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”

Home (in My Own Skin)

I feel like I’m on a constant search for home—for “homeness,” that feeling of belonging, of alignment. That resonance that says, “Yes, I’m here.”

I feel that “homeness” more with people than with places. After a long dinner and longer conversation with a friend. After a long walk with someone when we’ve both allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. Or sometimes it’s just a look or a hug that makes me think, “You’ve come this way before.”

I’ve felt it in a few places—Korea, Ireland, New Orleans. I’ve often tried to figure out where it comes from. The loving community I have? A kinship in spirit with others around me? Similar personality types? Freedom? Love?

I can’t pinpoint it, and thus, I am always on the search.

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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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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””

Noli Timere: On Korea Pride, Orlando, and Learning to Not Be Afraid

Saturday a week ago, I went to my first Korean Pride festival in Seoul. It began before noon, and despite my propensity to run on “queer time,” my friend Suzanne (who was visiting from San Francisco) and I managed to jump on the subway in time to make it to the festival’s opening. We came prepared with rainbow gear–suspenders for me and a tie for Suzanne, which we kept tucked in pockets and bags, ready to don when we got there.

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Photo courtesy of Suzanne Vargas.

As we rode the escalator out of the City Hall subway stop to the plaza where the festival was being held, our ears were met by loud, joyous music and our eyes by the sight of hordes of police officers wearing neon yellow vests. As celebratory as the music sounded, we soon realized that it was coming from a vocal group of anti-LGBTQ protesters gathered just outside of the subway station exit, singing songs about 예수님 (Jesus) and 하나님 (God) and holding signs about our salvation, urging us to turn away from our sin.

It was like South Carolina all over again. That final stretch of the SC Pride Parade in Columbia with lines of glum-faced protesters holding signs condemning us to hell. The first hill of the Upstate Pride Parade where preachers held out Bibles and yelled verses into the rainbow-filled crowd. Story after story from my friends–of the church’s condemnation, of religious parents kicking out their LGBTQ kids, of Christians claiming they could “pray the gay away.”

The protesters were loud, and more across the street were less joyous–yelling in Korean on loudspeakers with words I didn’t know but a message I could understand. Continue reading “Noli Timere: On Korea Pride, Orlando, and Learning to Not Be Afraid”

The World is a Big Small Place

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After months of planning, piles of stuff hauled to the thrift store (two pickup trucks full, to be exact), selling my trusty Toyota Corolla, dropping off my cat at my parents’ house (bless them), and days and weeks of goodbyes, my round-the-world journey officially launched last Tuesday.

It seems like a big thing, right? A thing people think of doing but rarely do. That big, “What if?”

It was a “what if?,” but was fed until it became a “yes,” became a “why wait?,” became a, “now.”

As a friend said once when I was discussing doubts about this undertaking, “What would you regret on your deathbed one day? Not taking some job here or there or not taking this risk?” Continue reading “The World is a Big Small Place”