On passing and privilege

I’ve been kicking around ideas for a post for a few weeks now, some grand statement on coming out on the Internet, and what that means. As I’ve not gotten around to writing it (n.b. I choose to describe this not as procrastination, but as the deep, meditative period that is an essential part of the writing process), what I wanted to write about has shifted. On some level, I think, I wanted to write this post but was already bored by it. I have come out so many times, to so many people, and have read about so many other people coming out, that I feel like it’s a moot point.*

But it isn’t. Because I have come to discover another level, the one that is still holding on to fear, closets, shame, internalized homophobia, and privilege. I’m fairly certain that most people I’ve met post-college, those who are at least familiar enough to be considered acquaintances, assume or know I’m queer. I cut my hair last year, after I stopped working in middle schools, because I was tired of passing. As straight. The unexpected consequence, one that I’m still getting used to, is that now I don’t always pass (or, more precisely “read”) as female.

A few weekends ago, I was in line for the women’s restroom at the David Henry Hwang Theater in Little Tokyo. A woman tapped me on the shoulder and informed me, “The men’s restroom is on the other side.” In that split second, I experienced not anger and frustration, but confusion and violation. (Don’t worry, anger and frustration came into play later.)

A few days later, as I was still figuring out my reaction(s), I brought up the incident with a queer friend who has a different relationship with gender and passing. I was trying to explain why I was upset, and our conversation centered on the moment of misunderstanding. My friend suggested that the incident was upsetting because the woman in the bathroom made assumptions about how I identify and tried to determine and impose where I belong, and not upsetting because of the gender policing, per se. I disagreed, but couldn’t articulate why I found both problematic.

The next day, my friend brought the conversation up again and said that one thing I’d repeated stuck out: “I identify as female.” His experiences with gender, sexuality, passing — and danger — are different than mine, and, he said, he was interpreting my experience through his own.**

Having that second conversation helped crystallize what I was feeling. In the moment, I felt violated — to have been touched, labeled different, confronted by someone else’s assumptions. And I also felt violated because I know where every bathroom in that building is; I stage manage in the courtyard outside of the Union Center for the Arts, and I drink a lot of water.

But I also felt that powerful mix of shame and fear that too many people in too many communities know far too well, in the moments when a dominant group, in the most subtle (or not at all subtle) of ways, leverages its reminders about who is in power, what is considered normal, acceptable, morally correct. I am almost certain that the woman who tapped me on the shoulder thought she was doing me a favor. In spite of the fact that I was in the middle of a very crowded line of very femininely-dressed women. In spite of the fact that the men’s restroom is closer to the theater exit, so we had both walked by it to get to the women’s restroom. And in spite of the fact that I was wearing heels and holding my clutch, oops, JK, that’s not my Saturday night outfit of choice. I felt fear. And I felt powerless. In that moment, the best I could come up with was stammering “I’m female,” in something that was far closer to an apology than I care to admit. Because it wasn’t just about that moment. It brought back the first time I experienced transphobia in a very real, very public way and felt, to my bones, physically unsafe. It brought back the smirk of the man on the bus who took the aisle seat and kept edging closer to me as I shrank against the window, until I finally got up to stand by the driver, and the anger I felt when I took off running for my friend’s place, knowing that he had gotten off at the same stop and was nonchalantly, smirkingly, sauntering in my direction. It brought back the time I was in Grenoble with my friend Liz and we were surrounded by a group of teenage boys who wanted to know what kind of Asian we were, where we were from, where we were going, as they kept circling closer and taunting us, with just enough edge of threat in their voices to make me start trying to figure out which one looked weakest, how to edge closer to the wall to close off the circle and keep them all in front of us. It brought back the painful memory that the first time a girlfriend held my hand in public, my first thought was not about us, but about our safety.

