Friday, April 13, 2012

Leave the Driving to Us

For reasons that will be of no interest to anyone I was recently motivated to review my position on transgender issues. I think it is wise to periodically reassess your positions on social and political issues to make sure they still make sense to the person you are today with all of the new experiences and knowledge that you have acquired since your last review. Of course, doing this can take you down some interesting side streets and alleys. So be careful.

I understand the idea of feeling like you were “born in the wrong body". But, it really is just a feeling. My own approach to this feeling would not be to change the body, but to change the feeling. Do I mean that if you were born a boy and you think you should have been a girl that you should make yourself like Star Wars or Monday Night Football? No. You should accept that you are a boy that likes girly things. You shouldn't chop off your penis and use it to fashion a handbag to hold your lipstick.

Why should I even get to weigh in on this? I was born a girl who likes girly things. Full stop.

I’ll tell you why: because I was born a girl who likes girly things and who looks Asian. For good reason. I am Asian. Half anyway. And for a while, I wished I did not look Asian. I never wanted to stop being Asian. I just wished it weren’t so physically obvious because I didn’t feel Asian. But because of the way I looked there was an expectation on the part of everyone (yes, everyone) that I would bring some level of Asianness to the table.

I didn’t. There was nothing particularly Asian about my upbringing. We didn’t speak Vietnamese. We didn’t eat Vietnamese food. We didn’t hang with any other Vietnamese people. We didn’t do much Vietnamesing of any kind. My mom didn’t talk about Viet Nam much and didn’t try to impress upon us anything about the culture or tradition. I identified strongly with my Irish heritage. I felt closer to that tradition and those people.

I could have rejected my Asian appearance. I could have had that funky eyelid surgery to get a more “eye-shaped” eye with a well-defined crease. I could have made my nose less flat and more pert. I could have dyed my hair red and gotten a perm.

I actually did get a perm once in college. Let’s not.

If I had done that I could have avoided a lot of situations that were awkward, annoying or just plain asinine. Like the relentless teasing from the thug at the end of the street. My being or looking Asian was pivotal to all of his ridiculous jeers up to and including the time I had my leg casted after a soccer injury and he shouted to me from across the schoolyard, “What happened, Rice? Ya get yer leg blown off in ‘Nam?”

Sidebar: when I told my parents about this at dinner that night. They shared the exact same reaction. Their eyebrows shot up into their hair (or not-hair in the case of my bald father) and they quickly looked down at their plates and didn’t say a word. This was weird. Then they both started quivering around the shoulders. Then they both started laughing. Hard. That kid was a jerk and I hated him. Still do. But, yeah, that one was kind of funny.

Certain responses could have dropped out of my lexicon entirely. Such as these:


“No, I don’t know karate.”

“No, I don’t know your cousin’s wife from Korea.”

“Yes, that’s my biological dad. Yes, I’m sure.”

“No, I don’t want to be your best friend so that you can tell all your other easily impressed friends about your new Asian best friend.”


But I would have missed out on a lot. Like the time I met a friend’s mother for the first time and she got right up into my face and shouted, “HELLO! DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” Seeing the look of horror on his face was a priceless moment. As were all the tiny gasps from around the room. I simply said, “Yes.” But I was thinking, “This. Is. Awesome.”

Or the time the Vietnamese girl doing my nails told me that I shouldn’t marry my fiancĂ© because he was white and I needed to marry my own kind. I told "Tiffannee" that this strategy would pretty much limit me to my brother given my particular ethnic mix. I added that I did not think he would be cool with that so I was going to go ahead and marry the white guy.

And I would have missed out on the time that I spent a day on a Greyhound bus between Detroit and Muncie and at some point in the journey a grizzly looking fella with a bushy beard boarded the bus and headed straight back to where I sat. His outfit was liberally festooned with accessories that indicated his status as a Vietnam Vet. For some reason, that made me nervous. I sat very still and tried not to look up. After about 10 minutes he leaned over and said very directly and gruffly, “Are you Vietnamese?” How to answer? My mind raced for the right thing to say but my mouth elbowed its way to the front and said, “Yes.”

