The story of my father lives in my body as precise as clockwork. The story of my father during summer is an easier one to tell, as it focuses more on his habitual movements, and how they became part of my embodied desire. My father woke up each morning between 6:30 and 7:15, and, for the most part, made us either oatmeal or put a box of multigrain Cheerios in the middle of the small, round black breakfast table we sat at our entire lives. Before my father married my stepmother and felt a certain kind of pressure to elevate the life he shared with her, that humble piece of furniture was where we dined as well when the house we lived in fit the meagerness of that table, where the breakfast nook equaled the dining room. It was an immigrant’s story, one less apparent when he moved us into a bigger house to provide for her a more luxurious kind of comfort than one that would have sufficed if he were to continue to live alone, with the three of us, as a single Chinese father.
But at this point of the story, I am at least ten years old, after we’ve moved into the big suburban house where my stepmother also lives with my twin, my older brother, my father, and me, and where my father and stepmother still reside. But, to continue. My father would come downstairs—this is about an hour after he set breakfast for us—and leave for work out the back door. He would wear, without fail, a white ribbed cotton tank top as an undershirt (what many refer to as a wife beater); a short sleeve button down, also white; his security badge that gave him access to enter NASA clipped to his front pocket; black slacks; a conservative tie; and thin dress socks with black dress shoes. And a dark brown briefcase with gold combination locks.
I’m not sure how old I was the first time my father left his briefcase at home, or where my brother and twin were when I confiscated it, and ran it upstairs to the bathroom, pushing in the little button lock to secure myself and my booty. Who knows what I expected I would find if I was able to slide my thumb down for just the right duration to hear that satisfying pop of the briefcase open and reveal its secrets. My father was a difficult man, and as I grew older I slowly understood the sorts of pressures he was under as a single father and as an immigrant that caused him to feel helpless. Stretched to the last limit caused him to strike out at us in such violent rages if we behaved in ways that displeased him.
But, as difficult as he was, I spent most of my life wanting to consume the power and privilege I found he possessed in his body, and in how he dressed that body to meet the world. As a young child, I would finger his neckties hanging against his closet door while he was at work and my siblings were out with their friends or distracted via the television or the phone. As a teenager I would play with the silky scarves in my mother’s room, transforming them into the neckties I saw fashioned neat and clean against my father’s neck each morning. As a twenty-something, I would spread my legs apart in imitation of many men I’d witnessed perform the same, hoping I could re-fashion a vulnerable female body into one possessed with power and prestige.
While my father, in his way, showed me what it meant to be a masculine body in the world, although one without the privilege of whiteness, my white mother certainly did not teach me the codes and standards of traditional femininity. Although my mother had been the image of magazine-worthy beauty in her early twenties with her thin figure and her milky skin, she had become gradually unwound in her adult life, resorting to marijuana and eating as a coping mechanism. Unwilling to address the differences in her body from when she was younger, I can’t remember a single day of my childhood that she wasn’t wearing black spandex without underwear with an oversized black t-shirt. She wore the cheap lipstick from Walgreens—the green one that turns bright pink when you apply it, three dots in a half circle of Oil of Olay foundation across her cheekbones, and mascara.
My mother wasn’t around much, and when she was, she was difficult in the complete opposite way of my father. Some would have called my mother a free spirit, but that would have been putting a positive spin on it. My mother was chaos. She was either high out of her mind (during one visit in my twenties, she even admitted, while laughing, that she’s smoked weed during her pregnancy with my older brother) or in hysterics. If she wasn’t high or in hysterics, she was absent—out with men, out getting high with her friends, just away from us. Sometimes that absence was totalizing, as in she was just gone and who knew when she would return. Ever the victim, my mother would never come to understand the unreliable, emotionally-unstable, abandoning figure that I came to expect and how painful it was for me as a child. But, as a person who had to learn on her own to negotiate the strange and restrictive codes of being a female in the world, I suppose I can thank her for insisting that we rely on our natural beauty and resist wearing makeup—a piece of advice that I would grow to understand was incredibly subversive to learn from any white mother raising two teenage girls in America. I can also thank her for providing me with such a non-normative model of what it is to be female.
But, for most of my life I found it incredibly frustrating not knowing what it meant when I had failed at femininity, which was often. I was bullied for wearing the tomboyish clothes my father picked out for me (largely hand-me-downs that he had originally bought for my brother) or microaggressed for the ways in which I didn’t fit in with my female peers. It wasn’t that I was exactly masculine, either—just some strange anomaly in-between. Add on top the fact I was already liminal in my biraciality, with divorced parents, and predominantly a single nonwhite father.