People who don’t fit in to dominant culture learn how to make these calculations, learn how to identify escape routes and the quickest way to safety, learn to look for recognition and disapproval in the eyes of strangers. It is a violation when someone exerts their power over you, whether as a threat or as a reminder. 

I’m putting in a subhead here to transition back to talking about being out
Originally, I wanted to write a version of this post because I needed to submit an artist bio for Common Ground OC, for their July 5 show. As the deadline approached, I realized that I had yet to announce on the Internet, “Hey Internet, I identify as queer!” And I hesitated. Not, like, got-back-in-the-closet-considered-dating-men-exclusively-grew-my-hair-back-out hesitated, but there was a definite pause. A moment of reflection, I suppose.

I was downloading Paintbrush for Mac, but then I got bored of waiting. Imagine that I drew boxes around my name and “queer” and added an arrow and something snarky. Also, sorry that all of my blog images are actually just screen caps.

My mind came back to the idea of “rational outness,” something one of my queer professors had brought up in class as a way of explaining that awkward moment when the practice of being out in some spheres (where it’s safe) and not being out in others (where it’s not). Funny thing is, those spheres kind of overlap a lot. At the time I learned the phrase “rational outness,” it was a blessing. It gave me a way to view coming out as a step-by-step process, one that I had control over and could share with people as I chose to.*** But now, here, four or so years later, I’ve realized that “rational outness,” for me, emphasis on “me,” and this being about my experience, is a copout. It’s a way for me to stay partly in the closet, because I’m afraid of losing something — safety, yes, but also privilege, authority, power, relationships.

One of my former co-workers, who identified as queer, sort of, but really chose not to identify, explained that she didn’t want to identify as queer, publicly, because she was able to make a stronger case for equal rights when people considered her a straight ally, just like she was able to do anti-racist work as a white person. Something about this, also, feels like a copout. And I recognize that I am viewing her personal decisions through the lens of my own experience, and my own decisions about when to be out. But for me, here, now, rational outness isn’t enough. I can’t help but think of the shared root in “rational” and “rationalize,” as in “attempt to explain or justify with reasons, even if those reasons are not true.” As in, find excuses to stay in the closet and benefit from heteronormative privilege.

To put it simply, and I am quoting from a wise, wise friend here: Fuck that. Fuck THAT.

I am done with hiding, with being 97.03% out of the closet, done with glossing over gender pronouns out of respect for elders, out of fear of upsetting people, out of wanting to protect family members from uncomfortable conversations. I am done with wondering whether I should keep my hair so I can find a respectable job. (Turns out, not a big deal. I have been dissuaded, however, from getting a fade with my nonprofit’s logo in the back of my head.) One of my mentors (“gay den mom,” really) asked, more than once, “Why would you want to work for a place where you couldn’t be yourself?” I don’t know, why would I? I wouldn’t. I don’t. Done with that.

I want to make this clear: I get to write this from a place of privilege. I am lucky to be able to work at a place that fully embraces women, people of color, queer people, people who stand in different places on the gender spectrum, people who have experienced mental health issues, violence, homelessness, and a system that has tried to break them. I am lucky to work for an organization that believes, to its core, in empowerment, at the level of every individual human who comes through our doors. I don’t have to choose between being able to be fully myself and being able to support myself. We should all be so lucky.

As important as it is to have straight allies, to have male feminists, to have white, anti-racist activists be part of our conversations and struggles for social justice …

It is absolutely critical that people speak for themselves. To stand up for their identities, whether as a quote-unquote marginalized voice, or as a member of a historically underrepresented group, or as an out, proud, queer, female-identified, Taiwanese-American (but ethnically Chinese), second generation poet/nerd/blogger.

Having a voice matters. Using your voice makes a difference. Embracing who you are and how you choose to express yourself is a way to live each day more fully human.

I am a poet. I write from multiple perspectives. Being queer, being Asian, being second-generation, being an English major, being really into puns, being human — and, sometimes, being deeply afraid — all of these perspectives influence my work.

