Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult Honorable Mention

Lunar New Year's Dinner

by Jack Poon

Author Bio

Jack Poon (he/him) is a rising junior at Henry M. Gunn High School. He loves biology, and likes to write in his journal in his free time. He is passionate about LGBTQ+ activism, and worked on a research project this past school year tackling issues within the LGBTQ+ community. On the weekends, you can expect to find him playing League of Legends with his glow-up keyboard and mouse pad or outside enjoying delicious food at a new restaurant.

Inspiration

As a Chinese-American, I found that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric within the Asian-American community was especially common. Particularly, I felt that the Chinese tradition of a Lunar New Year's dinner was problematic, with many relatives asking young adults when they were to get married or have children. In this turbulent time for Asian-Americans, I think that it is even more important that we not only look outwards, but inwards into our own communities and the hate we perpetuate. I created this story in the hopes of highlighting some of the many struggles that Asian LGBTQ+ youth face on a daily basis.

Broiled fish. Sticky rice cakes. Freshly steamed dumplings. And, of course, a dash of homophobia.

"Did you know? I heard that one of the teachers at my child’s elementary school is gay."

Mark carefully reached out to one of the dishes in the middle of the ornately decorated table, which was covered with a silky white tablecloth. He spooned a heapful of silky tofu onto his plate, watching as it jiggled.

"Really? The school should know better than to hire people like that—they set a bad example for the kids, who are so easily influenced."

Mark inhaled, the smell of rice wafting up towards his nose. He could sense saliva forming in his mouth.

"Exactly! I know when I was little, I tried to copy my teacher’s hairstyle when I was younger."

Mark absolutely loved the food aspect of a New Year’s dinner: pork and chicken galore, along with heapings of delicious desserts waiting to be devoured. It was, of course, the incessant gossip by his family friends and relatives that he despised. When he was little, he got away with playing video games on his mom’s phone. In middle and high school, they attributed his lack of interest to being a cranky teenager going through puberty. Now, though, as an adult, he was expected to be courteous and sit through the interrogation session. Thankfully, the dinner had just begun, and so Mark still had some time before the real questioning began. He had already gotten past the first few obstacles: where he went to college, what he was majoring in, what his future career plans were, etcetera.

Mark’s phone dinged, a notification popping up on the screen. It was from the new gay dating app he got last week to try out.

"Hey there, cutie. I’m looking for some Asian—" Mark didn’t bother to finish reading the rest, instantly blocking the sender. He had met enough of those types of people in high school, whom he had genuinely believed liked him. After the third breakup, he had realized that none of them really cared about who he was, just how he looked. Mark’s phone dinged again.

"Sorry, not interested in Asian guys."

Mark laughed in his mind, wondering how people could have such opposite reactions to him just because he was Asian. Looks like this app was no good either. Mark deleted it from his phone, before he heard someone make a "tsk" sound next to him.

"Aiya, stop using your phone," Mark’s mom scolded.

Mark sighed, putting down his phone. He resumed eating, picking up his chopsticks and grabbing a piece of stir fried chicken, the edges golden brown. His mom had already resumed her previous conversation with his uncle, Peter, who sat next to her.

"Mark?" his mom said. Mark paused, irked at the fact that his eating was interrupted.

"Hm?" he said.

"Come over here, your uncle wants to give you your red envelopes, your Hong Bao."

Mark instantly forgot about his previous anger, hastily swapping seats with his mom. Uncle Peter was an imposing figure, standing at almost 6’0. His eyebrows slanted downwards sharply, causing his resting face to look terrifying, though his personality was more like a playful dog than a scary tiger.

"Xin Nian Kuai Le, Uncle Peter! Happy new year!" Mark said. His uncle laughed.

"Xin Nian Kuai Le to you too, Mark! It’s been so long since I last saw you," Uncle Peter paused to think. "About five years, I think? You’re so tall now!"

"Haha, really? I don’t think I’ve grown all that much."

"What are you saying? With this height, girls will be all over you! I know from personal experience." Mark’s eye twitched slightly as Uncle Peter spoke.

"What are you saying? You are at least three times more handsome than me."

"You really have a way with words! But let’s be honest, we both know what you really want is the Hong Bao right here." Uncle Peter grinned knowingly, before taking out a small red envelope from his pocket. At seeing the red envelope, Mark brightened up, but he quickly returned to a neutral expression.

"No, really, I just want to talk with you, Uncle Peter," Mark replied, deadpan. Uncle Peter rolled his eyes.

"Okay, okay, that’s enough. Here." He gave the envelope to Mark, who accepted it eagerly. "Don’t open it yet! You can check the amount at home."

"Will do, Uncle Peter!"

