Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Finding a Narrative

Last weekend was my second-to-last weekend in Hamburg. I spent it fairly quietly, with a lot of sleeping in and lazing around and reading this truly excellent comic that a couple of my friends convinced me to read. But I also walked around in neighborhoods I haven't visited, and I went to the Kunsthalle and spent a couple of hours looking at the art.

Although I have been living here for two months, I don't feel as though I really *get* Hamburg or belong to it the way I felt like I belonged to Berlin. That's part of the problem, of course: Berlin got to me first, and made such a deep impression on me, that I'm afraid nothing else will ever live up to it. Hamburg had the misfortune of being the direct following act. And I like Hamburg, I do, but Berlin stole my heart. Studying abroad in a city deeply scarred by history and at the center of international politics both in the past and today, especially living as I did with two retired teachers who were both born in Berlin in the tail end of World War Two, and being there with friends who were thinking about and asking similar time in Berlin supported my personal narrative of becoming more aware of the world and caring more about helping to solve its problems.

My time in Hamburg has been, through my fault entirely, far more isolated. I mean, I could have gone to the University of Hamburg more often and been bolder and talked to people. But I didn't, and I probably won't in my last month here. The trips I've taken this summer have been much more past-focused than present- or future-focused: Lübeck, Queen of the Hanse, an organization which declined as nation-states rose. Salzburg, which has significance to me because it features prominently in Übermädchen, a novel set in 1777. The Nordsee, the ocean, the eternal. On Friday I fly to Rome for the weekend and because I idolize Augustus Caesar, you know I'm going to be focusing on what was there two thousand years ago.

I know it sounds like I'm whining, which is stupid because I am ridiculously lucky to have the opportunity and the means to travel so much. And one thing that being in Europe has taught me is that the past matters: being too future-focused, which is what I'd call one of my defining traits, is often dangerous because you ignore the reasons the world is the way that it is. Not to say that means you give up on changing it, but rather, be aware of what has been here before, and what tracks you may fall into.

There are a couple of specific reasons I'm frustrated:

1) The next time I leave Hamburg after Rome will be going back to Berlin for a day where everyone who took part in the internship program shares their experiences (and then a weekend with a couple of friends [the same friends who showed me the comic linked above]). I'm stressing because I don't know what I'm going to say, and I'm worried that I'll look like a fool and a waste of time/money. Like I didn't make the most of my opportunity because I mean, objectively? I didn't. I go to work and I come home. I have not made friends with any Germans beyond the ones with whom I live (and I've had some very good, human-contact-affirming conversations with various Asian women who see me and feel solidarity and thus strike up conversation).

One of the points of the internship program is to strengthen transatlantic ties, and I don't know if I've done much or any tie-strengthening. My personal appreciation for Europe--appreciation as in "I like it" and appreciation as in "I see what it's about"--has deepened, certainly, and adulting more thoroughly than I did even in Berlin has strengthened my own confidence in how I'll be able to navigate the world in the future--but what is so special about the fact that I can now cook more than pasta and manage my money and go on trips by myself without having everything go terribly wrong? And I've enjoyed and will enjoy my travel this summer but I also wanted to volunteer and do something, anything, to help refugees but I just...haven't. I mean, another thing I've realized is that really helping people requires long-term commitment, but I could have tried harder to find ways to do good for others.

But that gets to what I wanted to talk about with this post: finding a narrative. A good thing about being alone a lot is that you stop performing quite so much. That's why I instated the policy where I do memorials alone. That's why I generally prefer to go through museums solo as well, because what calls to me may not call to someone else, and if I'm there to experience art I don't also want to have to justify my artistic tastes. The Kunsthalle has a special exhibition of Piranesi's Carceri d'Invenzione which is ending on Sunday, and was really the reason I decided to go in this weekend, and sure enough I spent a disproportionate amount of time in the room with these architectural grotesqueries, staring at the dark lines and the stairs and arches and threatening shadows. I don't know what it is about them that resonates so deeply, but they do, and I needed to let that resonance happen without worrying about how that was being read.

Yet: I'm going to have to talk about my summer in a way that is consumable by others, and because I'm pretentious and want to keep up the facade of being deep, I want a Narrative. I want to say something profound, that sets the world on its side in the minds of my listeners for a while...when really, I mean, this is a summer internship, on a different continent so I went on a bunch of fun trips to fairly touristy places because I don't know the next time I'm coming back. Could I have engaged more with modern life in Hamburg, the life of the youth and the students and so on? Yeah. But I live and work in a quiet part of town so I just bike to work and back and hey! I learned to cook lentil soup.

