I don’t know any white person who would look at a white nerd and think, ‘why do white people have to be such nerds?’
Nerds: Not good at sport.
For a time, I resented my parents for not encouraging me to do sport. My brothers had both taken judo lessons (cool) and tap-dancing lessons (not cool). My oldest brother, also gay (but more on that later), disliked sports and headed in other directions: macramé, a collection of African violets, goldfish, and various other craft projects. My middle brother, the straight one, became the goal-tender for the school ice-hockey team, and could also play tennis, throw a baseball and ski with competency.
When my natural inclinations seemed to be towards reading and piano, my parents didn’t even bother to suggest otherwise. I was chosen near-last for sports teams (escaping last by generally being considered either funny or kind by my classmates). I could chase a ball, but not catch it. I took swimming lessons but managed to not learn to swim. But while incompetency in athletics was merely painful in elementary school, it became confusing and then traumatic in high school.
The first weeks of grade eight were filled with anxiety and excitement of the try-outs for the rugby team, a sport played in few other cities in Canada than Vancouver. Who would be on the team? Who would be chosen for which positions? All of this confounded me greatly. I’d never heard of rugby; I didn’t understand how anyone knew enough about it to try out for a team, nor how the other boys could learn a new game with just a few trainings and drills. As the years progressed, so did my failure to understand. There were broken arms and black eyes. The boys on the team were considered school heroes. The girls paid them extra attention. I just didn’t get it.
When in grade nine, I found I couldn’t read the blackboard from the back of the class and had my eyes tested, it was no consolation to consider that maybe the reason I never caught those baseballs heading my way in the outfield was that I couldn’t see them coming. The frames I chose for my first pair of glasses were the same shape of my father’s: metal-rimmed, huge squares on my face.
Nerds: Too smart to fit in.
When I was seven, I moved from the tiny kindergarten and grade one “annex” to the main elementary school and discovered that the current craze among boys was collecting hockey cards. Recess was filled with a frenzy of trades and bargains, the lucky ones opening new packs, the enclosed chewing gum quickly consumed before we had to return to class. Kon, a handsome Greek boy, noticed my confusion one day, and called me over. “Here,” he said and gave me a handful of cards. Since that day, I’ve remembered him whenever I’ve encountered another Konstantine.
When I was twelve, my posse of friends were two other Chinese boys, and one Caucasian, the son of Salvation Army ministers. We were pulled out of our regular classrooms for a session once or twice a week at the Learning Enrichment Centre. There, we were introduced to the very first personal computer, the PET 2001. We did I.Q. tests which proved how bright we were. We hung out and were basically smart together.
I was thirteen when I entered my first year of high school and I lived in a happy sort of oblivion. I only wore t-shirts from Hawaii, where I’d spent summers at my grandmother’s house. My pants were slightly too short. I held my books close to my chest, like a girl, rather than swinging loose next to my side, like a boy. I did what I wanted and had no idea of how I was perceived by others. At the final school assembly on awards night, I surprised not only my parents but myself, by winning the top academic award for my year and also the top service award – as a volunteer stagehand, a member of “Save the Children” and a library monitor. Definitely not cool.
Nerds: Good with a calculator
I considered my oldest brother an extraordinary nerd. He wore pens in his pocket. He played clarinet in the school band. He and his friends were obsessed with Monty Python. They performed convoluted comic routines about teachers they disliked. My brother did accountancy courses and helped my father with his books. He knew how to use an abacus and a slide rule; he did not have to think when entering numbers with a number pad on a calculator, or its manual predecessor, the adding machine.
However, we were similar in many ways, sharing an aptitude for music, an early love for Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and getting excellent grades at school. And I somehow knew, from an early age, that he was “different” and that I was too. If we were the same in so many ways including our sexuality, did that mean I would have to be a nerd too?
This was about the same time that I’d decided to leave behind my friends from elementary school, the other Chinese kids – also bookish, also library monitors, all of whom had similar eyeglasses and a lack of ability at sports. Later I learned that in other high schools in east Vancouver, there were so many Asian kids that the stereotype of the Asian nerd was unsustainable since there were Asian jocks and dumb Asians and average Asians too. But in my mostly white high school, we Chinese-Canadians were nerds: out-of-place, quiet, smart (especially in maths), clumsy and excluded from any giggling conversations about the opposite sex. We hung out together because we didn’t fit in with the other kids.
Ceasing to be a nerd
I was fourteen at the start of grade nine. The other kids at school saw my glasses and that I didn’t manage to dress the same way as they did. They saw that I was smart and bad at sports. They saw that I was different. But I knew that I was more different from them than they could imagine. If I was going to be disliked, would it be because I was a nerd? Would I actively choose that role? The other nerdy kids seemed happy to stay the way they were, not minding what non-nerds said. They lost themselves in their own worlds.
Me? I decided that I did mind. I stopped hanging out with the other Asian nerds and found new friends. I spent a semester in an outdoors education program where we hiked and canoed and cycled. I searched for new experiences to differentiate myself from my nerdy oldest brother, from my nerdy old friends, from the entire nerdy race: bespectacled, academically ambitious and put-upon. I still didn’t really fit in to the mainstream, but I slowly found that I could trade in my identity as a nerd for another, more acceptable generic one: the outsider. Eventually, that outsider took on specific names; gay youth, gay Asian, gay activist. In university, I took an adult swimming course. I also took up weights, like so many other gay men do. I fell far behind in being good at computers. I lost my virginity.
When being a nerd doesn’t matter any more
Early in university, I met with an old friend from high school who shocked me with some new information. I had no idea that my sexuality was evident to classmates then. After all, I wasn’t effeminate. I wouldn’t understand the word “camp” until another few years into the future. But when I was in high school, my best friend, an Italian boy named Sciltian, was hanging out with the arty crowd that wore black. I’d gone with him one time to a nightclub that I didn’t realise was a gay club, and a girl who I’d had a run in with at the time had seen me there. Plus I’d never shown any interest in girls, in sports, or in fact in any aspect of the regular high school social scene. “Well, that’s what everyone said,” explained Ryan, sheepishly.
That summer, when I went home from university, Arthur, one of the friends I’d left behind at age thirteen, left numerous messages by phone for me and then finally reached me directly. “Let’s get together with Ken and catch up and talk about old times.” Arthur had become a school vice-principal. Ken worked as an accountant. I doubted that any of us were nerds any more.
Still, it was not a time I wanted to revisit in my life, no matter how wonderfully oblivious I was at the time to outside opinions;, a time when I embraced my intelligence and knew I could operate a computer better than any other kid in school. Reminisce about being twelve? I was still smarting from the conversation with Ryan, and wondered if now, at twenty something, I’d end up having to talk about my sexuality with people I barely knew. I made feeble excuses, said I would call when I wasn’t so busy, and, of course, never did.
I once was a nerd. When I saw that people didn’t like me for being different, but that it was something I could change, I thought, why be purposefully different?
At the same time, I knew I was gay. I thought, if people are going to not like me for being different, let it be at least for something that I am, rather than something I am not.
With the hindsight of age, I look back and wonder why it mattered so much. Did kids look at me and think I was a nerd? Yes, probably. Did they later look at me and think I was gay? Yes, probably. Though it mattered then, does it matter now? Certainly not.
So, why, when I see an Asian nerd, do I still think to myself: why do Asians have to be so nerdy?