it mean a language I can’t remember, the sting of condescension, the realization that the deck is stacked against me and inside is a kaleidoscope of wants and loves and joy and anger and yet no one looks at me and sees anything more —
Than a box.
What if I’m tired?
What if “Asian” started feeling hollow and “woman” started to choke me from the inside out?
What if I felt something inside me screaming that I can’t be boiled down into so few words, tearing out of my throat like an untamed animal?
What if I heard a call beyond the box and I got up from where I sat?
What if I reached out and a door appeared at my fingertips, and it scared me so much I recoiled and didn’t dare touch it for years?
What if I told you I opened the door one day to see the field of potential laid out before me? Flowers as far as the eye can see, colors and light and eternity.
Queer is a beautiful word. Some associate it with pain and I honor that. But to have a word that is neither one thing nor another completely destroys the concept that I must construct a new box for myself. No, I am not another thing you can put a precise label on. Now, even when I call myself a “girl,” I mean far more than that.
I am non-binary. I love my womanhood, and I love that I am not a woman, that I am something else that skirts the edge of woman and not-woman and girl and not-boy and not-anything. I am him, I am her, I am they.
I define myself.
There’s real fear, too. There were barely any trans Asian adults in my life for me to learn from, much less non-binary ones.
My existence feels like it’s teetering on the brink of nothingness because asserting my Asianness feels like leaving my queerness behind, and asserting my queerness feels like leaving my Asianness behind. I can’t compromise on either because I have always been two-in-one and many.
This is my contradiction, my self. It must be real because I’m real, but I’m still learning that.
Slowly but surely, I am altering this box. New rooms, to contain my favorite things. Windows, to let the sunlight and fresh air in. Doors, so that I can walk in and out as I please.
Eventually, it ceases to be a box.
Because I’m making it a home.