Why coming out is a challenge for Chinese students abroad

4 Mins read

The love-hate relationship within Chinese families continues in 2023.

During the summer break in 2022, Megan*, a sophomore student at University of Southern California, came out to her Chinese parents after years of struggle.

“I knew they were homophobic, but I had the urge to tell the truth because I spent so much time with my girlfriend that I couldn’t hide anymore,” Megan wrote a nine-page letter and read it to her mum when they were travelling in Tibet.

Unsurprisingly, her mum was devastated and couldn’t accept it. For Megan’s family, being gay isn’t considered “natural” and they believe that American education has poisoned their beloved daughter.

The fear of losing face in front of relatives also became a major concern. They threatened to stop funding her studies if she continued seeing the girl. Megan felt intimidated and had to promise she would try to date boys. In reality, Megan is still “secretly” with her girlfriend.

This is not the only case. In fact, it’s still difficult to openly be gay in China due to social attitudes. Acceptance of queerness varies depending on factors such as age, region, and education. However, the overall cultural environment appears disapproving.

For instance, same-sex romantic scenes are largely banned or removed from the popular video website Bilibili. Gay vloggers often use stickers to cover moments when they kiss their partners and employ homophones to reduce sensitive contexts, in case their videos might be taken down.

On August 13, 2020, the official WeChat account for Shanghai Pride announced the suspension of future events. Even universities seem to have a pushback against supporting the gay community. In May 2022, Tsinghua University, one of the top higher institutions in China, issued warnings to two students who were distributing rainbow flags on campus.

For traditional Chinese parents, a romantic relationship is expected to be heterosexual, and a family should consist of a husband, a wife, and children. They also care about the stares and comments from others if their children are LGBTQ+.

Coming out to an old-fashioned family can result in heated arguments or even being kicked out. Influencers awithb, a former lesbian couple on Chinese social media, were forced to break up due to relentless pressure and abuse from their families.

When Chinese young people are sent abroad – particularly to gay-friendly countries, they start to experience the freedom to be their authentic selves and come out to friends. However, there will be a point where they are faced with the challenge of coming out to their parents.

Ziyu Wang, a 25-year-old gay photographer who graduated from the University of the Arts London, showcases the complexities of his identity in his photography project titled Go Get ‘Em Boy.

Through a series of self portraits, Wang poses for the act of pretending to be straight and conforming to his parents’ expectations of him as a masculine individual, despite it contradicting his true self. “My father wants me to fulfil traditional parental roles, and achieve a high social status,” Wang explains.

A self portrait of Ziyu Wang (the fourth guy in the photograph), who tries to join a group of muscly men but appears visibly out of place. [Ziyu Wang]
A self-portrait of Ziyu Wang (right), who tries to join a group of muscled men but appears visibly out of place [Ziyu Wang]

In an ironic sense, Wang jokingly mentions that banned overseas apps in China, such as Instagram, actually protected him to a very large extent, because he doesn’t have to worry about his family viewing what he posts or photographs on these platforms. Living in London allows the photographer to express both his art and his sexuality more openly.

According to Wang, the biggest hurdle of coming out is seeking validation from his family. “My parents are explicitly against homosexuality and have also pressured me to enter into a heterosexual marriage,” he explains.

Currently, Wang is attempting to sidestep the issue by claiming it’s too early for marriage at his age, but he doesn’t believe he will come out due to the potential consequences. Wang also highlights that coming out to a traditional family can be hurtful for them as well, given the inherent difficulty in changing the deep-rooted biases regarding the LGBTQ+ community.

A self-portrait of a fake relationship with a woman. [Ziyu Wang]

For those who do decide to come out, it requires a great deal of courage. In 2016, I told my mother that I am bisexual as a young Chinese adult. Although she is supportive, I still vividly recall the nervousness before revealing my identity. It felt as if I were about to disclose something presumably upsetting or, at the very least, unpleasant.

Through conversations with gay friends as well as witnessing stories from internet gay influencers in China, another recurring theme popped up: financial independence. Chinese young adults tend to live with family to save money, and usually have a stronger tendency to wait until marriage to move out. 

The China Household Finance Survey conducted in 2017, which included data from approximately 40,000 samples, revealed that 43.2% of single Chinese individuals aged 20-34 opt to reside with their parents. Due to the strong familial bonds in Chinese culture, parents exert significant control over their children’s lives based on their own values and beliefs. As a result, children often feel obligated to meet their family’s expectations to varying degrees.

The cost of living for Chinese students abroad adds an additional layer of challenge when it comes to coming out. Many rely on support from their parents, as international tuition fees are typically two to three times higher than those who are home students.

The limited hours at part-time jobs are often insufficient to cover all expenses. This poses a fairly significant difference to China, where most public universities charge less than £1,000 per year, making it easier for students to move out and support themselves.

Although Megan received a disappointing reaction over her coming out experience, she mentioned that once she is financially independent, she will make clear to her parents that she will not leave her girlfriend.

It seems Chinese students still have to think not once, not twice, but a few more times before coming out to their families.

* Name changed to protect the interviewee’s anonymity.

Featured Image courtesy of Ziyu Wang.

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