Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Many Hats

Any sufficiently unfamiliar technology...
My friend Erin made this hat. She made it with her hands and some sticks (or maybe a hook?), out of yarn that she also made with her hands. That pretty much makes it magic to me. Besides, I love blue, purple, and brown. Pink, not so much, but the pink on this hat comes in the form of a five-pointed star at the crown. That will redeem just about any color in my eyes.

When I saw it, I went through pretty much the same thought process I always do when considering items of clothing that appeal to me, but which are intended for women. It goes kind of like this: "Oh, cool! But that's a 'girly' thing. So what? So I can only use it for cross-dressing. Wait. Why?!"

Since I did not have a good answer (I never do), I accepted the hat. I finally wore it out on a walk last night, and the world did not end. I felt rather silly--not for wearing something "girly", but for worrying about the gender affiliation of a hat. It is just a (wicked awesome) hat; it is also a gender signifier, and no amount of eye-rolling will change that.

I have struggled for years to understand my complex and sometimes contradictory feelings about clothing and gender. Well, "struggle" is a strong word for it, but my nigh-complete ignorance of fashion does make this topic challenging to explore and discuss. I know what kinds of clothing I like, and some of those (e.g. skirts) are more commonly associated with women than with men in contemporary Western society.

Every once in a while--typically in winter--strangers will call me "Ma'am" or "Miss" even when I wear average, societally-approved masculine clothing. I do not bother correcting them anymore. When they hear my voice, they usually backpedal so hard that you would think they had mistaken me for an axe murderer rather than a woman.

"I'm sorry, Sir! I uh...didn't look too close." Long, awkward pause. "So, like the Orioles?"

Those fumbling apologies are sometimes hilarious and sometimes annoying, but I really cannot fault those people for getting confused. By Western standards, I appear fairly androgynous--short, fine-boned, and not particularly hairy. I do not expect every single person I meet to successfully divine my gender from seeing half of my face between scarf and hat.

Ironically, my androgynous appearance sometimes causes me to shy away from dressing androgynously, which, all else being equal, tends to be my preference. Most people still look askance on men wearing anything that looks even remotely feminine to their eyes. While I could not care less about the disapproval of strangers, I really would prefer to avoid the confusion, the flustered apologies, and the jeers that come with wearing androgynous or feminine clothes.

At least two acquaintances have asked me if I prefer feminine pronouns after seeing me "dressed up" for the club. The answer was "no", but it pleased me that they asked at all. I have made peace with the fact that most people will never ask; they will make assumptions based on the clothes that I wear. Some will stare, some will stumble over forms of address, and some will mock. But, in the end, I get to wear this fabulous hat...and they don't.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Legend of the White Snake

Shu Shian meets Xiao-Ching and Lady White.
The Year of the Snake always calls to my mind the legend of the White Snake. There are many versions of the story, but the one I heard as a child goes like this:

There once was a white snake who lived in the West Lake, beneath the Broken Bridge. She was captured by a peddler and sold to a young apothecary named Shu Shian, for the organs of snakes were useful as medicine. Shu Shian, however, took pity and released her instead.

She meditated long and transformed herself into a human woman, rescuing a little green snake from the fate that almost befell her. The green snake becomes her companion and also learns to take human form. Longing to repay her debt of gratitude, the white snake set out with the green snake, calling themselves Lady White and Xiao-Ching, to find Shu Shian.

They met on the shore of the West Lake during the Clear Brightness Festival. Shu Shian fell in love with Lady White and married her. Together they opened an apothecary, which became very successful thanks to Lady White's magic, Shu Shian's skill, and Xiao-Ching's cunning. They never turned away a patient, treating for free those who could not afford medicine.

One year, during the Dragon Boat Festival, a monk named Fa-Hai saw Lady White and recognized her true nature. He warned Shu Shian that his wife is not what she seemed. When Shu Shian refused to believe this, he instructed him to burn sulfur incense in his house and give his wife sulfur wine to drink, as is customary during that festival.

Not knowing any better, Shu Shian convinced his wife to drink the wine, causing her to revert to the form of gigantic white snake, which literally frightens the man to death. Lady White traveled with faithful Xiao-Ching to find a magical mushroom (yeah, yeah) that brought her husband back to life.

