By Serene Goh Jin-Hong
Earlier in the day I made a long distance call home to Singapore, to wish my mum a very happy birthday.
“Thank you dear! Miss you.”
“Miss you too, Ma.”
“When are you coming back? How’s Brown treating you?”
“I’m okay,” I say, leaving out the part about being so tired in the mornings I skip classes sometimes. She would be furious if she knew. In her book there are no ethics without work ethics. Tiredness is but a frame of mind, and misery, poor choice.
“Dear can you do me a favour?”
“Of course Ma, what?”
“You know Auntie Peggy? She called me recently… Aiyh, I should have asked your dad to help out with her children more. Her boy especially. He must have lacked a male figure to look up to, growing up, you know, after his dad died.”
“Ivan. He wants to go for a sex change operation.”
“How’s Auntie Peggy taking it?”
“Aiyh, of course she’s shocked but what can she do? Children don’t listen to their parents nowadays. You all think we don’t know anything. But studying abroad doesn’t mean you know more about life than us. Just remember, who gave you such opportunities in the first place.”
“And, Ivan’s wife?”
“I don’t know. He says she’s okay with it… They have a daughter now, you know? I don’t know how she can be okay with it.”
This is fucked up. My family, fucked up.
The clock on the wall tells me I can still make it in time for morning class, but I decide to skip, again. I put down my backpack and sink my buttocks into the air mattress on the floor of my rented studio apartment. My butt nearly touches the ground.
“What was the favour you wanted?”
“Can you talk to Ivan for me? Maybe he will listen to you, since you are studying in the States, like he did, before. He worked tech at Walt Disney once, did you know?”
“I’ll talk to him Ma, but I don’t think I can… er… persuade him either way.”
“At least we try.”
To try. To give something a shot. Yes, that had always been a personal motto.
v v v
t’s bright outside, dimmer in my room. I’m looking at myself in the mirror. Symmetrical face, soft skin, fair beauty of a Chinese girl. But my eyebrows are a little bushy, and there’s traces of a moustache. Also I’m a little too squarely built. Do broad shoulders make me more like a man than a woman?
Years ago my mum pulled me out of swim school because my shoulders were getting too broad. Not a good thing for girls, she said.
“She’s got talent, Mrs. Goh. Only twelve but already she’s faster than some of my fourteen year olds in freestyle. You sure about this?”
“Hope you understand. We want her to focus on her studies.”
My swim coach looked at me, then somewhat grudgingly back at my mum. “Ok then,” he said, “All the best.”
Later on in high school, after I came home from a netball competition, sun kissed and chaotah like burnt toast, my mum banned me from netball too. I don’t know why I didn’t defy her orders. Why I did not rebel. My college mates at Brown said it might be an Asian thing. But I have an Indian girlfriend who eloped with a foreign lover her parents disapproved of, and India is a part of Asia too. Even if they said it was a Chinese thing I would have disagreed. My own sister, after all, left home because dad shouted at her just outside our house. He relented, after mum cried for days, worrying about her youngest daughter. Defiance, I think, is human nature’s tool and weapon.
So here I am, in my room, in a foreign country, thinking about what makes me female. I don’t want to rebel but I am defiant. Surely this too—the question of male or female—can be figured out. Is it really a matter of narrow shoulders and fair skin? I refuse to believe a man can spawn a child and then say he always felt like a woman. Was it the sex that helped him know for sure?
The sun is shining outside, and a warm, dense air has replaced the morning chills. I draw the curtains to block out the light and sit on my bed. My intentions make me guilty and awkward, though I am alone with no one to see. My housemates have all gone out by now. I rub my vagina through my black tights. Feels good. Like I’m called back into my body again. Does this, my vagina, make me a woman?
There are things I share with my friends back home that I do not tell my family. Like the annual Sex Power God party on-campus for instance, or the naked donut runs through the computer labs and libraries the night before every exam week. Or that time I joined a group of friends on spring break to Miami. We went to a froggie club and one girl got so drunk she nearly went back to a hotel with strange men. A Catholic male friend stopped them. And my own, a Singaporean brother, sat by the bar, glaring at me the whole time I was on the dance floor watching a wet T-shirt contest. Weren’t guys supposed to like boobs? Why was he watching me and not them? They were drenched in water and some transparent gooey substance. You could see their big western boobs with tits standing. But no. My brother had transformed into a father and a good friend.
The truth is, I don’t know what having sex feels like. And if I don’t know, how can I be sure I am female? What if I discover my innate nature is to penetrate, and not to be penetrated? Surely it would be the larger sin, to marry and have children, and then say no, I must fulfill my destiny, I must become a man. The trauma that my children would have. There must be a way to know, now and forever, what I am.
I roll down my tights and remove my panties, lying flat on my bed. The ceiling looks like it can keep a secret. This is unfamiliar territory, but I am determined to find out what my vagina knows. Carefully, I slide my right index finger into the slit between my legs. The empty space feels a little too intimidating at first, so I move along the folds of my skin down under. A vagina is not pretty. In fact it may have been designed entirely for function. Surrounding the opening is skin, folded inwards like the tentacles of an abalone and at the top, a kind of deformed mole, neither here nor there, just existing, like a snout on tapir. I rub this mole, caressing its odd shape, then pressing down on it. My body goes into some kind of constriction, convulsing into a burst of temporal freedom. It’s somewhat sadistic, but overwhelmingly pleasurable.
