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Dagger Mouth, Tofu Heart

dagger_mouthtofu_heartSome people come off as tough guys, but really, for those of us who can read people well, we can tell it’s just tough words. Deep down, they are just a soft, kind hearted individual who is frustrated, triggered by something and merely saying tough words without aggressive intentions.

One of my old band mates was like that. She always had a wisecrack, a sarcastic comment to make, especially in social situations where she had to admit fault, or where there was vulnerability, moments where she would need to share her emotions. She would over drink and insult people while drunk, or totally get close to someone while showing no self dignity.

An articulate sounding sentence would form under the guise of knowledge, but really, she was scared people would see through her insecurity or her erroneously self perceived moments of weakness, when in fact, she was one of the stronger trans women I had known, transitioning despite her personal struggles.

But often times, beneath the sarcasm and perceived wittiness, there was meanness or hurtfulness in the things said to those around us. Friends would get together after band practice and she would lash out, passive aggressively or even in argumentative ways at times.

So many transgender women, when they truly open their hearts and talk and bond heart to heart with other women, have glimpses of what I saw as a soft and warm heart. A heart made of tofu.

Yet all the meanwhile, beyond the heart of tofu, juxtaposed a strong mix of toxic and mean words spewing from a mouth full of daggers and a tongue as sharp as a razor. Especially when these transgender women were triggered by their own sense of insecurity, and self perceived illusions of being broken or sick.

Many transgender women elect to criticize through passive putdowns, play crabs in a barrel, and play small and come from their defensive armor, putting each other down to gain an upper hand on a race that no one is monitoring, to which a scorekeeper is not present. Drama is prevalent in the transgender scenes, and physical fights have broken out between many transgender women at clubs that I have attended.

I think one of the best ways, sadly, to sum up transgender women, is the phrase “Cattiness with Testosterone.” I actually swore that if I ever started a band I’d name it exactly that: Cattiness with Testosterone.

If all the energy used amongst transgender women for bickering were somehow harnessed and transmitted into a power plant, Obama would have his clean energy policy with enough amperage leftover to power Las Vegas with all the bright and shiny lights.

My friend Callan put it best when she said that transgender people essentially put on armor to go through the world, in order to survive the backlash of being marginalized, being misunderstood, having our hearts minimized, dismissed, and shunned.

It’s time to take that armor off if we are to have a chance at reaching other people’s hearts through spreading our authentic message by living as who we truly are, and not acting as we aren’t. Through sharing, compassion, and vulnerability, not judging, aggression, and fear.

As the Chinese say with their proverb, it’s time to let go of the dagger mouths and embrace our tofu hearts.

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Doctor Weinstock

dr_weinstockI visited my gastroenterologist a few months ago after returning from my trip to Shanghai.  The familiar pattern where I’ve always encountered stomach problems after visiting China hadn’t changed, but my outer appearance while at Dr. Weinstock’s waiting room certainly had a new twist.

All through my 20s, I saw Dr. Weinstock repeatedly each time I came back from Brazil, Egypt, and other foreign escapades of soul searching with an irritable stomach.  Despite me getting no closer to any answer for my identity crisis, he was always able to find the bacterial culprit to my bowel problems.

I entered the office and saw the same lady working at the front desk.  She casually asked for my insurance , name, and if I was a new patient.

“I’m a returning patient,” I said.

“Strange,” she said. “I don’t see you in our filing system.”

“That’s because I had a name change,” I said as I pulled out my court order and handed it to her.

“Oh, congratulations,” she said, assuming I got married.  She then inevitably followed with further confusion, paused, and then said: “But I still don’t see you in our system, Natalie.”

“Look here,” I said, pointing to my old name and gender marker on the court order.

“Oh….” She said gingerly.  Then another long pause.

“Ohh!” she said again, after a short double take and a clear indication she finally got it: that I had changed my name not due to marriage, but because I changed my gender presentation and legal marker too.

“Have a seat,” she said with an affirmed smile.  “The doctor will be right with you.”

After a few moments, she opened the door and led me into one of the back rooms.  The door closed and I waited impatiently, playing out a few possible outcomes of Dr. Weinstock’s reactions in my head.

My gut, despite feeling ravaged, told me he was going to react maturely and compassionately.

I heard a knock and he came inside, all the while looking at the clipboard with all my medical history.

I assumed I was out to him, no turning back.

“Natalie!” he said.  “Long time!  It’s been what…6 years or so?” he said without missing a beat.

“I see you’ve been updated on my situation,” I said with a smile.

“Yes, and let me first say ‘congratulations’ to you,” he said as he stuck his hand out and shook mines gently.