Architecture is neat and the people are nice but I want to do something more technical and more responsive to social needs in the future. This is an honest thing I can say, but I also don't want to sound ungrateful for the opportunity because I really, really do like the people I work with. A positive thing I've been feeling--although it hasn't made it onto this blog, because I write more when I'm upset or frustrated about things--is the satisfaction of going around town and seeing streets or buildings where I have touched the work, even if in a small way. I haven't been here long enough to see a project through, but I can imagine how good it feels to go past a building, or for me a piece of infrastructure, being used and lived in/with, and know--I made that. This is why I feel so much more satisfaction working on stuff related to projects that are further along in development. Making a model for speculative future development is technically more intricate work, but my favorite thing I've done so far is the emergency escape paths I drew on existing plans, because work that I did may help save lives in the future. That is a good feeling.

And that is only one thing. I wish it didn't make me feel better to have sound bites ready, but I'm going to keep working on preparing sound bites.

2) I've been slipping on keeping up with the news. Specifically European news, because although I'm here the email newsletters I subscribe to tend to be very US-focused. (This is why I signed up for the Der Spiegel newsletter about half an hour ago). I don't know what the latest news on the situation in Turkey is; despite having presented twice in the past year for German classes about the refugee crisis I still feel as though I don't really know anything about it. The big names in German politics I know--Angela Merkel, Sigmar Gabriel--but after almost five months living here I should have a more nuanced understanding.

Over the weekend I read the New York Times feature story Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart. It is very long and in-depth, and I highly recommend it. But block out a couple of hours. I read the whole thing in one sitting--couldn't stop myself, because it was that engrossing. And at the end I sat back and thought, why was so much of this new information to me? Why wasn't I reading the news more in spring 2011? Of course most of it is my fault, but at the same time, a story such as the above could not have been written without some hindsight...

...and yet, wouldn't waiting yet another few years to see how the current situation plays out add another layer to it? And would the story be worsened if it had been published a couple of months earlier? I write stories in which the arc of the plot is usually pretty clear to me beforehand, but the world is not like that, and when reporters stop recording in real life is far more arbitrary than when a writer decides to end the story. You read one article, more things happen, you have to keep reading. You're never done.

That's one reason why it's more comfortable to be past- or future-oriented than present-oriented: because the present is messier. On such a short timescale as the one in which we live, it's hard to see the trajectory, because if you zoom in close enough it's just a line (thank you, calculus). What is signal and what is noise? Is it significant that I feel ill thinking about a customer service phone call I have to make, or is it significant that I sent a bunch of emails to people in industry? (My confidence in my ability to be an adult has increased but so has my anxiousness about doing so.) Is my friendlessness this summer an obstacle that I will overcome or a character defect that will haunt me for the rest of my life?

The conclusion to this is the usual one: you don't find a narrative, you make a narrative. I'm going to make that phone call, on Monday at the latest, and it's going to be awful because I hate phone calls and if it goes poorly I'll probably sulk for a few hours, and I'll turn in housing paperwork and probably sulk about that too, and I'll make myself lentil soup, and all the other life-maintenance tasks that adults do, and eventually I'll be okay at it. As for the interesting part of my story--I'll keep working on that too.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


This past weekend I turned twenty. To celebrate, I took myself up to the North Sea.



Sea Fog - Keane


The ocean (and I'm counting the North Sea as a part of the ocean because it's all connected anyways) holds a prominent place in my personal mythology. Chaos, the unknown, that which is eternal. I love the ocean best when it is overcast and windswept and cold, which it was on my birthday, because then it is perfect for thinking. "Winter is the best time to set your thoughts in order," ten-year-old me wrote in a poem about cold weather, and the North German summer feels fairly similar to California winter.

This summer has not been one of contentment. Or rather, it has, but I recognize that contentment is not satisfaction, contentment is not long-lasting growth and happiness. I go to work and I do tasks which do not require me to exercise the technical skills I am training, and I have a good time because my co-workers are nice, and I come home and I derp around on the Internet, and I plan fun weekend trips and cook for myself so as to be able to afford them, and it is a quiet, neat, small life and I am frustrated with it. I am frustrated because this work is not the work I will be doing for the rest of my life. I am frustrated because I leave at 1700 sharp some days because there's no sense of urgency, no need for me to push myself late. I am frustrated because I feel as though I am punching below my weight--I should be doing something more, something that is going to leave a stronger mark upon the world, something...

Well, I asked myself as I sat in the dunes the day I turned twenty, what do you want your contribution to the world to be?

