I always get nervousaround family gatherings. Those Chinese duties of honouring the previous generations by procreating and contributing to the family line knot up my gay identity, leaving me feeling inadequate and out of place.
While celebrating my niece’s first month at a traditional dinner with my extended family, I bore additional feelings of guilt, having only visited my sister and her newborn daughter twice since the birth.
I was genuinely happy for my sister and her new family but, as many of my now-married and parenting cousins congratulated me on becoming an uncle, I felt the pressure of the unspoken questions behind their smiles: When is it going to be your turn? How long are you going to wait to make your parents happy? Have you met a nice girl?
To make matters worse, I hadn’t even brought a gift. Sitting across from the gift table, which overflowed with baby clothes, blankets and various other baby-raising accoutrements, I beat myself up for not having the paternal instincts to choose the right gift, despite having repeatedly circled Babies ‘R’ Us over several visits.
Being blissfully ignorant of many of the straight world’s customs was now costing me in my family relationships.
I was working at the bar the night my niece was born. When I showed up early (for me) the next day to visit, I was still shaky and bleary-eyed.
As the father’s family — a warm, wholesome bunch — took turns holding the baby, I broke into a nervous sweat. It occurred to me that I’d never actually held a newborn before.
Coming from a night of slinging drinks to randy bar patrons amongst scantily clad go-go dancers, I didn’t feel right holding something so sacred. I felt dirty and unworthy.
My dream of being a great gay uncle slipped further away each day I failed to do something, anything, for my niece.
Then it was time to celebrate the Lunar New Year at my par-ents’ place. I sat beside my niece before dinner, each of us staring at the other, trying to figure each other out.
Assuming all her newborn blue eyes could discern were shadows and blobs, I tried to make my silhouette interesting by waving my arms around my head. Seemingly intrigued, she joined me in waving about, adding her own enthusiastic kicks to the fun. And like that, Uncle Nellie and his niece shared their first New Year’s dance together.
After dinner, the little one started to cry. Not even Grandma’s familiar touch and calls of “Po-po, Po-po” could soothe her. Something moved me to give it a try.
I picked her up under her arms and began bobbing her up in the air. She stopped crying and looked at me pleasantly. Suddenly I felt like the coolest uncle in the world.
As we shared those little moments, all the shame, doubt and self-criticism I’d struggled with lost all meaning. I may not be an expert on family customs, but my own experiences of life and joy inform the unique gifts I have in me to share.
I may not be the perfect uncle, but she seems happy enough to take me as I am.