Queer Lapis: Learning to Love Home Again

I got together with Nightingale about a month after I arrived in the Bay Area for graduate school9. We met just after Folsom Street Fair10, hit it off extremely well, and sparks flew a few days later at my birthday gathering when I made out with her halfway through singing Garbage’s Queer at karaoke in El Rio.

Nightingale charmed me with an intensity that matched mine and her sincere enthusiasm for life. I was impressed by her brazen complimenting of people’s attire: our walks together are often peppered with “Nice shoes!” or “Great dress!”. She is the first person I’ve met who is able to out-talk me. Her immense love and knowledge of music11 has led to impromptu lessons about syncopation and her ability to quote a song lyric for any situation (as she calls it, “life indexed by soundbite”). Her ability to recognise systems and make connections makes her an excellent Production Manager, giving me the means to actualise my Artistic Director dreams into reality12. She is equally as passionate about social justice, especially around sex worker rights and trans* equality.

Nightingale’s sincere, passionate curiosity and her deep love for me was what led to me gaining a renewed interest for the Malaysia I thought I had left behind.

Nightingale and I at Autostraddle's A-Camp, another adventure I took her out on. She had the time of her life. (photo by Maggie H)

Nightingale and I at Autostraddle’s A-Camp, another adventure I took her out on. She had the time of her life. (photo by Maggie H)

Nightingale geeks out over languages — she has a fairly good command of French and Spanish in addition to English — and she was genuinely interested in learning more about Malay. Usually people don’t realise that the Malay language exists, let alone have any interest in learning any part of it, so Nightingale’s interest was a surprising and refreshing change. She quickly picked up on the numbering system (though she misses a digit or two sometimes), and random Manglish or Malay phrases have entered our joint language — from “I pukul you!”13 when someone’s being extra punny, to “sayang” as a pet name.

She also acquired a taste for Malaysian food. A love for food is practically baked into the DNA of most Malaysians; a recent survey of Malaysian students who are studying or have studied abroad14 showed that food was unanimously the thing they most missed about the country. While most foreigners do also appreciate Malaysian food, there are some parts that are a harder sell — such as the spice level, or durian. Nightingale eats spicier food than I do (in fact, I only started eating extra-spicy food in the US when I found myself pouring hot sauce on everything to make up for the lack of flavour), and not only does she willingly eat durian, she loves it. Even my parents can’t stand the taste! I had taken Malaysian food for granted, but Nightingale’s interest allowed me to really appreciate Malaysian food for its myriad flavours and its ability to be healthy, tasty, and affordable at once — try hitting one out of three in the US!

Sometimes the interest in food and the interest in language coincide. My explanation of kueh lapis and the existence of rainbow kueh lapis, filtered through a few injokes about ducks and the French language, led to her renaming the item “queer lapis”, with semi-joking plans about making these to sell at queer events.

A turning point for me came one afternoon while we were enjoying hot dogs at Berkeley. The topic of Malaysia’s National Service program came up, and I ranted about how young people in Malaysia were mistreated and how I hated the country for it and so on. Halfway through the rant I realised that I didn’t hate Malaysia: in fact I had a lot of love for the country. What I hated was the way its culture and its people were being erased and harmed by the People in Power: the clashes between races and religions, the scapegoating of youths and migrant labour, the slut-shaming and discrimination against gender and sexual minorities. There is so much beauty and spirit in Malaysia, in its food and languages and people — yet so much of it is disappearing,often without choice.

This growing appreciation for Malaysian culture ironically made me realise just how much of a misfit I was in the Bay Area. I often felt out of place at POC-centered places because they were working from a US-centric view of race politics, which I could not easily relate to. I walked into Eastwind Books, which stocked books by and for Asians, and found nothing about Malaysia. South Asian groups had Bengalis, sure, but they were more familiar with Bangladesh or India — not Malaysia. In a city that attracted me for its inclusive diversity, I still felt alone.