“It’s not easy what you’ve done,” he said.  “I admire your courage.  And you look incredible, very nice.  Very beautiful. Hot I might add!”

I was flattered and shocked he was so direct, but all done with gentlemanly conduct and grace.  This man really “got it,” I thought, and he understood and seemed to empathize without any presumption or confusion.  I began blushing.

“Let’s get on with business shall we?” he said as he examined me.

We went over my medical situation and afterwards, caught up a bit, and he asked me about Shanghai and I asked him about his family

“Well, I better stop talking with you before my wife gets upset,” he said jokingly.   I giggled. “Call me if you don’t feel better in 2 weeks,” he said.

All of a sudden, I felt like I was in such good hands and so relaxed and lucky to be with such a good doctor, that I didn’t want him to retire anytime in the near future.  I recalled when I saw him over 15 years ago he had already been practicing for a long time.  It suddenly saddened me to think that he was probably at the tail end of his career.

I wanted more patients to be blessed with his care, his charisma, and his compassionate conduct.

“How much longer do you plan to do this?” I asked.

“As long as I can without dropping my quality of care,” he said.

“That’s good,” I said.  “It’s amazing how you look through people’s colons and bowels all day and you’re still at it after 30+ years.”

“I always find something interesting,” he said with a chuckle.  “I really love what I do,” he said with a professional gaze.

“Well, thanks,” I said with some nostalgia, although it as the first time he saw the real me.  “It was great seeing you, thanks for the encouragement and kinds words.”

“Anytime.  You take care,” he said warmly.

I left his office feeling cared for, in good hands, and in great spirits.

After all these years of wading his camera scope through colons filled with shit and bowels of excrement, he was still able to stay cheerful, upbeat, and passionate about his work.

Through all that shit and muck, he was still able to really see me for me, not just as a patient, but as the human being behind the illnesses I presented to him.

What a sweet man.

My Inner Woman and Growth Reflected by My Enjoyment of the Movie “Keith”

KeithI saw the movie “Keith” starring Jesse McCartney as Keith and Elisabeth Harnois as Natalie, two high school adolescents trying to graduate and to find their way through life. Only, Keith is dying of cancer, and not only is the audience unaware of that until late in the movie, but he also uses his attitude towards his illness as ambition towards accomplishing one goal: having fun with the most popular and prettiest girl (Natalie) in school before time runs out.

Initially, Natalie finds Keith’s antics bewildering, as his behavior is the absolute antithesis of hers: she is granted a tennis scholarship to Duke, is in Key Club and Yearbook, and flaunts an amazing GPA right alongside her boyfriend, Raphael, the most attractive guy in school. Keith, on the other hand, drives an old yellow Chevy truck, is constantly late to class or school, is lackadaisical about assignments, and never stops being sarcastic. However, unbeknownst to Natalie, Keith deliberately chooses to be Natalie’s chemistry lab partner to insert himself in her life and spend time with her, and in the process, makes her laugh, takes her out to odd places, and authentically exhibits his uninhibited attitude towards life.

He is not afraid of what others think of him at school, and his humor, gentlemanly conduct, charm, and mysteriousness, eventually wins Natalie over as she is determined to “figure him out.” He sends car parts to Natalie’s home with instructions on how to repair them; he takes Natalie bowling, only to buy multiple bowling balls and have her put them on the lawns of their teachers’ houses so she will have “stories to tell her family when she’s older.” He takes her up to a cliff where they talk about life and their aspirations while lying in his truck bed, only to have the slight incline of the cliff send the car slowly rolling towards the edge very slowly, freaking Natalie out. As he stops the car last minute, Natalie wonders is he’s on a death wish or if he’s mentally ill, but also can’t help the attraction she feels towards him. She had been saving herself for that special someone, and they make love, and Natalie assumes now they are dating and that his mysterious behavior will change. Instead, he tells her she’s better off with Raphael, and to leave him alone, angering her in the process.

When she finds out he has cancer, they spend the remaining time Keith has left together, and the movie ends with her adopting many of his endearing qualities, such as working on the truck, taking the vehicle to an auto show in London, Canada, and her spending time pondering while the truck is rolling towards the edge of the cliff, with Natalie stopping the car last minute, mimicking what Keith did in the past.

Upon finishing the movie, I saw all these people online commenting below.

To me, the movie was unbelievably romantic, touching, and inspiring, all with a touch of humor and an immense heart-tugger.

Yet, it was unbelievable how many people trashed the movie, saying they “wanted their two hours of life back,” and how Keith had “ruined Natalie’s life” and was a “bad influence.”

As I reflected on the movie by myself and with a friend on the phone, I realized there are 3 responses to this movie:

1) Why is she throwing away her own life?

