23 March 2017
by Sanna Wei
She had always been there for me, and I for her. Even though we had been family forever – our parents so close we would accidentally call our respective aunts ‘Mum’ and uncles ‘Dad’ – we weren’t just cousins. We became deep friends sometime during primary school. We both desperately searched to understand the confusion and pain mixed up in all the joy of family. Not mixed like paint, where colours blended, but like jelly beans: different dyes of joy and pain that don’t rub off on each other, but are all present in the same bag.
I looked at her sitting next to me, one ordinary school afternoon at my cousin’s. She wasn’t looking at me, but at her homework. I wanted to ask if she’d like to take a break but she seemed as if she was in the flow. So I took a break by myself and watched her.
Her slender fingers tapped and glided across the angled iPad surface. Occasionally her hands stopped to pick up a pencil and jot something down. More often, her fingers unfurled and splayed out in a silent gesture of joy as she found whatever piece of information she sought. And always, this was accompanied by a smile, a light in her eyes and the slightest crease around them.
I was 16, and she was 12, the day I came out to her. Her heart and mind responded thoughtfully, without judgement. She told me, sheepishly, thinking that her metaphor was bad, that I was like a picture to her with many patterns and colours. And that this new fact about me just changed the colour of a tiny section of the border. I hugged her and cried. She understood that what I had told her was important but it was only one piece of the whole that was me.
Despite us being four years apart, our dynamic was one of equals. We shared secrets, worries, fears, hopes and solidarity. We knew what home life and school life were like for each other, as no one else could. We shared things not just as any friends, not just as family would, but as two people who made sense of life together, who put weight into each other’s words, who understood each other.
So the day I came out to her, she knew the question on my mind before I could ask it. She gave me advice: “Don’t tell my mum.” And I understood.
I never asked for the reputation of the perfect Asian child, or ever cared about maintaining it. I had always just gone about being who I was. But if I crossed its boundaries, I wouldn’t be able to be there for my cousin. While my aunt loved me, she also held values that would banish me from their household, if not forever, for a very long time.
The way my aunt loved me was extremely rare – she trusted me completely as a mentor for her daughter. She would seek my advice. She would listen to what I had to say, even when her mind was made up, and then reconsider. If my cousin was with me, she would let her stay out later, or go on walks without adults. Even let her cut down on extra homework if I said that was best.
My aunt knew that, in this country unfamiliar to her own childhood, I would help look after my cousin in any ways that she couldn’t. And that I would be there for her daughter emotionally, listen to her, help her with things that parents didn’t always get to hear. I did my best to honour the gravity of that trust. I thought carefully, spoke judiciously, and always looked out for my cousin. To each other, we were niece and aunt. To my cousin, friend and mother. We were in a team with separate roles, loving my cousin together.
However, I knew that her love for me was built on how well I fit within my aunt’s ideals about what was best for her child. She was an incredibly fierce, protective mother, and the wellbeing of her daughter was always paramount. She saw me as dux of my school, knew that I loved piano, won awards, had an incredible work ethic and was going to “get far in life”. I was the one who got into national, and then international science forums. The one who wanted to be a doctor. How could I be bad for her daughter when I did everything right?
My cousin was worried about me coming out. She saw the fear in my eyes when my aunt was livid about the US ruling for marriage equality. She saw my aunt’s absolute disgust when it occurred to her that a gay couple could raise children. My cousin knew that even if things healed decades down the line, coming out would be a deeply painful process now.
I knew that until the day she accepted who I loved, it would be painful no matter whether I had come out or not. Already, I had twists of fear every time I shared a happy moment with my aunt, every joy paralleled by a deeper sadness. Every interaction made bittersweet by a knowledge of limited time. An ache to value every moment, and in this way, say a gradual, good goodbye.
On the surface, the question of coming out to my aunt seemed to be a choice between staying true to myself or being there for my cousin. But that’s not quite how I saw it.
On that ordinary school afternoon, the answer emerged as I looked at her. With pubescent blemishes and hair tied up in a Year-8-still-figuring-it-out way, she was beautiful. Inside her head was raw, teeming intelligence, still being shaped and trained and honed. Behind her eyes, an extremely socially aware soul – empathetic, mature beyond her years, principled and self-determined. So strong, so mature, and yet still so young.
And I knew that, more than the gender of the person I fell for, it was the way I cared for all my loved ones that was the truest expression of who I was.
So I didn’t think about a girlfriend for the rest of my high-school years. I didn’t come out to her mother, or to our wider family.
Because few things are more important than who we love.
Sanna Wei is an emerging writer, passionate about creating work that expresses part of the Asian-Australian and/or LGBTQIA+ experience. In doing so, she aims to give representation and nuance to these experiences and reach out to others who may feel unseen or unsure. She is thrilled by the diversity that exists between and within categories and fascinated by what we share and how we share it. Her short story Glasses was published in the YA anthology My First Lesson edited by Alice Pung. It asks the question – if you perfectly fit a stereotype, can you still be an individual?
The series began with a panel featuring Leanne Hall, Alice Pung and Rebecca Lim, which will be made available on the Stella Podcast on Thursday 6 April 2017. This comic is the first of three further responses in a series of guests posts on the Schools Blog.
The Stella Schools Provocations provide online content to stimulate discussion and deepen understanding around a range of issues pertinent to young people, the society that they are growing up in and the particular challenges they face. Each provocation will be discussed by three writers at a launch panel that will be recorded and made available through the Stella Podcast, and then a series on the Schools Blog will further explore the theme. All resources will be made available on the Provocations page.