I answered: I want to build useful and important structures. The big three are energy, water, and transportation infrastructure. I want to buck the trend of the technically competent engineer who has no sense of social responsibility, and I want to build things where they are needed. I want to leave things behind that will continue to create value for decades, for centuries, for millennia after I die. Projects that achieve progress on multiple fronts: correcting structural injustice, protecting the natural environment, and so on.

Beyond that, I also want to write stories that show people that magic exists, that you can create your own power, that the people who are overlooked are often the most important. That kindness and honor and treating other people like people matters and is powerful and that this way of interacting with the world will win.

My problem this summer is that I've found a nice, comfortable steady state. I've written before about wanting to find a routine, about longing for permanence, but what I've discovered now is that that's only half of it. Equilibrium of routine must be matched by a sense of trajectory--forward motion--progress--in the work the routine supports. The day-to-day has to add up to something, when you look back.

Sitting on the dunes, I realized that, of course, one of the big problems is that I've fallen out of my writing routine. Two years ago I spent a couple of hours every morning working on Ubermadchen and consequently racked up 100,000 words in a summer. I wrote Monday to Friday and took weekends off, and I remember when I mentioned that to people they were impressed. Because, in hindsight, it is a sign of dedication, of treating writing as a job and blocking out enough time to do it that you also have to block out time not to do it. Then college happened and I haven't had a real writing routine since, which is terrible, because I know and have known for years that when I write regularly, things are better.

I decided that although I have a lot of novel ideas, the priority is putting writing back on the schedule as a regular thing rather than pursuing a high-overhead project. They say that college is a four-year sprint and junior year I'm planning to go full tilt into my professional goals, so my writing plan going forward is what my writing plan for spring/summer was supposed to be: short stories (which, because I'm me, will probably end up running to 5,000-10,000 words) exploring various worlds and settings and styles. I had a period of such artistic exploration fall 2012 when I was between the Utopia Project revision and Orsolya, and that was very good for me, so even though it's a compromise, I am looking forward to this. Taking the long view, unless one of my novel ideas really starts calling out to me and I am motivated to put in good, solid effort into worldbuilding and plotting, I'm probably going to be writing short works for at least the next two years.

(What does it say about me that every opportunity to reflect just ends up producing more and more plans?)

I am twenty years old. At my age, Octavian Caesar was a consul of Rome. Since I've been working my way (very [very] slowly) through a German biography of Augustus that I purchased last month, I've been feeling the connection to Octavian even more strongly than usual. I catch myself thinking his famous phrase a lot--festina lente. Make haste slowly.

When I first heard that I thought it was dumb and wrong--why not do things fast but unhurriedly? But I think that growing older is really the factor that has made me appreciate more and more the truth of it. Change takes time. People's opinions don't change overnight, trajectories don't reverse instantaneously. You can work for years and years and things can look the same as they always have. It takes something out of the ordinary to maintain the needed level of intensity over years, to approach your work with urgency and care yet also have the patience to let the seeds grow.

I'm thinking about the policy platform of the Movement for Black Lives. Although I haven't read through the whole thing, I've looked through some of the major points and it takes my breath away how ambitious and thorough their policy demands are. This is what visionary means, not some wonk designing a better damn widget.

For my own work (though if I am able to do what I want to do, there will definitely be overlap with the M4BL platform), I've been thinking more and more about what questions I haven't asked yet. That is, I've wanted to "build roads and sewage systems in places that need them!" for several years now, but I have neglected to ask why such things haven't been built when I am not the first wide-eyed idealist to go into civil engineering. In a lot of places the answer is: corruption and violence. What am I going to do to address these? Am I willing to live in a community that lacks basic resources--and if I'm not, how far removed am I going to be from my work? If I work for a big firm will we even pursue such projects, or will I end up building unnecessary things for wealthy regions and people?

The past decade took me a long way. Ten years ago: kid on the cusp of fifth grade, loved math and writing, really liked InuYasha and Maple Story and other stuff I don't even remember, wore their (retroactively "they"-ing me because even then I kind of knew I wasn't "actually" a girl) hair with an "emo fringe" in the front, played flute. I think my favorite color was purple, and that I wanted to be a technical writer. In the intervening decade I wrote/rewrote 3 novel-length stories, developed most of the worlds I am interested in writing in now, read a lot, grew very much mentally although not so much in height, finished my first two years at my childhood dream school, learned two languages, slowly came to the realization that the world outside of my head exists and is worth learning about and living in.

