The first time I felt it was in the first grade. I had just moved to a new city and I was painfully quiet. My parents didn’t make it easier because they always pointed it out and told me I needed to break out of my shell more. We were immigrants and didn’t have the privilege to have time and energy to dedicate towards talking about our feelings. Mom and Dad both had to hustle at the salon in order to pay off the debt that they got into by opening this new business. Dad spent hours every day on his feet, snipping at people’s hair while breathing in the nostalgic and disgusting fumes of this magic paste that helped them hide their natural hair color. Mom skipped meals, hunched over in the back room feverishly tending to people’s faces, making them look and feel the most beautiful they’d ever felt before. While she herself was swallowing guilt and shame and becoming an expert at holding back tears whenever the reality of her failed marriage and, in her eyes, failed motherhood set in.
So when they pointed out to me that I needed to just break out of my shell more, I didn’t tell them how that made me feel. Like I was’t good enough. I didn’t tell them that I was awkward and uncomfortable because I was scared something inside of me was wrong with me. I didn’t tell them that I needed their help, because I feared I wouldn’t be okay, whatever that meant. I didn’t tell them because they had enough to worry about. Because they had already sacrificed so much for their 3 children to have a good life, to be able to focus on their education and not have to worry about money and grow up as “normal” American kids. So I just tried harder to be someone that I wasn’t. To be less awkward. To fit in.
That first time in first grade left me feeling elated, confused, and I let the butterflies in my stomach carry me home. It was my first day in this new school and I started crying uncontrollably once Mom dropped me off. I watched the teacher close the classroom door and Mom’s face stare back at me in that small rectangle window before she quickly vanished to head to the salon. I erupted in tears. We were learning Phonics that day with flashcards and the tears fell as the little drops splattered against the thin, gray pages of my book. The word “School” dissolved on the page as a pool of tears formed and made the ink bleed and spread in the shape of a dandelion. Mrs. Williams wore a long blue dress with little yellow flowers all over it and she let me sit up at the front with her as soon as she saw that I was crying. She let me sit there play-pretending to be the teacher while calling on the students to read each word on the flashcard that she held up. Surprisingly, this made me feel better. But even though I got through the rest of the day, I eagerly eyed that bronze colored bell at the top of the wall near the classroom door and desperately waited for it to ring at 2:50PM.
As I left the classroom and headed towards the doors to freedom and to Mom, I heard “Hey!”. I froze and didn’t know what to expect. I turned around slowly to find the boy who was wearing a faded black t-shirt with a guitar on it and jeans, staring back at me with something in his hand. It was one of those popular pencils that you could bend and twist in many different ways, and it had a cool mid-air, wrist-out Spiderman on it. Something that I didn’t have because at our house, we only had practical, normal number 2 pencils. None of these fancy action figure bendable pencils. I looked down as he said “Here, you can have this since you had a bad day”. He was a foot taller than me and he had wavy, dark brown hair to match his tan complexion. His eyes were light brown, like the color of the smooth, twisty caramel in my favorite Twix chocolates. I took the Spiderman bendy pencil and said thank you before I turned back around and sprinted towards the door. I felt warm suddenly, almost as if my heart was smiling and about to jump out of my chest.
As the years progressed, there were other times my heart smiled and wanted to leap out of my chest. Like when Phillip J. asked if he could have a sip of my water bottle and I felt strangely excited to drink from it afterwards. Or when we were all huddled inside the damp, multi-purpose room on a rainy day because we couldn’t be outside for P.E. class. Everybody’s shoes were squeaking against the off-white floors as we had to sit cross-legged, knee to knee. Mr. McCallan zig zagged through the small open spots between the sea of us as his hairy leg brushed against my bare knee. My body froze and all of the hairs on my arm immediately perked up. My eyes widened as I laughed at my friend’s joke instinctively since we were having a conversation, but all I could think about inside was this little feeling of fear. And what was wrong with me. All I could feel following that moment of euphoria was a dreaded sense of shame and guilt.
Because boys weren’t supposed to feel excited about this. Boys were supposed to play soccer. Boys were supposed to talk about their crushes on the other girls in the class. Boys were supposed to be outgoing and laugh and run around—scrape their knees. Boys were definitely, absolutely, 100% not supposed to feel awakened when Mr. McCallan’s hairy leg brushed against theirs.
So, I very quickly learned to pretend.
