From as early on as I could remember, as soon as my brother and I clearly understood the concepts of race and culture, my dad clearly emphasized that we would always be seen, no matter what, as Chinese or Chinese Americans at best, and never as American as Caucasians are seen.
“And that applies even to very open minded people who see beyond your race and just as the human you are. We are visual creatures, we will always use cues in our language and culture to label and categorize what we see, even if it’s done to people unintentionally.”
He was right. He continues to be right.
It is impossible to come from a completely objective stance, as we are all products of our culture, and everything we learn is serial, interwoven and complex.
“That is why I think it is so important you know your ethnic history, and speak the language, so when you are lumped as Chinese by close minded people, you can own that part of yourself.”
My brother, being more of the “Twinkie” between the two of us, having self identified as very Americanized in most ways, found my dad’s lectures annoying.
“I’m born here in America, I am American, it’s not so important to be immersed in Chinese culture and language,” he would often retort.
“You can have a good balance,” said my dad, “but I always want you to remember where you came from and understand that you will always be Asian, visually at least, and be seen that way to some extent.”
He paused, and then said something I will never forget:
“Always be proud of who you are, never dismiss who you are and be ashamed of your roots.”
My father’s wisdom, those clear words of pride, ownership, and authenticity, came in handy in the summer of 2011.
It was mid-July, and I had just began to live fulltime as my authentic self, a woman in my gender presentation, for a mere two weeks.
The choice to come out as authentic and start living my life with a new narrative was very difficult, and I was at my friend Lou’s house. He was a self proclaimed crossdresser who actually struck me as someone who wanted to go fulltime, but was too scared to do so. He was also the father of two girls who were both in junior high school. The girls weren’t home that day.
We were hanging out in the kitchen when the fact that I went fulltime really sank into his head. I could tell he felt he was losing a guy friend, a “bro” he could hang out with and grill burgers with in the backyard. He was in a state of shock.
I was pretty sure that in his mind, he didn’t think someone as convincing as I was in being a guy could possibly be a transsexual who needed to go fulltime as a woman.
“Well, I guess this limits our interactions,” he said.
I immediately tightened up and realized the friendship was probably going to end. But I gave it my best shot in trying to keep the connection alive, even though I knew where this was going. I did my best to stay calm and receptive.
“What do you mean? You talk as if our friendship is ending.”
“It’s not ending, we just have to find a different way to go about it.”
I looked at him and implored him to elaborate, without saying anything.
“You can’t come by anymore when my parents visit and when my kids are here after school and on certain weekends,” he said.
“You are basically saying I don’t pass,” I said. “Because if I passed in your eyes, this wouldn’t be an issue. You’re afraid I’ll out you by being obviously transgender to your family members,” I said.
“Yes, I’m basically saying you don’t pass.”
I was hurting inside. How could someone who had so many transgender friends and crossdressed for so many years be so unempathetic and cold, lacking compassion towards a friend?
“So what is the most obvious feature or thing about me that gives me away,” I said with as much gentleness and tolerance as I could, trying to hide my hurt. I wanted to leave that very second, but part of me, to be honest, wanted to see how much of an ass he could make out of himself.
He didn’t disappoint.
“You’re face, the way you dress, your voice, your looks, everything dude,” he said with all seriousness.
He continued, not even noticing how much he was hurting me.
“It took a long time for me to perfect my look. I have fans on Facebook and fetish websites who like my photos. I’ve been dressing up and going out for years. Give it more time and practice and maybe someday you can be passable too,” he said.
I was absolutely shocked. And now I was getting angry.
“You let Mika come over to see your kids, she doesn’t pass.”
“Yes she does, more than you anyway,” he said defensively.
“Once you get breast implants, facial feminization surgery, and work on your wardrobe, then you will pass. It takes work, it doesn’t just happen overnight. Keep your feet on the ground and don’t delude yourself,” he said, embellishing his words with a corresponding facial expression that contained subtle disgust: disgust towards his own self, his own inability to face his internal issues, his internalized transphobia.
It was easier for him to kick me around than to process his own feelings.
“I’m really tired,” I said all of a sudden. I got up and gave him a hug, and left.
I was so pissed and furious, I went home that night and wrote him a letter.
After I poured my heart and emotions out on that letter to clarify on the fact that what he said wasn’t only hurtful to me, but incredibly judgmental towards all transgender women (including himself if he was going to explore his crossdressing further), all I got in response was “I understand” in a reply email.
I considered our friendship officially over, permanently, regardless of future circumstances.
I clearly recall my father’s advice immediately sprung up shortly after I received his email response to my letter.
I wasn’t transitioning so that I could hide my boy side. I wasn’t ashamed of the 31 years I spent in the wrong gender presentation. Wearing cute outfits and living fulltime was about being authentic and expressing myself as such; it wasn’t about looking cute, it wasn’t about turning on men, and it certainly wasn’t about reshaping my body so that I would fit what current society deems as physically womanly.
My father was right, I realized. All those year my brother and I found his parenting annoying actually came in handy in a moment of distress.
I was being myself and proud of my authentic core, my heart, being seen by the world. It wasn’t about molding and modifying my outer shell to fit some stereotype or social norm. It was about me embracing who I always was, a transgender woman. It wasn’t about hiding that truth and trying to pass as cisgender with all the invasive plastic surgery Lou was talking about.
I knew that no matter how much I did to plasticize and alter my body, that I would always be transgender. It’d be easier to own that fact and live with authenticity and pride, than it would be to spend thousands of dollars on invasive surgery, risk my health, all to hide my history.
Just like being Asian was something I could never hide, being transgender was just another facet of the same cube.
I knew I was on the right track, and I knew I had made the right decision in terminating our friendship, as I had worked too hard and loved myself too much to compartmentalize and edit myself to fit into his hidden life schedule of not being out.
What a day for me that was. Looking back, I am so proud of that choice I made in dropping our friendship.
It was honoring those types of boundaries that have given me the courage and fuel to propel me in the last three years to get me where I am today, and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to stand up for myself in that way.
Thank you dad. Your fatherly lessons have been invaluable.