In ten more years I will be thirty. Done with formal education (although never done with education). Hopefully will have learned a few more languages (Spanish is next for sure [as in I'm redownloading Duolingo once I'm not in Germany anymore], then either Arabic or putting forth a concentrated effort to improving my Mandarin) and written a few more books. Building things. Forward motion. Will I have my Battle of Actium, my conquest of Egypt? I don't know. And although I have very conventional plans for the future, it is possible that something will come in and change everything.

The sea, I hope, will be a constant.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


Bit of an angsty post today.


Lately I've been feeling a combination of homesickness and wanderlust. It's been four months since I landed in Germany, and I'm missing palm trees and cajun fries and sitting on the floor drinking tea and talking to my friends. At the same time, I've been shuttling back and forth from home to work and back, and staring at the map of Germany on my bedroom wall thinking about where to go next.

I didn't travel a whole lot in the first month of the summer. Went to Köln and Heidelberg with my mom and sister, then was in Hamburg for three weeks straight before going on a day trip to Lübeck. This past weekend I went to Salzburg, which was my first overnight out-of-town trip by myself. Later this month I will be heading to Rome for a weekend (using one of my vacation days so I have more time) and in September I will be traveling every weekend until I get home home, as in California. That leaves a few free weekends, and I do want to go to München and possibly visit friends in Hannover and Dresden. But likely only one of the three will happen.

The thing both homesickness and wanderlust have in common is not being satisfied with where you are now. And I do like Hamburg, but my life here is, mostly through my own low energy levels, very routine. Despite everything that I said about pushing my boundaries, I have made no friends with Hamburgers my own age, and as a result have been spending a lot of time alone. This is not a terrible state, although it does feel kind of lame to admit that I don't know how to make friends in unstructured environments. Solitude is good for thinking.

But I wonder if the rest of my life will be like this. I don't think so, but at the same time, I know that three months is a long time and I still haven't decided to put in the effort to finding new circles to run with. I mean, there's another guy from my university working in Hamburg and we met up once at the beginning of the summer and haven't hung out since. Last summer was also kind of like this, although I have explored a lot more (knowing the language helps immensely).

So, since I've been feeling a bit out of touch with my surroundings, I've been thinking about home. Heimat. Wo du dich wohl fühlst. What makes a home?

My first week of work we had an office trip to Berlin, and one of my coworkers suggested that I'd have some "Heimatsgefühl" in going back. I laughed--and then did. And this past weekend, my first bus transfer was in Berlin, and when I saw the yellow Berlin buses lined up my heart beat a little faster. I actually miss Berlin a lot, and as the first city I've lived in and felt like an independent adult, it will forever hold a special place for me.

The other place for which I have strong home-feeling is, of course, California. Specifically, college. I've been strongly missing hanging out with my friends, because group messaging is not the same as getting cajun fries at midnight or making tea for people or watching youtube videos when we're all supposed to be doing psets.

But look--the places for which I am the most homesick are 1) a city I only lived in for eleven weeks and 2) a campus on which I'll only be living for two more years. What gives? I think that, more than any physical place, what I miss is 1) learning and growing in a way that I had been wanting to learn and grow for a very long time, but didn't know how to activate and 2) being supported and understood by people who are going through similar struggles as I am and with whom I can live life deeper and more fully than I know how to on my own.

The ideal, of course, would be to be at home with myself. I think I used to have more of that than I do now, before college when I hadn't had the experience of living with my friends, when being alone didn't have such a high opportunity cost. So part of this summer is relearning that, because being comfortable with oneself alone is important. For me that probably means that I need (actually need) to get back to writing regularly, because I need to be in conversation with something, I need to build something.

I have no idea where I will end up settling after college. I have no idea if I will know anyone in the cities I will live in in the future--if they are indeed cities, because many rural areas are in sore need of better infrastructure. I don't know when the last time will be when I am together with the friends who lived with me on the same hall in freshman year, when the last time will be that I pass by the numerous other people I know by sight.

I will go back to Berlin for a weekend in September; and I will go back to campus a few weeks after that; and who knows, then, when the next time will be that I can call myself at home?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Gender: A Year of Confusion

Around this time last year I came to the conclusion that I am nonbinary and settled upon the label agender. In the intervening year I've done a lot of thinking and angsting about gender--gender identity, gender expression, gender performance. Masculinity. Femininity. How race intersects. I am no longer labeling myself as agender, mostly because gender is born from external, societal forces/interactions and I don't want to give myself anything to hide behind such that I could opt out of thinking about what my gender means about how I interact with other people.

Last September I wrote a series of posts about gender: a post about Discovering Gender. Gender: MU, and Masculinity. I still mostly agree with the last one, but there are gaps missing in the sum of these. I'll try to fill those gaps in; it's going to get messy.


