Coming Out Of “The Green Closet” To Their Asian-American Parents

By Joe Garofoli
San Francisco Chronicle.

It was hard for Tiffany Wu to tell her conservative, first-generation Chinese American parents she was quitting her high-paying job at a Silicon Valley law firm. It was even harder for the Harvard Law School grad to tell them that she was quitting so she could advise clients in the cannabis industry — and that she smokes weed regularly.

Wu’s childhood friend Monica Lo, a creative director at a San Francisco startup, got the same horrified reaction when she came out of what she calls “the green closet” to her first-generation Chinese American parents about the same time earlier this year.

“They were so worried,” Lo said. “They asked me, ‘Are you on drugs? Are you a drug dealer? What are people going to think of us? What are they going to think of our family when you are so open about this?'”

Both women are in their late 20s and say their experience is common among their peers, reflective of a huge generation gap in the Asian American community when it comes toward attitudes about cannabis. So earlier this year they, along with Los Angeles photographer Ophelia Chong, formed Asian Americans for Cannabis Education as a way to inform the older generation — and help their peers talk to their parents — about California’s largest cash crop.

Their pitch: destigmatize a plant that they say can provide health benefits and can be used for recreation.

They’ve started holding social gatherings of weed-friendly Asian Americans and encouraged them to share their coming out stories in person and online.

It’s not an easy sell.

“I have friends in college who dropped out of premed and they didn’t tell their parents for years,” Wu said and laughed.

“Choosing not to be a doctor was bad enough without saying that you smoke cannabis.”

Weed activists are happy to see the outreach in advance of the strong likelihood that at least one marijuana legalization measure will be on the 2016 ballot in California.

While there is little polling data into Asian American attitudes toward weed, pollsters and campaign operatives confirm that their internal surveys say that the generational divide is greater among Asians than other demographic groups, except for Latinos.

Winning over Asian American voters could help the prospects of legalizing marijuana next year for adult recreational use.

“Asian culture is a very law-abiding community — public safety is very important,” said California controller Betty Yee, one of the state’s highest-ranking Asian American officials and the daughter of Chinese immigrants.

“I know for a lot of parents the mind-set is what a lot of parents had back at the start of the drug revolution — that marijuana is a gateway drug,” said Yee, 58, an outspoken supporter of cannabis who grew up in San Francisco. “There’s a lot of pressure, on Chinese American youth in particular, to excel.”

Earlier this year, a Chronicle analysis found more medical marijuana ID cards have been issued in San Francisco than any city in the state in the past six years. But one area of California’s weed-friendliest city bucks the trend: the Sunset District, one of the city’s Asian American enclaves.

There, residents have beaten back several attempts to open medical marijuana dispensaries over the past two decades that medicinal herb has been legal. Sunset District activists lobbied City Hall to require dispensaries to obtain a conditional use permit — a tougher hurdle to clear — before opening in the community’s business districts. Other neighborhoods don’t have that requirement.

“Within the Asian culture, there’s a belief in respecting your elders, so you don’t speak up,” Wu said. “So the younger generation might support it, but they don’t come out and tell their parents that they use cannabis.”

When Wu told her father about her own pot-smoking, he worried that she would overdose. (The National Institute on Drug Abuse says it is “very unlikely” for someone to overdose and die from cannabis use.)

Sometimes those uncomfortable cannabis conversations can lead to some enlightenment. Lo’s father overcame his initial shock and began researching cannabis. He’s now more comfortable with his daughter’s decision.

“And my mom,” Lo said and smiled, “we don’t talk about it so much.”

That is similar to what San Francisco born Korean American comedian Margaret Cho told Asian Americans for Cannabis Education when they interviewed her earlier this year. They asked Cho, “Which was harder to tell your parents, that you smoke cannabis or that you are bisexual?”

“They still don’t understand either,” Cho replied. “When I try to explain, that is when they pretend they have a limited grasp on the English language. I keep trying though!”

Other than Cho, they have found few high profile Asian Americans who are willing to speak out in support of cannabis.

But Yee thinks the medical marijuana laws that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last month “gives us an in” to talk to older Asian Americans about cannabis, particularly medical marijuana.

During a recent visit to the Apothecarium, a medical cannabis dispensary in the Castro, Yee called for bringing together the Chinese herbal medicine practitioners, medical cannabis experts, western medicine workers and other healers for “a community health summit” in San Francisco.

“One of the ways to neutralize this concern is to show (cannabis) as part of this whole continuum of health options,” Yee said. “And especially now that we are building this regulatory framework (for medical cannabis), we would be letting the Chinese community know that the government is behind this thing so you shouldn’t be afraid to think that there would be huge safety concerns or that your kids will be (messed) up by cannabis.”

Another option is to play up the entrepreneurial aspect of the marijuana economy, Yee said, since many dispensaries are small businesses. The Apothecarium, she said, had the friendly neighborhood vibe of her parents’ old San Francisco laundry business.

Yee never had a coming-out conversation about smoking weed with her parents. “They probably assumed that I did,” she said and laughed. “I was the black sheep of the family.”

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