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”

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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.

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

Adventures in Genderland: On Foreignness and Being “Suteki”

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. Continue reading “Adventures in Genderland: On Foreignness and Being “Suteki””