I reread these posts in order to prepare for this one and I cringed a lot while reading them. Past me had never really thought about LGBT issues until discovering that they were ace, and didn't tend to consider others' opinions and experiences. As a result, the posts above are pretty transmisogynistic. I conceptualized womanhood as belonging exclusively to cis women who are capable of bearing children*, and since that kind of womanhood is one I fervently do not want, I neglected to consider people who embrace a kind of womanhood beyond the one that society deems valuable.

*(At the time, I was reading a lot of Justine Musk (yes, Elon's ex-wife) and since she's very eloquent I unreflectively accepted her idea of womanhood/femininity as a working definition of "the" womanhood/femininity. But no one woman can speak for all women.)

Spoiler alert: this is not where I go "surprise, after talking to various other people I've decided that womanhood actually is something valuable to me and I want to be a woman and expand what that means." All power to people who do but that isn't me.

In the fall and winter, I had a lot of conversations with others in my dorm about various topics relating to gender/LGBT identities. One time, I and a gender-questioning frosh (who has since come out as a trans boy) asked two of our cis woman friends how they knew that they were cis. They both said that 1) growing up, masculinity was strongly associated with violence and 2) they resonated with the traditionally feminine roles of caring for, nurturing, and supporting others. So there were both push and pull factors.

What I remember most about that was a sinking feeling when they said "masculinity was associated with violence." Because even if I don't have a label for where I am on the gender spectrum, my trajectory is transmasculine. I am moving toward the pole of violence, dominance, entitlement, aggression, and a host of other ills that have hurt many, many people. So I'm wary.

But the thought of embracing femininity and womanhood makes me nauseous. I'm going to leave my dysphoria off the table for a minute, because the body does not determine gender, and look at what femininity means. For my cis friends, it was nurturing others, putting others' needs first, and god is that noble but god do I not want to do that. In high school I wrote a paper about relationships and power in Crime and Punishment and in the end came to the conclusion that Dunya, Raskolnikov's sister, won in the end because she wanted respect but also to support others, and she got both. This was one of those stumbled-upon conclusions, and I remember having to turn that thought over in my mind a couple of times before deciding that it was true enough to leave in--because I couldn't conceptualize being satisfied with that. I couldn't parse being in a subservient position and being happy.

This is not to say that that is all that femininity can or should be. And I definitely need to talk to more women, cis and trans and neither, about what their gender means to them, why they are women. Because femininity is currently placed in a position of less power than masculinity, and I don't have enough information about what is going on in the minds and hearts of people who claim it.

Ubermadchen was in some ways a way of working through questions relating to femininity. Marilla, the main character, is a very feminine lesbian--someone to whom maleness has no appeal. I think writing her helped me a lot with confronting my internalized misogyny, because she values sensitivity, vulnerability, emotions, intuition, and girls. These are not things we are taught to value. While writing I had to consciously stop myself a lot of the time and think, what would Marilla be noticing in this scene that you are leaving out? Most of the time the answer was either sensory details in the setting (a perpetual problem of mine) or people. How are people reacting? How are people feeling? This is not a question I ask naturally. In the past year, now that I'm trying to be a better human being, I've been trying to remind myself more and more to check in with how people are doing. It gets tiring.

I think that writing femininity for 500 pages was so unnatural and exhausting for me that I didn't develop the other characters quite as well as I should have. But as a first draft goes, I am really quite happy with how Marilla turned out. And seeing the world through her eyes was, as I said, very important because I had to put things front and center which I was not, and still am not, used to putting front and center.


In my post about masculinity from last year, I said that I saw masculinity as a self-centered deal, which works well for me because I am naturally self-centered. After talking to more people about it, though, I've shifted my viewpoint somewhat. The kind of masculinity that is played out most often in the world is not self-centered in the sense I use it--using the self as the main reference point--but rather, focuses on creating a hierarchy between the self and the other. This is toxic masculinity.

On the internet I've seen people say "all masculinity is toxic masculinity, toxicity is inherent to masculinity." Masculinity is fragile, is a prison. Femininity is also, although it causes more damage to yourself than to others if you take it on. The two concepts, locked as they are in this zero-sum transfer of power, seem irredeemable.

I would happily see both concepts made obsolete. What purpose do they serve, anyway? There are feminine men and masculine women, and everything in between, and anyone of any gender can relate to others in any way and have any combination of characteristics. Some combinations (nurturing woman who is comfortable with handling emotions) are more socially acceptable than others right now, and so people may feel pressure to align with those ones. But in the absence of those social pressures I doubt we'd see the same distribution of men and women around the traits called "masculine" and "feminine" today.

