Being Unabashedly Other
Note: this is going to be a fairly disjointed collection of thoughts that have been bubbling in my head for years. Contrary to my official blog at aishasie.nl, I aim for this one to be much more train-of-thought, so expect posts to be a lot more unpolished.
I've known all my life that I was “other” – whether by the color of my skin and foldless shape of my almond eyes, the quiet shy nature of my personality, our Asian family dynamics that differed so much from my Dutch peers, the range of my nerdy interests and hobbies, my having online friends before being online was considered cool – so somewhere along the way, I stopped expecting to fall within the norm of anything. I stopped expecting being anything than “other”.
It's not that I didn't care, not yet anyway. In fact I would say that part of my shyness was that I did care about all this quite a bit and thus was ashamed of what made me “other” in whatever social context that was then most relevant, preferring to stay out of the limelight to keep anyone from noticing.
But there was a hard line inside me somewhere that said, at a young age, despite that shame, despite that awkwardness – I was not going to be able to turn myself white no matter what I did, and any previous attempts by myself at being or others at encouraging me to be an extrovert or non-nerd have been entirely futile anyway.
So I was going to stop trying to be “normal”, and just be me. Just “other”.
With the online friends from the mid 90's onwards (I was 11 when my older brother first introduced me to old school bulletin boards and IRC) also came the far more diverse social circles than I would have had, had I been limited to only those social connections in my little city (not Amsterdam) in my little country the Netherlands. Through online means (from IRC to web forums to ICQ to MUSH servers) I had friends all over the world of all different stripes.
And since, again, at that time being active online was still seen as a nerdy totally socially unacceptable thing to do, we were just a random collection of weirdos finding connection with other weirdos. We were all inherently “other” versus the majority of people for this being online aspect alone. And it felt like folks being “other” in this one aspect made it all the more likely for them to be “other” in different aspects as well.
So through that, my world view broadened very early on, allowing me to find different communities to call myself part of, different people to connect and exchange experiences with. I got to know folks who shared some of my “other” aspects, like other Asian-European/Americans, that helped me feel less alone in those experiences. I also got to know folks who had entirely opposite experiences to mine, for example far from my privileged middle class doctor's kid background, that helped me gain understanding of and empathy for those unlike my own.
And I got to know a lot of queer people, who mostly didn't even call themselves queer at the time but just lived it in their lives. Who didn't make a big deal out of it, just mentioning in passing while discussing music, oh her first crush was another girl when hearing her sing that song. Someone used the term “omnisexual” and I remember looking it up and thinking, oh that's cool, just this all-encompassing love for anyone without any need to divvy up in man or woman or whatever. This concept alone already felt quite freeing, but I didn't think about it beyond that for myself.
My friends weren't only online, though – I had (and still have) a close circle of girl friends at school. And I remember one night where we stayed up late during a sleepover, a few of us 15 year old girls talking our usual nonsense about life, the universe and everything. And one of them asked if we'd ever felt attracted to both boys and girls, because she did and was maybe leaning more towards girls than boys, contrary to what would be expected of us girls to be attracted only to boys. I remember we talked very openly about this together, no judgement whatsoever between us. I remember saying I did think I could be attracted to both, probably leaned more 50-50, but didn't really have much experience, so who knew? Not a big deal if any of us felt like any which ratio of all this.
Looking back, I don't think I realized how lucky I was to have had this comfortable open discussion in the safety of friends as my very first in-person talk including my own not-quite-heteronormative feelings, even without formalizing any of it at the time. I may have been born and raised in the Netherlands, which outwardly prides itself on its tolerance and progressive stance towards the queer community – but that didn't have to mean anything on an individual level, as I now know many queer Dutchies have had and still have far more troubled experiences.
I went to university, I met more queer friends in real life there, including my chosen little brother and his now-husband. I met my own now-husband (or formally “registered partner” since we wanted to avoid the trappings of traditional marriage but keep the same legalities – our self chosen “other” status) with whom I quickly shared inside jokes about having fangirl crushes on ladies in movies/shows we both watched together. But I never dared call myself more than “a bit bicurious” to him, let alone anyone outside our safe little relationship cocoon, because I had zero actual experience with anyone other than him, a straight cis man. And yet, here I was, feeling myself drawn to those queer friends as more than a simple “ally”. But not daring to stand up and claim my space as one of their own.
