Devin Fei-Fan Tau is a gay, Asian-American filmmaker whose storytelling speaks out against the imposed silence he experienced from both his native and adopted cultures since immigrating to the United States as a child four decades ago. His George Takei-narrated documentary Who’s on Top?, which tells the story of a group of LGBTQ+ athletes who set out to climb Mt. Hood, is available to stream on May 18 through Passion River Films. He’s currently on his third career, having developed his financial and analytic skills in corporate finance and then adding an eye for fashion in apparel merchandising. BS University of California at Berkeley (Business), AAS Portland Community College (Video Production). He lives in Portland, Oregon.
When our plane from Taiwan touched down at LAX in 1975, my mother, my father, my two older brothers and I stepped into the hot, dry sunshine of a new and, to us, very foreign world. The changes that lay ahead for all of us were profound and would affect every aspect of our lives. My parents were determined that this would become our new home, and at the same time were unyielding in their insistence on raising children with traditional Confucian values based on obedience, deference, and respect. Thus began my journey of living in two cultures at once.
Suddenly the happy-go-lucky kid that I had been vanished, as I struggled to learn a new language along with my new American name. At school, kids made fun of everything I said, everything I wore, everything I did. At home, my parents insisted on achievement and a stoic dedication to success.
I became determined to show everyone at school that I belonged, that I was not different at all. Yet even though my English became flawless and unaccented (unlike my brothers) and I excelled in both academics and sports, the bullying went on. Proving my worth in the American way was at odds, however, with my parents’ silent acceptance of starting over at the bottom of the economic ladder. For them, it meant we all had to keep our heads down, not complain, and work hard.
Despite my best efforts, I felt out of place no matter where I was. Lacking the cultural infrastructure or family support to navigate and process my sense of bewilderment, fear, and frustration, I learned to keep my emotions in check and invisible, no matter how much pain I was in. My childhood was marked by a lack of confidence in being authentically myself, without any family support, or even a vocabulary to reconcile living in two cultures at once.
And so, obediently, I studied hard. Got straight As in high school. Was accepted into the prestigious UC Berkeley Haas Business School and became a business major. Just like a compliant, respectful, uncomplaining child was supposed to do. So what if I didn’t really feel like a “regular” guy? I dated women, told myself I was in love, and thought liking men was “just a phase.”
In time, however, I found myself living in San Francisco and staring at a new and different truth. I was not just an athletic, musical, hard-partying guy with a mind for numbers. The stoic façade that I had built to create an acceptable image of myself crumbled as I began to accept that, in fact, I was gay.
This coming out to myself was painful enough, but was also anathema to my family, and challenging for my career. The pain and confusion of sorting out who, exactly, I could be, required me to once again face the challenge of integrating my past and my present. Increasingly, I began finding my voice within the LGBTQ+ community. Yet while I found acceptance there, my family did not similarly embrace me when I came out to them. Reconciling my American and my Chinese cultures remained an elusive dream.
For decades, I balanced conflicting desires to be both strong and true to myself, to be independent and connected, to be Asian and American. One thing that helped me through this maze of self-discovery was my passion for performance: I became a devotee of stage musicals and plays, attending the theatre, going to shows, and steeping myself in those stories and mythic tales.
Eventually, my desire not just to hear stories, but to tell them, led me to the world of filmmaking. Not just to speak my own truth, but to be the person who enabled other marginalized people to speak theirs as well. In my work as a film director, I began to understand that getting to the heart of what matters most to people is an endlessly rewarding challenge.
For me, the idea that so many people don’t fit neatly into our American categories of belonging strikes a deep nerve with my experience as a queer immigrant. Our layered and interlocking identities contain stories that connect us to people everywhere. This is what led me to thinking more deeply about how the LGBTQ community, in particular, has narratives that remain untold.
The mission of my company, No Sunrise Wasted, is to bring to the screen narratives that compel audiences to think, feel, and become engaged in stories that have long been silenced. That name came to me when I was on a dawn boat ride in Varanasi, India, watching the public mass cremations, and I realized that every single day is an opportunity to create and thrive. In my documentary Who’s on Top? (narrated by George Takei), I sought to showcase both the depth of the challenges we face, and the depth of the resources we draw on to surmount them.
The result is a feature-length documentary which shines a spotlight on members of the LGBTQ community – including those with a range of mountaineering experience – who set out to climb Mt. Hood and in the process challenge stereotypes about gender and sexuality in the outdoor arena. Historically excluded and ostracized as “unnatural” by some extremist groups, the LGBTQ climbers tackle not only a mountain, but assumptions about who they are and how they belong to the world of outdoor adventure.
Through my work as a filmmaker, I have experienced a depth of feeling and human understanding that has animated me, moved me to tears at times, and led me to find a new path of my own. To reconcile being an American and being an immigrant doesn’t mean choosing between one or the other. For me, it’s meant going on a journey of self-discovery, loving people along the way for who they authentically are, and finding excitement in unlocking the stories of so many others like myself.
Now available on iTunes and Google Play, Who’s on Top? is a story emblematic of anyone anywhere who has overcome judgment and criticism from both their families and society at large to become fully themselves. Watching this film, I believe you will see more than just a group of dedicated individuals preparing for the physical challenge of climbing a mountain. You will see people who are in the process of uncovering their own identities and self-conceptions, and discovering the truth that will set them literally, on top.
My journey to reconciliation doesn’t end with this film, or even the next two features that I’m currently directing and producing. The fundamentals of family and culture don’t change overnight. But they do slowly evolve. My filmmaking will continue to build on stories that inspire audiences to grow in their understanding and acceptance. And each new sunrise gives me the opportunity to rise to the challenge.