Far East Escape

For journalist Justin Ocean, losing himself in translation is the ultimate Asian adventure.

BY Justin Ocean

August 04 2009 11:00 PM ET

For an out traveler, it's invigorating to not only travel openly but also see a queer community coming into its own, unhindered by Judeo-Christian shame -- though many cultures don't parse gender and orientation as finely as we do. Buddhism, the predominant religion throughout Southeast Asia, has no prohibitions on same-sex love; Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia are different stories. Pride celebrations and LGBT identity are still relatively new concepts in parts of Asia. In Cambodia, for example, there's no word for gay as we understand it; the idea of homosexuality is conflated with being trans or dressing in drag. It took labors to explain to a local girl that one can be both a man and gay -- the thought of it nearly had her tumbling out of her seat laughing. Over in Thailand, with no history of antigay government repression, there's not really a proper gay movement because there's nothing to move against. Ladyboys (MTF transsexuals) are an integral part of the culture. If anything keeps closet doors shut, it's pressure to have a family and an aversion to any overt sexual behavior. Meanwhile, for better or worse, financial pressures keep sexual boundaries fluid. It's nearly impossible to avoid coming into contact with Southeast Asia's widespread sex industry, especially in tourist-oriented gay venues.

Perhaps more than anything, what keeps me coming back to the region is Asia's uncanny ability to help me to reset my boundaries and challenge my expectations. Squat toilets washed my notions of American antiseptic comfort and hygiene down the drain. In China the concepts of personal space and privacy evaporate -- especially for a tall white guy like me. Feeling like something between an international superstar and a free-range zoo animal, I couldn't walk 20 feet at the Beijing Olympic Green without being asked to pose with Grandma.

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