“Why do you Americans have to do big projects during your time off?, sickness side effects ” was the question from our European friends during a recent dinner party. “Why can’t you relax and just hang out?”
Good question. My friend is French, viagra and the French know how to vacation better than anyone else. Not only do they receive significantly more vacation days than American workers (37 days vs 13 days for Americans), nurse a recent study showed that French workers top the list for actually using their vacation days with 89% of workers maxing out their days off. Americans, in contrast, were at the bottom of the list with only 57% of workers using all of their vacation time.
Furthermore, when we do vacation, we have a hard time actually relaxing. A recent survey reported that Americans are more likely to get up early than sleep in during vacations (apparently to get as much “fun” in as possible), and one out of five Americans still work during their time off. Apparently, we Americans have this need to be productive, all the time. By turning our year off into a research project, were Lisa and I falling into this trap?
Truth be told, I don’t know. Maybe we have some weird guilt complex that won’t let us spend 12 months just loafing around the world with no agenda. Maybe we have some intrinsic need to “make a difference” for society – this is a common plague for lesbians and is the reason why professions like social work and therapy are dominated by our kind.
At minimum I feel proud that we’re managing to escape, even if temporarily, the endless American cycle of earn more, buy more, want more, work more. For us, this year off is a respite from that mindset and a chance to do something together that we both find meaningful. We love travel, but we didn’t want to spend 12 months just traipsing from one landmark to another. Way too tiring, and we’d get burned out from an endless procession of temples, ancient ruins and other Unesco tourist sites in no time. What we felt we could spend 12 months doing is engaging with the local people living there. If we used our year off to pursue meaningful exchanges with people different from us, perhaps we could help both sides gain a little more understanding about the other, and through that understanding develop a little more tolerance and acceptance.
As a queer person, there is no greater applicability of this need for understanding than around people’s attitudes towards the LGBT community. Now, Lisa and I are lucky – we live in the safe haven of the San Francisco bay area, where having a gay friend actually increases one’s social stature. Nontheless, it is still a city in a state where the majority of voters believe that same-sex marriages should be illegal. I believe our best weapon against anti-gay attitudes is not reciprocal strong-arm tactics or over-intellectualized debates – rather, it is through human connection that we can start stripping away the misunderstandings that have created these prejudices in the first place.
Lisa and I have already experienced some of these meaningful exchanges from our previous travels together. When Lisa flew to Beijing earlier this year to meet me on a business trip, she sat next to a talkative forty-something Chinese woman named Clare on her way back home. After Clare finally understood that Lisa’s continual reference to the “girlfriend” she was flying to meet meant more than a female companion, Clare admitted that she had never met a lesbian before. The conversation turned into an LGBT education session, where Lisa encouraged her to ask as many questions as she wanted (which she did, including “How do you have sexual relations?”). Clare was surprised when Lisa showed her a picture of me – probably because I was Chinese, like her, and probably because she was expecting more of a boyish butch type, which I’m not. They parted ways with a promise to stay in touch, Clare going home to China with a better understanding of gay life than what probably most people do in the States.
While in China, we did some “gay-touring” – we looked for the gay hangouts and tried to assess the general attitudes of the Chinese towards homosexuality. We chatted with a well-dressed business man in a half-empty gay bar in the middle of the Beijing club district, who told of us how he had been previously married but would sleep with men in secret. He said that while the city was becoming more tolerant of gays, enough so that some gay couples even openly held hands in public – there was no way he would ever dare to come out as a gay man himself. He said it was “not Chinese” and that his parents would never accept it, and he looked at me meaningfully saying “You should understand that too.”
Out of that three week trip, which included a visit to an off-limits section of the Great Wall (self-contradictory, as despite a “No Visitors Allowed” sign there was still a ticket agent collecting a 10rmb entrance fee”), an all-you-can-possibly-eat Peking duck dinner, and multiple trips to the shopping mecca known as the Silk Market where Lisa had several suits made (“no curvy, cut like a man’s suit”), we recognized that the interactions that were most memorable to us were when we were able to share our gay experiences with others and when they shared theirs with us. So, when Lisa and I started thinking about the purpose behind our round-the-world trip, we felt that participating in the global gay movement first-hand was central.
Hence, this grand project was born and so instead of beach bumming and partying like the French vacationers, Lisa and I will be spending our year away working our productive American asses off.