To dampen these emotional rushes and to toss them into an old shoebox, locked away and pushed deep down in the darkest of closets, against the edge of the wall. Where cobwebs thrive and banished, dark creatures lurk so that nobody will go searching. And I did it well. When everybody in my friend group was sharing who our crushes were, I lied and said it was Sonia Wang. I had posters of Mandy Moore plastered on my bedroom walls because she was my “celebrity crush”. I was code switching constantly, before I even knew what code switching was. The back and forth between my school persona and my family persona and my “real” persona when I was alone in my room. It never occurred to me that my peers and other people didn’t do this switching of lives or presenting a certain way. I suppose all teenagers may put on a “front” or a different persona to a certain extent. There’s the desire to be cool and popular and to not appear a certain way. But when you’re growing up queer, it’s on a whole other level. Having any slip-up doesn’t just result in you appearing less cool or popular, it often means jeopardizing your safety or risking losing your friends and family in the most damaging way. So I continued with my charade of being that “normal”, straight, teenager and I courted Michelle Y. before asking her to go to prom with me. Everybody was holding hands with their dates and getting punch for them while all I could think of was how much of a fraud I was and how awkward her waist felt against my sweaty palms as we slow danced.
A week after graduation, I invited her over to watch a scary movie with me when I knew my brother was going to be gone and Mom was at work. Midway through the movie, she leaned towards me and looked me in the eyes. I was petrified as the smell of her sweet, strawberry lip gloss reached my nose. I laughed nervously and asked if she wanted to relax as we laid down on the couch and cuddled. “Oh, this is what big spoon little spoon is…” I thought to myself. “This is so uncomfortable”, I also thought to myself as my right elbow was jammed into the hard couch cushion while I sweated profusely through my baggy blue jeans. Her hair smelled good but it was all over my face as she took my hand and led me to hold her hand over her stomach. I was a statue. “I just want this to end”, I told myself as I closed my eyes, hoping that I would wake up to a different life. My older brother came home early and found us in the pitch black living room as he casually walked past us from the kitchen towards the stairs. Afterwards, he asked me about who that was and seemed to smile proudly as I told him that was the date I took to prom. That smile told me I was doing the right thing.
That this is what I was supposed to be doing. And so I continued doing what I did best—pretending. Floating. Fitting in to the little crevices and gaps that came up at every opportunity, to show and prove that I was normal and that I was doing what boys are supposed to do. All the while, feeling like I was screaming and pounding the walls I built up around me as the days got shorter and angry, thundering clouds kept hovering overhead, threatening to collapse on me any day.
Eventually, I reached a point where I knew I needed to start living my own life. My real life. Not this pretend-life that I had been floating around in all those years. So I decided to come out to my closest friends and family when I was 21. I didn’t have my first relationship until I was 21, and back then it felt as though I needed to catch up with all of my peers, who had already experienced their first kiss. Their first heartbreak. And seemingly lived so much more than I had. It wouldn’t be until years later that I would realize–all of those years I spent living my pre-coming out life weren’t wasted. I still existed. In fact, I very much existed–introspectively. And those were the years where I learned deep down in my core, who I was, what my values were, and what kind of person I wanted to be.
A few relationships later. Putting on my big boy pants and climbing the corporate ladder. Being told that I couldn’t, but still going. My first own tiny studio apartment, serving pasta to my family on my bed because there was no other place to sit. Packing everything I owned into my car and driving north to start a new life. Continuing to climb a new corporate ladder, still being told no, still going. Saying “I do” on the rainiest day of the year surrounded by towering Redwood trees. Crying. Joyful tears. Crying some more. Moving to the suburbs. Neighborhood gatherings and house projects. Packing up everything we owned again. Still climbing that corporate ladder. But, able to reach down now to lift others up. Being told yes. Then no. Then yes again. Wondering what’s next? What else?
Over all these years, I now know my own worth and value I bring to the world.
That painfully shy little boy in the first grade who was crying in class after his Mom left is still very much inside of me. But that little boy is surrounded by so much joy, love, and support now. And deep down in his core, he knows who he is and he is unapologetically himself.
Those thundering clouds that kept hovering overhead didn’t completely disappear, but they no longer have the power to control or dictate how I feel or how I behave. Because when I decided to come out that day when I was 21, something ignited inside of me. And to this day, that fire still burns as I carry on with my vow to live fully as myself, while leaving all of the years of guilt and shame behind.
About the Author
Ricky Koo (he/him) is a first-generation, queer immigrant originally from Hong Kong. He is a full-time Dog Dad, Finance executive in the technology industry, and a proud entrepreneur who owns a coaching business centered around empowering under-represented communities in their life and career. Ricky's vision is a future of more diverse, more empathetic, and more self-aware leaders, as he coaches individuals and teams on authentic leadership and impactful communication.