Walking down the street, people stare at me.
I’ve been in Taiwan for over one year and I still haven’t gotten used to the staring. I know I’m different. I’m a black female with a short Afro, tall frame, broad shoulders, no makeup. I just have to accept that people will want to take a longer, curious look. And sometimes still be confused by what they see.
My first day at my school, a fourth grader asks: “Are you a boy or a girl?”
Ummm… I think to myself, Seriously? I’m wearing a skirt…
“I’m a girl.” I reply.
Kids I understand. Their worldview is extremely limited. But adults?
I am at the hospital for a health assessment that will allow my school to renew my alien resident card; I’m frustrated at having to waste a morning going through hospital bureaucracy, and I’m wondering what the hell they think has changed in the six months since my first check.
To be fair, a lot has changed – mentally. When I first came to Taiwan to teach science at a bilingual elementary school, I was excited. I was open to learning about a new culture, new food, new languages. When friends and family back home in Chicago asked if I was having any culture shock, I would respond honestly: “No.” Like an anthropologist observing a different society, trying to understand how it works, everything was interesting to me. They – and I – didn’t realize that culture shock doesn’t happen right away. It happens months later, when the excitement of being embedded in a new culture wears off and is replaced by the exhaustion of dealing with the new system: wondering how you fit in, asking yourself if you can ever reallyfit in, and longing for the comfort implicit in the system you know.
As I wait in the hospital atrium, I fill out a basic information form. TWICE. Name, sex, birthday, blah blah blah. I hand it to the woman behind the counter, who enters my information into the computer.
The first station is a doctor who asks me if I’m pregnant. Then it’s on to the blood pressure station, the eye exam, upstairs to get blood drawn, then down another hallway to the radiology wing for a chest X-ray. I feel like a mouse in a maze.
I grimace as I see at least two-dozen people waiting in the shirts patients are required to change into before being scanned. I check in at the radiology counter, handing the nurse my folder of forms.
He types something into the computer, checks the forms. He looks at me. Checks the forms again.
“Are you a man or a woman?”
“Ummmmm…” I am shocked by the question because I just handed him the forms, where he can read it for himself. “I’m a woman.”
“Okay…in the computer it says you’re a man.”
He stops talking. Like that’s the end of the conversation. Maybe he’s thinking about a way to solve the problem, but I just snap:
“Nope. I’m a woman. I don’t know what else to tell you.” I consider showing him, but think that’s probably going too far.
“Oh no,” he says.
“What? Can’t you change it?”
“No. Miss—” He makes sure to say Miss when he’s addressing me from now on. “Miss, you have to go back downstairs. I’m sorry.”
So now I’m pissed off. This is not the first time I have been mistaken for a man. It’s happened many times, both in the States and in Taiwan. I’ve grown to accept moments when waiters or cashiers say “Sir” when addressing me without taking a good look at me first, or when women hesitate and do a double take seeing me in the women’s bathroom. But what pisses me off most about this instance in the hospital is that I filled out identical forms of basic information, including my gender, and they still got it wrong.
I walk down the hallway, down the stairs to the check-in counter, braless boobs swaying wildly underneath the X-ray scanning shirt I’ve left on to save time. But apparently not so wildly, since they’re so small people can’t recognize them as a secondary sex characteristic.
I march to the woman behind the counter.
“Hi. I’m a woman but you said I was a man in the computer.”
She peers at the forms I’ve practically shoved in her face, then looks up at me and giggles apologetically. “Sorry!”
As I power-walk back upstairs to the radiology wing, I become aware of my cis privilege. This “mistake” was frustrating to me because it was a waste of my time. It was also a slight challenge to my femaleness and that’s upsetting, but I can always think of my breasts, my uterus that bleeds every month, the two X chromosomes floating around in my somatic cells, and reassure myself that I’m a woman.
Meanwhile, there are people struggling to be able to check a box on a form in a hospital for a gender that society says they aren’t allowed to be, because they were born something else. There are people fighting to forgo gender constructs entirely and be genderqueer, or gender fluid, or non-gendered in a rigid society where things have to have labels and boxes.
Sometimes incredibly rigid boxes.
I have a Taiwanese friend, an older woman, who sometimes talks of her current dating prospects. I’m horrified by the recommendation that, in order to be attractive to men, she must be as skinny as a stick bug, as white as possible (with make-up, chemicals, or naturally by avoiding the sun), and long-haired (short hair equals lesbian). “You’re fat,” she said to me once, bluntly, matter-of-fact. It’s true. I am fat. Here. In the United States, I’m more average. Average height, average weight. Walking down the street in America, people don’t stare at me.
During a two-week vacation back to the United States, I couldn’t stop smiling as I walked down the street. I was thrilled to see a variety of body sizes, clothing styles, ethnicities, and accents pass me by as I walked around downtown Chicago. I expected to feel a comfort amongst strangers I had not felt in a whole year in Taiwan, and I did. In the city. But in the northern suburbs of my childhood, an uneasiness grew, rivaling the anxiety I sometimes feel walking around in Taiwan.
I think this feeling of inherent otherness in my home community is like a dormant cancer. It’s always existed, however small. Its origin must come from somewhere in youth: I grew up black in a homogenous white neighborhood, not knowing what to do with the tight curls that sprang from my scalp that seemed like a magnet for the hands of my peers. Or maybe it’s from being a girl who, disliking pink and dresses and skirts, would have rather worn the clothes in the boys’ department of Target. Going away to college, traveling around the world, and living abroad has proliferated this sense of otherness at home. Returning last summer and feeling misplaced, I began to doubt if American society was any less rigid than Taiwan.
I have another Taiwanese friend. They attended high school and college in the United States and told me they were thankful for spending their formative years somewhere trans and queer identities exist, however small a market-share they make up of the American mainstream. This saved my friend from additional years of misunderstanding their identity – from the exhaustion of trying to exist in a society where you don’t know where you fit.
As a girl in my homogenous neighborhood, I didn’t really see diverse identities, so I didn’t know how I could exist. As an adult, I recognize that I can choose a community that better fits my inherent aesthetics and beliefs. In the U.S., there are so many people from different backgrounds, with different ideas that create – like light scattering through a prism into infinite wavelengths – an array of niche communities. American society is still rigid, but there are so many more boxes. You just need to find the best box for you. This is still exhausting and challenging, but it’s at least possible.
I didn’t know this as a youth.
At the start of this new school year, my second year in Taiwan, I got the inevitable question from the first graders:
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
“I’m a lizard.” I reply, trying to shatter their conceptions of gender, expand their number of boxes.
“NO! Are you a boy or a girl?”
“I’m a lizard.” I assert.
“Are you a boy lizard or a girl lizard?”
“I’m a lizard lizard.”
Hopefully that’s a start.
Erisa Apantaku is a human from the northern suburbs of Chicago. She attended Princeton University, where she studied ecology and evolutionary biology.
Her writings, music, and other multimedia endeavors deal with issues of identity, space-time, language, and the interaction of these themes. Erisa lives electronically at @APEandTACO and apeandtaco.wordpress.com.