Queer Hair, Don’t Care: On the Liberatory Practice of Cutting My Own (and Others’) Hair

The hair clippers felt heavy in my hand as a humid December breeze blew in from the newly harvested rice paddies of Ninh Binh province. Palm branches danced over my head, throwing shadows on the 30-something Swiss woman who sat in front of me. I looked down at the back of her head, then at the clippers in my hand. Sweat gathered at my temples and in my palms.

In the seven months I’d traveled through Asia, I hadn’t found many short-haired women—and none like Caroline, who buzzed her hair as short as her partner Mario’s. And a small homestay in Ninh Giang, a sleepy Vietnamese town about two hours south of Hanoi, was the last place I expected to find three women with short hair like me—Caroline and the two owners.

Mario, Caroline’s partner, had already taken the first round of cutting Caroline’s hair with my clippers, and he asked me to help with some of the details. I took off the blue plastic guard, the metal teeth glinting in the sun. I switched the clippers on, and they buzzed in my hand as I brought the metal edge close to Caroline’s scalp, tracing a clear line along the curve of her ear. Continue reading “Queer Hair, Don’t Care: On the Liberatory Practice of Cutting My Own (and Others’) Hair”

Lace and All: A Story from Bali

I was sick in Bali last week (tummy troubles), and though I picked up some antibiotics, my Airbnb host mom (who’s pretty much like a homestay mom to me by now) also took me to the temple to pray for “no sick.” She lent me clothes to wear so I could go with her–a lacy shirt, a sarong–special clothing that women wear to go to the temple.

The day before, at the end of a nice chat, her 20-something son had asked me, “So, do I call you ‘miss,’ or…?”

“Uh, either,” I said.

“But… I mean,” he fumbled, perhaps thinking I didn’t understand him. “Are you a girl or a boy?”

“Uh, well… I’m in between.”

He gave a perplexed look.

I smiled. At least I’d tried. “‘Miss.’ You can call me ‘miss.'” Continue reading “Lace and All: A Story from Bali”

How to Pack a Packer

5223323962_2cc1aef974_b

When the security guard in the Tokyo Narita Airport asked to put my bag through the X-ray machine a second time, I couldn’t help but tense up.

Hi,” I said, assenting in Japanese. It was one of the few words I knew—along with some basic greetings and a handful of numbers. My language was limited, and as the bag went back to the conveyor belt, I started running through worst-case scenarios: With my limited Japanese and their limited English, how would I explain the thing I was carrying in my bag—the thing I knew they were looking at, the thing they couldn’t quite understand?

I wasn’t carrying anything illegal. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

But as they unzipped the lowest pocket of my pack, plastic gloves on, and asked me if they could search my bag, I braced myself.

How would explain myself when they pulled out my soft, heavy, penis-shaped packer? Continue reading “How to Pack a Packer”

In the Shadow of the Taj

Monkeys chasing each other across rooftops.

The smoke from your cigarette.

The curtain of the night falling behind the Taj, its shadowy silhouette.

God is close.

Allah moves across the face of the stone, never seen, but always present.

Prayers called up to the night sky, shouted and sung from speakers like megaphones, echoing across Agra at sunset.

You say you wish they’d be quiet. That prayers are meant to be whispered, shared only between you and God.

A chorus of prayers.

A family of monkeys. A mother sliding down a wall to scoop up her child, who looks too afraid to climb.

In the street, a little girl plays with a yellow balloon, dodging motorbikes and the big, dark puddle in the middle of her street.

You tell me the Taj was more beautiful years ago. That now the pollution gets in the way.

You tell me that not all Indian men are like what they say but to be careful in Delhi.

You tell me about a French woman you took to dinner and showed around for three days and how she asked you to come see her in France and how, when her plane finally left, you couldn’t believe she was gone.

How you refused your family’s proposals for arranged marriages, put it off by getting degree after degree, and finally just said “no.” You were sent out from your family’s home. You only talk to your mother now, occasionally. Still, your younger brothers can’t get married until you do.

