The Best Time I Got Sent to “Pray-Away-the-Gay” Bible Yoga Camp
by Arabelle Sicardi
The yoga class was being hosted in Chinatown, something that seemed fitting; the universe has a sense of humor like that. I walked past my favorite dumpling place and zipped and unzipped my leather jacket as I walked. It was 10am and Chinatown was pretty much deserted. I had a lot of space to think. Yoga. Me. Again. I wonder if I’m going to cry in the middle of Downward Dog.
I have nothing against yoga. It’s just that I was introduced to it in a punishing way by my mother. In high school — -I guess I was about 14 at the time — -she was slowly beginning to catch on that I was queer, on top of being a traitorous art school freak. I am Asian, and therefore my options were exclusively STEM. She came up with the plan to send me to Bible Camp for a few days. Nevermind neither of us were vaguely religious — -and she herself was Buddhist. I needed God in my life.
We never talked about religion in my house, but still I found myself in our beat-up Ford Winstar, driving through the suburbs and over a narrow bridge to a squat little church facility in the middle of a field. It was seven at night and they had no streetlights — -I felt like I was being swallowed whole. I fell asleep to streetlights and racing cars in my city, and now there are none of those. Instead of giving me peace, I felt restless, like there was a dull throb in the dark, ready to pounce. There were no stars. She brought me into the beadmaking workshop that took place under the watchful gaze of a white bearded Jesus figure and waved goodbye. I stared at Jesus and rolled my eyes.
This camp was Bible Camp for Asian kids, primarily for suburban children of parents who knew each other since they were little, and so as a result they all blended together like a large, vaguely competitive family unit that doesn’t really have room for outsiders. They have jokes and stories embedded into their movements and walking into these communities — -like Edison, New Jersey, and elsewhere — -always makes me feel like I am intruding. I am, always, with my whiter skin and clumsy Mandarin. I had stopped going to Chinese School years ago and I was not religious in the slightest so I spent most of my days in this camp walking around while I played Snake on my flip phone. They would walk me into prayer sessions and I would stand around vaguely opening my mouth like a goldfish — -not quite mouthing the words, but too polite to stand with my mouth shut in protest. I guess I should try, I thought, nothing else to do but take up air, eating the words about Christ. My mom doesn’t believe in God, so why should she try to save me through him? I eat more air and swallow. I don’t feel the answers on my tongue. My mouth is dry. I forgot lip balm at home. I don’t know when I’m going home.
In the morning we are led into the field and asked to ruminate with God, to meditate on our sins and how we can best serve him through us. Or something. I am hungry, and this feels like the beginning of a horror movie, a cult I was driven into, and I want to go home and think about the cute girl I met in Chess Club with green eyes. The greenest eyes. I let her win twice in a row last Friday. I don’t want to sit in a field and think about God when I’m godless and my mother is godless and I was dumped in a field to try to find someway back home, a place where religion is a confusing map my family can’t navigate. A place to go when we can’t speak frankly to each other. I do not have the words of religion in my mouth and neither does my mother, but I found myself in a field worrying about ticks and dying and lying to a God I don’t believe in. If he was here, why won’t he tell my mother I’m not sick? I’m not sick. A few years later when I come out the first words she says is that I am sick. I am not. I just happened to mention in passing that I liked a girl in Chess Club when I was 14. Why does this require me to sit in a field at 6am among strangers? I just like a girl. It is simple. It is something I don’t need to memorize like I have to memorize a prayer. I can’t memorize a prayer, it is empty to me in the exact opposite way green eyes make me feel like my bones are burning. The language of wanting is easy. But I have no language for this map of Christ and queerness.
In the field, they taught us downward dog pose and sun salute and I realize I do not know the word for queer in Mandarin. They begin to teach Tai-Chi, but I go inside and lie on the floor in the Chapel and ignore people who try to speak to me. I do not remember the others in the camp. I just remember the beads, and the field, and the white Jesus listening to the prayers in Chinese. The sun salutation in the fields, the starless night.
My mother picks me up three days later.
That was the last and only time I ever did yoga, until a recent Sunday, at the behest of a Lululemon brunch. I don’t know why I RSVP-ed or even why I was invited, but I have felt uncomfortable and bored with my body and the space it occupies. So I go. It is in Chinatown but I am the only Chinese (Taiwanese, to be precise) person in the room, and I change into the clothes they give me and we begin. I have forgotten everything and I am tense and my hair falls into my face and I feel like I’m all wrong again.
I spoke to my mother two days before, briefly, after months. The only thing she said to me was I was going to die from the flames on my head. The red was the red of my hair, dead flames growing roots. On her webcam from Taipei it looks like flames, falling around my face, an angry blur. My grandmother moaned when she saw me. A strand of red falls onto my mat as I am pressed into a proper downward dog position. I wonder if the two of them cry over me, if they really think I’m dying. I wonder as I stretch if my mom ever told my grandmother I’m queer. I doubt it. I know it would break her. Instead, I wonder if she will ever give me the words for it. We are instructed to curl in the fetal position, and I think of my mother, my mother, my mother.
I stretch into warrior position. We are given permission to scream to release our energy, our tension. I do not. I open my mouth into the silence and eat the air like I did seven years ago. Wordless and soundless and silent. I do not have the language.
Arabelle Sicardi is a fashion and beauty writer for the likes of Rookie, Teen Vogue, Refinery29 and The Style Con. She likes makeup, cyborgs, and bad fashion puns.