They also inspire it.

* Although, of course, it’s apparently possible to be too blasé about coming out; once, I kind of just slipped it into a conversation with a friend while we were in line for the bathroom at a bar. She almost fainted. She claims it was the heat and her low alcohol tolerance. I think she got the vapors.

** For anyone taking notes on this kind of thing, I believe this is a pretty damn good example of what “decent human being” means. Like, for real, how many people that you know seek you out after having reflected on a conversation you had in passing to apologize for an assumption they later realized they made, and to make sure that you’re OK? Also, hey, now that you’re flipping through your mental Rolodex identifying those friends, how ’bout you give them a call and tell them they’re awesome?

*** Except, I guess, for the time when the news editor yelled across the newsroom of the Daily Bruin, “Audrey, are you a lesbian?” I am calling you out, Anthony J. Pesce, not cool. His justification: It led to dates (mine).

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exquisite (pt. 2) — rewrite

It’s hard to keep track of the date when you experience every day as an extended round of Russian roulette. A never-ending game, and with each daybreak, a new round begins. I measure out my temporal location in units of steps, constantly calculating distances to the next block, the next corner. Where do I run if someone tries something right now? How long will it take to get there? What about now? Where do I run if someone tries something?

Defining my actual location is an act of triangulation. Half a block up from that store I was harassed in last week, sixty-eight steps south of the dumpster with neatly tied bags of day-end bagels, two blocks east from where I decided that pretending to want a back-alley fuck was a smaller price to pay than losing my tenuous hold on my own belief that I could fend for myself out here.

The streets are no place for a pretty young lady like you. Why you hiding that smile? Hey, where you going? You need some company? Why you walking so fast, girl? Come here and have a good time.

Don’t ever forget it. Every day is a fucking struggle. It’s like a fucking contest from one block to the other: How many different stories and traps can you pack into one stretch of concrete? I could draw you a treasure map of the places that are least safe to be, but if you asked me to mark the X on the spot that’s the safest, I would have no idea where to place it.

You play these games constantly out here. But you gotta switch it up enough to keep yourself guessing. Some nights I curl up on a bench, drift off to a few hours of sleep letting myself believe that as long as I’m off the concrete, I haven’t hit bottom yet. Other nights, it’s just not worth the energy it would take to imagine that hard. On those nights, I find myself slumped against a wall, too defeated to stretch out, already feeling the stiffness of waking up cold a few hours later. Staying half-awake nights is a different kind of pretend, when I wrap myself in the blanket of a little sense of security, dreading the idea of being wrenched awake from a decent dream by the call of the reality waiting on the other side of my eyelids.

You know, worry isn’t a precise enough word. I have had more than enough time to ponder this: There isn’t one word powerful enough to capture the mix of fear and despair, the terror of not knowing the moment you’ll finally lose the battle against your wanting to throw it all down and just — stop. More than a few nights, I have forced myself to just kept walking, to push forward so it feels like I’m moving toward something, going somewhere.

I remember this one time in school, a science teacher told us all a story about sea glass, the way it gets tumbled smooth by the constant friction against water and sand. Rocks do it, too, in the ocean. They just get worn down and down, until they break into smaller rocks, then into tiny round pebbles polished by the crashing waves. How long you think that takes? I wonder if the rock ever questions if it’s worth it, the pain of being sanded down, having pieces of yourself rubbed away, never sure when the process finally stops. All those things we think are beautiful, they come from hardship: the pearl borne from an oyster’s pain, the diamond that started as a poor lump of coal going through hell. You don’t think about what all that takes, just romanticize the idea of being forged through fire. Maybe it’s not the triumph of spirit and will we tell ourselves it is. That oyster is just trying to protect itself, throwing up walls within its own flesh, because the shell failed to keep the intruder out. The oyster hardens from the inside out, like the diamond that shrinks in on itself, girding its heart against the overbearing pressure.