Whenever I start thinking about gender, it feels as though I push it down, then overbalance and find myself in a swamp, possibly having tripped over or stepped on something valuable. I say this because what I'm about to say is "but these concepts also have a lot of cultural inertia, so one way or another I want to come to terms with them."

What does it mean that I've been trying to achieve a more masculine presentation since concluding that I am not female? I thought of it as having my outsides match my insides, but there is nothing incoherent about a cis woman who shops in the men's section and speaks in a low register, or about a nonbinary kid who still wears dresses and dances follow. If gender is performative, where does that leave closeted people?

(The link above goes to an essay titled "I am a transwoman. I am in the closet. I am not coming out." Very, very worth reading and thinking about. A critique of it here. I'm still trying to figure out what I think.)


This is the part where I talk about dysphoria. To repeat: trigger warning: dysphoria.

I'm not going to go into detail about what it feels like, but I experience both social and body dysphoria. Looking back I think I had begun experiencing some low-level form of both, probably starting around third grade and possibly earlier, but I didn't have the words to describe it. In fifth grade we had a short sex ed module and I remember looking at the list of things that happen to girls during puberty and feeling utter dread. At the time the worst part seemed to be that after puberty you stopped growing taller. But I definitely wasn't looking forward to the other stuff either.

When I came to my conclusions about gender last summer I hadn't consciously had any dysphoria. Through the course of freshman year I had even come to enjoy certain aspects of femininity. I obtained a dress for dancing. I became more emotionally available to friends and tried a little harder to be emotionally sensitive. My first month in Indonesia I bought flats and skirts. These were important steps because this was me fighting against internalized misogyny, and then I realized I wasn't a girl and backtracked on the decoratively feminine aspects.

In fall of freshman year when I first started experiencing dysphoria, it was mostly awful because dysphoria is awful, but I also in a weird way felt validated. Aha, I thought, I feel sick wearing women's shirts. Looks like I'm not making this up after all. Aha, I who have not previously had body image issues now deeply loathe this biological machine I am inhabiting. Aha, this mirror to which I was once indifferent is not actively hateful. Aha...

But if I take dysphoria--violent rejection of the body coded as female--as evidence that I'm trans, does that mean that I'm buying into the idea that a "female" body means a female gender? A "female" body is not necessary to be a woman, so why do I need to reject my biology to reject my assigned gender?

I envy the transmasculine friends who are confident and brave enough to go through permanent steps in transition. One friend just had top surgery on Monday. Another friend has been on T for several months (on the off chance that he sees this post--C, dude, your voice is awe-inspiring). I am not sure if I will ever be ready for such steps, and I wonder if that's fine. There are many ways to be a man, many ways to be a woman, many ways to be anyone in between. I like but don't feel comfortable in liminal situations, and I am not quite in the closet and definitely not all the way out of it either. I collect guides on passing; I have short hair; a majority of my clothing purchases in the last year have come from the men's section. This is what I do to feel more comfortable in my own flesh--a compromise, an appeasement, of the revulsion.

(None of this is to invalidate the people who cannot, for whatever reason, physically transition in even the cosmetic ways that I am edging towards--or who simply just don't want to. )

The social component of dysphoria is one I haven't thought about as much. I hate that my voice gets higher in situations where I feel less powerful, because all that's doing is drawing the line stronger between femininity and weakness, and that's a line I don't think should exist. (Also because I hate feeling powerless and having a high voice, even if it's in the low range for a cis woman.) Being physically unattractive is awesome because it means I've never gotten street harassment. At some point in my career it may become evident that failure to perform femininity is affecting my professional success (my parents are beyond convinced that this is the case), but I'm really hoping that in as male-dominated an industry as construction, being perceived as a masculine woman will work in my favor instead.

I know that people look at me and see a girl. I know that the woman who cut my hair on Sunday was confused when I asked her to go shorter. I know that when I'm filling out forms I have to check F.

I'm still trying to figure out how "out" to be in the future. When I thought I was a girl I used to fantasize about issuing powerful, moving statements about being a woman in STEM that would inspire other young girls to not abandon their love of technical subjects. Now, knowing what I know about my gender, I could not in good faith join any sort of professional women in STEM society or organization or anything. Having been socialized as a girl*, the kind of issues that face women in STEM still apply to me (impostor syndrome, being perceived as less competent) but I'm also not a woman, so I could not honorably take up resources meant for women.

*by which I mean, everyone assumed I was a girl when I was growing up. I've always been nonbinary, I just didn't have the words for it at the time.


