Everything I Don’t Remember: Myanmar, Mohinga, and Memory Boxes

Life is a balance of holding on and letting go. –Rumi

I shake out the handful of journals that are stuffed into a sack in the top of my backpack. They tumble onto the bed at the Airbnb where I’m staying in Bali. I shuffle through the journals and notebooks, trying to remember which covers go with what countries.

It is April. I’ve been on the road for almost a year.

I flip through them and find entries from Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepal. The journal closes with a single entry from my time in Yangon, Myanmar, the country I visited after Nepal, but it is only a couple pages.

I grab the journal I think comes next, sure it will hold more entries documenting my experiences there. But when I feel its fabric cover under my fingers, I remember—I bought this one in Vietnam, the country I went to after Myanmar, one sunny morning as I wandered the zigzagging streets near Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

I shake my head and look at the leather- and fabric-bound covers strewn across the bedspread. This can’t be right, I think.

I drag out other notebooks—ones where I write drafts and jot down ideas. They’re not organized like my journals, which are chronological even if they are stream-of-consciousness. There must be a scrap, I think. There must be something more.

I flip through the pages, searching. Continue reading “Everything I Don’t Remember: Myanmar, Mohinga, and Memory Boxes”

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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

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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”

That Time I Woke Up and Donald Trump Was President

This morning, I woke up in Myanmar to a world where Donald Trump is President-Elect of the United States.

Yesterday, I spent half a day watching the results roll in, reading post and tweets cataloguing the dismay and heartbrokenness and fear from many of my friends.

Particularly my trans, queer, and LGBTQ friends. My friends of color.
Friends with disabilities, immigrants, Muslim friends, women—anyone
Donald Trump and his campaign have managed to threaten, alienate, or
otherwise harm.

Harm: emboldening supporters to burn black churches and torch the cars
of trans people.

Harm: encouraging Islamophobia and fear/hatred of Muslim people.

Harm: violence done simply by words—and yes, words hurt.

Harm: categorizing as “less than” or “Other.”

Yes, he and his supporters have done harm. I have no doubt he will do more.

I shared this grief and anger. As the wee hours wore on in the US and early afternoon turned late in Myanmar, I was struck by suddenly not knowing what to do. Not knowing how to put one foot in front of the other.

As I told my friend and colleague Jane, it was hard enough working for LGBTQ rights and working to end gender-based violence during the Obama years (the bulk of my career).

What now? Continue reading “That Time I Woke Up and Donald Trump Was President”

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”

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”