Nightingale’s support, love, and honest appreciation makes a huge difference. She listens to my stories with an open heart and sincere interest, never accusing me of “not being Malaysian enough”, while understanding the particular set of filters that define my experience. When my own peers struggle to understand me, she — as culturally different from me as you can get — accepts me wholeheartedly. She joins me in celebrating the discovery of the small shards of mirrors that reflect any part of my story: from connecting with Gloria Anzaldua’s description of mestiza,to Fikri’s story in Autostraddle of being a queer Singaporean of Muslim background. She cares about me and my culture, giving me the space to care about me and my culture too.

Interesting, that in the quest to find places that accepted the outsider parts of me, that it took another outsider to accept the parts I thought I couldn’t call mine.

I am somewhat concerned about Nightingale’s safety when she comes to Malaysia with me. On the one hand, her White privilege, the fact that she’ll be constantly be accompanied by me and others, and the likelihood that we’d stick to cosmopolitan areas affords some level of safety. On the other hand, I don’t know what it’s like to navigate Malaysia as a potentially visible queer couple, let alone as a trans* woman whose gender history may or may not be obvious.

I do know what it’s like to be constantly catcalled walking to and from work in Petaling Jaya. It’s not that dissimilar to being catcalled walking around 16th and Mission. Having company could make a lot of difference. It’s also possible that Nightingale’s gender and sexuality would be classified in Malaysia the same way mine are in the US or Australia: Foreign.

At the same time, there’s so much positive change happening in Malaysia that are supportive of the LGBTQ community. Trans* people are being appointed into political positions, community campaigns for trans* people and their allies are being built, and sexist and homophobic remarks are being called out openly in humorous ways. Resources such as Seksualiti Merdeka, the Malaysian AIDS Council, and the PT Foundation are still going strong. For every instance of bigotry there are plenty of people willing to challenge it and provide allyship to those affected.

Besides, there’s so much about Malaysia that I want to share with Nightingale, in her first trip outside the United States. The potential to meet my family and all my most important people in my life (including the best friend who I was in love with as a teenager and my Australian matey who’s also thinking of coming over). The waterfalls and beaches that were equidistant to the house I lived in in my teens. The fashion that’s more likely to fit her frame than mine. The music of my country — whether dangdut or Bollywood, full of the syncopation that makes her dance. More Manglish phrases, more pet names, more injokes. A history that I tried to avoid but know is intrinstic to who I am.

And of course, the food.

I tell everyone who considers visiting Malaysia that if they do not gain 10 kilos they’re doing it wrong. Even if Nightingale doesn’t quite gain that much weight, I’m sure she will gain life-changing experiences. She’s surely given me a lot of life-changing experiences — especially the opportunity to change how I viewed my life thus far.

The grin on her sweat-soaked face, red from the heat of the curry she wolfed down. Such a beautiful sight to behold.

Nightingale and I; she's the taller blonde on the right holding me close

Nightingale and I; she’s the taller blonde on the right holding me close

I am raising funds and collecting resources to pay for Nightingale’s flight to Malaysia this Christmas. Please contribute and spread the word — every little bit helps!


1 Rendang: a type of beef curry popular in Malaysia and Indonesia, made by stewing the meat in coconut milk and spices for a considerable amount of time.
2 Cili padi: a type of chili pepper that’s really small (think pinky-sized), often green, and very VERY spicy.
3 Sambal: chili paste commonly paired with all sorts of Malaysian dishes.
4 Most of Malaysian bureaucracy separates people into Malay/Chinese/Indian, with Other sometimes tacked on as an afterthought. In many places, particularly Government-funded areas, Malays get either exclusive or special rights. Look up Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy), hardcoded into the Malaysian Constitution, to see the context behind Malaysia’s racial quotas.
5 From a blog post made when I was seventeen, talking about the things that fascinate me: “The dynamic “force” in female-female relationships (I’m not gay, but the connection between two girls fascinate me endlessly)”. TIARA. SERIOUSLY, TIARA.
6 I was there to pursue a Bachelors degree in Creative Industries, but really I picked that city because my idol Darren Hayes is from there. Recently I participate in a project with the Queensland Museum about personal collections and contributed my Darren Hayes and Savage Garden collection. Go check it out when you’re in town!
7 We are no longer a couple, but we are still close best friends. I consider him my matey and my platonic life partner.
8 Formerly an artist warehouse and working space in the Mission. Seems to be closed now though!
9 Official reason: MFA. Real reason: to be in the Bay Area longer than three months.
10 Folsom Street Folsom Street Fair: a massive street fair by and for the kinky community.
11 She loves pretty much any sort of music, but has a soft spot for Erasure the same way I have a soft spot for Darren Hayes.
12 Creative Industries class in Brisbane, 2007: “The Artistic Director goes ‘For this year’s festival I want BLUE DIAMONDS ON TRAMPOLINES!’. The Production Manager has to figure out how to do this under budget.” Soon after I told Nightingale this she talked about making this happen through tarps and school gym equipment. I waited 5 years for her!
13 “I pukul you!”: “I slap you!”, usually said in affectionate teasing when the other party is being silly. “sayang”: love/sweetheart
14 I participated in the survey but I can’t seem to find the specific results now; it was from a couple of years back.

