Kathy's Mom is Uncomfortable With All This
TOBIN: So Kathy.
TOBIN: We are back in the studio.
TOBIN: We are checking in with some of our favorite stories from the first two seasons of Nancy.
KATHY: And today we are returning to the story that started it all, Tobin: my piece about me and my mom and how for years and years she’s struggled to really acknowledge my coming out.
TOBIN: Yeah, this piece resonated with many people. I think because all of us, to some extent, have had that experience where it just feels like our parents are not hearing or acknowledging what we’re trying to tell them.
KATHY: So we’ve got two parts to today’s episode. First, we’ll play that original story. And then I’ll go back to my parents house, microphone in-hand, to find out what my mom thought about hearing her voice on the radio. Six months later, there’s still a lot to process. But first, here’s the story.
KATHY'S MOM: Hello hello. [MANDARIN] How are you?
KATHY: When I was about 5 years old, my parents told me we were going on vacation. So I packed up my little blue backpack, walked onto a giant airplane, and we moved. From Taipei to Los Angeles.
We moved so that my sister and brother and I could have a better education, so of course, right away they stuck me in school. And I, knowing no English, promptly failed first grade. But to be fair, I did start in the middle of the year and, you know, I thought I was on vacation.
So obviously, I’ve learned English, but I’ve lost a lot of my Mandarin along the way. My parents speak mostly in Chinese, so our conversations are usually in Chinglish. When I was growing up, my mom would yell at me in Chinese to clean up the living room because something was out of place, and I would scream back in English, “I’ll do it soon!” And it usually was my mom doing the yelling because she did the bulk of the parenting.
So her opinion is the one I care about most. And frustratingly, she is the only one who refuses to hear me come out.
KATHY'S MOM: My name? Chinese name is Chen Shun Lien. English name is Emily.
KATHY: Her English name is Emily. She grew up in rural Taiwan, dirt poor.
ROSALIND: She told me that, like, when she was little, she would be so happy even just to have like a little bit of, like, chicken on the table or something.
KATHY: That’s Rosalind.
ROSALIND: Oh, I'm your sister, older sister.
KATHY: My mom was always working. She helped at the family laundromat, and when she was 16, she went to nursing school, because that’s what her mom told her to do. She worked as a nurse until she moved to the States when she was 33.
She’d probably say she’s never met a gay person in her life. That she knew of, at least.
The first time I came out to my mom was after I had returned from a college semester in Taiwan, relearning Mandarin. I was living in LA and in my first relationship with a girl. And even though I felt like my mom wouldn’t take kindly to this news, I felt like I needed to try. Maybe it’ll be okay, I thought. Maybe she’ll understand and I’ve been scared for no reason. And with my new Mandarin skills, I’ll be able to really explain myself.
So I wrote my mom a long email, and buried in the middle were four short sentences about having a girlfriend. As soon as I hit send, I felt like I had planted a bomb.
About an hour later, my mom called. She yelled and screamed for me to move home. And through my ugly crying, I remember her saying, “I was always afraid of this,” and “I can’t accept it.”
But I didn’t go home. In fact, we basically ignored that that interaction ever happened. Instead, my mom and I went back to fighting about everything else.
ROSALIND: I think you both have very strong personality and very strong cultural beliefs. Like, those ideas are very very different. So I think you guys clash a lot of the times.
KATHY: When my mom and I fight, she usually ends with, “Remember that you’re Chinese.”
ROSALIND: Remember that you're Chinese? The Chinese value the tradition of honoring the roots and respecting the elderly, the way you speak, the way you think has to be more of a conservative, it's a more conservative tradition, you know.
KATHY: Because she is so conservative, we clashed over everything. Growing up, we clashed because I never wanted to wear dresses or anything pink. We clashed because I wanted to play hockey and take martial arts classes. I wanted her to be proud of me for putting together my IKEA dresser without my dad’s help. She shook her head and said, “You better learn to let a guy help me or you’ll never find a husband.”
Back then, even though I didn’t always know I was queer, I knew I was different, and I was ashamed of it. So I spent a lot of time in my room watching TV, wishing I were someone else, and living in my daydreams.
KATHY: A few years after I came out for the first time, I was living back at home, single, and studying for the bar exam. I felt like I had no control over my life, and every day felt like a never-ending slog. My mom did her best to support me. She left me alone to study and she made sure I had food and snacks. But even with all that support, I felt like there was a wall between us.
At this point in my life, I was out to everyone I knew, and very happy about it. I guess what I didn’t expect was that I’d still long for my mom’s validation. So, sitting in my room, books and lectures screaming at me, I thought, “I need to come out to my mom again.”