“Do you want to see our new shop?, page ” Olivia asked in mandarin. She stepped out from behind the sales register of the small lesbian clothing boutique where we had spent the past hour chatting and gestured towards the door. In Taiwan, Olivia would be classified as a “T” – a tomboy, or butch – her face was boyishly handsome with her hair buzzed down into a short faux-hawk, and she had a lean petite frame that looked natural in her masculine clothes.
Walking down the street and rounding a corner, Olivia led me into a half-finished store-front with rainbow-colored walls that had a couch filled with stuffed animals in the window display. Besides the couch, the space was mostly empty except for two tables separated by a room divider set against the right side of the room. Several women sat around one of the tables speaking in hushed voices. Olivia told me to wait by the door while she took care of some business, so I perched myself on the edge of the couch and tried to listen in. Olivia sat down at the second table, and two of the women sat across from her. Something strange was going on – I could not hear what they were saying, but every so often a loud tapping sound of wood on metal interrupted the hushed conversation, banged out in an un-interpretable sequence like a secret Chinese Morse code.
After ten minutes of this mysterious happening, the couple left and Olivia came to fetch me. “Would you like to receive a tarot reading too?,” Olivia asked, “We have an opening promotion so you can ask one question for free.” So that’s what this was all about! We had a laugh about my confusion, and Olivia explained that she was also a tarot reader outside of her day job at the clothing store. Taiwanese queers have a hard time going to mainstream tarot readers to discuss personal issues, Olivia told me, so this place was dedicated to providing the community with LGBT-friendly tarot readings. To Olivia, tarot reading was a form of therapy – unlike fortune telling which only told the client what her destiny had in store, tarot readings also gave her a way to work through her past and present issues.
I cautiously approached the table with Olivia. My mind was whirring – outside of an Ouija game experience in junior high that had me freaked out for months, I had never engaged in activity of this kind before. I could hear voices from my Christian upbringing telling me I might become possessed by the devil if I engaged with the occult. But Olivia looked pretty normal and devil-free to me, so I pushed away these fears and sat down. My next urgent thought was of what question I should ask. Should I ask about my parents – would they ever accept me as a lesbian? Should I ask about my career- what should I be doing with my life? Do I dare ask about Lisa – would we live a happily ever after?
Olivia had me fill out a form with my name, my parents name, my birth date, and other simple facts of my life. She then asked me to lay my hands on the table with palms up. On the table between us was a game-board sized metal disc segmented into tiny sections and filled with small indistinguishable Chinese script. To my relief, Olivia didn’t ask me for a question – instead, she picked up a wooden stick the size and shape of a Chinese calligraphy brush minus the bristles, looked down and closed her eyes and began banging on the board in that strange morse code-like sequence again. I watched her expectantly.
“The job you’re at now, you’re losing motivation,” Olivia pronounced after a minute. She proceeded to tell me that as a person who cares greatly about her career, this fact disturbed me greatly. She advised that I seriously invest my time and energies into figuring out what I should do with my life. The fact that I didn’t have a clear direction was causing significant subconscious anxiety, Olivia divined. This news alarmed me because there was truth in it. What should I do and how am I supposed to figure this out, I asked with urgency in my voice. Olivia looked back down at the board and tapped some more. I leaned into her and waited for this wise sage to pronounce my destiny and show me the path to a purposeful and fulfilled life. At last, Olivia opened her mouth – she told me that I was to be…she paused, thinking of the right English word…an ambassador, she decided. Someone who helps different sides understand each other, a go-between.
Wow, really? During my first life crises at age 23 when I quit my investment banking job to spend eight months abroad in an attempt to answer the “what is my purpose” question, I had come out settling on one word to describe my life mission: Reconciliation. As someone caught between cultures as an Asian American, caught between sexual identities as having been with men and women, and caught between ideologies given my previous Christian upbringing and present liberal LGBT community – I feel that I’ve had a unique position to appreciate differences, and I’ve concluded that misunderstanding between two peoples has been the root of so much conflict. I passionately believe that if we could stop villainizing each other (yes, even against the most ignorant of people) and sit down to talk and realize there’s common ground somewhere, we could make progress and find some level of reconciliation.
So when Olivia declared my destiny, I felt both confirmed and inspired. I headed back to my hotel that afternoon, my head swimming in the crowded rush-hour traffic of the Taipei subway. Tarot reading or no tarot reading, Olivia had me thinking – what had I been doing with my life and what the hell was I supposed to be doing? I’ll probably spend a lifetime trying to answer these questions, but I feel certain that Out & Around as a project and a mission is a step towards the right direction.