when I walk home from the bus stop after work I encounter one
particular cyclist who, whether he's on the same side of the
road as I or the opposite side, will invariably exclaim, loudly,
"Dear God!" At first I thought nothing of it; after this incident
was repeated a few times, I mentioned it casually to my partner
one day, who replied, "I would've been offended by a remark
like that." I'm not sure if I've been desensitized to the attitude
behind insensitive words aimed at me or if I really didn't care.
But it got me thinking.
Back in the '70s,
growing up with albinism in Singapore wasn't easy. My partial sight
was one issue, of course, complicated by the limited availability
of resources for people with disabilities at that time. But more
complicated than my difficulty in seeing others was the way they
saw me, for when you stick out in a sea of brown-skinned people,
you are bound to get noticed. To be honest, "stared at" is a better
way of putting it. It took
many years before I finally felt brave enough to confront one starer
with the simple question, "What are you looking at?"
East Asians tend
to follow the mainstream, so that anything out of the ordinary challenges
their comfort zone. Because of that, people's reactions to me were
usually a mix of disbelief and discomfort. Once I grew to expect
getting stared at, I learned to pacify myself by saying silently,
"Here comes The Look again." People who had never met a Caucasian
or didn't really know what a Caucasian looked like thought I was
white. When they tried to converse with me in their broken English
they were often amazed when I responded in their native language.
Others ignored me; some tried to get away from me. One man almost
bumped into a pole trying to escape.
Despite all of the
staring going on in public, I was doing well in the private, Catholic
school where I was enrolled and where my teachers were quite protective
of mesometimes overprotective. Once, on the playground when
I was in second grade, a first grader knocked off my sunglasses
during recess. I don't think he did it out of malice, but one of
the teachers must have thought otherwise, because in the midst of
my next class I was called up and told to go to the first grade
class. There I was asked to find the boy who had knocked off my
Not being able to
see well, I had to walk up and down every row of desks in the classroom.
In fact I had to walk through twice because the boy hung his head
so low that I couldn't see his face clearly at first. I wasn't sure
which of us was more embarrassed by this episode; the kid, who I
don't think was a bad person, never tried to befriend me after that.
The worst treatment,
I was to discover, is usually reserved for the world outside of
educational institutions. After getting my bachelors degree I was
turned down for more than thirty full-time jobs. Were my partial
sight or my albinism reasons for rejection? I'll never know. I did
receive valuable feedback in one instance, but only because my sister's
boss at the time was one of the interviewers. I learned that I was
rejected for the job, as an administrative assistant, because the
panel of interviewers thought my albinism would turn people offand
this was in a university setting. It was then I realized that I
had to move to a place where people were tolerated for their differences.
So off I went to
seek my fortune in North America, where I've found that people are
generally more accepting. I've even received compliments that I
could never have imagined before moving here. They've been almost
all from women, though, who apparently love the color of my eyes
and hair and want to know if they are the "real thing." When it
was time to find a job after getting an advanced degree, my albinism
seemed to become a non-issue. Since I had a specialized skill to
offer I felt confident that at last I was being evaluated on my
merits and not on my appearance.
But subtle rather
than overt discrimination can still turn up in odd ways, something
I learned from black friends. In parts of the country where an albino
is a rare sight, an Asian albino is not even conceivable. In places
like that I would sometimes get The Look from store clerks. The
funny thing is that my sight is so poor I wouldn't know what had
happened until friends told me about it afterwards. With no one
around to tell me, The Look was lost on me.
While I was doing
well in the professional world, my social life was a mixed bag of
surprises and disappointments. When in 1993 I first came out as
a gay man here in the United States, I didn't know where to find
friends. Places where I thought I would find the most support, like
the Metropolitan Community Church or gay community-based organizations,
turned out to be major disappointments, and not for lack of trying
on my part. People were cliquish; the only way you could break into
a circle of friends, it seemed, was through a friend of a friend.
only men eager to befriend me were those looking for love, not something
that I was always searching for at the time. Ultimately, the friends
I found came by accident, through things like a common interest
in a research project, for instance. Most of them weren't gay but
they accepted me for who I was, and that was good enough for me.
As for my love life,
it was practically nonexistent. Sex was not absent entirely, but
when it happened it was either a one-time affair or with a man who
was in an open relationship with someone else. Going to bars was
pointless, since I can't see much in dim light and don't really
care for the club scene anyhow. Social events where gay men get
together were equally perplexing because I never knew if it was
my albinism that got in the way of sociability.
The biggest irony
of all resulted from get-togethers where non-Asian and Asian men
enjoy each other's company. In Singapore I was perceived as white,
while here I am seen as not being Chinese enough. At these gatherings
the non-Asians would talk to me but it was clear that I didn't meet
their criteria for desirability. Expecting to see an olive-skinned
man, they found that my white/blond hair and blue eyes did not pass
the "Asian attractiveness test."
Looking for a partner
got a lot brighteror
so it seemedwhen I discovered the Internet, where one can
see potential mates through online ads with photos. But once I decided
to post an ad, all sorts of questions arose: should I include a
photo? If not, should I mention that I have albinism? Should I even
assume that people know what "albinism" means (you'd be surprised
to find out what people do and don't know)? Does trying to explain
the term make my ad look silly, defensive, desperateor a bit
of all three? Should I post an ad aimed at the widest audience,
or should I try to pass myself off as someone "exotic" by posting
on sites where people look for Asian men, or even on sites that
cater to guys with disabilities?
could respond to ads placed by others and hope that they would not
get too put off by my appearance. Both methods led to meeting interesting
people along the way, but none of these encounters translated into
meaningful relationships. Ultimately, I found little luck with online
ads one way or another.
Eventually I had
better luck meeting men in face-to-face situations where I was not
looking for love. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that
men met me, and started talking to me. One encounter resulted from
teaching an undergraduate class (no, the affair occurred after the
student was no longer my studentjust wanted to be clear about
that). Another was through a professional conference. Based on the
encounters I've had with men who took an intimate interest in me,
I'll have to say that the only common thread I could find was that,
like my friends, they accepted me for who I am, including how I
Remember that cyclist?
Finally I got a close look at him. He was cycling on the sidewalk
(a no-no according to Atlanta traffic laws) and heading straight
toward me. Because it was a narrow sidewalk I stopped and let him
pass. At first I didn't realize it was him. Then, as he cycled past
me, I heard again those two immortal words, "Dear God!"
"Dear God" was right.
He was one of the ugliest people I've ever seen!
© 2004 Adrian
Header © 2004 Mark McBeth, IDEA | MONGER
Let us know what you
think of this BENT feature.
Liau lives in Atlanta,
GA. When not working, eating, sleeping, or taking care of other
bodily functions, he delights in finding ways to annoy people who
give him a hard time. Well, maybe not always. It depends on what
the hard factor is about.