Her mother has specifically told her that she is not to come out to anyone in the extended family, especially her grandmother. Irene's mother is the third in a family with ten children. Most of them are married and have moved out, but they still gather at her grandmother's home for dinner every week. Her family is fairly traditional Chinese. Although Irene came out to her mother more than a year ago, her mother could not really accept fact that she was a lesbian. In fact, it was not until we had been in a relationship for over three months and Irene had moved into my place that her mother decided she wanted to meet me. At our first meeting, I got the impression that her mother did not completely understand that her daughter was dating a female. She was definitely surprised when she discovered that I was not a young girl, but actually a mature woman.
After the initial dinner, we met up only once more due to conflicting schedules. I doubted that her mother had much of an impression of me, although she was quite chatty during the two times we met. So I was pleasantly surprised when I met her mother for lunch a week before Chinese New Year. We had to do a one on one lunch as Irene was on a business trip in China and her mother needed advice on some letters she had received. During the lunch, she expressed how she felt Irene had changed after getting to know me and how I was a positive influence on her. The surprise came when she asked, "Would you like to have reunion dinner at our home?" and she promptly added, "Oh no! I haven't told Irene that I will ask you." She went on to reveal that no one in the family knew about Irene and I. Instead, they had been told that she was living with a "good friend" because the "good friend's" parents were overseas and the "good friend was living alone." She also mentioned that she had suggested coming to our place to visit a few times and Irene had seemed scared of letting her do that. I quickly assured her that she was welcome at our place anytime and that I would consider going over for reunion dinner after discussing with Irene.
Eventually, I did end up going for reunion dinner at her grandmother's home and it was quite a warming experience. Upon arrival, I gave Irene's mother the kueh lapis (traditional Indonesian cake that has many layers) my auntie had insisted I bring as a gift to Irene's family. As I explained about the homemade cake, I could feel all eyes on me, the only stranger in the house. I was embarrassed to hear a female voice proclaiming loudly, "Wah, so nice of her to bring a gift for you and such a thoughtful gift. Even better than having a son-in-law hor?" This was only the beginning of a series of such moments.
After the preliminary introductions, I sat in the room while Irene showed me her childhood photos. All the family members, especially her cousins, kept popping their heads by the door, but none came into the room, content to just stare at the unexpected visitor from afar. I was beginning to feel like some dangerous animal on display at the zoo, especially when one of her aunts stood by the door and explained to her cousin that "This is Irene jie-jie's 'good friend', cannot disturb her ok? Shortly after, Irene's mother came in to ask us to get a seat for dinner. When I told her that, "It's ok Auntie, I am not hungry yet", she suddenly turned and exclaimed loudly in Chinese, "Can you don't call me Auntie? It feels so distant, like we are strangers. I would prefer if you called me 阿姨" (which is basically the Chinese equivalent of Aunt). I could barely keep myself from blushing, even though I had no idea why it embarrassed me so much.
Throughout the evening, Irene's family members came up with ways to show their silent support of us, by simply not asking questions and accepting that I was there. At one point, Irene's 5th aunt came up to us and started lecturing in Chinese.
"In life, it is very difficult to find soul mates. Therefore, it is very important that you treasure your special friendship. Remember that in the future, even your husband may not be as important as your soul mate!"
Then she gave us both a pat on the back and left with a knowing smile. I could not decide if she was genuinely clueless or this was her way of showing her approval.
The next day, when we returned to her grandmother's house to "bai nian", we were greeted warmly by everyone who was already there. Before long, red packets found their way into my hands as the various uncles and aunties gave them out to the children. When all the cousins were gathered in the living room, 阿姨 grabbed hold of one of her cousins and asked him "Is this jie-jie pretty?" and he answered "I don't know" all the while trying to avoid looking at me. 阿姨 continued by complimenting me on my new top, saying that it was very pretty and suitable for New Year. I suppose the stark contrast between me in my pretty pink blouse-white skirt combination and Irene in her nice shirt with capri pants highlighted how different we were, yet how good we looked together. Later on, when Irene's 10 year old cousin, Abigail found out that we cook quite often, she got very excited and self invited herself for dinner. She even asked me if I would cook cereal prawns for them as it was one of her favourite dishes.
All in all, the entire Chinese New Year experience at Irene's grandmother's home was very positive. Although a stranger in their home, I felt welcomed by everyone, from Irene's grandmother, who presented me with a red packet, to her cousins who started talking to me and asking if they could come for dinner. The strangest thing was no one asked anything about our relationship. There were no questions on how we got to know each other, what kind of work I do, how old I am or even the obligatory ones like "Do you have a boyfriend?"
So is this the classic Chinese family tradition of dealing with gay children? A "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy?'I don't know, but I have to say they are beginning to feel like family, especially 阿姨.