By Sarah Jen
My family moved to a small, super white, conservative town when I was five. At least 50% of the population was Dutch, and so was my family: half Dutch and half Chinese. People would ask me and my siblings, “Where are you guys from?” My first memory of kindergarten is that there was only one other little girl on the playground with dark hair and I gravitated toward her out of . . . curiosity, sameness, recognition? I’m not sure why. By the end of the day, three parents had asked us if we were twins. After that day, I avoided being seen with her in order to dodge further questioning.
I was labeled a shy child before I can remember. It’s difficult to challenge the assumption of shyness at that age, to be anything other than what people call you. I didn’t know it at the time, but my gender and the “ethnic” look about me had a lot to do with that early labeling, I’m sure. But the supposed social anxiety that defined my early years stemmed from the fact that there was something I fundamentally did not understand about childhood and how I was supposed to function within it. I spent most of my time watching other kids, internally processing their actions and interactions. As most introverts will understand, it’s not that I couldn’t be engaged; the verbal thing came quiet easily once I got going. I just waited to be asked rather than volunteering information and observed more than I spoke, and in many settings, I still do.
By the end of my elementary school years, I learned how to use my supposed “ethnic” appearance as a hook, to draw people in so they’d actually get to know me. My “shy” personality became more interesting when my biracial identity was highlighted among a sea of blondes, giving me an instant boost in popularity. During a second grade lesson sequence ambiguously titled “China,” other students flocked to me, because I didn’t correct them when I heard them spreading rumors about my pet panda. I had found a kind of social attention I could not only tolerate, but actually enjoyed.
Despite this learned adaptation, I remained a relatively quiet child who generally faded into the background despite brief moments of spotlight. I longed to grow older because I thought things would be simpler, that I would learn to engage like an actual human being.
But through various developmental stages, these feelings of otherness and separation lingered. In middle school I longed for high school; when I started high school I thought college would be better. As an undergraduate student I spent the majority of my time rolling cigarettes, drinking cheap coffee, and cynically waxing philosophical about the world in the company of doctoral candidates who I counted as my closest friends.
Along the way, I was finding that not only did my social life feel complicated, but my own internal identities felt jumbled as well and the two were more closely intertwined. My biracial background became more nuanced as I learned about my family’s history and came to recognize the structural factors at play that allowed me to appropriate and showcase my Chinese roots. I started to see that my gender deeply impacted my position in my family as the youngest daughter, often deemed too emotional, acquiescing, or timid to function. My attractions to and desire for others grew more distinctive. I was and am attracted to people, people who understand me deeply, however they happen to identify or present. This fluidity found its pair in a man I dated in college who considered himself bi. He was the first person with whom I could put all of my diverse and nuanced attractions into words and there was a mutual understanding that our attractions matched in some way. We used to sit at dark coffee shops for hours, playing cards and noticing all of the beautiful people who came and went. He was the first person I could talk to about how I found all kinds of people to be unbearably beautiful in the most enchanting ways. He understood that. While that relationship was awful in other ways and ultimately doomed to fail, it made an impact on the way I recognize and verbalize attraction, love, and intimacy to this day.
Having been such a quiet child, people generally assumed I was fine and I felt pressure to maintain that fine-ness. There weren’t many people I could turn to in order to sort through things, so I turned to books. Coming from a class position that granted me access to private schools and higher education, academia felt safe and supportive to me. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, hoping that someone else’s words would describe my experiences . . . Angels in America, Norwegian Wood, Mysterious Skin . . . problematic as novels can be, they, among many others, offered pieces of me.
Beyond the wide world of novels, my sexuality and my biracial family came alive to me in college courses: sitting in the back of a large auditorium, my social psychology professor describes common reactions to childhood sexual abuse and I’m flooded with emotions as I realize just how many other young women hate and blame themselves too . . . Preparing to present on the second Cultural Revolution for my Modern Chinese History course, I realize the Revolution took place just after my grandmother left Shanghai to study in the U.S. My father tells me her home was ransacked and she was unable to return for many years after. I can’t believe they never told us. Reading along in my apartment late at night, I pore over Sheri Eisner’s Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution and recognize many of my own feelings: a lack of political trust from queer communities, an assumed promiscuity that promotes sexual violence, a stubborn, constant sense of not being queer enough. It’s as though I am reading my own autobiography and I start to cry.
I could share many more moments in which my own reflection became clearer during my time as a student. The sense of recognition I found in my studies kept me in graduate school, almost unsure of what I would be without it. Now, as I embark on a career in teaching and research, I am hopeful that other young people might have the same waves of recognition that once washed over me; that they might see their own stories and futures reflected on the pages I write; that every time I come out to a class as bi and queer in some roundabout way as if it doesn’t have to be a big deal, that they might believe it; that they might be driven to discover more; that they might know they are not alone.
Sarah Jen is a biracial, bisexual, queer woman who loves knitting. As an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, she studies bisexuality and aging using qualitative and creative methods.