He hopped over to the seat next to me and spent about a hour telling me about his time there. And about how after the war he and his wife adopted and raised several Vietnamese children. He talked about them and showed me pictures.

That memory actually led me down one of those alleys I talked about back in the first paragraph. This was another bus ride from Detroit to Muncie. I was about 18 and I’m not sure there’s a word that could adequately define my naivetĂ©. A quick google search suggests "stupid". Let's go with that.

I wasn’t really prepared for the kind of ridership that the typical Greyhound bus attracts. All I knew was that it was going to take a long time and I wanted to be able to smoke. Which meant I was going to have to sit in the back. So I strode to the back, tossed my suitcase into the overhead. Looked that the 3 rows of young, black men in the seats behind the one I’d chosen. Smiled and chirped, “Hello!” Then sat down and popped open a book.

There was a buzzing of low voices behind me. That I did notice. I wondered why they were whispering and laughing. I felt self-conscious. But, I was awake so that was a normal being awake feeling.

It is only with the wisdom of hindsight that I understand that as a young woman who was clearly from the suburbs I had just plunked myself into the middle of situation that I maybe should have avoided. I probably would not have done that today. And I would have missed out on a lot. Because at some point in the ride I fell asleep and woke up having no idea where I was. I popped up and turned around and asked. They told me we were in Bowling Green, Ohio. I panicked. They asked where I was going and I told them. They assured me that I hadn’t missed my stop. We were taking the scenic route.

We started talking. They asked where I was from. I told them. They laughed. They asked if I’d ever been to Detroit. That made me mad. Of course. My dad worked Downtown. They asked if I’d ever been to some area I’d never been to. Then they laughed again, “You ain’t been to Detroit, then.” They asked if I’d ever had an interracial relationship. I said, “I’m biracial. All my relationships are interracial.”

They told me they were going to Gary “for business”. More laughing. That I understood. One guy didn’t talk to me at all. That made him more interesting to me than the one who asked for my phone number (yes, I'm THAT girl). I gave less-interesting guy the number. “This is a real number, right?” he asked, “Not like dial-a-joke or something?” I assured him it was the real number. It wasn’t.

The bus stopped at a McDonald’s and they all got out. The guy who hadn’t said anything to me stopped by my row and asked, “Can I get you something to eat?” I thanked him for the offer but assured him I was fine. He got back on the bus and handed me a bag. “I got you some hamburgers. It’s a long ride. You should eat something.”

I did. And went back to sleep. I didn’t talk to them anymore before the ride was over. I can’t remember if my stop came before or after theirs and this is where the alley dumps us back out onto the main street.

Can you imagine the uproar from the same camp that advocates for the normalization of gender reassignment surgery if I had demanded to be made to look as white as I feel? The accusations they would launched against “society” for making me reject my true self instead of accepting, embracing and owning it?

And, you know, they’d be right. It would be wrong for me to do that. And, I’ve figured out over time how to synthesize all the parts. How to deal with and organize the assumptions and expectations. How to understand that I get to define myself as an individual without having to hideously disfigure my body and pump myself full of hormones (which I thought were an evil plot by Big Pharma to poison us all).

Why do we tell everyone else to accept themselves and love their differences (and not take synthetic hormones) except when it comes to the issue of gender?

I don’t know. But, I think the moral of the story is this: men won’t always insist that you need to eat a hamburger so for goodness sake, enjoy it while it is happening.

Wait. No. That isn’t it.

No. No, that’s it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Still Kicking on the Whiffletree

I was 16 when I got my first grey hair. Or at least, that's when I was told I had grey hair. I wasn’t looking so I probably wouldn’t have noticed but I’m quite short and most people can see the top of my head and they let me know. My high school soccer teammates used to amuse themselves on bus rides to games by plucking out the greys. It wasn’t exactly fun for me but I think I was just glad to be able to ride on a bus without fear after a long period as a school bus Untouchable.

