As a 9 year old boy growing up in Singapore, Terence Ching fondly remembers running his fingers through the mushy pulp of freshly grated coconut. The air thick with the aromas of chilis, onion, and garlic, as he sat on the floor of his grandmother’s kitchen, pounding the spices with a mortar and pestle. “I always say if I weren’t doing the work that I’m doing right now I would be running a food truck or attempting to open a restaurant for Singaporean,” Ching said. “I’m biased but it’s the best food in the world.”
Naturally when Ching, a first year grad student at the University of Connecticut, was tasked with bringing a dish to a potluck for cultural diversity class, he brought kimchi fried rice. This was an educational exercise to set aside notions of what makes food “good,” or “bad,” yet Ching’s kimchi fried rice remained untouched. “Maybe the food really smells bad or isn’t as tasty,” Ching thought to himself.
College is a rite of passage. We choose a track we believe will give us purpose as contributing valuable members of society. After countless all-nighters of intense studying and/or rave parties on ecstasy, we emerge transformed, more aware and comfortable with who we are. Likewise, Ching went through a transformation of his own. Yet it wasn’t because he took molly or ecstasy at a rave. As a clinical psychology student he stumbled upon a Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) clinical trial using MDMA to treat PTSD.
The first MDMA pill was handed to Ching in a ceremonial cup at a MAPS test site clinic in Boulder, CO. Laid back on a couch, Ching was immersed in visions of fantastical chimeric creatures. He swam to the depths of the ocean where he stumbled on a horseshoe crab with an iridescent rainbow colored mermaid tail. He walked upon a vast green plain where he encountered a galloping horse with a crocodile for a tail that snapped at its hooves. These psychedelic visions granted Ching a new path to healing so profound that he was compelled to broaden its reach. In true scholarly fashion, he published his psychedelic journey in a report.
Back home in Singapore, possession of MDMA is punishable by death. Despite the fact that Singapore is a global hub known for its innovations in finance, technology, and education, it remains extremely religious with archaic laws. You don’t exactly shout your queerness from the rooftops because family honor is at stake. Yet here was Ching publishing in black and white the insights he gained from psychedelic therapy, “these visions have inspired the deep realization that the journey to accepting my sexuality does not need to conform to prescribed norms,” he wrote.
Ching saw a gaping hole in our research of psychedelic therapy. People of color made up just 11% of participants in psychedelic studies conducted between 2006 – 2016. Much of the criticism levied against clinical trials in psychedelic therapy is that they’ve focused on recruiting in predominantly white spaces. We don’t know much about how effective current methods of psychedelic therapy are for people, like Ching, from intersectional or diverse backgrounds. That was the catalyst for Ching to publish his psychedelic experience. “I couldn’t even fathom, here I am being a common graduate student,” Ching said, “[there are] thousands of graduate students across the United States who never had such an immersive training opportunity and it was transformational too. It was such a point of privilege…I felt like I needed to pay it forward so to speak and it turned into that paper.”
Yet at the same time he still hadn’t figured out how to handle his parent’s reaction. From their perspective, their son was working with forbidden drugs let alone openly declaring his queerness. It was an act in direct opposition of protecting family honor. Even so, Ching believed it was worth the risk. “I think we’ve broken open the box of possibilities,” Ching said. “What do we do with queer patients? of course they would feel more connected to having queer sitters, who understand what they go through, they want someone who look like them, and I think that’s my goal so far, to be able to take up space in this community and be a voice for that, and always insist that we think about things from a diverse perspective.”
It’s been about 2 years since his psychedelic journey, and Ching still gains insight from his visions. Most recently it came to him in a dream amid an argument with his parents. “I wasn’t able to make you proud because I’m gay, so I went so far as to do a ph.D to give you something to be proud of,” he declared. It was an important acknowledgement that helped Ching come forward to his parents and strengthen their relationship in the process. “What causes people who don’t conform to normative standards a lot of distress is the fact that you’re constantly denying yourself the opportunity to affirm yourself.”
Ever since his psychedelic journey, Ching remains proud of his sexuality even as it exists at odds with his cultural pride as a Chinese-Singaporean. It manifests in little ways, like every time he cooks a different dish from his culture for his male partner’s family to experience. His kimchi fried rice is more funky than ever. “It’s never oh maybe I should tone it down, maybe I should tone the spice level down or something, never. It’s pretty unapologetic in that way.”