When I began speaking about foster care—which is, to say, acknowledging the subject and its role in my life—I started to teach myself not to take others—those outside the system, those whom I will call the unfostered, those who don't care—to heart. My friends would ask, "How was your day with your kid?" and I'd answer, but I'd come to find, they didn't really want to know. It's an awkward, "Oh" gesture: I don't care to explain why I live a different life than those of the people around me, and increasingly, I care less about maintaining relationships with those who don't care why I have a stake in my subject. Because it's mine.
The late Justin Chin writes unapologetically on his subjects because they are his: HIV, sickness, gayness, performance, Chinese American diaspora. In the opening essay of his 1999 collection Mongrel: Essays, Diatribes + Pranks, Chin sets the stage for his “Monster:” it started with his high school queens, the gay people for whom he watched their performances in and out of drag. Chin traverses his identity with a nod to fulfilling social and institutional stereotypes: “The stigma of being associated with the queens who were so resoundingly ribbed and teased and tormented made me nestle in my comfy closet: I was on the swim team, I participated in sports—something the queens never dreamed of doing” (4).
Still, it takes one moment, or someone interested solely in purveying sex, for us to ask what is wrong with us. Following a sexual encounter with a man who cruised him to a public restroom, Chin writes, “It never occurred to me to say no. I spent a good deal of time in the stall, trying to clean up, crying and . . . . making deals with God, asking God for a sign, ignoring and rationalizing everything I perceived to be a sign, praying for forgiveness” (6-7). How do you pray for forgiveness from a monster who is yourself? When our fears harbor our monsters, the monsters lurk behind every corner.
I used to ask myself: On what day will you realize you are in your Father, and he is in you? As John 14: 15-19 professes,
If you love me, keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.
If God loves me. Which is, to say, if I love me. The Bible itself says God looks out for his orphans. Does that include the fostered? Those who return to foster care? Those who grow up to watch for the future in foster care? What is the difference between a child whose parents die and can’t care for her and a child whose parents live and refuse to care for her? Does that make me unworthy of finding a God who will pardon me for refusing to stand with him?
It took sixteen years for me to admit I feel I burden others, especially when the problem is beyond my power. It started with watching my friends and family and beloveds get hurt. And even when their problems had nothing to do with me, because I felt responsible for them, I felt guilty. Justin Chin calls this failure to come out “incidental to [his] personality” (10). The incidental protection he observed in his friends who accepted him because he hated and liked the same subjects—and not because he was gay—was a Rapture, a Book of Revelation fear that he would be taken from this earth and join Christ on his terms for eternity. So, before me, I see I am not the first to believe in my end because of me; I believed in it because of what I was born into. Maybe I would be carried off for as many times as the people who willingly take in children who are not their own would allow. Maybe my failure to acknowledge my subject is incidental to my elusive grasp of God’s shaped hole, the point where I feel I can stop asking for his forgiveness. It should not change my conviction and belief in my voice, but it does because I wonder when my compassion will give out—when it won’t be enough for the people I love.
This semester, I had variations of the same conversation with different students: in our moments of incredible duress and when it is clear that only us—by ourselves—can confront what makes us feel most vulnerable and intimate—why is it so scary? Why, even when we are surrounded by our beloveds and their support, do we feel we cannot do it? The dragons, as I call them, differ: parental substance abuse, individual addictions, sexual assault, medical trauma, cyberbullying. We all have dragons. They function precisely because they are unknown to anyone else—only our dragons want us. The more they want us, the more no one else will. That is their power.
Let me return to mine, the foster care dragon. Even as I reread Justin Chin's monster, which is not mine, I am reminded that a visceral darkness is made beautiful and palatable because of his conviction and his relentless pursuit in depicting that conviction—his monster, his failures to surpass what will be a part of him—is a part of his memory. I cannot Google Justin Chin and look away from a number of sites identifying him by his sexual orientation and by his illness. It is his resistance to Othering, to malicious group categorization and treatment by identity, for which Chin remains alive. As he writes in “Persona 71,” “men and women, white people and people of color, straight people and LGBT people, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and trans persons do not sound the same. We are not homogenous. I am so over being queer, and I don’t care what I call myself or what others call me.”
If God’s shaped hole was created for us to find him, why did I feel guilty for being smart enough to run away? Or return home? Or tell someone about my foster care dragon? Like Chin, “I’m not exactly sure where and when I got the language for who and what I am. I just seemed to have picked them up and understood what they meant” (8). Granted, I am not professing to reclaim Chin’s gay life; it is striking how when we strip away the categories, “the names called and used to describe that life [are] used lovingly and violently at the same time” (8). It doesn’t matter what I was called, or what I called myself. From recovering Justin Chin’s monster, I have learned to own what makes me fostered.
The one who loves me will be loved by my Father: “And at some point, and I don’t remember when, I stopped praying for forgiveness” (8). Chin is unabashed in his refusal to hide behind what no longer worked for him, even if he had lived a functional life with it for some time. We are not homogenous; we are not born the same. What we do with our lives is how we will be remembered. This, I believe, is what Chin spent the rest of his life fulfilling—reaching for his stars and placating his heart:
“After coming to terms with my desires, I simply tried to live my life the best way I knew how, and as much as unapologetically as I knew how. I would rather folks see that I live and love in the same way and in the same breath as they do, but in a queer way and in my queer way. And if they find a monster in that, I’ll know that it is a monster of grace and beauty” (11).
What I want for my younger generation is to uphold the responsibility where a twenty-something advocate without much of a family can walk around with a child who is not hers and own the fact that I find myself most beautiful when I confront my dragon. Sometimes, he’s in the backseat of the car, especially when I am alone. He may be between the citadels and swings at the park in the fears of the child for whom I’m legally appointed to speak. If there is a Hefty trash bag, he is its most popularized and malicious form because my friends will hand me trash bags and tell me to pack my things, as though there is a grace and beauty when the monster comes from the people I love. I, too, want the people who follow me to see that I live and love in the kind of breath where I have thought about hiding behind my darkness and dragon, but somehow, summoned the courage to walk away.
Because on this earth, where there is a carrying off for Christ, there are also brave heroes and heroines. I want to read them as much as possible, and I believe, of all the things God’s shaped holes have inspired me to fill, it is to create and sustain a space for the brave voices who fight dragons and who teach me to live with them. Because that is also what God will do—give me another part of myself to advocate for those who can’t or won’t or are unable to speak.
In five days, Justin Chin will have been forty-eight. My mother turned forty-eight this year. That two people I admire and am disappointed by have the same birth year, an ethnicity, a locale, and this writer who looks to them—this speaks to the commonality of fate. My mother did not choose to speak for me. That is why my dragon is so powerful. Justin Chin, may he rest in peace, still guts me with his sensibility on what it means to witness: it means to dispense with hiding behind one’s suffering, which is exclusive to only us. We are much more unique and beautiful individuals than to settle for hiding behind what recurs on this earth; we can claim our pains as something new beyond our abilities to recollect and to forgive.
Sylvia Chan is the author of We Remain Traditional, coming out from the Center for Literary Publishing in February 2018. Formerly a jazz pianist in the San Francisco East Bay Area, she teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Arizona and serves as nonfiction editor for Entropy, where she will debut a foster care series in the new year.