Looking back, I am grateful that my life has been relatively peaceful, and there has not been much I can complain about, which is also how other people perceive me as: carefree and fearless. I had a great childhood with two loving parents in China; I was doing well in middle school and high school, academically and socially; my parents were able to support me to come to the U.S. to go to college. However, what I don’t share with a lot of people is that there are currents under the seemingly peaceful sea that is my life, and the strongest one out there has always been social anxiety.
In 2011, I moved from China to Ohio for college at Ohio State, and I was excited to start this new chapter of my life. Even though I knew that I had to step out of my comfort zone in order to get the full American college experience, I was confident in my adaptability because I had always been eager to learn new things and to meet new people. What I did not know was how hard the social anxiety would strike me for the first time.
Are you familiar with that feeling when you show up to a bar alone without knowing anyone and you feel so out of place and it feels like everyone is watching you and laughing at you for being alone? Yeah, that was how I felt a lot of the times during my first week in the U.S. I didn’t know anyone in my dorm, and I didn’t know anyone in my classes, and my three roommates went to the same high school and all they did every day was play video games together. For that whole week, all I did was FaceTime my parents and talk to one of my best friends from high school, and I felt incredibly homesick. It also hurt my pride because I thought I could do better, and I did not feel like l was taking in charge of my life the way I wanted to.
I have always been an ambitious person, so after the week, I wanted to do something different about the situation. One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Benjamin Mee: “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, just literally 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come out of it.”
In coincidence, I saw one of the welcome week brochures in my dorm that outlined all the welcome week events that my school planned out for students, and I noticed there was this cookout for Phi Gamma Delta. I was like: ”What is Phi Gamma Delta?” So I looked it up and found out it was a fraternity. Because I was always curious about Greek life since we don’t have that in China, I decided to go to that cookout by myself. I never felt more anxious in my life than how I felt on my way to the fraternity house because I did not know what to expect. “Are they going to laugh at me because I just show up to the fraternity house without anyone and without knowing anyone from the fraternity? Are they going to laugh at my English? What should I talk about? I don’t know anything about football, politics, or whatever college students talk about nowadays.”
So many thoughts went through my mind, and suddenly I arrived at the fraternity house. There were so many people chatting and mingling at the front door, but I found those 20 seconds of insane courage, and I took a deep breath and walked in.
Thank god there was someone greeting at the door, so I started talking to this guy Shawn, who was a senior at the time. I still can’t believe it even now, but after Shawn found out I was from China, he told me that he just came back to the U.S. from studying abroad in China, and we talked about his experience in China and we compared China to the U.S. in many ways, and we chatted for an hour without talking a little bit about things I wasn’t familiar with.
After that, he introduced me to more people in the fraternity, and I already felt a lot more comfortable with socializing after talking to Shawn, so I was able to truly get to know more people and know more about what a fraternity was. I ended up joining that fraternity, and I tasted the joy of tackling social anxiety for the first time.
Now looking back, I can’t thank those 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery enough, not only because they liberated me from the social anxiety that seemed to be daunting me as a shy and overwhelmed freshman but also because they opened my mind and made me realized that I could succeed if I tried.
After I joined the fraternity, I realized that I was the first Asian pledge they ever recruited. Lol. My fraternity was rechartered in 1995, so there hadn’t been that many pledge classes yet, and it was Ohio State where students were mainly Caucasian, so it was not that big of a shock to me, but it may still seem crazy for some of my friends who are from the east coast or the west coast.
Shortly, my fight against social anxiety started again when I realized that there was so much in the U.S. college culture that I had yet to learn, which made me overwhelmed and anxious all the time. I learned about all different kinds of liquor and what different mixed drinks were made of because I definitely started my messy drinking career from joining a fraternity; Ohio State was a big public school with outstanding athletic programs, and my fraternity was known on campus for being involved in extracurricular activities, so I learned about how to bond with other brothers over sports and other organizations that we were involved in.
