After a Fight Over My Queerness, My Mom’s Artistic Dreams Brought Us Back Together

As she practiced on my nails, we spoke openly to each other for the first time since I came out. My sexuality was a frequent subject, but so too was Mom’s childhood.

In Depth
After a Fight Over My Queerness, My Mom’s Artistic Dreams Brought Us Back Together

A month after I came out, my mom left her job to attend beauty school. We weren’t on good terms at the time. I was hurt because she refused to acknowledge my queerness. She was hurt because she had a gay son. Unwilling to accept my sexuality, she started shifting her focus toward her ambitions. Her goal was to create art within her means, and she was interested in nails as a canvas. And even though we weren’t friendly with each other, one night she asked if she could practice on my hands. I said yes.

It was during those practice sessions that we started talking about my identity. It was during those practice sessions that we learned to be friends.

The first session was 12 years ago, and it started in the kitchen. Soup was simmering on the stove, and the air was dense with chicken powder. We didn’t have a living room then, nor did we have central heat. Our main source of light was a large fluorescent bulb, glaring down at the table. That was where I sat while mom prepared herself to paint. 

She kept her supplies in a pencil box labeled “May” (the English name she’d chosen for herself), and her lacquers were all from the drugstore: Essie and OPI and Sally Hansen. I remember being surprised, watching as she set these items on the table. There was an elegance to her movements; a gravity, like when athletes prepare for a race. At 15, I’d never seen her act so seriously before. Until then, Mom was just Mom—a quiet, sometimes moody woman whose entire world revolved around her family. I didn’t consider that she’d lived a life before mine, or that that life involved dreams and artistic ambitions; things that she wanted so badly, she trembled at the thought of having them.

Her hands shook that first time. I thought she was nervous because we hadn’t spoken in a while. After I told her I liked boys, and she said all the things parents of gay kids aren’t supposed to say (“It’s just a phase,” followed by, “What am I supposed to tell your father?”), we mutually dropped the subject; Mom because it was convenient for her, me because I hated conflict. But my anger remained, and for weeks I couldn’t stay in the same room as her. Asking to paint my nails was my mom’s version of an olive branch, and I wondered if she saw the irony in wanting me—the son whose sexuality she rejected—to be her canvas. Sure, it was under the guise of helping her master her art, but my belief at the time was that she was trying to make amends, and show that she was OK with my queerness by painting flowers on my thumbs—even though they were ugly as sin.

The petals looked strange and messy, and Mom couldn’t keep their stems from bleeding onto my skin. This annoyed her. She’d been working on her brush strokes all morning, painting abstract patterns onto dollar store swatch sticks. She showed them to me in a fit of frustration: a plastic bag filled with nails that resembled jewels. It was at this moment—staring at her hours and hours of hard work—that I understood why her hands shook while she painted my nails. It wasn’t just anxiety over our recent conflict. No; my mom was nervous because, for the first time in her life, she had the agency to pursue something she cared about: Her art.

Mom didn’t talk much when she first started painting my nails. She was the youngest of five siblings in Fujian, China, (an environment that wasn’t too kind to girls), and preferred to sweep arguments under the rug. I did too, even if it meant we had to be awkward around each other. The thing that surprised me, then—the thing I grew to treasure most from our practice sessions—were how intimate her manicures felt. It wasn’t the closeness of our bodies, or the fact that she had to hold my hands to paint them. What moved me was the sound of her breath. The way she held it as she (slowly and, delicately) placed the first layer of lacquer on my index finger. The way she let it out, annoyed, when her wrists wouldn’t behave, and the second layer ended on my skin.

There was also the way she spoke to herself. Whispering instructions and self-encouragements as she moved from index finger to middle finger, middle to ring. The pinky was the hardest, she said. Especially mine, which were “no bigger than baby teeth.”

I smiled at her joke, but said nothing.

For several days, we danced around each other in this way; learned to get along in the aftermath of our fight. It was in this way that nail art—at least my mom’s shabby attempts at creating it—became a way for us to rebuild our trust. We might not have spoken during our first session, but two days later, during the second, she was bold enough to tell a joke. Session three started with small talk (mom wanted to know how I was doing in school), and session four opened with a question.

“Do you think you’ll have kids?” she asked.

“Not with a woman,” I said.

“It’s lonely, being an adult without kids.”

“I’ll have friends by then.”