2) Oh I’m so needy, I need the same sweet guy to rescue me as well!

3) That’s awesome she found her heart’s calling and path, regardless of her original “plans.”

I realized that the old me, the me from 2011 or earlier, the me that carried so much masculine energy and held together the manly façade and approaches towards examining myself and the world, would have said the same thing as the negative commentators did.

The old me would have felt Natalie wasted her life, threw away Duke, popularity, Raphael, and her tennis, all to work on a truck like a blue collared grease monkey and have nothing to show for herself. Throwing away her rigid and well thought out plan wouldn’t have boded well with me in 2011.

The slightly older me (let’s say between 2012 to 2013), would have saw the romance and how awesome Keith was towards Natalie, and wanted the same for herself, and would want someone to rescue her from her clinginess and loneliness.

The me of yesterday, who watched the movie and saw it for what it was, thoroughly enjoyed the movie, rooted for Natalie all the way, and found the ending to be touching and inspiring: she found the barriers in her path lifted and a new path formed, and she took it with grace, dignity, and pleasure. She found her heart’s calling and followed them despite her original plans. Keith catalyzed in her an awakening, the romance and love was there, and yet she was the one to rescue herself and choose her own path.

What an epic ending to an epic interaction of finding her calling and womanhood and independence, all while genuinely expressing her love for someone without letting them do the work for her.

I realize as well that likening my reaction to choice number 3 indicated I’ve come a long way with my own growth out of my second adolescence. What an amazing journey…just like that yellow truck driving on the state highway at the end of the movie, I’m going about my life not needing to know all the answers, but to merely trust in my heart.

What woman wouldn’t like a coming of age adolescent movie like that?

Oh right, youtube commentators who thought she threw her life away…

Gratitude

gratitudeI have so much to be grateful for, but I have rarely stopped to acknowledge that in the past.

Now would be a good time to note the many things I am grateful for:

My parents, for being so accepting and supportive of me, especially during the past couple of years during my transition.  They’ve been patient, loving, caring, and empathetic….and above all else, they’ve been good listeners, without ever judging me.

Despite how hard it has been for them to lose their son and gain a daughter, they never judged me and were always and still are supportive.

And of course, there is no way I could have done this without support from friends and mentors:

Garrett was there for the first year of my transition, spending literally hundreds of hours on the phone with me, sometimes 3-4 hours at a time, per day, during the earlier stages, when I was constantly struggling with talking myself down from emotional ledges.  He was generous enough to offer enormous amounts of time to patiently help me sort through my old traumas and unprocessed emotions.

And of course, Callan, the current person who shows me endless patience and empathy, helping me daily with my ego, shame, and struggles.  She has somehow managed to put all of our conversations in perspective, constantly galvanizing the work I’ve done in the recent months into legible bits for me to digest and hence grow stronger and own my own story.

From Katie Kaboom videos to Brene Brown tapes, she has given me so much, and shared so many tools and techniques she had acquired in her years with me in such a generous manner.  I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for all the time she spent with me on a daily basis on the phone or through email exchanges in the past year, guiding me with her wisdom and helping me see the obstacles that block me from my own happiness.

My coworkers like Arly and Bhavini; my friend Mel, who accompanied me to Esalen last year; my sister in law, Debbie, who shared with me how happy Sasha and Devin were after I played with them all day last weekend…and the members from my old transgender discussion group at the South Bay LGBT Center

My friends Ammie, Shawna, Ilene, Nikki, Sabrina…you girls are the best!

Thank you for being there and touching me when it mattered most….when I was so vulnerable and sharing, you guys just sat there with me in the dark and were there for me.

I want to dedicate this post to all of those who have been there for me in the past couple of years, during a very difficult and rewarding time of change in my life……

Thank you all.

Shaving the Radish

shaved radishI find it ironic how we, as transgender folks, fight through all the shit, stigma, and strait-jackets of the gender binary, only to be bound by other aspects of binaries found in our culture, often times fueled by our ego as it doesn’t like uncertainty, fear, and shame.

Which is why, for me, transcending my ego is a top priority.  I am onto my ego now, and I’m trying to be more conscious and aware, to be more in the present moment to dissolve my ego.

I recently got a text message and phone call from an ex-girlfriend, Amy.  We met in graduate school and dated for over 2 years, and even after we broke up, we still saw each other intimately for a few more years.

Our relationship was incredibly intense, and I can say the duration of our relationship was one of the most painful yet educational segments of my life.

We occasional still keep in touch, but prior to this text I received on Christmas, we hadn’t talked in about 18 months.

