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Do I Hate Myself, or is Today My Birthday?
It's my birthday, bitch, these my birthday rules... 🥳
With the smell of sickly-sweet icing beneath me and birthday candle smoke whiffed in the air above, I turned eight years old in a Golf-n-Stuff. My Filipino family cheered as I closed my eyes and made my annual wish.
"What did you wish for, Kot?" My grandmother pried.
Growing up Filipino, our nicknames brand us. Mine is Ikot. Which is Tagalog for "round," a descriptor for the plumpness of my face and the circumference of my overweight belly. In our culture, pet names like it are adornments to show love and create familiarity—or, in my case, it’s a full-on fucking read.
"I don't know," I lie with a shrug.
In a month, I will enter the third grade. A big year for kids in the city of Cerritos. It's famous for being the year all third-grade classes in the city take a field trip to the public swimming pool at Cerritos Park East. It's legendary. Despite the field trip being a year away, my friend Jillian, an "I run this school" kinda girl, on our last day of second grade, was already brainstorming the two-piece bikini she'd wear to the pool.
"You have no boobies. Bikini starts with a B. B for boobie. It's not gonna happen," I said with Cher Horowitz sass. "Yeah, and I bet you're gonna wear a t-shirt in the pool 'cause you're fat," Jillian snapped back like only a Dionne could.
Jillian and I were the cuntiest second graders you've ever met. That year we invented a game called Dicktionary, where the objective was to name every person in our grade alphabetically and say something nasty about them. "Allison is a pre-teened bitch. Brian smells like mold. Carmenita is poor because she only eats Doritos for lunch." She was my first fag hag. I called her flat, and she called me fat. It was endearing.
Another nickname I had growing up was Cholesterol—inspired by the 1997 Jim Carrey film Liar Liar. My cousins, who were all skinny and had the extravagance of still having married parents, burdened me with it. I was an elementary-school kid who wore a size 12 Husky (husky as bulky and 12 as almost twice my age!), so I was actually kinda really fat. When I blew out my birthday candles in that stuffy Golf-n-Stuff, my wish was "to be skinny."
I spent most of being eight praying to God to be thin. Just as Jillian was probably praying for boobs for her kiddie bikini, I was working as much Catholic magic as possible to lose enough weight to forego the swimming t-shirt of doom. I even took matters into my own hands: starving myself, living off Nabisco Fat-Free Vegetable Thins crackers, and doing 50 jumping jacks every night in the shower. With the combined power of wishes, God, and hard work, I was determined to make my skinny dream a reality. However, by the end of third grade, I would give up on making wishes and (somewhat) believing in God. Undeterred by my best efforts, I wore a t-shirt to that legendary field trip. And Jillian blew me off, embarrassed by my Billabong pool t-shirt. Dicktionary entry: "Nicholas is fat."
My birthday is July 20—a Cancer! We are water signs symbolized by the crab and are the shyest of the Zodiac signs. As crabs, we are introverts who withdraw inside our shells and are hard to crack. I'm obsessively concerned with people's opinions of who I am and what I look like. Therefore, I feel most comfortable being hidden, and I use my timidness as my protection. I’m very Grey Gardens in that way! As a kid, I avoided most, fearful of being called an F Word (Fat! Fag! FOB!), and I didn't have many friends because of it. Regardless of their vitriol for my BMI, my cousins were probably my only friends growing up. And my birthday was always a reminder of that because I never had any real friends show up. In that Golf-n-Stuff, all of my guests were family.
I'm not a fan of my birthday. I've scrubbed it from every social media app to avoid the fanfare of strangers sending me well wishes, and most people outside my family don't even know when it is. My mother, an ever-loving woman with a penchant for extravagance, always treated my birthday like an actual holiday—and threw me parties to match! I've always felt terrible that she was cursed with such an unassuming son, but a party to me is no party at all. I just can't help my natural Scrooge-like disposition.