After a year of struggling to come to terms with my gender and with gender in general, I'm honestly a little sick of it. Why is it not enough just to be a good person, regardless of what gender the characteristics of a good person are associated with? Unfortunately, I don't think that viewpoint is entirely tenable, given how big a role gender plays in how people move or are moved through the world.

In terms of personal conduct, I'm not going to consciously let the gender-coding of traits determine if I try to cultivate them or not--sure, I'm trying to be more confident in myself, but I'm also trying to be more emotionally available. But subconscious biases slip in so I have to be aware of ways in which masculinity could lead me to more harmful behavior (e.g. the reflexive protectiveness I display towards certain friends, who are almost always girls, may take on a patronizing undertone) (yes, I chose the word patronizing deliberately).

The question that really interests me is what to do going forward, not in terms of myself, but in terms of the trans and broader LGBT community. Trans people, including trans youth, are at elevated risk for bullying, homelessness, suicide, &c (sources for youth 1 2 3; general sources: 4 5)--not because of being trans but because of transphobia.

I shouldn't have had to realize that I'm trans in order to feel responsibility to do something--what? I'm not sure yet--to improve the situation of other trans folks. The philosophical labyrinths/mazes of "what is gender" and "what is masculinity really" are important to me because asking such questions helps orient me in the world. But it cannot and should not and will not be the case that all that comes of it is me buying another button-down from the men's section.

I've been feeling restless the past few weeks, perhaps because this is the first time I've been away from all of my friends since last summer and I want to talk in real time with people I trust about race and gender and problems in the world. Junior year is going to be real challenging academically, but I do also very much want to get involved with more communities on campus--because I'm realizing that as an individual I can do little, but organizing with others has a lot more leverage. Am I talking about activism? I suppose so.

Earlier this evening I started reading the Republican Party's 2016 platform but stopped halfway through because I was just making myself angry. Climate denial, homophobia, voter ID laws, anti-abortion--how anyone can talk about "progress" and endorse such backwards views is beyond me. I want to do more for people who are put in danger by the mindsets behind this platform, and I want to do something that moves the world in the right direction.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Model Minority/Solidarity

Some thoughts on race have been stewing in my head for the past couple of weeks, and I figure it's better if I just write it all out. Originally I had some grand plans about putting together a sensibly organized, thoroughly researched report of some sort, but perfect is the enemy of good and I have not been doing enough of the writing, in any form, lately. Therefore, a messy collection of words.


At the beginning of the month I read this article in the Washington Post, with the clickbaity title "The Group that Seriously Outearns White Men." As I had expected, that group is Asian men. Here's a link to the Pew Research article referred to in the article.

I think if I came across this article with the mindset I had in high school, I would feel happy. Go azns or something facile like that. But the article leaves out any sort of analysis about what factors may contribute to the wage disparities among races. Even with my limited history background (APUSH was three years ago and very stars-and-stripes) I read that and I can tell that there's something missing. The country was founded on black slavery and Reconstruction failed to give freed slaves a real shot at economic independence. Many Latin American workers entered the US through the agricultural industry.

As for Asians, immigration was severely restricted until well into the 1900s and even then, the average immigrant from Asia was more educated/wealthier. (source for Asian immigration to the US; more general source on US immigration policy) Not saying this to ignore that Asian laborers came during the Gold Rush &c, but the numbers vastly increased in the mid-20th century. I'm coming at this skewed because I'm first-gen, but most Asians in the US are also not too far removed generationally from the motherland.


When I think of racism in terms of myself--that is, when I ask the question "what racism is directed at a first-gen Chinese-American kid who is presumed female?"--I think of mostly microaggressions. Random white people saying "ni hao" to me. Being asked where I'm from and then "no, where are you really from?" Looking at media and seeing myself nowhere.

This stuff hurts, but it isn't murder.


Relevant links:

Mapping Police Violence
Campaign Zero
Black Lives Matter
Letters for Black Lives
What white people can do to support BlackLivesMatter


Sandra Bland died one year ago today. I don't remember exactly how I learned the news, probably while scrolling through Facebook at work, but I do remember the feelings of sadness, anger--and impotence, because last summer I was in Indonesia. I have been feeling that impotence again, this summer, but have decided to push it a little bit more. Okay, so I feel powerless because I'm on a different continent than the US. But what would I be doing, if I was back home? Sharing articles on facebook--okay, I can do that anywhere. Talking to people--okay, but what does that achieve? Going to protests and rallies, putting myself in the path of potential arrest or danger? I probably wouldn't do that. I am not that brave.