However, Fa-Hai came to confront Lady White for killing Shu Shian. He defeated her, in part because she was weak from her journey and being pregnant, and imprisoned her beneath the Thunder Peak Pagoda. There she delivered a son named Shu Meng-Jiao. Heartbroken, Shu Shian became a monk himself, leaving the child to be raised by his family.

When Meng-Jiao grew up, he passed the civil service exam and became an official, which was a pretty big deal in ancient China. Thus empowered, he went to the Thunder Peak Pagoda and wept endlessly for his mother's release The gods were so moved by Meng-Jiao's filial piety that they commanded Fa-Hai to reunite Lady White with her son.

I have also heard versions of the story where Xiao-Ching defeated Fa-Hai and compelled him to release her mistress, or where Lady White herself took down her foe with a magic flood. In each case, though, Lady White is the hero--one with a sidekick, no less!

Snakes are usually regarded as dangerous pests in Chinese stories, and women as weak or treacherous. Instead, Lady White and Xiao-Ching epitomize honor, courage, and loyalty. I guess I just like the stories that turn stereotypes on their heads? Or maybe there's something about snakes...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Bizarre Case of the Black Eggs

I dreamt this last night:

I work on a futuristic chicken farm where hens occasionally lay valuable black eggs. A young woman arrives one day with a trained capuchin monkey who could predict which ones would lay the black eggs (and perhaps even encourage it), much to the supervisor's delight. He sets up a special area for the black egg-laying hens and instructs me to take extra good care of them.

One day, as I am getting ready to close up for the day, I hear a scream from the supervisor's office. I run to it and nearly knock over the young woman with the monkey, who is standing in the doorway petrified. She tells me to call emergency services. From inside the room, my supervisor shouts for me to do no such thing. I peek around the woman and see the supervisor standing over the body of a man from corporate. He says that the regional director had a tragic accident, and dismisses us.

The next day I come in to work see men in scrubs dragging the young woman away. I try to stop them. They say she is mentally ill, and must be put in a hospital. The supervisor keeps her monkey, but gradually the hens stop laying black eggs, and the farm shuts down.

Unemployed, I wander the streets. I have to run away from police at some point (I cannot remember why), and wind up in an urban park where I find the monkey. It brings me to an elderly woman on a bench. The monkey suddenly holds out a black egg to me, and I take it. The woman looks very startled.

I tell her of my previous employment, and of the monkey's sense for the black eggs. The woman says she is the CEO of the corporation to which our farm belonged, and that the regional supervisor who died at that factory was her son. She knew nothing about the monkey or our increased black egg production, and suspects foul play on the part of the supervisor.

When the she learns that the monkey's owner may have witnessed the incident and was committed to a psychiatric institution against her will, she insists that I help her find the young woman. So we set off in the CEO's gigantic airship and head to the hospital, which is off in the mountains for some reason. When we arrive, she buys the hospital to gain the young woman's release.

The young woman, who was certainly sane when they took her from the farm, refuses to speak or make eye contact with anyone. She just sits by a window on the airship with the monkey in her lap, staring out at the clouds.

One day, we dock at a city in the sky (think Cloud City), and the monkey suddenly seems restless. The young woman stands up and starts walking in the direction her monkey indicates. We follow her, and come to a shady-looking warehouse. There, my former supervisor is trying to sell several unmarked crates to another man.

The young woman points at the supervisor. Her monkey leaps up onto one of the crates, pries it open(!) and fishes out a black egg. The supervisor tries to flee, but I tackle him. He says we can do nothing to him because of extraterritoriality or somesuch. The CEO looks up from her tablet and smiles, informing the supervisor that she had just purchased the entire city, and would insure that he sees his day in court.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Betting Against Pascal

This post is not an attack on any person's belief or lack thereof. Though I do not understand Christianity, I respect those who practice it so long as they respect others in turn. This about the backfiring of a popular apologetic argument, which ended my brief foray into Christianity.

I grew up in Taiwan, immersed in Chinese culture where philosophy, science, and religions of various sorts coexist without any sense of contradiction. This mentality of syncretism and non-exclusivity makes it difficult for me to grok the appeal of Christianity.