You say we are different. We are both different. That’s why you talk to me. That people here all go in one direction, but you go the other.

You believe in God but are not religious. When a bell rings—a Hindu sign for good luck—you don’t pray like your friend, but you place your fist to your chest and then to your lips, the same thing my friend did whenever we passed a Hindu temple on the road.

You say we are all connected. That race and religion can’t keep us apart. We are different, but we are connected. Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Taj”

Why, Hello, Sir-Madam-Sir

“I’m sorry I have to ask you this, but are you a ‘sir’ or a ‘madam’?”

The security guard at the Taj Mahal looked at me earnestly. He was helping me figure out where to store my daypack. The lockers were at another entrance, I’d found out. I couldn’t bring in my computer that was tucked in the depths of my bag.

But first, he had to know this one thing.

*

When I left for India, I had all the intentions of passing as a man. I was worried about safety. Boyeon and I bought matching rings so we could pretend to be a married (heterosexual) couple, if necessary. I was totally prepared.

Except that I was also totally silly. Continue reading “Why, Hello, Sir-Madam-Sir”

Bowties, Binders, and Binaries

Keyes and I were sitting on the top ledge on the South side of the State House, looking toward Main Street and USC’s campus and Immaculate Consumption, one of the my favorite coffeeshops. It was dark, but the lights from downtown shone all around us.

“But what about—” I stopped myself. I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say. “What about countries with strict gender binaries—you know, for dress and where you can go and stuff. I want to be culturally sensitive, but I’m not growing my hair out.”

Keyes paused and looked at me as if that were the most absurd concern ever. “Of course not,” they said. “You’ll pass as a man.” Continue reading “Bowties, Binders, and Binaries”

Gender Troubles: Bathrooms, Bathhouses, and Boyfriends

Perhaps I was a little naive last June in thinking that my foreignness trumped my gender identity. As the months have worn on, I’ve learned a lot about how my gender is read in Korea–and what power or peril such reading puts me in. Below is Part II of what will probably be a three-part series on exploring gender in these first few months of travel in East Asia. You can find Part I here. If nothing else, it’s been interesting.

It began like this:

A hot June evening. I’d just sent my friend Suzanne back to the US, and after a few days in Sokcho on the East coast, I went back to Seoul to the welcoming, open doors of my homestay sister, Boyeon. Boyeon lives in a rooftop apartment, and she cleared my staying there with her elderly landord (a halmoni (grandmother) who lived a few floors below) and with her roommate. Boyeon and I’d met up at the bus stop nearby, and she showed me around the neighborhood and apartment and gave me a key.

The next night, I came home after dark and made my way up the stairs. I ran into the halmoni on the third floor landing.

“Who are you?” she asked in Korean, an edge to her voice.

“Uh, I’m staying upstairs with my friend,” I answered, also in Korean.

She looked me up and down. “You have a key?”

“Yes, she gave the key to me,” I said.

She nodded and waved me off up the stairs.

Boyeon was out with friends so missed halmoni’s call that night. But when she called back the next morning, she got an earful. The conversation started like this:

“YOU HAVE A MAN STAYING AT YOUR HOUSE? YOU SAID A FRIEND, NOT A BOYFRIEND. I ALMOST CALLED YOUR MOTHER! I AM SO ANGRY!”

They evidently have that kind of relationship.

Boyeon explained, laughing, that I’m a woman. When I ran into the halmoni later that day, I made sure my voice was sufficiently high, that I was binder-free, that I looked as womanly as I could muster so she wouldn’t kick me out.

“Ah, you’re a woman,” the halmoni said. “I really thought you were a man.” (She would proceed to tell this story of mistaken identities to every new person she introduced me to.)

I’ve been explaining myself ever since.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Continue reading “Gender Troubles: Bathrooms, Bathhouses, and Boyfriends”