Perhaps because my mother was so disinterested with the production of clothing, I grew to love the theatrical adornment of feminine attire as much as I yearned to wear the ties and oxfords of my father. There was one particular birthday party I remember—was I seven?—where my twin and I were wearing these beautiful, fluffy, princess-like frocks. Very atypical of something we would be given to wear. I was always dressed in blue, while my sister was dressed in pink. My parents had dressed us in these associated colors all the way back to infancy, largely to keep who was who straight when we were too young and too identical to tell apart. It would take me years to be comfortable with pink, not only for what it signified for women, but perhaps also because it always was a color meant for my twin, and not for me.
For years I thought I adored this blue dress because of its femininity. But now, as I reflect on that birthday party in which I twirled the dress around me again and again as my sister sat demurely on the sofa behind me, I am distinctly aware that it is a dress of movement. There was a freedom, a soundtrack, and an expansion that the skirt gave me. And, a production. I enjoyed the production of the gown, how fancy it made me feel in an otherwise incredibly humble life. It is also one of the few times I felt that I could perhaps imagine what it was to be a normal girl wearing a normal girl dress swishing it around her as I’d seen in television shows and picture books.
By the time I wore that dress, I probably had already become fascinated with ballet. There was nothing more I wanted when I was a young girl than to be a ballet dancer. My use of the word ballet dancer, rather than ballerina, to define the dreams of my youth are pointed here; it was Baryshnikov who I truly wanted to become, soaring untethered in the air above. Knowing that I was a girl, and knowing that that type of dance wasn’t possible, I would practice pirouettes in my room again and again, but to no avail. We’d taken dance for a few years when we were young, but my father found it too expensive and pulled us out of the studio when my sister admitted she didn’t want to dance anymore. I was devastated but took on my father’s masculine stoicism and pretended to be unfazed. No matter how many dance classes I would take in my life, I would never learn how to excel at spotting, a skill necessary to perfect the turns I practiced a million times in my room while everyone else was asleep. I was too occupied, I think, trying to figure out what it was everyone needed me to be.
What I did love about the ballet, even when I grew to realize that my body would never become the Baryshnikov I desired so much, was the production of attire. Of course, I loved the tutus and the leotards, the tights and the crinolines, but more than that, I think I loved the production of the clothing. It was hyper-gendered, to be sure, an element of the genre that I grew uncomfortable with over time; but, I adored the largeness and romanticism of the costumes, and it was from that early dream that I grew to later see my own body as one that I could costume as a kind of armor in the world. Even the tutus and the gowns could be seen as a kind of feminine armor to move through such a gendered world. In a way, the women in classical ballet were even more suited with armor than the men in their white tights, the most vulnerable parts of their bodies exposed in ways they almost never were in the outside world, a turn on how women were objectified and exposed throughout media and popular culture.
I had always written to deal with the traumas of my childhood life, but I fully took to poetry when I was 18, and when my first creative writing instructor in college took me under his wing, so to speak, and knew how desperately my young life needed the art of poetry to survive. I lived in my father’s house when I started his class, and by the time I had finished that semester, I had left it. Poetry was the first sign that I was headed in the right direction, and this instructor was the first person in my life to validate my talent.
Poetry was the right form to express the unwieldy contents of the interior for years. I finished my undergraduate degree in creative writing and pursued a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry as well. Poetry, quite literally, brought me from the brink of clinical depression. The focus it required to control the container of a poem, in turn, made me feel more in control of my life at a time that I desperately needed it.
And then, therapy happened.
I had resisted therapy for years, regardless of the fact that many had recommended I try it in order to heal from my abusive upbringing. But, through writing, I had felt that I had a coping mechanism and that I was doing just fine on my own. It was, again, a masculine pattern I had learned from being around my father, that I was tough. I didn’t need help. And then, one day, as I was, again, sobbing alone in my apartment with no real understanding as to what had provoked me to do so, I made another decision. I had given it a good shot, and my shot just wasn’t doing the job. And so I called a therapist a friend had recommended to me for years. It is no over-exaggeration to say that it was the first moment that I made a choice for myself and away from what it was the world taught me to do instead.
But, as I began to heal in therapy twice a week, once individually and once in group sessions, therapy began to change the shape of the writing I would inhabit. My perfectly controlled lineated poems became less controlled. The box-like stanzas, refined down to the number of syllables per line, became the unenjambed rectangles of prose poems. And those prose poems turned into paragraphs until without much realizing it, I had become a prose writer.
Reflecting back, however, it wasn’t only therapy that changed what form my writing would fit. At the time that I began writing, although I would find many mentors to further push my work, I found that by the time I finished graduate school, it became incredibly difficult to find a publishing space for my poetry to enter. One mentor of mine told me outright—your poems would have been all the rage in the sixties. This struck a nerve more deeply than she probably intended. Just like my mixed-race body, my genderfluidity, and my other liminal identities, I found that I never quite fit in poetry either. As ever, I continued to struggle with finding a home.
