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...