When KHOA LAM climbs up there in those silks, anything can happen
It’s like I have an alter ego and I kind of balance in between.”
Words by Matthijs van Els, photos courtesy of Khoa Lam
The construction looks a bit wobbly, and the ceiling of the space in which it’s set up is not particularly high, but… it’s better than nothing. When the pandemic and its lockdowns hit, 28-year-old Khoa Lam installed a home aerial rigging in the living room of his apartment on the 10th floor of a high-rise apartment building in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
So now, in the comfort of his own house, on the rare occasion that he is not in a studio, he can do a lotus pose sitting in the air, make an aerial dancer pose, drop down in an inverted pigeon pose, and practice, practice, practice, all while being casually ignored by his dog Topi, a 4-year-old poochin.
By day Khoa is dressed up in proper business attire, working remotely as a developer for the University of Newcastle, Australia. At night he changes into sportswear to challenge gravity when he climbs up in stretches of colorful silks to perform aerial yoga, which he teaches.
Being gay, there is no future for you, that’s what I learnt when I was a teenager.”
Half Chinese, half Vietnamese he was born, raised and is currently living in Ho Chi Minh City. And he is not planning on leaving anytime soon, Khoa tells us during a conversation over Zoom.
“Yoga started for me when I went to university at 18 years old. They offered free classes. Eventually, I became a yoga teacher myself. Two years ago, I found out about aerial yoga and that lit a fire under my ass again.”
A fire how?
“‘Normal’ yoga felt done for me at some point, aerial yoga gave me new creativity. When I climb up there in the silks, anything can happen, there are endless possibilities. In the air, you have to be creative and create poses based on the fundamentals of yoga you learn on the mat. That is why aerial yoga inspires me. And I want to pass on this passion, spread a little joy, and inspire people.”
I remember going to the supermarket and seeing male models in the underwear aisle of the supermarket, that’s when I knew.”
It looks very impressive, how does it feel for you when you are up there?
“Yoga is my getaway. Normally, when people want to get away, they think of traveling or visiting beautiful places. For me, it’s going into the studio after a long day. Yoga keeps me creative, and it gives me the passion for making my day job less boring.”
You’re a business developer, quite a big contrast to hanging down from the ceiling.
“Yeah, sometimes I feel like a drag queen, haha. It’s like I have an alter ego and I kind of balance in between. People often ask me if I would give up my day job to become a full-time yoga instructor, but I don’t think I have reached that age yet. Right now, I like living the best of both worlds. After I finish my day at the university, I throw away my suit and put on my yoga outfit, and then I feel like a performer. It’s like a rollercoaster every day.”
You have multiple performers inside of you I noticed on Instagram. You seem to enjoy dancing a lot as well.
“I think that’s really common for us queer people, right? When we are teenagers, it’s like the universe is telling us we are meant to be female entertainers, haha. One of my first idols was Madonna. I found out about her when I was 15, I think. Then Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and through all of them, I learned how to express myself. I’m not a professional dancer, but I just try to copy their moves. That’s it.”
How did Madonna, Christina, and Britney help you exactly?
“They felt like my guidance. They were my guardians. I knew I was gay when I was 5 years old. I remember going to the supermarket and seeing male models in the underwear aisle of the supermarket, and that’s when I knew. Back then I just didn’t know the term for those feelings. When I was 12, we got cable in Vietnam, and we had access to MTV. That’s the moment I started picking up American pop culture. Well, even before we had cable, I watched Britney Spears actually. One of my relatives from the US brought a DVD and I saw Baby One More Time, Oops!…I Did It Again, and Toxic. And for me, as a 10-year-old, seeing Toxic was like…WOW! After I discovered Madonna, I picked up on her legacy within the gay community and that’s when I learned more about myself. It was the first time I felt accepted. I felt recognized.”
Coming out is not that important for me. I just want to live my true self and not be judged for my sexuality.”
What did you know about being gay up until then?
“Back then, when someone referred to a gay person, it meant you were not important. There was nothing for you to do. There was no future for you. That’s what I ‘learned’ when I was a teenager. But seeing what Madonna did for HIV patients in the 90s and how she was a voice for the community, made me feel accepted. Seeing those female singers is very inspiring. They do God’s work for us, I think.”
Was there a moment that you said to yourself, ‘Okay, this is me, I’m gay, and I’m going to tell my family and friends’?
“Well, I was actually discovered by my mother when I was 20. There is a small gay pride every year in Ho Chi Minh City, and as I was still in the process of discovering myself, I attended that. But friends of my mom saw me there. She called me on the phone and asked: ‘Are you gay?’ That’s when my heart dropped. It really was not a good moment; I was almost forced to come out. I didn’t want to make her sad, so I denied it. I couldn’t look her in the eyes for a few weeks after that, and that was really hard. It became easier when I got older, and yoga really helped me. When I do yoga, nothing else is important. I’m not saying that my mother is not important, but yoga makes me feel like my true self and nothing is more important than that.”
Many years have passed since then. Does your mom know now?
“When I turned 26, I brought my boyfriend home for dinner. My mother said he was a ‘nice friend’. He came over a lot though, so I think she started picking up the fact that he was my boyfriend. I never told her that I’m gay. Last year she told me she doesn’t care if I’m straight or gay and that she just cares about me being happy. So, she knows. I didn’t come out to her, but she knows. My parents divorced when I was a teenager, and I have been living with my mother ever since. I think my father knows, but I don’t think he accepts it. He is a close-minded person, but I don’t judge him for that though. We come from different generations. I do feel that he is proud of me, and of everything that I do in life. Coming out is not that important for me. For some people it’s an empowering moment, but not for me. I just want to live my true self and I don’t want to be judged for my sexuality. But when somebody asks, I will tell them who I am.”