Creatrix Tiara considers herself a platypus: made up of parts that shouldn’t go together, but do, and (unlike unicorns) actually exist even when no one believes they do. She’s actively exploring liminality and intersectionality in art and activism, particularly around being a queer gender-WTF femme(ish) migrant minority. Say hello at creatrixtiara [dot] com.

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Creatrix Tiara's philosophy is to sign up for anything that look interesting, which gets her into some fun adventures. She's passionate about liminality, inclusivity, and intersectionality, especially in arts, media, tech, games, fandom, education, and activism.

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    • More Feels:

      I enjoyed reading this piece and how it felt so relatable in dealing with your birth country being homophobic, transphobic and dealing with the feeling you did not belong. It difficult and in a world where globalization has its perks and dire consequences. I am always ALWAYS reminded that my frame of reference in these politics are annoyingly US-centric, knowing damn well there are other parts of the world with their own nuances that I have to consider while having these conversations heterosexism and all the ugly that comes with it. I’m continually trying to work on that and it’s hard but “I” statements help.

      Anyway, I get this “ragey” feeling when people talk about Africa the country ™ and its homophobia and I feel so uneasy when people have this conversation. Yeah, it’s crazy and yeah I’m Nigerian born, US raised and my feelings on traveling to Nigeria are complicated. I have this passion to write and talk about African Diaspora art, there is this inevitable conversation I have to have with myself on being queer and Nigerian-American; will I be safe? Do I need to closet myself for my safety for the bajillian cousins that will surely try to visit me? I have so many questions and reading your story has helped me find peace for now.

      Not to get “we are the world,” but dammit this gave me so many emotions, thoughts and it has been a serious mental and emotional workout about the place of self, community and the how issues of homophobia affect everything.

      One last thing: food, yes the food has made me really, really hungry. Oh I also enjoyed reading the reference notes at the end, I giggle-snorted at note 5.

      • I am pretty impressed that they went through all the references, actually. On Medium (where this was first posted) the references show up as sidebar things. Kudos and sympathies to the poor person that sorted this all out!

        Urgh I know how you feel about the competing identities. Partway through writing this I wondered how much I can say that wasn’t going to get me arrested. (Some bits I didn’t include precisely because of that). I am glad that my story helped you, that means a lot.

        Sigh, 17-y-o me. Life would have been so much easier if I didn’t spend that whole year obsessively pining for her.

      • I totally understand your mixed feelings about going home to a not-so-queer-friendly place. I mean, I guess I’m more removed since I’m Canadian-born, but my entire life has been very involved in a patriotic Ukrainian community, and I really want to do my PhD studies on Ukrainian material but now it’s like…do I risk it? With so much in Russia, can I safely pursue my studies where I’m just a few steps away from being jailed or deported? Can I really spend my professional career in countries where I’m not allowed to mention my wife and children, nevermind even bring them with me? Will my family, who still ask when I’m coming back to visit, rescind their invitations once they find out I’ll have a wife and not a husband with me?