But why wouldn't I do that? I'm not white, but the stereotypes slapped on my race do not invite upon me more violence than the violence dealt out to the countless black Americans who do put themselves on the line. I know what one response might be--"it's not your problem. Stay out of it." (The voice that says this sounds like my parents'.)

But why not? Abstract rebuttal: as a person who wants to live in a just society, I should be prepared to take concrete action towards achieving it.

Selfish rebuttal: as a POC I am harmed by racism, and all racism is interconnected. Fighting antiblack police violence helps me as well.

Leaving aside the fact that I should not have to invoke myself to be pushed to action against extrajudicial killings (src), I can see some people not being convinced by the argument that "all racism is interconnected."

If I was a person of greater character, this post would conclude with a list of actions I and others can take to support BlackLivesMatter. Instead, because this is where the majority of my angry internal monologue has been going, I'm going to poke some more at this--that is, the mind-shattering complacency that many Asians of my acquaintance have toward racism,. This may turn rant-shaped.


As mentioned above, I'm first-generation Chinese-American, which means that my parents immigrated to the US from China. I know a lot of people with the same/similar background--college-educated immigrant parents, probably in STEM, the kids are also probably in STEM, if not affluent then at least comfortably middle-class. And, although I am guilty right now of gross generalizations, among the people of this background that I've talked to about such issues, what stands out the most (and not in a good way) is the amount of antiblackness and the failure to approach racism as a societal problem.

One note before I go further: if my tone sounds too censorious it's because this is something that I've seen in myself and I really want to root it out.

Something I've come to see as a litmus test of sorts is what people think of affirmative action, because it is an issue on which my opinion changed during my freshman year of college. In high school, the AP classes were mostly populated by whites and Asians, and the model minority stereotype seemed affirmed at every step (not least because in the town where I grew up, "Asian" meant "East Asian"). I remember learning about the Abigail Fisher case in AP Gov senior year and everyone in the classroom thought that Fisher should win, that affirmative action programs were discriminatory. I also remember, vaguely, some proposition that was on the ballot in California that would strengthen affirmative action programs, and that my parents got really angry about it and went to some Chinese-American community meeting to figure out how to oppose it. I remember agreeing with them.

I remember, most of all, feeling real indignation at the thought of affirmative action. If the goal is to have admissions in line with demographics, then how many Asian STEM admits have to turn their letters back in? We (and who is this nebulous "we") made it--why can't others?

Even now, I'm not sure what the most equitable way of administering an affirmative action program is. For a while I strongly held the stance that affirmative action should be done on the basis of income level, not race, because when you're (I'm) coming from a place where people actually thought it was helpful to mention how "colorblind" they were, deciding how to handle people based on their race just "felt wrong." But racism is more than just classism (here's a blog post addressing the topic), and correcting for income level won't correct for the effects of racism.

It's getting late over here, so this isn't going to turn properly rant-shaped after all. I've had this argument in my head a few times this week, sometimes just trying to put the words together for myself, sometimes as part of an imaginary debate between myself and a friend (Chinese-American, STEM) who still very much holds these views that I have been trying to uproot in myself. Here are the main points:

The USA was built on the enslavement of blacks and the genocide/robbery of Native Americans. That is, racism has been one of the forces shaping the US since the very beginning, and therefore cannot be ignored or wished away.

The history of slavery/the failure of Reconstruction led to patterns of geographic and economic disadvantage which are still pertinent now.

For people whose near relations were immigrants who have come to the US and been successful, the national narrative of American individualism and exceptionalism is very, very tempting. I mean, I only need to go back a generation to get to people who worked the soil. My parents really did achieve the American dream--

--but they also came to the US having completed their undergraduate studies at prestigious universities in China (thanks, Communism). As skilled, educated immigrants they had access to opportunities that someone whose family has longer roots in the US, but who is poor, does not. A country will seem friendlier to talent it's trying to lure from overseas than it will to its most downtrodden citizens.

The Civil Rights Movement helped apply pressure for immigration reform. (src)

Antiblackness in Asian communities--all Asian communities--is rampant and disgusting. (A relevant article for South Asians here.)

Not to get into oppression Olympics or anything, but police killings and jokes about "squinty eyes" are orders of magnitude apart in terms of urgency, danger, and therefore importance. Yes, everything is connected, but some nodes carry more weight. (I don't know anything about networks, ignore this attempt at a metaphor.)

In conclusion: The model minority myth may lure us, particularly us East Asians who enjoy a comfortable income level and access to higher education, into thinking that racism means nothing worse than being assumed foreign in the country where we were born. It's a trap. Don't fall for it. We need to do better. I, personally, need to do better. I'll let you know where else this goes.