Locked in Dread
After the New Year celebration was over in 2009 and I was back in Beijing, my six months in the country (my longest stretch up until that date) were coming to an end. I found myself packing my bags to head back to Canada with a sense of… well, there’s no other word: dread.
I was going home with a ring on my finger. I didn’t know what I was dreading more: leaving the haven of China or returning home to explain this!
You see, saying “yes” made it all real… and heavy. I know that I had been in this relationship now for about a year (if you count from when I returned to China post-breakup in March of 2008) but that year had been full of transition and discovery. It was dramatic enough to feel as though I were a character in someone else’s life—a television drama, perhaps, or a bizarre comic strip being drawn by a romantic sadist.
And, to top it all off, I was feeling really guilty.
You may ask, “for what?” Didn’t I deserve a love story anew? Didn’t I deserve to be happy?
Well, in my fantastic new world (read: fantasy-like) with Beijing as a bright backdrop, I had experienced a liberation of self. I was free to reinvent myself. I was enjoying the release of expectations, the freedom to figure it out without public scrutiny, the reckless abandon of logic or “processing” that came from simply letting my heart lead. It was all so intoxicating and I was positively drunk on this happiness. What’s more, I was not the least bit ashamed of my drunken state. At least, not in China. After all, I was protected by thousands of miles of distance and shrouded against any judgment or questioning gazes by a powerful foreign culture.
And why would anyone judge or question me? Well, that’s the thing…
All of my adult life, I had fought for queer visibility. I voiced issues on a microphone, I wore loud t-shirts, I sang loud lyrics on the topic, I bravely and defiantly held hands with my lovers publically and refused to allow any negativity or prejudice to penetrate my proud queer shield. I believe that the more we queer people push ourselves into society openly, the more it will be just part of everyone’s “normal.”
Now, here I was, enjoying holding hands with the person I loved and not being scowled at. I was enjoying the quiet smiles of the elderly as he and I literally skipped along out in the world, beaming with love and now sparkling with rings on our fingers. I had never experienced a sense of automatic public approval and it was addictive. Even though I wasn’t Chinese and we were a culturally incongruent pair (and likely attracting some additional attention because of that!), how amazing it was to be acknowledged with kindness and celebration!
Being able to put down my long-worn shields publically made me aware of their intense weight. You see, their sudden absence shone a spotlight on my newfound buoyancy… and this made me feel incredibly guilty…
When you find you can put down your weaponry in a war that you’ve spent your life fighting, while knowing that others are still and forever engaged in that fight, there’s an intense guilt, as though you are a traitor or a defector, as though you’re abandoning your charge.
Was I, though? I still felt very committed to the cause. I knew there was so much work yet to be done for queer issues and I was willing to continue that work, with my music and with my life. The main difference now was that my personal relationship wasn’t wrapped up in that work anymore. And that was strange. Did it make my role less important? The jury was out on that.
Perhaps we don’t have to always be at the eye of the storm to advocate for weather proofing?
The second reason for my guilt was related to my ex-partner. I knew that Guo Jian and I hadn’t been together for very long, according to Western tradition, and to get engaged so quickly after my break-up, I worried, might suggest that this relationship was more “real” than hers and mine had been, more deserving of a lifetime commitment, and/or more socially acceptable and therefore flowing quickly into pre-cut riverbeds of social expectations. I mean, what would our friends think of this in relation to her?
The first person I told about the engagement was her. (More on that in the next blog). I really didn’t want her finding out through the stranglehold of our social grapevine.
The next group of people I told was a collection of about twenty friends back home to whom I carefully composed an email that was a not-so-subtle call for their support despite what would most likely be a lot of misgivings. The email was called “News From Afar” and included these lines (below). When I read it back now, I hear a shaky, apologetic tone. So much fear and worry—the white-knuckled grip on my Canadian community that I wasn’t sure would stick by me.
Dread, dripping through diplomacy.
This email is going out to some of my closest friends in the world… the people who I specifically want to catch up with across cups of tea and yummy food when I haven’t been home to Canada for awhile… the long term friends… the ones who know the real stories. That’s you! (And you can see by the address list that you mostly all know each other!)
First of all, thank you. Thank you for being in my life and for being such amazing people. I am so touched by your efforts to stay in touch, too, despite this past year and a half (nearly two years!) of my living across the world on and off. I can only imagine how strange it must be for you all to understand my need to be here — the inexplicable magnet that pulled me in when I first came to China in 2007 and now the multiple reasons that I have for consistently returning. It’s difficult because most of you have never been here and simply can’t be witness to my life anymore. In the past, it was a shared community all the time. Now, we aren’t experiencing the same kind of life and, well, I miss you and I hope you hear that.