        I at least have the privilege of having grown up in a country that is not very homophobic, but it’s been a hard year where the fantasy of the “Motherland” has been shattered for someone like me.

        • As I mentioned to Stephanie downthread, the idea of actually living full-time in Malaysia still scares me. I already had to be a shadow of myself even before the sexual orientation was a factor – there’s stuff such as official religion and parental history and so on that play into it. One of my best friends was ostracised from a career she spent ages in because she was a single mum.

          Malaysia has some appealing points that do make me want to bring people to see, but as for permanently residing there? They treated me like shit when I actually was a permanent resident (took me 26 years and 2 attempts to be a citizen). Still too much anger there.

    • Aww yay thank you!

      The trip to Malaysia isn’t going to happen on Nightingale’s side unless we can raise enough money for her ticket. As it is the target amount on my fundraiser is woefully short. So please, if you can, click on the link at the end of the article and contribute!

      Or you can go here (though this is the only comment I’ll post with the direct link): https://www.wepay.com/donations/899109298

      I’ve gotten some donations already thanks to this article. y’all made my morning. I couldn’t concentrate at class because I was squeeing so hard zomg. ALL THE BUCKET LISTS

  1. As a Malaysian living outside of Malaysia, I say amen to every single thing you’ve said. These are all the feelings I’ve ever had about my country but worded well as opposed to “sjkfhakjgshaldkj”.

    I agree especially with the part about loving the country and hating the politics and all the rhetoric. A lot of people who aren’t alienated often say ‘there’s nothing wrong with this country you’re just being sensitive blah blah it’s great and cheap, people are friendly etc’ and I can’t disagree, but there’s that something in the fabric of the country that puts me off my own home, and you’ve just summed it up perfectly.

    “What I hated was the way its culture and its people were being erased and harmed by the People in Power: the clashes between races and religions, the scapegoating of youths and migrant labour, the slut-shaming and discrimination against gender and sexual minorities. There is so much beauty and spirit in Malaysia, in its food and languages and people — yet so much of it is disappearing,often without choice.”

    Btw, thumbs up to AS for including more Other (than US) views.

    • gah, the whole “if you don’t like it, leave” mentality pisses me off. Some of us DID leave, because we care about our survival, but that doesn’t mean we don’t give a damn.

      it took me until Nightingale showed up (and pretty much just listened to me rant over hot dogs) to realise for MYSELF that I gave a damn. that’s how much alienation can really affect us.

  2. not-so-secret wish: someone to tweet or otherwise inform Darren Hayes (@darrenhayes) about this article because the flag photo has his lyrics and because I love him to death.

    Similarly, Shirley Manson/Garbage, because it was her song that brought Nightingale and I together.

    *whistles innocently*

  3. I love everything you post. You’re insightful, eloquent, and your experiences parallel mine in some ways and it’s great to see those experiences portrayed by such a great writer. Thank you for the work you put into each post. I “pass” as white most of the time now, but I remember growing up as a first generation Mexican American in a very xenophobic America. After 9/11, our car was vandalized and had “go home” written on it. Seeing it was like a punch in the stomach. My experience of having a fluid “other” status has impacted me strongly, so it’s what I’m mulling over post-read, but you hit so many other great aspects I know I’ll have to come back for a re-read or two.

    • Yeah, having an identity that’s fluid can be really taxing and draining (pun unintended). There’s so much I didn’t add in here about how being officially Muslim meant being forced to assimilate into Malayness yet also being told that as a Bangladeshi I’m “doing Islam wrong”, or how no one really believes me when I tell them I’m Malaysian, or other such bullshit. argh argh argh!

  4. I feel like so much of the way I understand “immigrant identity” whatever that might be, comes from the fact that I get to return to my home country relatively frequently – at least once a year for holidays etc – so I’m never far enough to be able to fantasize about it, to be able to create expectations of it being “the motherland” where I belong / feel like home. I guess my relationship to “my” country, as much as it is “mine”, is a lot like my relationship with my mother – you – well, I would expect things to be really bad, violent homophobia etc, that’s what I was preparing myself for, that is something I’ve been told about, something I would know how to handle, but instead what I get is this anti-climatic awkwardness, people (including my parents) might hate the gays, but what they hate more is having to talk about it because it makes them just so painfully uncomfortable? Things are bad mostly in this quiet, nagging way, a constant stream of disappointing awkward silences and jokes and jabs and comments.