We ended up talking on the phone for 30 minutes, and caught up with one another, and I realized there was still a spark there between the two of us.  The only caveat was I hadn’t told her about my gender transition, so for the entire time we were talking, she was still referring to me with my old name and what she thought was the correct gender pronoun.

She suggested we meet up for lunch, and hinted that she still loves me, and that I will always have a special place in her heart.  I told her I still thought of her quite fondly from time to time.

“Great,” she said.  “We should definitely meet up then!”

“You wouldn’t want to meet up with me now….I’ve changed a lot…” I said to her, hoping to dash her spirit.

“Change is good.  What could possibly have changed so much that you can’t even do a simple lunch with me?”

Despite the fact that she had expressed bigotry towards gays and lesbians, I knew with 100% certainty that my hesitancy to tell her I was now living as a woman had nothing to do with her views on GLBT people and everything to do with my shame gremlins.

“What if she never wants to talk to me again?  What if she thinks I’m sick?”  My ego began coughing up countless “what if” scenarios to dissuade me from telling Amy.

My ego went on: Or if I did want to meet up with her, perhaps cutting my hair and de-transitioning would be the only option?

FAT CHANCE.

So I just pulled a tranny move: I did nothing.

I was not clear about explaining my current life status with her, and I also stood my ground on justifying the reasons I didn’t need to tell her.  “I’m finally happy, and it’s none of her business anyway.  She doesn’t need to know,” I would say to myself, trying to avoid being vulnerable.

Yet, I still struggled with the fact that I felt stuck.  If I truly believed that she didn’t need to know, or if I was okay with losing touch with her, I would have felt okay and have been able to move on upon arriving at that decision.

The very fact that I still wanted to control what she thought about GLBT people and cared about her potential reaction clearly indicated that I wasn’t willing to cut my losses.  The very root of my behavior where I wasn’t letting go was being implemented by me holding off on making the one step forward that would have forced me to release control of the past.  The choice I had made to not tell Amy, in essence, was the very obstacle blocking me from letting go of our shared past.

I was too afraid to feel vulnerable.

So what made Amy so different than other friends and coworkers that I told about my transgender history?

She is also from a Chinese background.  She knew all of my buttons, and my history, inside and out.  She was much more of a threat than other candidates, given her baseline knowledge of me.

And I finally acknowledged to myself that if I couldn’t be calm about this decision, then moving forward was something I would have to do at some point.

I realized what was exhausting wasn’t the fact that I had work to do, and to do the work; it was anticipation of doing the work and procrastination.  It was beating myself up and trying to pull Houdini after Houdini in getting out of the necessary work, and exhaustion was running on the hamster wheel and not facing the necessary steps to grow.

Often times I would have knowledge or clarity about a certain issue or struggle, but my lack of practice would occasionally lead me to make poor choices, where I would watch my ego bully me into placing what I already knew weren’t binary aspects about myself into binary categories and boxes….or what I called shaving the radish endlessly.

So what can I do in the future to lessen the anxiety and tail chasing from my ego wanting to sort binaries?  Understand that self actualizing and integrating isn’t always comfortable, but that doesn’t mean I have to know the results beforehand and fear the unknown.  To acknowledge that most of my amazing experiences were all completely different than what I had planned or anticipated, and most importantly….to enjoy the journey rather than seek the destination.

And after all this tail chasing, Amy not only reacted in a nonchalant manner to my updated womanly pictures, but she also asked if we could get together for lunch this Saturday so she could see how beautiful I am in person now that I’m living as myself.

Smack my head.

Little Girls Club

stairwell_hidingI had the honor of having a temporary membership for Sasha’s little girl’s club, where meetings were held spontaneously at the storage gap located between the stairwell.

My 3 year old niece didn’t care that I had trouble fitting into a tiny enclosure.  Only my torso could fit as my legs dangled out onto the stairs.  Sasha could almost fully stand in there, but even she kept hitting her head as the space was so tiny.

Aside from my occasional concerns when she did bump her head with the top of the “cave,” I was in a state of bliss, completely in the moment.  I felt 10 years younger, spending time with my adorable niece who didn’t cast any judgment, and saw me as kin, as someone who she felt was safe to share vulnerable moments.

She loves to pull her “gi” (in Sasha lingo that would mean “blanket”) up over her head and hide.  Sasha quickly noticed I didn’t have a “gi,” so she told me: “Stay in the cave Gu Gu (Chinese for auntie)….I’ll bring you a gi.”

I rolled onto my side to ease the discomfort of being coiled in an awkward position, and Sasha, despite being downstairs, saw me and said: “Gu Gu, I said stay in the cave…..I’ll be back.”  She killed me.