And the sea glass, catching the light just so in your palm, when did the pieces give up? At what moment did letting the world scrape away your skin become easier than fighting back? Now, they offer no hard edges to reach out and cling, they are tossed and buffeted by the waves, then thrown ashore for you to gather and remove. Those pieces of frosted beauty started as something else, as shards, and — before that, a long time ago — as a whole.

Is that what it takes, transformation? I wonder about the process, the lengths it will ask me to take. If I let the world keep chipping, grinding, smoothing, will I become beautiful again?

OP: “roulette, square, pebble, worry

native tongue: poetry and prose

I’m calling this a then and now, but it’s probably closer to a translation. I remember reading a list of writing exercises (in middle school, I think), that suggested writing poetry, putting it away for a few months, then turning it into prose, putting that away, and turning that piece back into a poem. It has taken me just over a decade to try this. [For the record, I am choosing to see this not as a sign of some inherent need to procrastinate, but of (a) having an excellent memory and (b) setting really long-term goals, then following through.]

Anyway, as I mentioned before, I’ve been writing through The Undeniables since the beginning of November. (See the terrible first piece here. Or read a piece I’m actually a little proud of.) Coming up with topics has been kind of a struggle, the same struggle that has been a really convenient excuse not to write fiction for the past two decade or so. (I was a very prolific author in early elementary school.)

Today, I forced myself to submit a piece to a lit mag, something that has been on my calendar for the last three months (long-term goals, not procrastination). Instead of pulling together some of my Undeniables fiction (procrastination, goal fail), I ended up turning in a spoken-word piece, and I was going to cheat and post it to my Undeniables blog, too, but pretty much the only requirement of the Writers Workshop is that you write every day, so instead I turned the poem into prose. Fin introduction.

native tongue
(April 25, 2011)

It’s that ‘compliment’ that I know is going to make me angry:
‘Wow! You speak English so well. You’re so — eloquent! Where did you learn to talk like that?’

Where did I learn to talk like that?
Motherfucker, I was born here.

I study poems like the lines of my hands, devour novels like short stories, curl up at night with the Oxford English Dictionary tucked under my pillow –-
Actually, that was hyperbole, exaggeration used as rhetorical device.
Have you seen the Oxford English Dictionary? It’s, like, real real big

If you slept with the OED tucked under your pillow, you’d wake up with a crick in your neck and a spine as stiff as the one you pressed your cheek against.

That was wordplay, asshole.

I do double entendres, too.
I have earned my poetic license,
spent my hours behind the wheel,
passed your accent tests, too.

You — do you know what this language has cost me?
I am first-generation Chinese illiterate.
I cannot read my grandfather’s poems.
I live 6,776 miles away from the ashes of my grandmother’s bones.
And I am still searching for a way to write the word ‘home’ in a tongue that feels like my own.
I am still searching for cracks in the concrete to sink my naked roots in.

Maybe that’s why the word ‘diaspora’ depresses me.
Every time I hear it, I think of dandelion seeds blowing in the wind.

They can’t go home again.
I can’t go home again.
And I know I will write this poem again.

I know I will write this poem again
So maybe my rage is displaced —
I am aiming my anger at easy-target bigots
Instead of facing the fact that sometimes I resent my parents, for turning their backs on Taiwan,
for leaving behind tea and rice for Coke and Big Macs,
for the pursuit of an American dream built on San Francisco railroads,
built on Chinese workers backs.

Maybe I’m tired of seeing the banana in the mirror,
yellow on the outside, white on the inside,
split between a culture I’m surrounded by,
and one I don’t even really know.

Maybe I’m afraid to face my disappointment in myself,
for choosing to study French instead of Chinese;
I cannot read the stories my grandmother told to her four children.

And maybe I’m embarrassed by my shame,
embarrassed to be embarrassed when strangers mispronounce my name,
the way I mispronounce the phrases my parents spoke as schoolchildren,
the phrases they would speak if they went home again.