    • Your description of the unsettling quietness is really insightful and apt. I too return every so often, not always by choice, and while my parents seem to be much better at understanding queer and trans* issues (thank Oprah) they still aren’t totally comfortable discussing it openly. Painfully uncomfortable and awkward, yes.

      They know Nightingale plans to come; it was kinda funny when my dad asked about my “girl-lady-friend” because the idea of me being in a relationship with anyone breaks his brain. We’ll see!

  5. Dear Tiara,

    Thank you so much. I’m a very very mixed race, brought up Catholic girl, from Malaysia and I’m slowly coming out to a few of my friends back in Malaysia, and hopefully here in UK where I’ve just come to continue my studies.

    I thought it’d be easier, but it’s a small town, and it seems the single gay bar may have closed and the school LGBT club may be inactive. But your piece really help me feel at home – nasi lemak and rendang? Well, your girl’s definitely a keeper.

    It’s extra hard I guess, being mixed race and gay to top it off, and wondering when and where to come out in an entirely new town, but your piece gives me hope for going back to Malaysia once I’m done.

    Heck, even Indonesia seems better now, with all the bullshit political rhetoric thrown by lousy politicians. Some people, post-elections, have become very extremist, so keep writing, but be safe.

    It’s crazy back home, that’s one way I comfort myself whenever I get homesick.


  6. Aw, Tiara, I’ve been reading your work on what feels like ten different websites for years. It was SO cool to meet you and Nightingale at camp, and so freaking life-affirming to read this summation of the past decade(s?) of your life right here! I recall you writing about yr struggles with former partner, culture, finding racism in activist spaces, Getting to Berkley, etc, and thinking, “she goes through things I can’t imagine and aims higher than I would dare.” You’ve made so many of your dreams come true. I appreciate you always bringing the complexity. Complexity never goes away, and you tell the story of yours in a really beautiful way.

    I hope y’all have a great time in Malaysia. I think it’s hysterical to contrast the picture of you guys eating 12 different kinds of quinoa at Camp with descriptions of incredible Malaysian dishes.

    • Yup, I’ve been around the Interrnet block a few times ;) Thanks for the support, I really appreciate it.

      lol at the 12 different kinds of quinoa! I wonder if that’s now a thing back in Malaysia. Maybe around expat hipster types.

      I hope so too! Here’s the thing about the fundraiser: it’s getting signal boosted like crazy, which is great! And thanks to this article I did get some donations, yay thank you. But I’m still waaaaaaaay short of the goal (and the goal itself is way short of what is needed now) and I’m anxious that I may not have enough in time.

      If y’all could give even a dollar, that would be immensely helpful! I would hate for this not to happen because we were short on cash immediately. If that’s not within your means, totally understandable! Been there, am there. But I wanted to press on the precarious nature of our situation, esp since Nightingale is low income and my ability to earn money or even get a loan is limited (yay international studentdom).

      so yeah, every little bit counts. <3

  7. First, this restaurant sounds like a place to take my partner. The two of us actually look like you two do, let’s just say that for now. Second, yeah, that bookstore; I mostly read for leisure in my native Japanese; that store, Eastwind, caters mostly to Chinese/ Chinese American. Butyou gotta try Koube ramen next door. I’m from Koube, they’re doing it right.