It was in part my failure to understand Christianity and curiosity about its success that encouraged me to 'give it a try'. I chose Roman Catholicism because it is the faith practiced by the Irish American side of my family. My beloved aunt, who is a sister (nun) and a lifelong educator, gave me guidance and reading materials, and I found an enthusiastic sponsor at Saint Jude's Shrine in downtown Baltimore.

If Pascal is right, I would side with this guy
The details of my experience are for another post, but suffice to say that Christianity and I did not part on good terms. I came away from it even more mystified by the popularity of Christianity than I was before. Catholic theology in general and apologetics in particular made little sense to me, no matter how my mentors framed it. The single most obnoxious argument in their arsenal was Pascal's Wager.

Seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal posited that, with no rational means to prove or disprove the existence of the Christian god, it is safer to bet on his existence, as one has everything to gain by believing (i.e. Heaven) and everything to lose by not believing (i.e. Hell). This is known as Pascal's Wager, or Pascal's Gambit.

There are a number of serious problems with this argument--false dichotomy being the most immediately obvious--but the one that really put me off was its implications on the character of the Christian god. Pascal's Wager hinges on the assumption that the Christian god, if he exists, saves those who believe him and damns those who do not. 'Believing in the Christian god' entails acknowledging him as an omnipotent being and the creator of the human species, if not the entire Universe.

However, Christianity originated only two thousand years ago, within a rather small ethnic tradition. In order to preserve Pascal's premise, then, we must conclude that the Christian god intentionally withheld his revelation--and therefore salvation--from the vast majority of humanity for most of history. If so, he is a negligent parent at best and an egomaniacal despot at worst.

Given Pascal's conditions, I would wager against the existence of the Christian god. If he exists and would damn anyone who did not believe in him, then I want no part of his kingdom. If he exists and is the just and loving god some modern Christians make him out to be, then he would presumably save anyone who leads a good life, believer or nonbeliever. If he does not exist, then it makes no difference whether I believe in him or not.

When I left the Church without ever being baptized or confirmed (they do it in one big ceremony for adult converts), my sponsor was not surprised. My aunt kept a brave face, though I knew she must have been devastated. She told me to "follow your own Light", to which I replied that I did, and always would.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An Open Letter to LGBT Allies

Dear Allies,

Thank you. I do not think we say it often enough. We appreciate you, though that might seem less obvious as queer people gain more acceptance in society at large. The LGBT subcultures are notoriously cliquish, something many of us find endlessly frustrating. To some extent this is a defense mechanism, the logical extreme of a minority group's tribal mentality. I am glad that it has not driven you away, even when we fall prey to the same kind of group politics employed by those who despise us.

At the Baltimore Pride Festival this weekend, I saw more different-sex couples and young children than I ever expected. The sheer number of strollers and baby baskets (is there another name for those things?) there amazed me.

When straight parents intersect with queer issues in the news, it rarely makes for a happy story. We read about concerned mothers who do not want their children 'indoctrinated' by the homosexual agenda. We read about fathers who send their sons to reparative therapy or special camps in the hopes of 'curing' them. We read about grief-stricken families who wished that their kids had found support instead of taking their own lives.

Yet there you are, quietly raising your younglings to love and tolerate--or raising no children, despite all of the pressures and expectations that you 'should'. I do not expect the majority to ever agree with you; I will be happy enough with their indifference, which is certainly a sight better than hate. You, however, go above and beyond just letting us be.

You are the brother who kept my secret and said you would always love me. You are the teacher who gave me shelter from the bullies, and listened when my parents would not. You are the friend who tirelessly petitioned your legislators for our rights. You are the employer who kept me on when you could have replaced me with someone more 'acceptable'. You are the stranger who smiled at us when we walked hand-in-hand.

In your eyes I see a better future, for you are living proof that humanity can rise above the petty squabbling of ingroup against outgroup. While I welcome the neutrality or even tacit sympathy of the majority, I will always cherish having you on our side, even when all our battles are won. Thank you, once again.



Monday, June 4, 2012


People say they never forget where they were when they learned of certain historical tragedies--the assassination of JFK, the Challenger disaster, 9-11. My earliest such experience, which marked me deeply, was of the Tiananmen Square incident. In Chinese it is typically referred to as 六四 (6-4) in reference to the date that the People's Republic of China resorted to military force to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations.

