This story is part 1 of 2 in the series Community Conversations: Fatherly Pride.
Art: Patric Stillman, Another Gay Sunshine Day (2017).

Gay Dad Jokes in Red China

By Jesse Appell

I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the Beijing comedy scene doing gay dad jokes.

“有人很好奇, 在Gay家庭长大是什么样的感觉?”

People are always curious, what was it like to grow up in a gay household?

The air shifts; the audience perks up. The setup lingers. How is life in a gay household strange? Different? Unusual?

I thought up the setup, but I’ve lived the punch line.

I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts in a family of teachers. My mom taught elementary literacy. My dad worked at Brandeis University, both fundraising and teaching a few courses.

My mother and father were always supportive of me, raising me in a style I think of as “parenting-by-path-of-least-resistance.” He likes sports? Sign him up for soccer. He likes improv comedy? Go to the shows and don’t ask what in the world it might actually be good for. Can’t get him to sit down and learn piano? Whatever. It’s not worth the trouble.

In addition to being a supportive father, it turns out my dad was also gay. One day, in second grade, my dad took my brother and me aside, and told us “daddy loved mommy, but not in that way.”

Or something like that.

I don’t mean to make light of what must have been a speech my father had surely tortured over, in one way or another, for decades. It’s just that I honestly don’t remember any of the words.

All I remember, looking up at my dad from a low angle that now seems jarring to my adult brain, were two things:

Firstly, a sense of gravitas, as if things would never be the same.

Secondly, an impression that such sense of gravitas was bullshit, and nothing actually had changed at all.

Oh sure, it certainly looked like several aspects of our lives had changed. There was a new house, a new parent-sharing schedule, and, eventually for my dad, a new husband, who would, in time, become a second father to me.

But those were differences in seeming, not in being. To me, growing up in a gay household was not different at all. It was just more.

I still ran around the soccer field, now with three parents attending and supporting. I would still play characters and improvise onstage, now with three parents watching and laughing. I still would not learn piano. And still, nobody forced me to.

In this way, life remained normal.

My mother, through a combination of love, spirituality, and patience, made what could have been a world-shattering divorce for everyone into a mere logistical challenge of who is eating dinner where.

Guy, my father’s husband and partner of 20+ years, grew up in Israel, moved to America with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, and built a life and a family for himself in a new land using his second language. Ironically, my life path turned out more similar to his than either of my biological parents.

To me, growing up in a gay household was not different at all. It was just more.

His advice and example were vital to me when it was my turn to leave my homeland.

I left my households, both gay and straight, when I was 21 to study Chinese comedy in Beijing as a Fulbright fellow. I apprenticed to a Master comedian named Ding Guangquan, a man of infinite patience, indefatigable energy, and sacred mission. If I hadn’t already learned that fathers are not always people with whom we share blood, I would have learned it in Beijing.

Master Ding taught me the key to making people laugh is empathy. We need to connect with the audience emotionally. As an American performing Chinese comedy, I was guaranteed curiosity; but the bridge spanning curiosity and empathy vaults a deep gap.
How to make a group of people from across the world empathize with a stranger? A foreigner? An immigrant? I started by trying to show that my life was the same as theirs.

“我也坐地铁!”

I take the subway, too!

Unfortunately, I soon found out that when a Chinese comedian makes a subway joke, it is a subway joke, but when I made a subway joke, the audience thinks it’s a foreigner-on-the-subway joke.

The audience was primed to believe I was different. They didn’t want me to be like them. Ironically, the more I shared how we were similar, the more pushback I got.

Two years of bombed sets later I hit on a solution. What if I shared how I was different, only to show it wasn’t different after all?

That’s when I began working on the gay dad routine.

I expected the whole thing would flop. The topic was largely taboo. Speaking Chinese robbed me of much of my linguistic subtlety. And, after all, it was an experience (almost) none of the people in the audience could “relate to.”

But from the first, I found that people did relate. The jokes hit. People were fascinated. They learned forward in their seats, eyes shining.

“有人很好奇, 在Gay家庭长大是什么样的感觉?”
People are always curious, what was it like to grow up in a gay household?

“来拜访一下你就知道!”
Just come for a visit and you’ll see.

“想来我们Gay家, 你得先上Gay楼梯敲一下Gay门.”
First, you have to go up the gay stairs and knock on the gay door.

“爸爸给你喝点Gay水, 聊点Gay新闻.”
Dad will get you some gay water and you’ll chat gay news.

“以后吃点Gay鸡排, 喝点Gay红酒…没什么奇怪的!你们想到哪儿了?”
Then we’ll have gay chicken and some gay wine… It’s just a normal household, what were you thinking it would be like?

The joke hit. Our lives were different in seeming, not in being. A household is a household. Chicken is chicken. There is no gay water. The gay dad bit brought down the house, from Beijing to Guangzhou and everywhere between. Why?

Maybe it’s because in their own lives, society has placed restrictions on them: get good grades, make money, get married, have kids, teach them to play the piano. That’s normal.

But what if being in a gay family can be normal too? What if living your life, the way that makes sense for you—and your loved ones, and your kids—is normal, no matter what it might look on the outside? Differences only in seeming, and not in being?

If my life in a gay family is normal for me, maybe being “out” can mean a normal life too, whatever “out” means for you.

Art: Patric Stillman, Another Gay Sunshine Day (2017).
Jesse Appell

Jesse Appell

Jesse Appell is a scholar studying Chinese comedy while living and performing in Beijing, China. Jesse is the founder of Laugh Beijing and a former Fulbright Scholar. Jesse hails from Massachusetts and is a graduate of Brandeis, where he performed as part of his “Great LOL of China” tour through North America.