Naming the Bigger Light and the Less

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* The fourth blog post from my partner about us and relationships: previous post here

No, it wasn’t me. Right then though, I didn’t really get the chance to find that out. My reaction to Mina’s attempts to explain her feelings was emotional. I didn’t have the words or enough self-understanding to fully articulate the issue at that point, and my sudden neediness scared her. When you throw in the fact she was still working out her own attitude to sex, you concoct a dysfunctional recipe for disaster. At one point I remember saying that I felt like, with her, I was just beginning to work out how to enjoy sex, and her response was that she was just working out how much she hated it.

It was too much. In a coffee shop between the end of school and my therapy appointment, she told me she couldn’t do it anymore. She couldn’t take on my emotions and hers. She needed to focus on herself.

We were back to square one. She didn’t want a relationship, but she still wanted my support. Except now we had had a relationship of sorts, even if we weren’t calling it that, I wasn’t sure square one was still a place. I felt the overwhelming need to retreat to protect myself.

This is where having a therapist appointment immediately after turned out to be fortuitous timing. I expected my therapist to support my need for self-protection, but he didn’t. Instead, he advised me to be there for her and just see what happened.

So, against my better judgement, this is what I did. She had invited me to hang out as friends in the foreigner area of Seoul, Itaewon, a couple of days later. Taking my therapist’s advice, I went. We went jewellery shopping and for Mexican. We had a nice time. We hung out a couple more times over the next couple of days, talked a lot, did fun things. I quickly realised just how much of initiating a relationship, being in a relationship, staying in a relationship, is about allowing yourself to be both physically and emotionally vulnerable.

Mina was the first person whom I confessed my feelings for openly, knowing that it was probably going to end in rejection. Twice. Mina was the first person whom I tried really hard to communicate my feelings to, even when they were difficult or embarrassing. Mina was not the first person with whom I had allowed an ambiguous friendship to continue, but that hadn’t ended in my favour, and only made allowing it harder.

But what I learnt was that part of allowing love in is about giving it that chance. Not just clinging on vainly hoping things will fix themselves, but by staying with it and clearly communicating your feelings, even if the process is traumatic, difficult or exposing, you ultimately gain mastery over your own vulnerability. Obviously, there is a limit on this. I couldn’t have spent forever, ‘just seeing what happens’. It would have got too hard eventually. Luckily, as it turned out, all Mina really needed was some time.

Toronto to New Scotland

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Toronto was a whirl of shopping and getting used to being me. It was surprising how easy this was. At first, I felt shy and nervous. I waited a few days as I didn’t want to go shopping alone. What was most nerve-racking was my ability to understand people around me. I felt vulnerable and slightly voyeuristic. In Korea, I always felt isolated in public, closed off by my ignorance of the language. The distance had become comforting. In Toronto the lack of linguistic isolation was jarring. It took a number of days to build up the ability to filter people out. After this, things started to go well and I felt at ease. I met my therapist, face to face for the first time, and I spent a lot of money. But there was something out of place.

While passing in public was thrilling, and each new experience of being properly gendered was elating, being home felt odd. It was as if I had become slowly alienated to the place. What’s more, no one really acknowledged the changes in me, once more, I suppose, out of politeness. This seemed to only magnify the feeling of alienation: “estranged” feels too strong, as I still know these people, but I some how didn’t fit. After the long weekend, Jenny and I joined my sister and headed east on a caravan style road trip that also included my mother and her partner—and a dog.

The highway from Toronto to Montreal managed to avoid driving through any urban centres once east of Oshawa. The effect of this was to give the impression of a vast country populated merely by cars on a singular road. We bypassed Montreal on the 30, and the St Lawrence River was the first differentiated landscape we’d seen. The sun had begun its slow daily summer death, and the city silhouetted the flooded river in the gloam. Willows pleasantly lined the river on the many islets that choked the ancient transport artery.

Along the road, we stopped often for my sister’s 15-week old collie puppy. Each rest stop felt like a cis-hetero stronghold. I felt I was infiltrating the castle; a spy sent to gather information. Would I slip by? So far I’ve gone unmolested, knock on wood. To make matters worse, trips always seem to fall on weeks after laser hair removal. I have little hair left, but I feel like the stuff I can’t shave off for a week is a trans flag affixed to my lower face—in other words, a bad time for espionage.

The provinces slowly bled into each other: a vast landscape of water and endless forests dotted with Tim Hortons and petrol stations. When I had to pass people in the street or at petrol stations I covered my face, feigning a yawn or an itchy mandible. Most people didn’t notice or care. After a few days, I started to notice something, people, even in small town Canada, were just treating me normally, as a woman. The hair finally shed.

We eventually arrived in Nova Scotia after a brief sojourn in PEI. Camping the rocky shores of southern Nova Scotia was problematic, I didn’t want to use the toilet without wearing makeup or a dress. Being misgendered was foremost on my mind, and yet it wasn’t happening, to my knowledge, save once, maybe. The “maybe” incident was unremarkable but made me feel more inclined to constantly appear feminine. A common problem for trans women. I know my family thought of me as silly or glampy on the sand swept beaches of P.E.I. in my big hoop earrings or applying mascara at our campsite in the truck, but they didn’t understand the fear of being misgendered, to know what it felt like to at any moment hear those words that would invalidate my whole existence. Maybe camping wasn’t the best idea for my second week full time.