Though the protests had been going on for months all across China, I was five years old and oblivious. I had broken my ankle the previous winter, and spent what seemed like an eternity (but turned out to be less than two months) in a cast. Happily recovered, I had spent much of the spring rambling through the coastal shantytown on the outskirts of Keelung where we lived in temporary military housing.

I was sitting on the floor of the little concrete hovel I shared with my parents, doodling. The door stood perpetually open to admit the sea breeze that cooled steep seaward slope. My grandmother, visiting as she often did, and sat nearby shelling beans for dinner and watching news on our flickery television set.

I looked up from my drawings when I heard the news anchor say something about 'students'. Chinese children heavily identify themselves as students for various cultural reasons, so I was keyed to the word. What I saw had nothing to do with preschool. It was a video clip of the early morning hours of June 4th, when the ironically named People's Liberation Army rolled in to clear Tiananmen Square. It was a vision of darkness punctuated with fire and milling bodies, and then a line of troops.

The anchor described (in what was probably a recap of earlier news) the crackdown on the student protesters, and the uncertain death toll. I could not fully comprehend, but I stared raptly at the screen.

"Ni-ni," I said to my grandmother (in Chinese; I translated it as best I can remember), "why would the soldiers kill the students?" To my young mind, a students were children, and soldiers were kindly 'older brothers' who played with me when my father was too busy at the base.

"Those are older students," my grandmother said. "They did something the government didn't like."

I turned around and looked at her, wide-eyed. "What if I do something the government doesn't like? Will the soldiers come after me?"

"We do not have the same government as those students," she said wearily.

"But they're Chinese, too!" I insisted, not yet understanding the complexities of the Chinese Civil War, which ended in the ongoing stalemate of Taiwan's ambiguous statehood.

"Don't worry about it," she said. "We came here so that would not happen to you."

I looked back at the television screen, which showed an interview with a highly agitated eye-witness. For all I understood of geography, it hardly mattered whether Beijing was a world away or just over the next ridge. Watching the man on that screen, I did not find my grandmother's words very reassuring.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Destroyer of Worlds

I vividly remember this conversation with my father. I was eighteen years old, visiting my parents on winter break from university. Dad offered me a lift to my alma mater so I could visit old teachers and classmates.

We did not talk much those days. I had not yet forgiven him for pressuring me to join the military, and he had not yet forgiven me for not joining the military. He did not know I was queer, and I was not ready to let him know.

Heaps of grimy slush lined the roads. He admonished me to stop fogging up his windows with all my breathing. I mentioned having talked to my eldest brother, and that he was doing well. Dad said nothing. An older, wiser me would have kept my mouth shut, but I was young and indignant.

"Would it be that bad for me to turn out like him?" I asked. My big brother and I had similar temperaments and aspirations. "He is a successful writer."

"After how many years washing dishes?" said my father, unimpressed. "You can get a good job and then write when you are retired."

I suppressed a sigh. "I could, but I would be miserable."

"How are you going to provide for yourself, and your family?" he asked.

"I'm not going to have any kids, so I doubt my income will be that much of a problem," I said. My big brother was the only one of my siblings who remained childless, and I was determined to keep him company.

Dad seemed unimpressed. "You will want children someday."

"Maybe," I said. "If I want kids, I will adopt them once I am able to support them."

"Then your excellent genes will be going to waste." He tried to sound light-hearted, but failed.

"It isn't a waste if I use them to do good in the world," I said. "Like, I can raise my kids well, whether they're adopted or not."

"It's because smart people like you aren't having kids that idiots are taking over," he snapped. "That's selfish. People like you are destroying the world."

I knew he had a temper, but even for him that came out of left field. Was he worried about his 'excellent' genes dying off? He had five children and six grandsons already. His genes were doing just fine without the contribution of his eldest and his youngest.

It is always hard to learn that a hero is not quite the person you made him out to be. Though a great man for many reasons, my father was far from perfect. Up until that day, though, I never truly doubted my father's intelligence or wisdom. That was an illusion that needed to be destroyed.