"Don’t spend it too quickly either. When I was younger, I made the mistake of spending all my money on my girlfriend. I couldn’t even afford lunch the next day!"

"You don’t have to worry about that, I don’t have a girlfriend at all," Mark said, laughing courteously. "Unless you count my computer."

"Ahh, I see. You should go out a little more," Uncle Peter said. Behind his back, a woman turned around, before moving her chair to sit next to him. She was of short stature, her black hair only falling down to her neck. Her cheeks were plump, and her eyes warm.

"Mark! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. You’re so tall now!" the woman said.

"And you look as young as ever, Auntie Lisa," Mark replied.

"You really can sweet talk a woman, can’t you? The girls must be all over you!" she said.

"He doesn’t even have a girlfriend yet! Let me tell you, you’re in your youth. You need to explore, take risks, have fun," Uncle Peter said.

"Well, focusing on your studies is perfectly fine in my eyes. I don’t see why he has to waste his precious time playing around like you did in college," Auntie Lisa said.

"Ahh, fine, fine, you make a good point. But if he doesn’t find a girlfriend now, how is he going to get married and have kids in the future?"

"Well, I think it might be a little too soon to think about tha—" Mark said, before getting interrupted.

"That’s true. But still, it’s his life, and he can live it the way he wants. I think studying is a great alternative," Auntie Lisa interjected. Uncle Peter huffed, before turning to look at Mark.

"Surely there’s a girl you’re interested in, right?"

"Well, uhm, not really—"

"Aiya, give him some space. Let him talk." They both quieted down, looking expectantly at Mark. He felt like a rabbit cornered by two wolves. He gulped down his saliva, before putting on his best nonchalant face.

"Well, I’m not really interested in girls right now, and I’m not really interested in kids or marriage either."

"See! You always do this to everyone. Not everyone is as dumb as you," Auntie Lisa said.

"Okay, okay, let’s not talk about this anymore," Uncle Peter conceded, before turning to Mark. "But I will say, Mark, everyone starts out not interested in girls and marriage and kids. I did too. Make sure to think about it, okay?"

Mark smiled, not wanting to speak. He wasn’t sure what would come out of his mouth if he did. Mark’s aunt sighed, and started to drag her husband away to go talk with another relative.

"Oh, and don’t forget to come to me if you want any advice! I’m an expert—" Uncle Peter added, before promptly getting elbowed by his wife. He smiled sheepishly before getting dragged away.

Mark sat in his seat for a while, before rushing to the bathroom. He threw up in the toilet, and even after he had finished rinsing, a sour taste lingered in his mouth.

~~~

When he came back, Mark sensed the table’s mood darken.

"Oh my god, did you see?" a relative Mark couldn’t recognize said, her face shocked. Her finger was pointing at him, and Mark was startled. Had they found out? His other family members were similarly confused as to why she was pointing in Mark’s direction. The lady clarified her statement.

"No, behind him!"

Mark, relieved, turned his head, expecting to see a fight, or maybe even a celebrity. Instead, he saw two men walking into the restaurant with their families, holding hands. They smiled at each other, their faces almost too bright under the lighting. Mark bit his lip, feeling a sting of envy at their openness.

"Ahh, that sort of thing…"

"Mhm…"

"Well, I guess it’s the new generation. Old people like us can’t understand it very well."

Mark stared at the couple, almost hypnotized. What were their lives like? Did they go out like that every day? How had they come out? Millions of questions ran through his head, his mind unable to comprehend them all.

Inside his chest, he felt a weird mixture of hope and hatred. Why was he so helpless? Why did he have to suffer for something he had no control over? Why are they happy, and not him? He had spent countless nights imagining how his parents would react if he came out, and almost all of them ended badly.

But on the flip side, maybe they were the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe he would one day be like them, standing happily with his family, unafraid of himself and others. Maybe, just maybe, he would be able to reveal his true self to the world, and be proud of it.

Before he could calm his thoughts, his parents spoke.

"Well, I guess they’re still people. I wouldn’t want to be around them though," his mom said.

"Yes, their viewpoints are different from ours. It can’t be helped: we’re old already, and with all the media flying around these days, who knows what new sort of sexual orientation or gender they will come up with," his dad added.

Mark felt like someone had stabbed him in the stomach. He got up from his seat, and quickly ran back to the bathroom, bile rising up in his throat.

~~~

Mark exited the restaurant with his family. As they were walking towards the car, his mom spoke.

"Aiya, you must have eaten too much sticky rice this time. No wonder you went to the bathroom so many times," his mom said. "Don’t eat it so fast, it’s bad for your stomach."

"Mhm. Probably," Mark replied. He paused for a second. "But at least it was tasty!" Mark faked a smile, having already forgotten the taste.

He wondered whether next year would be better.