But this time, I came armed. I found a Mandarin flyer from a local gay-rights organization. In bold type at the top, it said, awkwardly translated, “After Your Children Came Out … A Guide for Parents of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Children.”
I started a new email, attached the flyer, and pressed send. I emailed my mom, who was downstairs.
About an hour later, I still hadn’t heard anything from her, so I went downstairs into the kitchen where my mom was doing the dishes. I asked if she got my email, and she nodded. Then I asked if she wanted to talk, and she said, without looking at me, “What do you want me to say?” I didn’t have an answer for her. I didn’t have the words for “validate my existence.” So I said, “Nothing.” And we went back to not talking about it.
Which brings us to the third time that I’ve come out to my mom, a couple years later.
KATHY'S MOM: Hello hello. [MANDARIN] How are you?
KATHY: We sat down in my sister’s room, because it’s the quietest place in my parent’s house.
KATHY: Okay so, this is what I was thinking. We’re gonna talk about things, and then we’re going to use Google Translate for the things that don’t make any sense.
KATHY'S MOM: Ah, Google Translate. Sometime it cannot translate very good.
KATHY: Yeah but the point is if you understand me.
KATHY'S MOM: I understand, but you guys cannot understand me.
KATHY: Really? Because I think that you don’t understand me.
KATHY'S MOM: I don’t know. Okay. Whatever.
KATHY: Okay, so we’ll try.
KATHY: I wanted to try it this way because my previous attempts at coming out ended so abruptly. First she yelled at me, then she shut me down. But maybe part of the part was that I had been approaching it as an announcement rather than a conversation. So, this time, we were going to talk. She had the tools to ask whatever she wanted, and to say whatever she wanted. And I could, too. So I did.
KATHY: Part of me not liking myself for so long is that I had to keep hiding part of me from you because you refused to talk to me about it. And being… I mean I’m not completely gay, but I’m mostly gay. That’s not something you choose to do. It’s just something that you are. Does that make sense?
KATHY'S MOM: Yeah.
KATHY: You have no response?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] What kind of response do you expect from me?
KATHY: See that’s the same thing you told me last time, like when I sent information to you in Chinese, I asked if you had any questions, you said, “No. What else do you want me to say?” And I just want us to talk about it because it’s a big part of my life and I think…
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] If you insist, I will talk about it. I can’t do anything about it. [ENGLISH] I know what gay means. But every parent wants you to have a normal life. [MANDARIN] What I mean by normal is, marriage and kids. This is what I hope for you. This was the expectation from my parents, so I expect the same from my own children. We all have our own choices to make. If you really are gay, there is nothing I can do about it. Because this is your choice. I only hope for one thing, do not discount all men.
KATHY: Yeah, but that’s what I mean when I asked you do you understand what it means to be gay -- because that’s not how it works.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] This is how I feel. Why did you become this way? Why did you choose this? [ENGLISH] I don’t know. [MANDARIN] Is it because your family influenced you? Why do you think this way? Why?
KATHY: It’s not something you choose. You just are. I don’t have the capability of falling in love with men. Do you know what that means? “Capacity.”
KATHY'S MOM: Capacity?
KATHY: It’s not possible for me to fall in love with men.
KATHY'S MOM: Why?
KATHY: I don’t know. It’s not possible.
KATHY'S MOM: Did you try?
KATHY: Yeah, there’s no trying. There’s dating -- I guess that’s trying. But you don’t feel anything. And because you can’t accept me as a whole person, I’m always gonna feel like I’m lacking this -- in this relationship. And I can’t tell you everything because… so last month, December, was a really hard month for me. But the things that were upsetting me, I can’t tell you, because it would make you happy even though it makes me sad.
KATHY'S MOM: Why?
KATHY: Because there was a girl that I liked who didn’t like me back. And I was really sad for a really long time. But I can’t tell you that, because you would just be happy that this wasn’t happening for me. And so December was a really hard time, and why I wasn’t home so often. But I couldn’t tell you these things.
KATHY'S MOM: Hm. Understand.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] If you feel that you need to act this way to be happy and more comfortable, then go ahead. If you make this decision, or when you meet the right person, I guess I can’t do anything about it. [ENGLISH] So go ahead. What am I gonna do? [MANDARIN] But if you want me to totally support you, I can’t do that yet.
KATHY: The thing you should know, though, is that whoever my partner is doesn’t change who I am now.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] I don’t think you’ve changed, I just don’t want to talk about it.