When our little girl cave was fully supplied with stuffed animals and blankets, we resumed hiding.  It was so cozy in there, and she rested her head on top of my tummy.

I completely lost track of time, and we were complete equals, despite our age difference.  We were just 2 girls playing, and it was so pleasant I even forgot about the discomfort of being forced into the shape of a pretzel.

Then Sasha did something that really touched me.

She went into massive detail about how her preschool friend, Rebecca, wasn’t attending school with her anymore.

“She hurt her lip, and bleeding, and I got her band aid, and I don’t see her in school,” said Sasha.

She paused for a bit….and then said: “And I miss her,” with droopy eyes and a nostalgically fond look.

She was completely vulnerable, and just laid out her feelings.  I understand kids are much less restricted than we are, and show their feelings openly.  But for me, I’ve had to work hard to reconnect with myself throughout the years, and learn to be vulnerable again.

And I had the privilege to sit in the dark with her (quite literally), and show her my empathy.  That took vulnerability on my part, and I was happy with how I prompted and handled myself.

The safe space Sasha felt was partly due to being in the cave, but I could tell she felt comfortable with me to share something personal and something that emotional for her.

I had to be in a good space, a gentle and vulnerable space in order for that to happen.

We hugged a while after.

“Awwww, it’s okay,” I said to Sasha.  “You’ll see her again.  Maybe Mommy and Daddy can set up a play-date for you to see Rebecca.”

She lit up, and everything was A-okay again.

The time spent in Sasha’s cave was the best part of my weekend, by far.

Vulnerability, empathy, sitting in the dark cave and sharing and feeling and being there with her…..

And I got a glimpse of my lost girlhood, a girlhood I never experienced.  I got to feel like I was a kid again, in the proper gender, with my preferential gender appropriate stuffed animals, toys, and friend of choice.

What a gift….to share a few precious moments with my niece Sasha in our little girls club.

Conventional vs Unconventional Shame

conventional_vs_unconventionalI’ve been presenting as myself now for almost 3 years.  I’ve come so far with my confidence and my ability to be comfortable in my own skin.  I’ve been able to thrive in many aspects of my life as of late, and the work I’ve put in since my gender transition is paying dividends.

Transitioning my gender has been a monumental task, and one that is still a work in progress.  Prior to transition, I always thought it was a pipe dream, and I tried to suffocate who I was, denying my feminine heart and calling due to fear and shame.

I’ve overcome so much of that fear and shame, as transition is obviously a big step and a clear indicator that I’ve taken the steps necessary to embrace myself.

Yet, I still struggle with shame in so many other areas of my life….areas which have nothing even remotely related to gender or my transgender history.  Upon first glance, I would have thought overcoming transition shame would clear the roadblocks in so many other areas of my life where I’ve struggled with shame.

But that simply wasn’t the case.

It’s clear now that my transgender shame, to me, was unconventional shame….and that the shame I felt as a result of my upbringing and life history, was actually my conventional shame.

And my conventional shame is much harder to deal with than my unconventional shame.

Why?

Because the source of my conventional shame comes from facets like my Chinese American background, being raised to value the family name, caring what the collective community thinks, and achieving ambitious goals through perfectionism.

My unconventional shame is rooted in my transgender history.

When I break conventional shame, I lose connection with those such as family and my immediate community, as all people do when breaking conventional bonds.

However, when I broke unconventional shame, I got to finally be myself and live as a woman, after waiting for over 3 decades.

It’s ironic how breaking unconventional shame can be so much easier than breaking conventional shame, despite the former being typically laced with enormous stigma.

So what can I do at this junction of my life to help me break conventional shame?  What are tools and techniques that will allow me to love myself in spite of feeling shame in everyday things that I do?

I think the first obvious step would be to take responsibility for the work I have left to do, and acknowledge where I’m at.  I now no longer have the scapegoat of blaming all of my shame and subsequent hurtful behavior and actions on being transgender, on being a victim in an unempathetic world towards gender non-conforming people such as myself.  Although transgender violence is still an unfortunate reality and a topic that still needs massive amounts of attention, it is not an everyday issue for me in terms of functioning in the world.  That, I must say, I am grateful for and thank my Mother in the Sky.

Therefore, I think the natural step would be to pay attention to my shame triggers, and to continue building up shame resilience through diligence, patience, vulnerability, and showing empathy towards myself and those around me.  To pay attention to the blockages that are still in place which hold me back from my bliss.  To be grateful, and to show gratitude whenever possible, and essentially, to strive to live a wholehearted life with authenticity and courage.

As I continue to do the work, I can reflect back on my milestones and continue to reaffirm I am worthy of love, belonging, and happiness.