Do men have a version of this mole too?
Ivan is standing in front of me, still recognizable as a man, though he appears somewhat puppet-like, his movements pivoting from his joints in strange and awkward, effeminate ways. I’m home for the month of June and we’re standing outside my house in Singapore, a disputable zone where private property meets public road. I had invited him to come in, but he said no. Might scare Lau-Ee, he said, referring to my grandmother.
As I search for the right words to begin with, I find myself thinking about his elaborate wedding ceremony at Chijmes, a converted church where people worship food, dance, music, and the lulling open sky. His bride is someone I do not remember. As they stood at the front of a long hallway, before the altar of God, he put his hands in hers, not her hands in his. My father observed this and said in his gospel voice, “This marriage will not last.” I protested against his unkind judgement, which condemned their future just by the way they held hands. But now with Ivan before me, it seems my father was right.
“When did you know you wanted to be a woman?” I ask, thinking it is a tough question. Ivan does not hesitate.
“Since I was a boy. I’d always known, but I was unsure.”
“How’s your wife taking it?”
“She’s given me her blessings.”
What a woman. Has she solved this Rubik cube that is her husband’s gender? How to tell Ivan that in the past two months while studying an undergraduate degree at Brown, the idea of him had become an obsessive philosophical, sociological, psychological, anthropological, theological problem for me to solve. What is LGBTQ? Who are these people and what makes them different from me? LGBTQ sounds a lot like Taiwan telling me it is year 94 when the year is obviously 2005. But my father always said to give others the benefit of doubt. To be a bit of an American cowboy so as to balance out the Singapore judicial system’s modus operandi of guilty till proven innocent.
“What are you going to do now?” I say.
“I’ve already had some correction done on my vocal chords. Waiting for my next visit to Bangkok. This rest period is for me to regain my health.” He does sound more soprano than I remember.
“What will happen after? Your name, job, identification cards, et cetera?”
“You can call me Iva. Yes I will have to get it all changed. My job won’t have me but I’ll find something else.” He whipped out his phone and googled Leona Lo to show me hope. Looks like a good-looking woman, but I suspect it is a man. “She’s done it all before. She tells me it gets better.” I’m still swimming in my head. My legs feel faint and I do not get what he—she—is saying. I ask for help, to make things work.
“Do I call you a he or a she?”
“After it’s all done, I’ll be a woman. I intend to go for sexual reassignment surgery too. That one is a little more challenging. It’ll have to be done in phases.”
“Is that even possible?”
He—she—does not answer me. I suppose it is much like a question about the future that no one can answer with certainty. Ivan had already begun. He says he had to try. To give it a shot. We establish he knew the consequences, at least the administrative ones. The conversation, I guess, is not a total flop. Adults hardly change their minds about themselves, especially not by talking to someone younger.
Back at Brown I find myself, for the first time, wanting a partner. A boyfriend, a husband, someone who can be my other half, to make things whole. I don’t want to figure things out anymore. And if after having sex, I realize I should be a man, so be it.
Like I would with a job application, I write to Remy, my Singaporean brother who decided to stare me down in a Miami froggies club. The note reads:
Hi Remy, I like you. Thank you for taking care of me and protecting me while we’re in the States. Can we go out?.
Remy writes back:
Sorry I don’t see you in that way.
My first rejection letter. I suppose I expected to feel horrible, to sulk and to cry.
In what way? Is there a way of seeing that makes some girls sisters and others, sexual partners? Is one better than the other?
Rejections are supposed to hurt, but it wasn’t like that at all. On the contrary, his curt reply made me feel good – freed. Since I hold no man’s interest, I am free to go on with my life, unconcerned about whether I am in fact, a woman or not. Because I know now I am.
My question had never been about being a woman or a man, but what kind of woman, and for what kind of man.
The year is 2019. There’s a meme going around Facebook these days that says:
I’m a female.
I am Iron Man.
When asked what Marvel superhero they would like to be? Boys in college often said, “Iron Man, for sure! He’s rich, smart and lives in a glass house on a mountain cliff with the sexy Gwyneth Paltrow.”
Thirty-five years old now and married, I ask my husband the same question. And when he says, Iron Man, I laugh. Some things do not change. Like the heroes whose stories we keep in our hearts to light the way.
My superhero is Mystique, the shape-shifter from the X-men series. She can transform into any human being, man or woman or beast. But in her natural self she shows up with blue skin and yellow eyes. Blue skin, because women are called to show up in society as equal to men these days. Yellow eyes, like cataract, from growing old too early, too soon. Though Mystique is, categorically a beast by appearance, no one who has watched the X-men series ever wonders what gender she is.
Hawt! They say. Without a doubt, Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is female.
Take that, boys. She’s both female and superhero and beast. The real Iron Man. Confused? Stand in line. Impressed? Behind the line. Attracted? Come right up to claim your priority pass.
Serene Goh Jin-Hong is a part-time student of the Masters in Creative Writing programme at LASALLE College of the Arts. She is proud to be Singaporean, and grateful to all the opportunities that her country has given her. With a love for the arts and recreational sports, as well as personally lived experience of mental illness, she works at Singapore Association for Mental Health to educate the public on self-care and building resilience in stressful times. When she is not working, she likes to travel with her husband to countries where there are chilly mountain treks, free-roaming animals, or laid-back book cafes.