What’s more, you don’t know my partner, Guo Jian. Most of you haven’t had a chance to even meet him. That’s a reality rooted in geography, but it’s something I wish weren’t so. I’d love for you to know him and to understand that every day he becomes more and more of a primary reason why I’m here in this time zone.
Which brings me to the news that I have accepted his proposal to spend our lives together. Yes, the word is “marriage” but in Chinese it is literally two words put together, the first one meaning “bonded” and, once again, the language inspires me to open up my mind to new ways of seeing things. Transformative. Like so much of this country.
It’s taken me awhile to take stock of the transformative benefits of this country on my heart and head and overall sense of who I am. So many of my perspectives on politics, culture, religion, art, partnership, communication and expression have changed as a result of China’s influence. But more than these surface changes, it’s made me really aware of identity: what is identity except that which we know ourselves to be? At the heart of everything. The bedrock. The parts that never change no matter how powerful the magnets.
Well, one of those qualities that I know makes up my identity is a powerful need to always speak the truth — my truth. This is what accepting his proposal is about for me. It is true that I want to spend my life with him. That is exactly what I am choosing in my every moment and my every day. (And, for him, it’s his first relationship with a queer person — another bedrock of my identity — and he’s constantly challenged by my beliefs and general way of life, but is clearly choosing the same: to spend his life with me. I guess he was meant to meet a queer!) Another part of my identity is a consistent belief that love must be celebrated, no matter what. I have spent years on stages advocating for that belief loudly and proudly and so, it holds that I should be actually living that belief in my own life. And so, I am. I am proud to say so.
A few questions that I am sure are spinning in your heads: Does [my ex-partner] know? Yes, of course she does. I wanted to tell her before I told all of you, out of respect. She is someone I love dearly. Love and relationships aren’t always in the same category. While our relationship could not sustain itself past the success of 9.5 years together, the love I have for her will never leave me.
And secondly, Am I pregnant? No, I’m not pregnant. Although, if I ever wanted to become so, getting married is truly a cultural pre-requisite here. I would never simply marry someone for the sake of having a child, but the desire to have a child has been in my life in waves for a long time and so I would like the chance to try to become a Mother in this lifetime. Sounds wonderful to me.
Thirdly, When is it? October. The first week of October, to be precise. It’s a national holiday here in China. You’re all invited, of course. But, we’ll also be coming back to Canada together in late November and staying for 4-6 weeks. In early December, we’ll have a casual gathering for the sake of my parents and family (and inner circle of friends). So, there’s no pressure to come to China.
And finally, Why so soon? Cultural difference, truly. In Western countries, people are together for an average of five years or so before marriage, but here in Asia it is common to “officialize” relationships within six months of falling in love. Trust me, this date was a compromise, not to mention the fact that it makes all the elders shudder at the thought of getting hitched during your Chinese zodiac year. Since next year is the year of the tiger (my birth sign) it means that it is either in 2009 or 2011.
And, about that last question, something resonated in my mind during this whole thing that I hadn’t thought about for many years. Two of you on this list really inspired me years ago when you first got together. Within six months (or so?) of being a couple, you bought a huge house together in Toronto that was a major investment (and risk) for a new relationship. When I asked [one of you] about it, worrying it was a bit fast for a new relationship, she said (paraphrasing!) ‘Why wait? We both want the same things. We love each other. Why wait to prove the relationship is solid before actually doing what we want to do?’ And in that moment, I really respected the incredible belief that you both dispensed right then and there: a belief in your love. No doubts. I was inspired. Thank you both for that.
Okay, on that note, I’ve come to the end of my message to you all. I’m sending you all as much love and joy as I can through these digital means. I hope you feel it in your hearts.
Most of my friends wrote me back with only love and support. As the responses poured in, I knew that I had a lot of strong connections back home that weren’t going anywhere. They were not sitting in judgment of me. My fears were for naught.
The dread mostly lifted.
Next step? The fans. How was I going to tell the fans?
Guo Jian’s big dreadlocked head was the last thing I saw as I descended the escalator to the departure trains in the Beijing airport. Just when you think you’ve conquered the dread, you see there’s more of it locked in your lover’s aura…