I didn’t start coloring my hair to hide the grey until I was in my mid-30s but I had been coloring my hair for fun for about 10 years (skunking = so much hindsight regret). I hadn’t seen my real hair in so long that the grey didn’t bother me at all right up until it did. I think it was when the grey crossed over the 40% mark and the tell tale stripe at my part started to require more frequent trips to the salon, which meant more listening to my stylist blahblahblah in my ear for 3 hours.

I think my journey to quitting color might have started when I broke up with my long time stylist after the morning when she catalogued her abortions for me. She didn’t know it was over that morning but I did. I floated around after that, but had one marginal experience after another and I was going longer and longer between appointments. I could actually see what things looked like up there. I was really grey. I was not quite 40 but I was more than 50% grey.

On the plus side, it was mostly white and silvery. I started wondering what I would look like if I didn’t color my hair. Then I started to think about how much time I’d be saving. And money. And the germ of an idea was planted.

It was a complete reversal of my hair philosophy to that point. My hair appointments were set in stone and we planned our lives around them. I was rather vain about my very long, very lush brown mane. I’m not really low maintenance when it comes to fashion and beauty. I’m not the first person you would think would decide to embrace her aging and “go natural”. Which is not to say that I’m high maintenance. I don’t have a dermatologist. I’m unapologetically anti-cosmetic surgery. I don’t like the word “anti-aging” because of the suggestion that aging is something to avoid. I’m not the last person you would think would go natural but I’m also not the first.

Over the next couple of months the idea kept pushing its way to the front of my hair thoughts. I floated trial balloons with a few friends. “I’m thinking about letting my hair go grey.” They would react the same they do when I say things like, “I’ll be back. I’m going to go stab the person that put the dressing on the salad when I asked for it on the side.” That means they reacted with some internal eye rolling and changed the subject and immediately forgot I’d said anything.

Except for Thor. Thor was all about me letting my hair grow in. He insists that it wasn’t because of all the money we’d be saving but he bought an iPad 3 shortly after our talk. You do the math.

And one other friend who will remain nameless but might recognize herself here. She said that she could never do it because of her job. That she would not be taken seriously in her position (an impressive one in a male dominated field) as a woman with grey hair. I was stunned. I had never considered that. I was worried that I would lose considerable MILF cred but she had to worry about her career. It would not be exaggerating to say that I wanted to flip the table between us all BillyJoelwedidntstartthefire and rage against the machine about the injustice of her being judged for having grey hair in an industry where it is acceptable to wear sweatpants to the office (yes, computers are involved).

That probably settled it for me. Listen, I am not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m a homeschool mom. I have never had a career. I don’t have my own bank account. I don’t even have an ATM card. I ask my husband for money when I need money. I don’t know the state of our finances. I tell my son to quit acting like a little girl when he gets whiny. I think the right shade of lipstick can solve most of life’s problems. I think Rachel Maddow is annoying. I have started questioning Women’s Suffrage ever since I first heard about the Kardashians. (Unless exiling them ever gets put to a national referendum because I want to vote on that.)

I’m not a feminist but I have a very Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner fire that burns in my belly when I hear about stupid prejudices. Like the prejudice against maturity. And it is a prejudice against maturity and not just old age. Anything that isn’t young and sexy and of the moment is rejected as irrelevant.

But I was not old or irrelevant. I was 40. I had run over 1000 miles in 2011. (Not straight.) I was in the best shape of my life. I had my sh---act together. I had young children and I could still have more if I wanted to (but I really, really don’t). And I had grey hair. And so did lots of women just like me. And I wasn’t going to let a bunch of barely socialized turbo-dorks in sweatpants tell me what do with my hair.

So I decided to let the grey come in.

It wasn’t a hard decision to make once all the factors were there. But it wasn’t easy watching it happen. And it got harder as the hair around my face started to get less brown. There’s no way around it. Grey hair makes you look older. I started to question myself and my decision. But I also made myself promise to stick with it long enough to give it a real chance. I could always change my mind later.