Until 2019, just before my 35th birthday in June, I started poking around online if perhaps there were other women who had that same naggy feeling that I had. And I came across this post which opened my eyes. In her confusion before discovering she was bisexual, the author describes an initial anger towards women that I didn't recognize, but what got me was this:
“Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned: I get to decide what I feel and how to feel it. Just because I’m with a man doesn’t mean I don’t like women too. As to whether I can like women without ever having been intimate with one — well, I liked boys before I ever kissed one. Why can’t I like girls without kissing one? I don’t need a side-by-side comparison to know what I’m attracted to.”
Boom. That was it. Who really said that my lack of experience with girls meant I couldn't be bisexual when I was attracted to said girls? That was just something that was in my head, not necessarily some golden rule that I'd been given by anybody. So what was to keep me from identifying as such, since I was obviously attracted to at least women (and later I realized also non-binary folks) too? And funny story: when I later told my husband, considering we'd been jointly crushing on plenty women for years by then, he was not just extremely supportive – he was more surprised that this was still new to me.
And then I went to find that corner of the queer community where I could be not “other”, for once.
That was around the time when a new national organization, Bi+ Nederland, got started. Summer 2019, they opened a Facebook group for anyone who is attracted to more than one gender, the umbrella definition of “bi+”. As I didn't find myself comfortable reaching out to broader queer communities because I was still newly getting used to this idea of being “queer enough”, it was extremely serendipitous timing. I immediately jumped on board and began soaking up other people's bi+ experiences, enough of which hit close to home that I could finally, truly, settle into this bi+ identity as my own. No longer feeling any need to justify being “queer enough”.
Already having experience with organizing events for the tech community, I was then quick to volunteer when in early 2020, Bi+ NL asked for folks to help organize an all new dedicated Bi+ Day with talks and workshops. It sounded like a great way for me to give back to the community that had given me this comfort in my newfound identity, and to start getting involved as a baby queer in queer spaces from a role that I was already comfortable with.
I remember in early March 2020, just when news of a virus in China popping up on our shores was making the rounds, we got together at their office to brainstorm ideas. As people came in and went around for introductions, one of the other folks there already proposed elbow-bumping rather than shaking hands, which we did start doing just to be safe together. That evening when I got home, the news broke that the government was indeed advising no more handshakes. A week later, full lockdown.
Perhaps the pandemic is something to train-of-thought about some more in the future. But for now, suffice to say, with 70+ years old parents and neighbors as well as an older brother and other friends with asthma, we were/are extremely careful and paranoid about catching and unintentionally spreading COVID-19, especially prior to the vaccinations becoming widely available. The frustration of seeing widespread misinformation and antivax sentiments, plus everything Black Lives Matter and anti-Asian violence, topped with not-great work situations – let's just say I didn't have a lot of spare headspace for any kind of volunteer work.
Originally Bi+ Day was planned September 2020 and obviously that didn't go through. Other online Bi+ NL events were planned, but being exhausted from suddenly endless remote work calls four days a week, I tapped out. Meanwhile I told Bi+ NL to keep inviting me to volunteer, there'd be a point I would be back in action.
That point came this summer when they asked me to volunteer for Bi+ Day this September. It was an awesome day: I could finally contribute to this bi+ community that turned out to be as open and welcoming in person as they had been online. No judgement or assumptions, even for me as a quiet introverted baby queer of color. I wasn't even the only one on any of those aspects!
I'd found my queer community for sure and was raving about this to one of my long time queer friends who as a fellow introvert shared their difficulty to find community in overly loud queer spaces. Many of queer events revolve around the rainbow glitter Pride parades, around exactly that public visibility, around taking up space because normally queer people are not afforded that space. But when you're like us and prefer to curl up with a good book or have deep conversation... Well, where are the quiet queer spaces? (A question I later learned was already asked by the brilliant Hannah Gadsby.)
So that's my next goal, my next pondering. I've organized regular boardgame nights for a tech community before, which was an absolutely great way to break the ice and hang out with other folks. I've been gobbling up loads of bi+ representative media as of late, which can be a great basis for discussion. And that's got me pondering, we'll see how this will take actual shape and whether I now have sufficient volunteer-work headspace to make it happen.
But that's what I want to do next: keep making it possible for myself and people around me to be “other” in our own ways, even in already “other” spaces. To just be who we are, as “other” as we are, without shame.