I think the one thing that gave me the most anxiety was the expectation that as a fraternity guy, I had to develop relationships with different sororities and represented our fraternity to be “cool.” I was “straight” at the time, so I had to learn about how to initiate conversations with sorority girls at different social events or in the classrooms. I still remember the first ever social event I went to where I was so shy that I just talked to my pledge brothers all night without talking to any girls. I was worried because I was the only Asian guy at the party, and I felt like American girls always would prefer the jocky Caucasian guys, and I was afraid of rejection.
Again, after the anxiety from the first social event slowly died down, the ambitious Neil at the time started thinking about how to change the situation. Then we had another social event the week after, and those 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery came to rescue me again at the party when I took a deep breath and approached a group of 2 girls standing by themselves at the venue and asked them if they were having fun and if they wanted to take a shot together. Surprisingly, they were very happy to go take a shot with me, and then they asked if I wanted to play beer pong, and I was like yeah of course, but in my head I was screaming: “What is happening? I am actually doing this wow.”
After that one social event, I started to become more and more comfortable with initiating conversations with strangers where I could try to find something in common and then turn strangers into friends. Some of my best friendships nowadays started from a shot of fireball or tequila, and of course, from my 20 seconds of insane bravery that one time.
Then, time flew by, and suddenly I finished my junior year and moved to NYC during the summer of 2014 for an internship. That was a summer to remember because I explored with my sexuality for the first time in a city where I did not know anyone. After I moved to the U.S. and started college, I met all sorts of people, including some of my best friends who were already gay when I met them who made me think about my sexuality more and more, in a way that I never did when I was in China.
When I was in NYC, I downloaded Tinder, and started going on dates with people. Mainly I just wanted to meet different people and hear about their experiences, but I also did some experiments as well, which helped me confirm that girls might not be my thing (Sorry to all the girls whose hearts I broke after that. Lol jk).
After I finished my internship, I went back to Ohio, and I thought it was the right time for me to come out to my friends. I made a list of my best friends that I wanted to come out to in person, but as the list went longer and longer, more and more anxiety started to accumulate again in my heart because I was nervous that my friends would look at me differently and our friendships would change.
I still remember the first person I came out to was one of my best friends in my fraternity. It was a Thursday night of my senior year, so I went out with some of my friends to the bars. What are classes on Fridays anyways? I got pretty drunk at the end of the night, and as I was walking home from the bars, I suddenly had the urge to come out to my friend and I couldn’t resist it. So I called my friend at 1:30am at night, and he was studying for a final he was going to have the next day. With my 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery and a little help of alcohol, I told my friend about everything: about my summer in NYC, about Tinder, about all these guys I met and about my sexuality. I could tell he was shocked initially because there was a 5-second uncomfortable silence, but then I would never forget how happy he sounded on the phone after the silence and how supportive all the words were that came out of his mouth. I was reassured that my friends would always love me for being me, and sexuality is just one small part of Neil Wang, and true friends would never judge me for that.
The next day, I was hungover of course, but I felt like a new person because I didn’t have all that pressure on my shoulder, and I was actually more motivated to come out to my other friends on my list. Because I was living authentically, there was not a single regret in my senior year, and that was exactly how I wanted it to be.
I graduated from college in 2015, and then I moved to NYC for work. Just recently, I celebrated my first anniversary in the best city. The year of 2016 was full of challenges, which brought out a great deal of anxiety. Mostly, I am a proud gaysian, which means that now I have two sources of anxiety that I have to manage on a daily basis, at work and in my personal life. Luckily, I joined GAPIMNY (Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York), and I realized that I was not alone, and so many people struggle with the same things that I do. I have met so many people that have provided me with tips/advice/guidance to help me navigate my way out of my anxiety, and I wanted to do the same and write this little entry for The Gaysian Diaries so that more people can know that they are not alone. If I have not said enough above, I will say the following things again here:
1. Sometimes all you need is just 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery, and you will be amazed by what things are in store for you in the future.
2. Love yourself, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
3. Life is too short, so do whatever makes you happy.
Thanks for reading my diary. Let me know if you would like to talk more about any of the things I talked about above and I can be your guy.
Neil Wang is the Social Chair of GAPIMNY. You can find him co-hosting Elixir, our signature happy hour for gay Asians in NYC, every 2nd and 4th Friday at Boxers HK from 7pm – 9pm.