But every week that stripe on the top of my head got wider and greyer. And now I had two-toned hair. I was still going to the salon but walking out looking like I desperately need to get to one. It bothered me. It looked careless and disheveled and no shade of lipstick in the world could fix it. Unless it was brown lipstick applied directly to the roots. But I only just thought of that right this second. Darn it.

I’d been reading the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. Jobs was, well, an ass. But his design philosophy was solid. I developed a real appreciation for his work and his commitment to simplicity. Simplicity is something I had been trying to incorporate into all areas of my life for about a year since reading an unassuming little book called Organized Simplicity. Check that out if you get a chance.

I was reading the Jobs bio and huffing my way through an interval work-out on the elliptical at my gym when I realized that there was really only one workable solution to the hair problem. I had to cut it all off and start over. There was no way I could live with bicolored hair for the 6 months to a year that it would take to grow the old color out. At my next appointment I was going to have my G.I. Jane moment.

Here I was taking a stand against a bunch of imaginary tech nerds by following the example of their king.

I had about 4 weeks to mull it (mullet?) over. I got more and more certain as the weeks went by and then about 3 days before the appointment I started to panic. Not really panic-panic but not really not panic. I had never had REALLY short hair. I hadn’t even had kind of short hair in 20 years. Up until the past year I’d had long, wavy mermaid hair. And now it would be short and grey. That’s not a look I had ever, ever liked. In no way did that fit my image of myself. And in no way did it sound pretty.

And I was really clinging to pretty.

The kind that looks a little wind blown and tousled even when the wind isn’t blowing.

Whether or not that image had anything to do with reality doesn’t matter. So let’s not discuss it. Just let me have that.

I had a lot of mirror talks with myself over the three days. Talks that centered around letting go of pretty. Accepting a new kind of status. Not waiting until there was no choice but to accept it, but actually rushing up to it, tackling it unawares and making it my bitc…own.

But, it wasn’t easy. And I can’t help thinking that it should have been. That’s a contradiction that I’m still working through. The answer is more complicated than ‘facing your own mortality’. I’ve already done that. That’s not it.

The act of cutting wasn’t dramatic. My new stylist is unflappable. When I handed her the picture of Jean Seberg she looked up at me and asked, “Are you sure?” I said, “No. But let’s do it anyway.” And then less than an hour later everything I thought I knew about how I looked changed. So, you see, no drama.

My face, as it turns out, is not as round as I thought. The hair that isn’t grey isn’t brown anymore. It is nearly black. And there isn’t a lot of that. My ears don’t stick out. And I look…older. But also, something else. My oldest daughter said, “Professional”. I think she meant, “professorial”. I really think she was being diplomatic but let’s go with professorial. I loved my new hair. For the whole rest of the day.

Then I woke up in the morning looking like an angry hedgehog. I went and ran 8 miles just to prove to myself that I still could. That it wasn’t a Samson thing. That helped a little but I scared the living hell out of myself every time I passed a mirror. I had to change my lipstick to something brighter. I had daymares of old ladies with bright pink lips and splotches of unevenly applied rouge. By evening I was awash with remorse. I cursed the memory of Steve Jobs. I started thinking about running to the drugstore.

But by the next morning I was okay again. I was already getting used to that angry hedgehog in my mirror. She looked older but she didn’t look old. She looked like she knew stuff. And, the maintenance? Forget about it. Ladies, want to know why men are still getting paid more than you? Because it take them 2 minutes to do their hair. That makes them 40 minutes more productive than you every damn day. Also, they are smarter and can lift heavier things.

A whole new generation of women are heading into middle age. We aren’t part of the early feminist revolution. We actually have more options than that generation told us we have. But we have to exercise them. And we aren’t. And that’s, as the kids say, not cool.

They still say that, right? What? Never mind. I don’t have to care about that anymore. Plus, Murder She Wrote is starting and I need to soak my bunion. Only one of those things isn’t true.