Canadiana

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*The following is the first of a string of posts about my time in Canada. The Canadian posts are meant to fit together as a kind of super-post-narrative-whatever.

The end of my current tenure as an IB international school teacher was busy, stressful, and emotional—I cried every day I had the dogs for the last week. I said my many goodbyes and headed for Incheon for the last time (?). The days were getting hot in Korea, and the air was polluted as I made my way on the 6300 express. I felt anxious and alone; I was leaving everything I had established over the last five years, save for perhaps the most important aspect of my life in Korea, Jenny.

I arrived at ICN and checked in my massive Samsonite bag that contained the skeleton of my life: dog tags, some random articles of clothes, an external hard drive, and a lot of makeup. I passed security unmolested, as always in Seoul, but the customs officer felt very strongly that I didn’t look like the me from my passport or alien registration card. I simply said, “Long hair!” He looked unconvinced, but as I was exiting, permanently, he didn’t seem to care. I then went into the terminal—early as always—and fritted away time on the internet and my Nintendo Switch: nerd (cough). After two and a half hours I boarded for SFO.

The United Air flight to San Fransisco, where I was connecting to Toronto, was an old 747. I had seen it before boarding and felt a sense of terror. Previously I had been excited to take one of these venerable mega-giants of the sky. Yet I soon found that my anticipation was misplaced as that plane had been old and small inside. I preferred the A380 or 777. As I boarded by fears were confirmed, the seats were small, and to my genuine horror, there were no entertainment systems. It was like an early 00’s flight: ten hours without TV or movies!

The flight was horrible. The food was extra miserable and short of options by the time they reached the back. The older flight attendants seemed too tired to shepherd Koreans back to their seats during turbulence, or to put the seats upright during meal time. Without a strong hand, my fellow travellers ran amuck. By the time we landed I’d had enough time to worry about American customs that I felt faint in the line. But the officer merely looked at my skin colour and passport cover and made polite conversation.

SFO was a dull airport and nothing remarkable happened. I boarded my second flight, to Toronto on an Air Canada code share and was off. This plane was small but newer. The food wasn’t free, but the staff were unusually friendly and strict with the rules. I arrived at 1 am, went through the automated customs line, and grabbed a cab for downtown. Sleep alluded me the first three days. But I was home.

 

Trans-liminal

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As I write this, my fingers are swollen from jet lag and lack of sleep. I’ve been in Canada 24 hours and some change. It was exactly the 24 hour anniversary of my arrival when I woke up at 2 am. My insomnia seems fuelled by hauntings from my old life; shouldn’t I be doing something my mind worries, and yet, there isn’t much to do. I have 80 days of summer ahead. However, there is one monumental challenge that stands at the beginning of this reprieve from work and worries: clothing. It is not only garb but the process now of externalising my personality. Though in Korea I could do this in controlled bouts, I was never totally free to express Mina, there was always the ghastly spectre of running into students, colleagues, or ajima stares. And indeed, all of these things happened—expat bubbles are dreadfully small, even in a city of 20 million.

Now there is almost a sense of desperation to my desire to be recognized as female. I took scarcely more than a few gender neutral H&M t-shirts from Seoul: all of my other clothing was trashed. Therefore I need to shop, and yet this seems daunting without Jenny (she is in Kansas). And yet, each moment I do not, I risk being constantly misgendered. Though I think I am verily pretty and most of my facial hair is gone, I still read as male in a t-shirt because of my height. I’ve entered the stage where I feel I have to try and present as feminine as possible for fear of being read as male. On my first day back I even put makeup on to drink beer with an old friend, even though I was in my pyjamas. I will say that his customary directness was, on this one occasion, very welcome as he immediately exclaimed how much my body had changed since the last time I saw him. Most people are too polite (at least I think that’s what it is), or too close to my transition to notice. In the latter case, only when presented with photographs do they notice the not insubstantial changes. Of course, the average person doesn’t assume you are trans. They assume my 38 B chest is merely fat, this is confirmed in their minds by my bigger butt. The lack of facial hair, where once there was a thick dark bed of black moss, seems out of place to these people, but they cannot connect the dots. A woman I came out to at the end of the year party on my last day at my school said she had suspected something and showed me a text her husband had sent her with a picture of the two of us together two years ago. She said she wanted to confirm that I was indeed the same person from two years ago, she was right to suspect something.

I desperately want external validation of my gender identity. Being misgendered feels more and more like shrapnel. And now I have simply to wait to gauge the reactions of all the people I haven’t seen in a year or more. In a way, I hope their reactions are as explicit as my aforementioned friend’s. Of course, clothes will help in this.  Now I just have to go to the shop. You know the old adage, “The clothes make the woman.”