Although I would never stop writing poetry, there are times in which a poem can take on the interiority I want to express, with attention to music and rhythm in ways that are different than when I write prose, I found in prose that I was accepted. It could be that I was more able to fully express the many containers I struggled to embody in a more porous and extended body. And it could be that the poems I wrote then were the poems I needed to write, and I had found my way to a different vessel. Whatever the case, I found that I could write into whatever and wherever I happened to be at the time. The body of the hybrid prose form could shift and shape, just as I did.
It wasn’t only my writing that had changed. It was also the literal look of my body. When I started therapy, I dressed in the color that was designated for me the moment I came out of the womb: blue. It comforted me to dress in all the shades that reminded me of the bright blue of the ocean, teal and turquoise and aquamarine. But, at some point, as I began to make my way through the wounds of my young life and in doing so, shed them, what had been comforting to me in the past started to feel like a cage I was constructing around me. And so, I began to write and to dress into a body that felt expansive, that could swish and sashay around me just as that dress did, although for different reasons.
I began to use clothing to truly express the complex relationship I, myself, had to the binary to which I never quite belonged. Both in the classroom where I taught and outside of it, I communicated to the world who I really was: neither this nor that. I began to wear all the colors I could find—the less they matched, the better. And I began to wear the high masculine and high femme styles that I loved so much in the costumes and the fashion that I would watch as the child of an immigrant, understanding that the bodies who wore them were not me, and wearing them anyway. It was bow ties and neckties and oxfords and slacks. And lipstick and tulle and stockings and ballet flats. It was clown collars and fedoras and scarves and earrings. It was starched white shirts and cufflinks and pinstriped suits.
I learned that I was most comfortable when my body—in writing or in flesh—could expand into the definitions that it set for itself, rather than forced into the boxes that helped my young body survive.
In this new body, the one I belonged in all along, it was not an easy task. Most often, I was praised—on the street and in the classroom. My fellow faculty and students seemed impressed, often, with my “bravery,” indicating the way they felt through how they expressed what they saw in me. There were times where I did feel the differences in me through their eyes, even if they remained silent. Not only was I not white, not only was I biracial, but I was also neither masculine nor feminine, and my body itself was something that couldn’t be easily defined.
Once, I had an older Hispanic female student who seemed challenged by the very nature of my boundary-less self, or at least in the way that she viewed it. She would come up to me and say, “I really like your clothes,” but her words had an edge to them, her face bore the smirk of someone who praises you only to wait for you to accept before they start guffawing behind your back. During another class, as I waited with a few of the early students outside the room for the instructor to end the class before ours, she stood just inches away from me and my fresh fade. She said to the student sitting on a bench next to her, loudly enough for me to hear her, “I don’t like when the hairstylists so quickly jump to using the clippers on women’s hair. Why do they do that? Those are for men.”
At the time, I didn’t make much of her microaggressions. I had had bigger fish to fry, like having to get a white supremacist student removed from my class when he threatened me in an electronic message, stating to me that he believed interracial marriage should be illegal and that homosexuality should be punished by death. Her annoyances were just that, and low on my radar.
But her parting gift, her final action, continues to sit with me. After the class had ended, I offered extra credit to any student who would submit a rating of the course on Rate My Professor. The reviews could be kept anonymous—they only needed to send me proof that it had been submitted, something Rate My Professor offers once you hit send on your evaluation. This evaluation, although I admit was anonymous, could not have come from any other student: “She is a terrible teacher and she dresses like a clown.”
Certainly, I know what risk I am taking when I dress to teach every day. But, it is a risk I take to embody myself to the fullest, a most sincere form, as well as employ my presentation as a kind of teaching lesson for my students—pedagogic drag, if you will. Just as I stretch my body out into the colors and shapes that will it into being, I also inhabit my body in order to challenge their expectations of what it means to dress beyond gender, or within all of them, which is when I feel most myself, true to that tie, buttondown, and briefcase I watched with fascination, or the layers of tulle I wrapped around myself during that one birthday. Not only had this student gender policed me in a public forum, but she had also placed a value judgment on my teaching through her biased lens.
Although I ultimately was able to persuade the site to remove the post, it sits with me still as what it means to move through this world in a body I want to stretch to its fullest definition, one of its own making. There will always be those other bodies in the world, ones controlled by the standards I choose to reject. As Jon Davison states, “There is no male or female clown. There is just clown.” Just as Pierrot clowned his sad face and genderless body in order to subvert the higher order, I, too, push against the restraints of gender and race in order to fashion myself a new form, one indicative of the dualities from which I was made.
ADDIE TSAI teaches courses in literature, creative writing, humanities, and dance at Houston Community College. She collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie received her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and her doctorate in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. Her writing has been published in Banango Street, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. She is the Nonfiction Editor at The Grief Diaries, and Senior Associate Editor in Poetry at The Flexible Persona.