My birthday gives me anxiety, and being the center of attention makes me feel like I'm the target of a firing squad. With age, I've realized it's all rooted in fear. But it isn’t a fear of judgment. It’s a fear of being perceived. I am a human of niche identities where most parts of myself aren’t the norm. As an eight-year-old leading far into my twenties, none of who I am made sense. Coming of age was less about coming into my own and more about settling with coming to terms with being a queer Asian cancer survivor with mental illness. My birthday always felt like a day that brings to light everything I hate about myself—whether it's a self-reminder or a publicization of the things I’d rather ignore. It wasn’t a day of celebration. It was a day my inner truths would be unleashed for public consumption before I was ready. That day at Golf-n-Stuff should have been a joyous affair with me outlandishly blissed out like I'd seen other kids be on TV when it was their birthday. But, my memory replaces bliss with the warmth of embarrassment.
I was never the typical son. I was flamboyant and bookish, a mommy's boy over a guy's guy. The signs of my "uniqueness" were prominently advertised by that age, like how I only played as Chun-Li in Super Nintendo games of Street Fighter, how the first CD I ever bought was the Spice Girls' debut album, or how I fearfully announced my first boner to my entire household while watching a sex scene on the 1996 WB drama Savannah. My femininity was often met with discipline, and my aversion to "boy" things was curbed with me being forced into countless youth basketball leagues. My eighth birthday was when it clicked that most people thought I was odd and that my oddities weren't something to cheer about.
When it was time to open gifts, I excitedly tore through wrapping paper to unearth the presents from my family. I got a few Beanie Babies, including the Ty-branded Ruby the Birthday Bear, deep red with a tie-dyed body embroidered with "July" on it, and a Disney-branded Donald Duck—later, when I was alone, I would make them fuck each other for fun. I got both Brandy and Monica's newest CDs—released on the tail of their #1 single, "The Boy is Mine." And then the gift of all gifts: The Spice Cam—a pink and purple Spice Girls Polaroid camera. I was a certified Spice Boy, and it was all I asked for that year. Earlier in January, I forced my father to take me to see Spice World in theatres. I can still remember his embarrassment of taking me and how he treated it like a begrudged task. But that’s how much I loved the Spice Girls. I was willing to risk playing in 100 basketball leagues for them.
I was so excited by my Spice Cam that it took me a while to notice I was encircled by judging stares. There I was, a chubby boy rich with gifts made for a girl. I don't know how much I understood the truth of the situation then, but whatever the feeling was, I knew well enough to know it was bad. It was the same feeling that made me avoid my peers for fear of being called an F Word. At that moment, my queerness was on full display, signaling to my onlookers a secret I didn't know how yet to hide. Any feeling of elation I felt started to crumble then. This was when I began the construction of the facade I would use to hide behind for years to come.
I've spent most birthdays since attempting to be under more lock and key: rejecting parties, avoiding celebrations, and erasing my birthday from calendars. But today, with fewer secrets to hide, I've been on a journey to take back my birthday for what it should be. I let people spoil me again, I allow parties—albeit small ones, and I take a vacation day every July 20. I still refuse to announce my birthday on social media because opening up that much still feels scary. Even though I'm far from visible enough to be perceived on a scale where it would actually matter—but baby steps.
Nowadays, I look back on my eighth birthday fondly. If I burrow through the trauma the day left me (I know, hardly traumatic, but whatever), I instead feel the love that was undoubtedly there. Over the memory of the judgemental glares at me and my Spice Cam, my body dysmorphic wish, and the friendless attendance, I remember something lost in time—the unconditional love of my parents. How lucky was I to have a mother throw me a party with mini golf and a carrot cake no one liked but me? How lucky was I to be able to call family my friends? I hate that I didn't see it then.
I mostly look back, however, and think of my father. I harbored so much resentment towards him for any of his reluctance towards me because of my visible queerness. But he was the one that took me to see Spice World, and he was the one that bought me the Spice Cam. For all the embarrassment I felt, I wonder how much he did. It couldn't have been easy for him to be perceived that day as the dad who gave his son a pink and purple Spice Girls camera. But he did it. He took the bullet for me because it was my wish, and he has only ever wanted all my wishes to come true.
As I spend my thirties learning to love my birthday, I also am teaching myself to use the day to honor my parents. My mother was right that July 20 is a holiday—because it's our day. As much as they celebrate me, I need to celebrate them. They gave me life, loved me all through it, and put up with everything else in between. Self-love is hard, but loving them is easy. And to half quote the Queen of Drag RuPaul, "If you can't love yourself, then..." love the people who love you instead.