KATHY: But why?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] I think this is my fault. I gave birth to you this way, isn’t that my fault? A normal life isn’t like this.
KATHY: Wha-- Who says what’s normal?
KATHY'S MOM: My generation, [MANDARIN] from start to end. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. But in my opinion, I expect my children to behave in certain ways, and if they don’t, I can’t do anything about it. I can’t say I reject you because if I do, you’ll be unhappy. And I don’t want you to be unhappy. If you ask me if I care, of course I do. But I will let go of my care, I will minimize how much I care. As long as you’re happy.
KATHY: I think that’s the only thing I can ask. I mean it’s not fair to change someone’s mind immediately.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Okay?
KATHY: That’s fair.
KATHY: Coming Out Version Three: my mom didn’t say, “I understand.” She didn’t say “It’ll be okay,” or even, “I accept you.”
All along I thought if I could just get my mom to understand me, if I could just be clear, I’d reach her. We would connect, and she would accept me. But I was never going to get that in just one conversation.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] After our conversation I thought about it for a while, how I was going to say…
KATHY: Recently, my mom left me this voicemail.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] But I want you to know, if you need to talk about anything, call me…
KATHY: She said she and my dad tried their best to support me and my siblings, but their understanding of us is limited.
[MOM SPEAKING MORE IN MANDARIN]
KATHY: She wants me to know that I can call to talk about anything. She may not give me the answer I want, but she’ll be there to listen.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] As you grew up, I knew you were different, but I hope you know what you’re doing.
KATHY: She told me that, as I grew up, she knew I was different, but no matter what I do with my life, she will always be there when I call. And my room will always be there if I need it.
KATHY'S MOM: Bye bye.
TOBIN: After the break, an update with Kathy’s mom.
KATHY: Yeah, I tell her about the new tattoo I got on my arm. It went great.
TOBIN: Did it though?
KATHY: No. Nancy will be right back.
KATHY: So very recently I went home to L.A. and I decided to surprise my mom.
[DOOR OPENING ALARM SOUND]
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] You scared me, what are you doing?
KATHY: I am here to record.
KATHY: By pulling her into a room and having a little follow-up conversation since our first episode.
[KATHY ASKS FOR 10 MINUTES, KATHY'S MOM COMPLAINS ABOUT HOW HER OWN VOICE SOUNDS BAD]
KATHY: So it's been a few months since my coming out episode, and as you’ve heard it was mildly painful. And since then I sort of become a professional queer, like a publicly queer person with you, Tobin. And I was curious how my mom has taken to my new job. Because, I mean when I first started this job she actually thought that I was just doing an internship in New York.
KATHY: But the first thing I wanted to tell her was...
KATHY: Don't be upset.
KATHY'S MOM: Oh my God. [MANDARIN] What are you going to ask?
KATHY: I got a tattoo. You wanna read it?
KATHY'S MOM: More...what? Curious than...
KATHY: Afraid. Let me translate this for you.
KATHY: And I fired up the old Google Translate to translate the phrase “be more curious than afraid.”
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Curious? Afraid? [DISAPPROVING SOUND]
KATHY: All right so she wasn’t very impressed. Moving on.
KATHY: Okay, my first question is: do you know what my job is?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Don’t you make shows?
KATHY: She says, "I think you make a program or show?"
KATHY: I know, she got it right!
TOBIN: That's actually a significant improvement over her thinking you have an internship in New York.
TOBIN: Cool. Progress.
KATHY: Yes. But then…
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Can you change it? I mean, if you didn't do a show on LGBT topics, you can still make shows, right?
KATHY: She follows up by saying, “can you do a show about a different topic?"
KATHY: "Does it have to be about gay things?”
TOBIN: Oh my god.
KATHY: And she's like, “You've learned all these skills and stuff so you can like make a show about anything, right?”
TOBIN: She's not wrong.
TOBIN: I've gonna say we're not changing the topic any time soon.
KATHY: Do you want me to work in another, on another podcast?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] I just wish you would be...be normal.
TOBIN: I don't even understand what she said but I heard the word normal.
KATHY: Yeah, she thinks what I'm doing is a topic about things that are not normal.
KATHY: And what’s normal is very set in her mind. She's worried that being too different means that I will end up maybe associating with the wrong people and then that will lead to like bad things happening to me. So she's curious if I could maybe do a podcast on a different topic and she's like, "it's just a question, just curious."
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] It’s just a question I'm asking you. Just curious.
KATHY: And she like points to my wrist and she's like “curious. See?”