“Friends don’t always stick by you when things get tough.”

Neither does family, I thought.

She practiced on my nails every two or three days, and that evening’s session was chilly. It was winter, I remember, and our space heater was sputtering. Mom wore a sweater with the sleeves rolled up. I had on a puffer coat. The table was covered with cotton balls, and the smell in the air was glorious. To this day, I love the smell of nail polish. Mom did too, even though it gave her headaches. She felt the same way about mothballs (another smell I loved) and diesel gas (which I hated). For the next few minutes, we’d talk about this and other random subjects; keeping things light while mom worked on my nails. It wasn’t until she’d painted all 10 of them that she asked me her second question.

“Did you always know you liked boys?”

“Since I was a kid. I had crushes on so many guys on TV.”


“Like Tony Leung,” I said.

“At least you have good taste,” she muttered.

She’d gotten better at painting in the eight days since our first session. Her brush strokes were steadier, and the polish didn’t look so streaky on my nails. She had a better sense of color, too:hat combinations worked together; how long to wait before she could add another layer to the base coat. And as mom got better, she’d grow bolder—both in the patterns she was painting, and in the things she’d ask me about. She wanted to know if I had a boyfriend; whether or not I’d done anything beyond hand holding or kissing (the answer to both was “no.”)

For the first time since I came out, we spoke openly to each other. Allowed ourselves to be nosy, emotional, and rude. No topic was off-limits. My queerness was a frequent subject, but so, too, was Mom’s childhood. And some nights, she’d tell me what it was like to be a Chinese daughter in a rural village. How there were expectations for her to quit school, as early as age 9, so she could help with her family’s chores;. How, because she was poor, her interests in beauty and fashion weren’t taken seriously (her parents found such “hobbies” stuck-up and highfalutin). It wasn’t until she was a teenager, when she’d left home to work at a sweatshop in Mawei, that she finally had the space to pursue her ambitions—even if it had to be on a smaller scale. She had no funds, after all, and any time she bought something new, like magazines or brushes or paints, she’d have to take money out of some other part of her life.

The more Mom talked about herself, the more I was able to picture her as a young girl. Sneaking out to go dancing with her friends. Realizing, as she and they dressed up together, that she had a special knack for color. For shapes and details and where best to place rouge on the cheeks. According to Mom, the point wasn’t simply to look good. Her interest in beauty had more to do with a desire to create art. This was a girl from the provinces who had a genuine interest in aesthetics, but who didn’t have an avenue to express that. So her body, and the bodies of her friends, and the things she had laying around the house, became her canvas. And I remember, too, how carefully she’d decorate all the apartments we used to live in—no matter how shabby. How she’d get cloth from the dollar store, and bolts of plastic wallpaper, to create table settings, upon which there’d be arrangements of plastic flowers. How mold on the walls, or water damage, would likewise be covered up with cheap but beautiful knick-knacks.

I know it’s not the same thing—that there’s no equivalence between my mom’s childhood in Fujian and mine in America. Yet, listening to her talk about her suspended ambitions in China, I couldn’t help but feel a special kinship with Mom. Every other night, I’d hear a new story. And every other night, she’d ask me to tell her about myself. It was like we were meeting each other for the first time—not as mother and child, but as friends. Ones who could share their failures with each other; and talk about the humiliations we’d experienced, as well as the joys.

These days, she no longer paints my nails. Mom stopped after I went to college—about two years after our first session. By then, she’d been working in a salon for over a year, and was comfortable with her own skills. And we didn’t need such pretenses to hang out anymore. We talked frequently; she started meeting the men that I date; and she’s given my current partner, Josh, birthday presents and red envelopes. But even so, some nights, I feel nostalgic for those days—and those frank, open conversations about who we were as people, and who we wanted to be. 

But the thing I treasure most isn’t the moment she told me she was OK with me being gay. It was the first time she was able to paint my pinky nail without the polish getting onto my skin. I was telling her a story—about what, I can’t remember—when she stopped me, interrupted me mid-sentence with an exclamation of joy, pointing like a kid at the beautiful French tip on my smallest finger. I remember seeing her face and wanting to jump, o dance or maybe throw a ball in the air—anything to celebrate the moment; to commemorate this small victory, and her pride at having achieved it. 

Such moments belong in museums. 

Jiaming Tang is a queer immigrant writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His first novel, Cinema Love, is out now. 

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