Inside the Vietnamese Closet
By: Jake Nguyen
It was during a long flight and visit to Vietnam where two very personally significant moments in my life took place – the one where I embraced the Vietnamese heritage that has defined me as a man and the other where I disclosed to my mother for the very first time that I am a homosexual man.
Apparently, a sixteen-hour flight to Vietnam and eight beers helped me conjure the courage to reveal my sexual orientation to my only living parent, my beloved mother. Little did I know, I was about to embark on a life-changing journey of self-discovery. It was the longest ten days I will ever know. It was April 13, 2013, and I was rushing to cram my whole life into a single thirty-inch suitcase, unaware that our airport shuttle had already arrived. My mother was waiting for me downstairs while I struggled to fit the last pair of swim trunks into my suitcase. Her desperate holler resonated through the two stories of our apartment building, notifying me that she was clearly stressed and desperate to be on time. She was not happy with my lack of punctuality. Immediately, I found myself having a flashback to the days when my father served some unforgettable spankings as punishment for any filial disobedience I gave them. Why was she so frustrated over a few measly minutes? I just could not understand where her frustration was coming from. This trip would be my fifth time returning to Vietnam, but the excitement and hesitation of seeing my loved ones after a few years was so overwhelming that it still felt like my first time. Halfway to the airport, I sat in silence revisiting what happened earlier. I begin to feel disappointed at myself for not understanding my mother, even after living with her for twenty-four years. It suddenly dawned on me that her exasperation stemmed from a level of uncertainty about this trip. Returning to Vietnam had a different meaning for her. For me, it was just another vacation from the mundane routine of everyday life in San Francisco. For my mother, it was returning to the only reality she knew. It was the world she grew up in, a world that taught her everything she knew about what is right and wrong, and a world vastly different from mine. It was then that I realized the dichotomy of our two identities struggling to coexist. And this was only the beginning.
After checking into Eva Airways, we arrived at our gate two hours early. Our arrival was precisely within the advised two-hour timeframe for most international flights. My odd fascination and obsession with commercial airplanes filled me with much thrill being surrounded by one of man’s greatest inventions. I marveled at every Boeing 747 and Airbus A320 that taxied by, as I stopped to take pictures. My mind wandered for a good minute fantasizing about how incredible it would be to work in aviation. Just then, I realized I would soon be trapped inside one of these airplanes for more than ten hours. The chronic anxiety caused by my fear of flying proved to be problematic. How was I going to survive a long-haul flight? So I frantically ran around the airport terminal trying to find a duty-free liquor store. It was the only solution to relieve my aviophobia. I was unsure if the alcohol on board international flights was free or not, so I did not want to take any chances. My mother shook her head in disdain as I told her I would be back. She already knew what I was up to without a single explanation. With a stroke of luck, I spotted a tall refrigerator stocked with beers located inside a Mexican restaurant. After grabbing the cheapest eight bottles of beer I could find, I hurried to the cashier in an effort to conceal the embarrassing fact that I had almost cleared the restaurant of all its domestic beers from the refrigerator. As I walked back to the gate lugging the only thing that would keep me calm thirty-five thousand feet above ground, I thought about how I would fit all this into my carry-on without being so obvious. All this work just for a ten-day trip to Asia, was it worth it? I didn’t even want to start thinking about how I was going to deal with the returning flight. My mother sat still in disbelief when she saw all the alcohol I had purchased. “Are you really going to drink all of that?” she asked. I replied, “You know how I get when I fly, mother.”
As it came time to board the plane, anxiety started to build up inside me regarding the glass beer bottles clanking in my backpack that might raise the suspicion of the airline attendants. My mother and I quickly located our seats and made them cozy in preparation for our long sixteen-hour flight. A few minutes later, I glanced outside the window and saw the gate we had come from earlier. We were lined up along the runway, the engines roaring as we progressively felt the ground shake below us. As we raced towards the end of the runway, it had finally hit me. I was going to be in Vietnam in less than a day, reunited with the ones I call family. It was all too surreal. I did not know what family meant until I returned to Vietnam for the first time back in 2002, and I had not known what a family reunion was like until that trip. My level of anxiety elevated as the plane lost touch with the pavement. I turned to my mother to see if she was as nervous as I was, but she was indifferent about her surroundings. Her firm posture and strained facial appearance seemed as if she was consumed in her own thoughts. The higher and higher we flew, the more I desperately wanted to be back on the ground.
I told myself I would not touch the beer until at least halfway through the flight – it was a crutch I did not want to rely on. Four hours into the flight, turbulence began to disrupt the tranquil atmosphere that had been keeping me calm. By now, dinner was already served and people were settling in for the night. The lights in the cabin dimmed to help passengers transition through time zones. As people around me dozed off, I struggled to slumber away due to the anxiety that was holding me hostage. I covertly reached down to grab the first beer from my backpack, disappointed in myself that I had succumbed to the temptation, but excited to finally mellow out for the rest of the flight. After an hour, I had already guzzled six beers. I began to feel more relaxed than ever. The turbulence no longer was going to take control of me and I felt great. To my surprise, my mother was still awake. She turned to me and asked, “Haven’t you had enough?” I snickered back and replied, “For now.” I looked around to see who was still awake and there were no more than a handful of souls. Some had the television light still beaming in their face, while others had the personal light shining down on their reading books. Of course at this point, the alcohol made me restless, wishing I was at the bar with my friends from back home. But seeing as how that was impossible to achieve, I settled for the next best thing: a good ole conversation with my mother.
