I originally wrote the following post in June in a coffeeshop in Osaka after taking the overnight bus from Fukuoka to Osaka. In the coming weeks, I plan to post more on this topic, as my gender has increasingly become a source of confusion to others throughout my time in Korea—an ambiguity I hope to use to my advantage while traveling in India and beyond.
But I wanted to introduce this series of posts with these thoughts from a couple months ago, as I think it’s important to look at the way my foreignness and Americanness layers with how I’m “read”—and how that reading changes from one country to another. So, from June 2016, here goes:
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity and how it shifts over time and space. Here [in Japan], my predominant identity is foreigner. White foreigner, maybe assumed American. Keyes and I have both talked about the privilege of traveling as a white American. How things might be different for us if we were people of color or from countries that are sometimes discriminated against within East Asia—Southeast Asian people (with darker skin), in particular.
For example, Keyes is on standby for a ticket out of Tokyo (thanks to a flight attendant friend). Technically, they shouldn’t have been allowed into Japan because they didn’t have a confirmed ticket out of the country. But likely because of their white Americanness, they were. We were grateful for this, but also recognized that there is privilege in the way we’re allowed to move in this world.
Granted, my gender expression has been cause for confusion on occasion. For example, in Nagasaki, an older Japanese woman told me (with great concern) that I was in the wrong restroom, but Keyes explained that this style is “in” for women in America but that it’s okay she and the other women there were confused because I’m still “suteki.” Evidently, the woman and two others in line all agreed that I looked like a handsome American man. Still, my gender nonconformity and sexuality take second seat to my “queerness” as a foreigner, both in Korea and Japan. Whereas in the US, I’m regularly read, perhaps first, as queer or gay or some other such label (i.e., short hair plus button-up shirts plus crossing your legs ankle-on-knee equals gay, queer, lesbian, etc.). And within the LGBTQ community in the US, I might alternately be read as soft butch, lesbian, gender non-conforming, trans, genderqueer, etc.
Before I left South Carolina, I started wearing a binder occasionally, in part to see how it feels and in part because I thought it might be safer to travel solo with a more masculine appearance. I began introducing myself with they/them and she/her pronouns (when asked). When I started journeying across the US and South Korea in May, I didn’t wear a binder—and maybe found a certain safety in being read as a gender non-conforming woman (instead of a trans person or a man–the former of which might receive more unwanted attention/harassment and the latter of which might invoke fear).
But somehow, in Japan, I felt like wearing the binder (hence the “suteki” conversation) but… I don’t know. It’s as if I draw enough attention to myself anyway as a 외국인 (“foreigner,” in Korean) that I feel like I draw even more (unwanted attention) the more masculinely I dress/express myself—instead of drawing less. Like the simple nonconformity of my hairstyle and clothes and Americanness draws a protective shield around me.
I don’t know if it really does, and I don’t really know what this means in terms of where I am. Most days, I feel more gender non-conforming than woman, but I don’t know if I’m ready to give up the privilege of “womanness” (like the woman-only lesbian bars in Seoul or the women’s area in Korean saunas).
But it’s weird because as I travel, most of this is overridden by the giant flashing sign of “foreigner! foreigner!” that hangs over my head. All else is secondary (except in places like Brick, a lesbian pub in Seoul, where the server joked as we came in—“membership only—lesbian?”). So I’ll be curious to see what navigating these spaces looks like in this different cultural context.
When I interviewed for a teaching job in Japan, one of the interviewers indicated that my queerness wouldn’t really matter because people in Japan are often private about their personal lives. At the time, teaching about LGBTQ things all the time, I didn’t understand: queerness is more than just about relationships or personal life—it’s an identity, a culture, a way of seeing the world.
And that’s still true, and may be more true the longer I stay in certain places, but the interviewer’s sentiment makes more sense now. My queerness likely wouldn’t have mattered here because my foreignness comes first and informs all other aspects of how I am perceived. Even in Korea, being lesbian or gay has long been perceived as a “Western thing,” from what I’m told anecdotally. So my queerness only reinforces my Westernness, and perhaps vice versa.
I’ll know more of what to make of this as I continue, but what makes me queer in Korea and Japan right now is simply my being foreign, no matter where I go or how much of the language I (do or don’t) speak.