KATHY: [LAUGHS] Okay. My second question is: did you listen to your episode?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Not much, because it's in English. Can’t really understand.
KATHY: She says, "not much because of the English."
KATHY: But you heard the part that you said.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] I heard it.
KATHY: How do you feel about it?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Uh, I feel...it’s already happened, maybe a lot of people heard it.
KATHY: "Well it's already happened. Maybe a lot of people heard it."
KATHY: What if I told you that we've gotten a lot of feedback on that episode and a lot of people, they say that the episode was really helpful for them to hear.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Great, but, okay, for you and me, because you’re my daughter, to be honest, I’m not very comfortable. But because you’re my daughter...
KATHY: She says, “Oh that's great, but to be honest, I'm still not comfortable with it. But because you're my daughter, I think, go ahead do what makes you happy. It doesn't really matter what I think."
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] I just have a little bit of concern I want to tell you...
KATHY: But she's concerned because she thinks that me doing this show and sort of presenting the way that I do is sort of like calling out for bad things to happen to me. That's how she feels. Which is sort of like what an immigrant experience is like. Instead of having the privilege of knowing that you could be in a safe place, you don't know what's out there, so your first reaction is gonna be fear.
KATHY: So I get it. Which is why I didn't get immediately upset like I used to.
KATHY: I have another question.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Another question?!
KATHY: How do you feel...I'm dating somebody right now.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Ha? Really?
KATHY: How do you feel about that?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Man or woman?
KATHY: Her first question is...man or woman?
TOBIN: I knew it was that!
TOBIN: I knew it! Oh man.
KATHY: What do you think?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] [SIGH] It's probably a woman, it wouldn’t be a man.
KATHY: She's like, "sigh, it's probably a woman it wouldn't be a man."
KATHY: Why do you look so disappointed?
KATHY: And then she follows up with...
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Asian or not Asian?
KATHY: Asian or not Asian?
TOBIN: [LAUGHS & CLAPS]
KATHY: [MANDARIN] Not Asian. [LAUGHS]
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] White people are so strange!
KATHY: And then she follows that up with, “All right well like, just don't move so fast this time.”
TOBIN: You know what? Not wrong, Kathy’s mom. Not wrong.
KATHY: And then while I was like starting to tell her about this girl that I'm dating…
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Can you grow your hair out a little?
KATHY: I am trying to tell you about somebody right now.
KATHY'S MOM: Okay.
KATHY: She immediately is like “are you going to grow your hair?”
TOBIN: Aww. She misses your long hair.
KATHY: She does. And I was like “mom I'm trying to tell you about this girl I'm dating,” and she’s like okay, okay. But she didn't actually answer my question, so I asked her again: how does she feel about the fact that I'm dating a girl right now?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Stop caring about how I feel, what can I do. If you like it, that’s all that matters.
KATHY: I don't care what you feel but the fans wanna know.
KATHY'S MOM: [LONG SIGH] No comment!
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Your company is really weird, why do they care about these things?
TOBIN: Wait what is she saying here?
KATHY: She’s basically telling me that we’re weird for asking her all these questions all the time.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Tell your boss [ENGLISH] no comment, okay? Okay.
KATHY: [LAUGHS] Okay that’s it, thank you.
KATHY'S MOM: [MUTTERS TO HERSELF]
TOBIN: Well, so now that you've had this follow-up interaction, how do you feel?
KATHY: I think that I am shocked and surprised that I didn't get as upset as I used to. And somehow I was able to see what she was actually talking about, which is just that she is scared of what she doesn't know.
KATHY: And she's worried about me.
TOBIN: Yeah. You know it's funny, I, in her words, from the last time you talked to this time, I don't hear a lot of progress. Progress in terms of her being more accepting, being more open-minded.
TOBIN: But where I do hear some movement is in her ability to joke with you and to have, even if it's very deadpan, a little bit of a sense of humor. Just a little bit.
TOBIN: There’s a glimmer in there of being able to be a little bit looser and maybe that is where the movement is starting to happen.
KATHY: Oh Tobin, I'm chipping away. I am chipping away one at a time.
TOBIN: Well Kathy, if you're wondering how your mom feels about it all. Why don't you ask her yourself. Please welcome to the studio...
TOBIN: No I'm just kidding. But for serious, everyone please welcome...
KATHY: [LAUGHS] All right, end of episode. Credits.
TOBIN: Find us on social media. You know how, you’re smart.
KATHY: Our staff includes Matt Collette, Jeremy Bloom, Elisabeth Dee, Jenny Lawton, and Paula Szuchman.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin.
KATHY: I’m Kathy.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]