    But that aside, your article really spoke to me. My father was born a product of the war, between a starry eyed immigrant interned and most likely a nurse, who died before i was born and not talked about. My mother was sicilian and italian, and gave me to my father who took me to his in Japan. Pre-hanshin quake amd pre-crash, i faced racism for not being Japanese enough. I came here in 1995, and am still too asian for white people and the opposite equally applies. Then after my father’s death, i went to florida, whhere i discovered my sexualityand love of carpentry (in a school where girls were supppoaed to take parenting class and not construction).
    This opening up so readily may seem weird, but your article really spoke to me. I’m also another ‘other’. I run a blog about equality and often lgbt issues come up. It’s in Japanese. I attempted to coin a term for transgender that doesn’t involve calling it an ‘illness’, but I don’t think anyone reads it. My political hero is Kamikawa Aya, the first trans* member of the parliament and first politician to not only speak out for ttrans* rights, but the reason Japan has a working system for DV victims. However, after over a decade of having fully undergone conversion to female, other parliament members still call her as ale.

    It really got incited by the first wave of white people in Japan post-Perry, but Japan has become a very homophobic country. Not in the ‘christian’ way, but homosexuality is seen as a ‘children’s practise game’ or a ‘fetish’ . Let’s not forgwt that the 24th amendment to the constitution, prob meant to keep young girls from being sold as brides to fatten daddy’s pocket is now used to deem equal marriage unconstitutional.
    And let’s not forget that to be gay is to be white here.

    And if i’m honest, this is why i end up with, like, no real friends (my partner is so much more, but she’s all I have). I’m too ‘other’ for anyone.

    I wouldn’t mind a reply to this comment :)

    • Hello neighbour! (We should hang out sometime)

      Yeah I totally get you about feeling Not X Enough. Not Bangladeshi enough, not Malaysian enough, TOO Asian…gah. Too ‘other’ for anyone fuck yes.

      Language can really be a big barrier. I came out to my extended family on my family-only Facebook account and honestly I think the only reason the response wasn’t as dire as I feared was because people didn’t quite understand what I meant. What is ‘gay’ in Bengali? How do you express ‘homosexual’ in Malaysia without making it solely about sex? How do you translate whole different paradigms of love and relating?

      What’s the 24th amendment you refer to?

      • And it results in mutual exclusion from all groups. For being born, basically.

        We definitely should. I don’t know where to leave my email address, though. I’m brand-new here (literally, as of today)

        Exactly, I introduced possible term for gender binary as well on my blog-in Japanese, it’s just so ingrained into the culture that it doesn’t have a name. Likewise, things that are so strictly avoided or not discussed might not have names, either. Most of our LGBT-ish vocabulary is pre-perry, though. Anything after is an English loanword, because suddenly, non-standard sexuality became Western for no apparent reason.

        Oh, the Japanese constitution. The amendment states that marriage is “an agreement between both sexes”.

  8. you guys. this dream turned into a nightmare.

    I booked tickets on Friday but only found out later that the company I booked them with (airfare.com) has a history of scamming. Since I did get ticket confirmation from the airline (Singapore Airlines) I spent the weekend asking them for help but they couldn’t do anything.

    I got some advice to pursue a refund, and I have it in writing that they will refund me. But they took my money instead (plus $700 in processing fees). They say that the refund will come in 3-5 biz days but I can’t believe them anymore.

    I’ve filed a dispute claim with my bank, but even if I get my money back I’d still not have enough to cover both our tickets, especially if I’m going to book directly from the airline.


  9. Hello Tiara!

    Just wanted to say, when I first came upon your work, I was really glad that I can find someone I can relate to. I am of Bangladeshi descent as well (but I was born and raised as a French-Canadian), I struggled a lot with accepting my queer identity and I can absolutely relate to feeling like an outsider; especially your sentence resonated with me: “Expected to assimilate but never expected to assimilate, but never fully welcome”. I’ll keep this brief, I’m sure you get alot of fan mails everyday :D

    Keep up the good work! :) You’re an inspiration!

  10. Update on the Get Phia to Malaysia for Xmas saga:

    Thanks to a generous loan from a friend, WE’RE GOING!!! We’ll be in Malaysia and Singapore from December 12th to January 8th.

    I’m still fundraising to cover loan costs, and also looking at a fundraising celebration/going-away party, so if you’re in the Bay Area and want to put something on let me know.


    Thank you so much for all your love and support, especially for sharing our story on Autostraddle. It means a hell of a lot to us. <3

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