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  • Zebra by Archy Jamjun

    My girlfriend Nicole and I were sixteen, in my parents’ basement, and going at it.  We were dressed, but Nicole, with her trademark high bun, was straddling me on the prickly grey and brown carpet.  We were enjoying foreplay the way only virgins can, and Nicole was proving that male nipples actually do have a purpose.  Suddenly my mom’s thick, Thai accent came wailing down the stairs, “Archy, get up here now!”

    There’s nothing like the shrill voice of your mother to kill an erection.  I jumped up, straightened my shirt, and ran upstairs.  My mom was waiting for me at the top pacing in place with a frantic look on her face.  “What is she doing to you?” she yelled, “She’s an animal out of control.  I saw her on top of you.  You must tell her to go home!”

    I realize no mother wants to witness their child’s sexual activity, but I felt like my mom was overreacting.  First of all, we still had our clothes on.  Second…I thought my mother would actually be relieved to see me with a girl.  Throughout childhood, I was accused of being gay.  People knew I was gay before I knew what gay was.  I was aware, around age six, that I was drawn to men but I didn’t know what it meant.  Knowledge of sex and its urges didn’t become clear until later so when I was a kid I simply thought I wanted to be like the men I was drawn to, as in, Gosh, I want to be just like A.C. Slater.  I knew that this was that stood out negatively, and it wasn’t a tangible, external ailment I could try to hide either.  I didn’t have ugly ears that I could hide under a hat.  It was something inside me, something in my existence that people noticed.  My sister, Anny, insisted there was no possible way I could be straight.  Relatives raised an eyebrow at my parents that said, “Your child is gay.”  I was so obviously gay that one day my mom pulled the car over and asked, “Arch, do you want to become a woman?” 

    I replied with the only answer I could think of, “Anny showed me her pubic hairs the other day!”  When in danger, always deflect my aunt had taught me.  So you can understand my confusion at my mother’s reaction.  Nicole was proof! Archy “The Fag” Jamjun had a girlfriend!  More than that, I had an erection around her!  This was a miracle to me.  My mother, however, forced Nicole to go home.

    A couple nights later, my parents told me they wanted to have a talk.  I cringed and prepared myself for the birds and the bees talk.  “Your mom,” my dad said flatly, “has something she wants to say.” 

    I look over at my mom and she screamed, “Why do you have to date a black girl?!”

    “What?” I responded, “I thought you’d be proud I was dating a girl.”

    “I don’t want to have zebra grandchildren!”

    I was in shock.  While my mother had never had a love affair with black culture, I’d never seen or heard anything to make me believe she was racist either.  How, I asked myself, could a woman who immigrated from Thailand, be racist in America?  How could she, the constantly discriminated against, discriminate against someone else?  As naïve as it sounds to me now, at sixteen, I didn’t realize minorities hated other minorities.  I associated racism with skin heads and KKK members.  I realize the irony, but I kind of thought racism was a white thing.  I didn’t know we, Asians, could do that too.

    “What are zebra children?” I asked my mom

    “Your children will be zebras because they will be half black and half Asian,” she said.

    Wouldn’t that make them bumblebee children?   

    “And,” my mom continued, “The black gene is so dominant and the Asian gene is so submissive. You, your children and Nicole will have such a hard life.”

    At the time, I only understood this on a surface level, and I thought my mom was overly concerned with what other people thought.  I knew she was imagining herself, dying of shame, returning to see our relatives in Thailand with milk chocolate and honey-toned grandkids.  I told my mom she was a hypocrite, backwards, and an embarrassment.  It didn’t occur to me then, that although wrong, my mom was trying to protect me.  She was trying to protect me from an interracial relationship that she saw as the makings of a disaster, an invitation for tragedy.  To my mother, black people were the ultimate target of America’s racism and adding her experience, as an Asian woman, to what she saw as the black experience seemed like a nightmare to her.  She put it so eloquently too, she said, “If you have to date outside of your race, just date white people!”

    The argument ended with no resolution.  My mom continued to insist I break up with Nicole, but I told her it was my life, this was America, and I would date whomever I wanted to.  I did, however, promise her that we wouldn’t have children anytime soon.  It was an easy out.  I couldn’t even get myself to look at or smell a vagina, fertilizing one was out of the question.  A few months later, my mother’s hopes came true anyway.  Nicole and I broke up and she lovingly, and with a big smile, cooked my favorite dishes for a week.

