I am on a swing. Pushing off the ground so hard it almost feels like I can escape my loneliness and fly away. It’s recess, first grade. Violently, the rusty chains of the swing shudder and stop. I fly off and out of my happy place and onto the woodchips. I hate the smell of woodchips. I look up to see a group of white boys surround me. They ask me if I know kung fu. They throw punches before I can answer. I don’t know kung fu.

Courtesy of Alex Ngo
Courtesy of Alex Ngo
Courtesy of Alex Ngo

Another memory places me on a baseball diamond, second grade. A kickball game of girls versus boys begins. I nervously ask if I can play on the girls’ team. Boys are mean and all my friends are girls. Everyone, including those on the team I wish to be on, screams, “You’re a girl! You’re a girl!” I don’t understand why that’s an insult. I cry anyways.

As I walk away, I hear, “He probably can’t even see through his tiny Asian eyes.”

I’m six. I ask if I can play dress-up and “house” with the girls, but my teacher points me towards the building blocks and toy cars, using her notion of what it means to be a boy as her compass. My compass seems to be broken. Full of confusion and resentment, I obey.

At an age when I am still too young to understand how to coordinate my own wardrobe, I learned what it feels like to lust after another boy. I am a Pokémon Master. I am a child with one hand in my dreams and another in my fears. I am a pervert.

My parents are in the kitchen, arguing. I am in my bedroom, wrapped in blankets, holding onto myself so tightly, I wonder how much harder I will have to squeeze in order to shrink into nothingness. I listen to the sounds of hushed, sharp Vietnamese being thrown back and forth. The noises pierce me like daggers. I struggle to translate the words in my head. I lose my own language through the tears falling out of my eyes.

I hesitate to trust my own memories, clumsily and crudely pieced together in a fog of guessed meanings and translations.

I wonder what it’d be like if a benevolent white family swooped in and rescued me into a Hallmark happily ever after — the kind of family that kissed each other goodbye before leaving the house and prayed to white invisible superheroes in the sky before eating dinner.

It’s in these situations where I begin to internalize my constant desire to be someone other than myself. All my life, I have always wanted to be something other than me.

I snap back to last semester. I’m in a classroom, all eyes on me. The professor repeats the question, “What was growing up as a boy like for you?” I am the only man of color. I manage to stutter, “It was fine.” Eyes stay locked on me. I feel my queer and yellow otherness fester. I nervously look down at my hands and notice the purple polish on my nails. I wish I could disappear. I clear my throat, “I can’t really think of anything to say.”

Even as I claim to be a proud queer person of color, son of Asian immigrant warriors, heir to their sacrifices; even as I claim to be a humble and resilient first-generation cash-poor college student; even as I claim to be an activist, an organizer, an educator, and an advocate; even as I claim to be made up of stars, all held together by an inner fire with ancestral magic fueling my spirit; even now as I write these words, I hurt.

It is easier for me to rage and be furious at society for being an unforgiving place than to admit that I am hurting because of it — setting the world on fire versus setting my heart on fire. Being vulnerable is just a nicer way of saying, open yourself up from the inside out, rip your ribcage apart, and bleed.

I hurt because I am a survivor of abuse. I hurt because I am putting words to my agony. I hurt because, for so long, I was just screaming out loud without realizing that I could be putting art and love out into the world. I hurt because I was killing myself every day, complying with those who wanted me to be less alive because my existence made them uncomfortable. I hurt because my heart beats within layers of wounds and scars that I have since painted over with the colors of my truths.

My heart is in the center of a flowerbed, its roots taking hold in an undeniable aura that reminds me that I am everything I am meant to be.

Being socialized to believe that we are not worthy of love is painful. Unlearning that shame and doubt is excruciating. Excruciating, but necessary, and part of what it means to grow, heal, and find community.

Not the theories of “community” that social justice classes or allyhood trainings will have students try to imitate, but the community that is rooted in survival. The community that embraces me after my armor cracks and my fierceness wavers. The community that jumps into my car in the middle of the night and blasts somber electronic music. The community that replenishes my spirit after it has been violently drained and sucked out of me. The community that affirms and challenges me in ways that make me believe I am actually worth something. The community that blooms and blossoms as we sit in a circle to bask in one another’s beauty and strength while healing through home cooked nourishment.

When we take the risk to open ourselves up and reach out, others will reach back. They breathe, “You’re hurting. I have hurt, too. I am hurting, too.” I am convinced that those with pain — real deep, down-to-the-core pain — also know what it truly means to love and to love fiercely.

As a queer person of color, my mere existence is an act of rebellion. To have the audacity to take ownership of my body, my gender expression, and whom I choose to love and share my energy with is to declare war. To demand to be treated the way I want to be treated is to declare war against a society that does not want me.

My community, my comrades in war, is the difference between life and death. This community can only be found in our hearts, our fury, our art, our words to each other, and our love for one another.

Admittedly, the process of finding community is not an easy journey. I do not mean to suggest that, but the alternative is not any easier.

On that journey, I have begun to understand how to be loved and how to love intentionally, among many other lessons that I hold dear to my soul — scrawled in a notebook, memorialized in a Facebook status or a tweet, and emblazoned into the stars that make up my being. I would not have learned these lessons without the guidance and support from so many other trailblazers who shared their pain and love with me.

With everything I have learned, I hope to empower my communities to realize that we — no one else — are the authorities of our own existence and to embark on the journey of loving ourselves despite all of the messages that tell us otherwise. I practice empowerment through compassion, vulnerability, and the reclaiming and construction of spaces.

By refocusing our energies towards self-healing and radical love, by cultivating and encouraging the ability to articulate and make sense of our experiences, we equip ourselves with the arsenal necessary to navigate this world.

We become agents of change that make things happen. Whether that’s societal change or individual change, it all makes a difference. We keep our hearts soft and strong by loving one another and being accountable to our comrades, not the systems that seek to destroy us.

Kim Katrin Crosby, during her keynote speech at the 2013 Color of Change Community Summit said, “Our most radical work is to love ourselves.” These words made me realize how far I had to fall just to get back up. She changed my life because she saw me. I now pass on that energy.

The words in this article are not mine. They belong to those who have selflessly reached out to me without even realizing they were saving me in the process.

I hope others find community within these lines.

I hurt. I hurt every single day. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop hurting. I know others are hurting too. I burn so I can see you. I bleed so I can find you. I love so we can heal.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail

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