You never know what people are hungry for when you meet them, but one thing is certain: we’re all hungry for something, and if you listen, you can hear its cry. Friday night, I got a call to pick up a young man outside of a gay club. He was a 21-year-old Asian guy, and wow, was he pretty! At first I thought he was a girl. Hair meticulously teased out, with impossibly long eyelashes, and dressed ambiguously. He wore shorts revealing long, smoothly shaven legs. He got in the front seat and began flirting immediately. I steered the conversation to what he was doing in Austin. His English was fairly good, so I was surprised to learn that he’s only been in the states for three years as an exchange student. He’s the first in his family to leave home and live abroad. I admired him for being a trailblazer, in more ways than one. And I told him that. He smiled, and talked about how traditional his family was back in China. How he had paved a path for himself while going to school. He dropped a few hints that his relationship with his father was not very warm, so I asked, “How does he feel about your lifestyle?”
“You mean, the fact that I’m gay?” he clarified.
I was impressed by the way he asserted his identity while correcting me. He told me his mother knows, but he’s waiting before he tells his father. He waffled about when he thinks it would be safe to tell his father, about what a difficult decision that is. As we spoke, flirting gave way to REAL. We talked about the dilemma between choosing your own path in life vs. honoring family values. About the constant pull to shrink so as not to freak out the family. But mostly he talked about how his father doesn’t see him. He waved his hand across his body, signaling his attire, and laughed. “I mean come on, look at me! How could he not see it? My father never even looks at me. He just makes believe nothing is going on. If he REALLY looked at me, he would see: it’s not just how I dress. THIS IS WHO I AM!” He said this with the force of a blade of grass popping up through the concrete.
“Maybe”, I suggested, “he’s afraid if he stops to look at you he’ll have to look at himself.”
As we pulled up to his destination, he made a plea: “Could you please stay and talk to me just a little more?”
Hmmmm. It was a busy Friday night and normally that would be a definite NO. I weighed the value of wages lost vs. sitting with this beautiful young soul.
I shut the meter off and asked, “What do you think might happen if your father could see you for who you are?”
He expressed his fear of having the funding for his education pulled, and the burden he carries of his father’s expectation that he’ll take a job with his father’s firm.
I asked, “Are you willing to disappoint your father?”
He twisted up his face, “huh?”
I said, “One criteria for becoming a full-blown adult is the willingness to disappoint your parents. That means claiming your true authentic self, which might conflict with who your father wants you to be. Because who you are might be different than what your parents imagine and hope for you to be. In order to become a true adult, you have to become something new. And that becomes your gift to the world. In the beginning, that will disappoint them. You’ve got to have the ability to tolerate that for a minute until they adjust.”
He paused a moment, then asked, “Did you ever disappoint your parents?”
The moment unfolded in slow motion as the question sunk like a piece of glass in my soul. It pierced a thousand disappointments, but the deeper it goes, the true pain reveals itself. “Yeah”, I told him. “But disappointing myself is a much bigger problem. Eventually you get over disappointing your parents. It’s just something you have to do. You’ve got to claim who you are in this world, and be vigilant not to disappoint yourself there. If you don’t, its hard to live with that.”
I pointed out that he’s already made great progress and shown great courage. He’s demonstrated that he has what it takes to succeed. “Don’t short-change your father”, I told him. “In time, he’ll adjust to the truth of who you are, and be proud of you for showing him how to be authentic. You’re claiming your life in a way he hasn’t been able to do. That’s amazing! That’s your gift to him. Just be YOU, and trust your dad will grow from that.”
Before leaving, there was an awkward moment. He leaned toward me, then stopped. I thought he might try and kiss me. But it wasn’t a kiss he wanted. It wasn’t even me he wanted. What he wanted was what all boys want: to be SEEN by his father. Every older man willing to bless young men with acknowledgment becomes a fitting proxy. Suddenly the boy lunged toward me for a hug. There’s no “hug” button on the app, but his hug beat any tip I ever got. As he turned to leave, of course, I got the obligatory “car door therapy”: “One more question”, he asked. “Are you married?”
I smiled and said no. He screwed up his face and said, “You’re going to find one soon.”
And then he walked out. I understood. When a father doesn’t ever look at his son, or convey to him that he’s SEEN, it leaves a gaping hole in the boy’s psyche. The boy grows up to become a man who confuses sexuality with sincerity. This was his best “thank you.” So I accepted it, and returned it with the gift of sincerity.
*Names and some details have been changed to protect identities.
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