    The next summer I returned home from my first year of college and was a new man.  I hadn’t just come out of the closet; I had busted down the door (and fallen into a room filled with penises).  I hadn’t, however, come out to my parents yet.  In a classic, passive-aggressive, Asian move, I had one of my boyfriends at the time stay with me in my bedroom for a few days.  When we engaged in activities, I didn’t bother to turn on music or the TV.  I figured the noise would be my coming-out speech.  When my boyfriend left, my mother approached me with slouched shoulders and doe-like eyes, “Archy, are you gay?”

    “What makes you think that?” I asked.

    “Friends do not sleep naked together.”  We both stood there uncomfortably for a moment looking everywhere but at each other.  Then her eyes locked back on mine in a plea, “Are you sure you’re gay?  I, mean, maybe it’s my fault.  I think really you love black women but I’ve suppressed you with my anger and now you are gay!  Maybe you call Nicole?”

    “What about the zebra children?”

    “I will love them!” my mom exclaimed as if she was making headway.

    “Well, mom, remember when you asked me if I wanted to be a woman?”  Her face dropped like I had shoved an anchor into her mouth.

    “It’s not that I want to be a woman; I just want men to treat me like one.”

    “Archy,” she said softly, “I think you need to see a psychiatrist.”

    Assuming my mom wanted to send me to conversion therapy, I yelled, “You think I’m mentally ill because I’m gay?  We’re Buddhists from Thailand, the gayest country on the planet!”

    “No but you need someone to talk to, and I don’t know enough to help you” 

    Everyone in my family has been to a psychiatrist and we’ve all been medicated at some point.  I don’t think that means my family has poor mental health.  I just think that means we’re highly assimilated to suburban America.  When I returned from the doctor, I had a prescription to Paxil, which was a widely prescribed anti-depressant.  Obviously, the psychiatrist didn’t prescribe it to me because I was gay.  It was the way I was coming out of the closet. 

    Coming out is hard to navigate on your own.  Now, slightly more than a decade removed from the experience, the twisted roads have become clearer.  In a clinical sense, realizing I was gay simply meant I accepted that I was attracted to other men.  Emotionally, however, there were years of self-hate, shame, isolation, and repression to sort out.  Sometimes it felt like I didn’t even belong in my own family because I knew I wouldn’t live up to their expectations.  Also I’d spent most of my life and thoughts trying to figure out who I was just in terms of my sexual orientation.  Now that I had, it wasn’t like I magically figured out the rest of who I was too.  That’s a lot of heavy stuff and at the time, I was too cute and thin to realize those issues were even there.  I found it easier to focus on the clinical definition of being gay, and thus I was amassing lovers as if I was trying to populate a village.  With the emergence of the internet and especially the website Manhunt this was easy to do and 95% of the time it was really fun.  That other 5%, however, led me to unsafe places from which I did not emerge unscathed mentally or physically. 

    When I came home from the psychiatrist with my prescription for Paxil, my mom saw it and told me she wanted to talk, “Now Arch, there is something you need to know about this medication.”

    “OK,” I replied and nervously approached the couch she was sitting on.

    “I take this medication too,” she reached for my hand, “and sometimes I cannot have an orgasm with your father.”

    “Mom!” I jumped back.

    “No, no, no,” she said scooting towards me, “I just want you to know it’s not your fault if you take this medication and cannot have an orgasm.”

    “Please stop!” I begged, covering my ears.

    “This is important,” she took my hands off my ears and made sure we had eye contact, “It’s not my fault when I can’t have an orgasm and it’s not your dad’s either.  We really try.”

    Perhaps my mom wanted revenge for the way I announced I was gay because in my mother’s sexual revelation as teaching moment, I lost an innocence I did not know I needed to cherish.  However, from that point on, a new and stronger relationship started.  My mother realized that even though she’d lost some idea of a masculine son she’d never even had, she’d gained something better: the gay son—the confidant, the outfit-checker, the one who will never love another woman as much.  It took years to get there but now she turns to me for a friend who could not have been there before the dust settled and the zebra saw its own stripes.