I would love to hear more about that boyfriend!
“Well, we met through work in 2016. He was already working at the company I applied to at that time, and it was a small business with just five or six employees. We clicked right away, there was a spark between us. We talked every day and, in that company, we had to wash our dishes after lunch, in shifts. When it was my turn, he always helped me out. So that’s when we had our first private talks with just the two of us. We were also meeting a lot after business hours. It just came naturally, you know? A few months later we had our first night out, and we kissed. I didn’t know he liked me until we first made out. I was still shy and not as confident, so I wasn’t aware of romance like I am now.”
I’ve been together with my boyfriend for five years now, even for straight people that’s a lot!”
What makes you guys click?
“First of all, there is a physical attraction between us. Plus, our personalities are opposites and that works. He is the extrovert and I’m the introvert. He does that talking and I do the listening. He kind of socializes on behalf of both of us, haha. I also like that we can talk about deep stuff, such as astrology, the origin of humans, and the afterlife. It’s nice to talk to someone about the more spiritual side of life. He makes me feel welcomed and respected. He is truly caring. And not just for me – he makes sure I don’t step on something on the street or that I don’t eat burnt food – but also for elders, children, and homeless people for example. He is a good person. It’s the little things that make us click.”
Did your colleagues know about your relationship?
“We tried to hide it at first, but eventually they found out because it was such a small company, and they accepted it completely. There was no problem.”
What was the reason you tried to hide it at first?
“Because back then I wasn’t very confident. Plus, I had this belief that if you try to display your romances as much as you can, the romance will fail. That’s what I thought, haha.”
So, are you still together now, or have you jinxed it?
“Yes! We’ve been together for five years now and even for straight people, that’s a long time, haha. After working together for two years, we went our own ways professionally. And that was a good thing. We needed more space. Sometimes we got work and romance twisted and that wasn’t good for me. When we were going out at night I saw his face, I thought of work. It kind of takes the romance away. So, after splitting up as colleagues, it brought back the spark we had in the beginning.”
Do you share the same passions in life?
“My interests are usually ‘weird’ for people from Vietnam. I love drag queens, gay culture, Western pop culture, and a lot of yoga. So, it’s kind of hard to find someone with the same interests. When I told him about drag and that I loved watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, he was kind of reluctant. But after seeing how talented all the queens were, how they performed, and how they made their clothes and did their make-up, he was also invested at that point. He knows them all now!”
The queer community in Ho Chi Minh City is very protective of each other, especially the youngsters.”
Do you ever get in drag yourself?
“No, but I would like to try it sometime. I would love to meet the American queens! Sometimes at my job, I get inspiration from all those queens. Before I go into any presentation, I usually watch thirty minutes of Drag Race to level up my confidence. You don’t need a shot of tequila; you just need Drag Race.”
You have come a long way and you seem confident now about who you are. If your mom would call you right now and ask you that same question – are you gay? – would you tell her?
“I think now it would be a different answer from eight years ago. I honestly would say yes. I think I have control over my life right now. Back then, I was still young, wild, and free, and not knowing the direction of my life. There were just so many crises going on in my head, so that’s why I denied it at the time.”
What is the queer community like in Ho Chi Minh City?
“It’s very dynamic. That’s what I love about Ho Chi Minh City. The biggest queer community in Southeast Asia is in Bangkok, Thailand, but I think Ho Chi Minh City is catching up with that. Of course, it’s not perfect, there are still close-minded people. But the queer community here is very protective of each other, especially the youngsters. If you badmouth somebody online, there is a whole backlash. Anything that happens will go online on Facebook and usually, then it’s known nationwide, and the whole community stands up for that person.”
Even if you don’t know each other?
“Yes, of course. I remember when I went to a restaurant three years ago, there was a couple holding hands, and a middle-aged man was making clear he was disgusted by them. Other people started meddling right away and told him to mind his own business. People got your back here. So I feel pretty safe and free in Ho Chi Minh City.”
In 2015, the ban on same-sex marriage was lifted in Vietnam. That sounds promising and progressive. On the other hand, I hear it’s more symbolic.
“Yes, the government still doesn’t officially recognize us. They don’t oppose gay people and it’s allowed to get married. We can basically do everything, have a ceremony, and make it into a big gay wedding, but they will not recognize us as partners or husbands in a legal sense. So, we are not protected under the law for matters that straight people are.”
How do you feel society looks towards queer people?
“I think a lot of people are open-minded about the community. Many of the most successful entertainers here are queer people, so they kind of lead the younger generations. Millennials and Gen Z are mostly accepting of queer people. Also, there are organizations nowadays that are very open about queer health issues such as HIV, AIDS, and PrEP.”
What are your dreams for the future?
“One of my dreams is getting a master’s degree. At the same time, it’s my dream to open my own yoga studio. Right now, I’m standing at a crossroads. I can go either direction. So, I told myself, that when I turn 30, I will decide. In my early twenties, I was exploring my sexuality; right now, I’m exploring my future. So, fingers crossed that I can make up my mind in two years.”
Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
“What I usually share with people that I meet is my motto: nothing is forever, and everything is temporary. Even the good things are temporary. We have to make life less serious. If you are struggling with something, it will pass. And when a good thing ends, that’s sad, but it just means that something new will start. We should be excited to find out what that is.”