They can go home again.
But I — I can’t go home again
And I know I will write this poem again
In English,
which I speak
so well.

native tongue
(December 22, 2011)

Every time someone comments on my writing or the way I speak, I feel myself controlling my reaction. Most times, I accept the compliment at face value, but I’m always aware of undertones, or of the way faces register surprise. These days, most people are sophisticated enough to know they’re not supposed to ask where people “are really from,” but the question is still there, their faces comical as they desperately try to control their expressions and mask their curiosity.

Once, when I was on vacation in China, I overheard an older white couple struggling with chopsticks and trying to figure out if they could procure other utensils. When I offered to help, in fluent English, the woman practically jumped, like I was a secret agent sneakily blending in with the locals. (For the record, no Chinese person ever mistook me as a native, even before I opened my Coke-drinking mouth.)

The woman carefully pulled her eyebrows back to their normal resting place, thanked me for the offer, stuttered a bit, and finally settled for commenting on how eloquent I was.Eloquent. I hate that these strangers have imbued such a beautiful word with the dark stain of their own ignorance. I imagine running into that same woman on a street in California, wonder if she would speak slowly and loudly to me, then jump the same way at my rapid-fire, unaccented response.

During that same trip, I cursed my own inability to blend in, the way my tongue felt clumsy trying to wrap around the sounds my ears were used to hearing; there was some kind of disconnect in my brain that I just couldn’t get around, a physical metaphor of the vast gap between how I’d imagined my return to the Motherland and the hourly reminders that I was a foreigner here, too.

I jotted down fragments of thoughts in a notebook I had shoved into my back pocket, composed a few lines of what later became a spoken-word piece grappling with hyphenated identity. At the time, though, I was bitter that even my sense of loss was expressed in English, that I couldn’t document the things I was feeling in the language I grew up with but had never mastered. As a poet, being functionally conversational is not much better than not being able to speak a language at all; the nuances of words, of their tone, the complexities of their accreted meaning — all of the things that make language beautiful — are swept away when you’re using words as crude tools, enough to get by on. I wanted art. I wanted poetry. I wanted to be able to read the poems my grandfather composed during his own twenty-something existential crises.

The word “diaspora,” from the Greek for “scattering, dispersion,” has always had a haunting quality to me. All I can think of is people being thrown to the wind like dandelion seeds, incapable of finding their way back to their roots. My own parents’ journey to the States was already an echo of their own parents’ migrations: China to Taiwan to San Francisco, following the paths of so many others who, to the bai ren, all look the same. Even the stories start to sound alike, so that the second-generation kids, eager to bust out of another family history lesson and rejoin their American friends in pickup football, start to conflate the details into one shared narrative. We gave up our family to come here. To make a better life for you. To provide you with opportunities. So you could vote. So you could be free. So you could have a career, daughter. Get an education. Study hard. Make our sacrifice worthwhile.

For them, the storytellers, fate has already been sealed. Their greatest fears are realized when they finally understand that they, too, have lost the poetry of their native tongue. Their American schoolchildren do not hear the melody of their words; their alphabet-blinded eyes cannot recognize the beauty of delicate brushstrokes, the visual puns and secret messages waiting to be discovered. What use, then, is it to speak in metaphor, to imprint their daily banter with idioms?

The irony is deep, generational. I have taken the poetry of Chinese away from my parents, robbed them of an audience; they, my birthright voice, by surrounding me in a culture that promised success and demanded perfect diction as its price.

Somewhere, floating above our heads, dandelion seeds are being tossed in air currents, desperately seeking fertile soil to sink in shallow roots.

Do we make history, or does history make us?

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Two of my math students mentioned today that their essay tutor had assigned them the topic “Do we make history, or does history make us?” They said they didn’t really understand the “history makes us” part of the prompt, so we discussed it a little during our break; I asked them if they keep journals, … Continue reading