I turned to my mother to see how she was doing. As soon as I was about to speak, my mother surprised me with a question I least expected. She asked, “So, is it true that you only love men?” I was in shock. Where did this come from? Has she been holding this inside for years? Never once would I have thought my mother would be the one to initiatethis conversation. The traditional and gentle mother I knew had mustered up the courage to confront such an issue. I had no idea what to say, where to start. I was unsure if the right thing to do was to tell her what she wanted to hear in order to protect her, or answer truthfully revealing this other life I had been living. “Yes,” I replied. That was the most difficult “yes” I have ever had to say. What was once going to be a dull and uneventful flight now felt like I was confessing my darkest secret on a daytime talk show. To my amazement, my mother shared that she already suspected. She later explained that she had seen me around with the same guy, even at our church mass. I had no idea she would be able to put the pieces together, giving credibility to the old adage that mothers always know. She was actually very accepting of my homosexuality which was the complete opposite reaction I was expecting. I was pretty certain she was going to disown me as her son, and completely void herself of any future communication. Instead, she told me she still loved me and explained that she had grown accustomed to the sexual diversity while living in San Francisco. However, she did give some minor rules and conditions to my “gayness”. My mother did not want me to bring any man home or to church, she did not want to see any kind of romantic affection in front of her, and that I must keep pretending to like women in front of our family and in public. She then brought up my father. My mother shared that she and my father had questioned my sexuality months before his passing in 2007. It had broken their hearts to see their only son grow up a different man, wondering if I would be able to produce a family as they expected. I felt an immense sense of pain as I heard those words…it was unbearable. Even though my mother was not completely shocked about my sexual orientation, it was like taking a bullet when she requested to not have anything to do with that aspect of my life. A tender heartache came over me…I could feel the tears eager to escape my eyes. I was yearning for my mother’s love and acceptance but did not have the words to express myself. I knew it was going to be difficult to come out, but now I was unsure I was ready for it.
Quickly dashing to the restroom of the airplane, I could see the flight attendant giving me a confused look, wondering why my eyes were swelled up with tears. Once inside the lavatory, everything was released. I could no longer hold in the pain of what just happened. Tears flowed faster than I was able to control. I was not only sobbing in grief, but also of relief and joy. For twenty-four years I had been living another life, unknown to my mother and the rest of the world. I always figured I would grow old and die with my mother never knowing who I really was. As I thought back to the minutes before, it suddenly occurred to me that my mother’s earlier demands did not matter anymore. None of it did. The bigger picture was that I had finally come out to my mother and she did not expel me from her life. I knew she still loved me. That’s what mattered. My mother was not a bad person for her irrational demand; it was simply a normal reaction out of fear and love. In fact, I was empathetic and understood why she said what she said. I believe that when we reveal our sexual orientation to people, they are not the only ones who have some accepting to do. We, the ones who decide to come out, also have to learn that it may take time for others to accept the news. To simply expect immediate acceptance is selfish of us. In order for there to be harmony, both parties must be patient.
Not only did my trip to Vietnam reconnect me with my cultural identity, but it also made me the proud son of a selfless woman. Being a gay Vietnamese man is who I am. Often times I am conflicted between the two identities. As a Vietnamese man, I am given the great privilege to be a part of a nation with a rich cultural history, and bear the responsibility to pass on the deep heritage to my future children due to filial piety. But as a gay man, I am in constant disagreement with all the traditions my parents taught me. How was I to raise children and marry a wife if that is not something I wished to do? Growing up in a traditional Vietnamese household, loving another man seemed immoral – it was a sin that I could not escape. However, the love and acceptance my mother has shown me proves that I did not have to choose one identity. Shortly after our trip together, she began to truly embrace me for the man I have become. She was no longer ignorant about my homosexuality; she wanted to meet the men I was dating and get to know them as well. This went against all she believed in. My mother and I now have conversations about men and my dating life. We laugh and we cry together. I never once imagined that my mother and I could have this kind of relationship. I was very fortunate that my coming out experience with my mother did not end in a complete disaster. Many close friends of mine have struggled to mend a broken relationship with their parents after coming out. Even though the rest of my family has yet to find out, and who knows how they will react, what matters is that I took the first step with my mother. I very much wish my father was still alive to see this remarkable transformation and to witness the man I have become. I am looking forward to revisiting my homeland very soon. It is an experience I want to relive each time I return. It has always been my deepest wish to bring my family together, despite the distance. Family knows no boundaries and I want to help my loved ones in Vietnam succeed. If any of them are reading this now, well I guess now they know of my true identity. It was not something I could ever build the courage to say in person, but it is a life I have always longed to share. Though society may categorize my identity as a double minority, I see it as an advantage. I am truly honored to say that I am my mother’s son, I am gay, and I am Vietnamese.