The first time I knew I had a body was when my best friend Veronica looked at me and screamed. I was four years old, and an attempt to slide on my hands and knees, feet-first, down an icy hill had just ended predictably, in disaster: I’d lost control and aggressively kissed the uneven ice with my forehead, leaving a cut on my face which was now bleeding freely onto my chin and my (luckily, red) puffer jacket.
Aside from the shock, I was mostly fine: I wandered the playground until some adult, horror-struck, scooped me up and brought me to the nurse’s office. I hadn’t realized my body could be separated from the rest of the world and therefore be hurt by it; hadn’t realized I had boundaries which could be violated.
The rest of the day was a blur of being shuttled between unfamiliar rooms, everyone around me moving with much more urgency than I felt. My kindergarten teacher kissed me on the top of my head before my dad arrived to pick me up. I liked that.
I got five stitches in the end, sitting silently as a doctor sewed me up. For two weeks after, I wore a white gauze bandage over my right eyebrow. A small but visible reminder of my vulnerability. It stung, but I left the hospital with a purple popsicle that matched my boots; a reward, the doctor said, for not crying.
I feel the least ambivalent about having a body when I’m trying to use it to make a point. In my writing, my body both appears and disappears as I dismember it into its constituent parts, each one described into an instrument. The poem zooms in on my hands, reaching across my childhood years for a bowl of instant noodles with frozen peas, a thin slab of Spam, and a fried egg. I sharpen my open mouth into a pocket-knife, ready and unapologetic. I quarantine the soft places on my body that he touched, between my first no and my second.
Twice a week, I spend three hours Taiko drumming with a group of (mostly queer) East and Southeast Asian women and non-binary folks. To me, this is the ritual in my life that is most like writing. For six hours weekly, the troublesome self-awareness I lug around is put to work for a larger collective. Sometimes we arrange the drums in a circle. We are told to imagine we have one heart, beating ardently in the centre, but we are mostly apprentices, still learning how to braid our pulses together.
Through focused physical exertion, drumming simultaneously requests, and offers, an intense presence and a dissolution of the self that allows me to inhabit my body without uncertainty, in a way my very best efforts with language can only dream of achieving.
The difference, maybe, between living in and labeling. My writing process feels more like prodding my body awkwardly with my pen from a distance, asking it to sing for me.
My favourite genre of music used to be YouTube covers by women of songs originally sung by men, where they didn’t change the pronouns.
For a long time, these DIY declarations of longing for other women, totally transgressive and yet cleverly shielded by the plausible deniability of performance, were the closest I got to openly queer pop culture.
Before I could articulate why, even to myself, I was drawn to these women: the ones who were whittling some small space for their (our) desires from the heteronormative halls of mainstream music, and the ones who slipped on the mantle of a man’s creation, overwrote gendered expectations with the simple non-act of not changing pronouns, said I can take what you’ve done and do it better.
Growing up, I hated being a girl. My body itself was not the problem; rather, I hated the idea of girlhood that existed somewhere outside of my body, and yet dictated how I was supposed to dress, act, speak. Girlhood told me to shrink, to nod and smile. To be self-less.
I did what I could to feel at home in this not-girl-not-boy body: I stayed silent all through first grade, to my teachers’ irritation. Dressed in my brother’s old clothes, to my parents’ consternation. Made friends with only boys.
My first word in English was an unremarkable mine. How early in our lives do we learn that we must try to possess what has value, what we love, what we care about? My family conversed exclusively in Cantonese with me before I started going to school. I have no memories from these years, but my Cantonese vocabulary was presumably more extensive than my English. “Rice,” I might have said in my mother’s tongue. Mine. “Sky.” Mine. “Aunt.” Mine. “Body.”
About a year ago, on the tail end of a depressive episode, I had a section of my hair shaved for the first time. For me, body modifications like tattoos and hair styles—I had cycled through turquoise, purple, orange, and red—have always been a helpful way to ease dysphoria.
The next day, feeling fresh, with approximately four square inches of freshly exposed scalp, I met up with my family for dim sum. “Ugly,” they said, looking at me as if they had lost me to the wilds of “Western” culture. “Why would you do this?” they asked, meaning “What could we have done to prevent this?” To be a daughter means to not own your body. “You don’t look like a girl or a boy anymore. Is that what you wanted?”
I didn’t know the word for non-binary. I didn’t really know how to say I was floating, and shaving my hair stuffed me back into my skin. But I knew the word for yes, and maybe I should have said it. Maybe it could have been as simple as that.
In spoken Cantonese, third-person singular pronouns are not gendered. Written Cantonese is very similar to written Standard Chinese, which is largely the same everywhere (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), and based on spoken Mandarin. The Chinese character for him is 他; the radical on the left hand side of the character meaning person. The Chinese character for her is 她, the left hand side radical being the character for woman.
Hong Kong, where half of my family still lives, is the anomalous child of spoken (informal) Cantonese and written (formal) Mandarin Chinese. Signs: Mandarin. Newspapers: Mandarin. Government documents and books: Mandarin. Internet chat forums, slang, and social media: Cantonese.
If Cantonese is the language with which you navigate the world, you do not write as you speak. There are some words you can say that have no corresponding characters at all. It is possible, then, to exist in the world as something that cannot be written down.
Who is your wise adult self? My therapist asks. She has been cutting away at the thicket of dissociation my brain has cultivated painstakingly and painfully to protect me.
Wise adult self is the phrase she uses to describe the me that should, theoretically, exist underneath all of the depression, the anxiety, the borderline personality disorder. My therapist doesn’t speak in diagnoses, for which I am sometimes grateful and sometimes frustrated.
So far, we’ve located not a singular self, per se, but an assemblage of selves, each one attached to its own set of fears and desires, each one residing in a particular part of my body: a shy, 6 year old girl in my chest. A harsh middle-aged matriarch in my forehead. An anxious student in my left hand, a boy in my right who takes care of them.
Whenever we meet a new shard of my self, buried somewhere in my body, my therapist asks what their pronouns are. It surprises me, when they are not all the same. This is a little bit wonderful, though in moments of weakness, it feels like I’m making everything up. At other times, I remember that lives have been saved by stories.
Writers wage non-binary magic with language all the time. Language both does, and means. Language affirms, disrupts, creates frames with which we make sense of the world and make the world.
Language requires a porousness of borders, an acknowledgment of not-alone-ness. There must be someone to communicate at, or hopefully with. This, in turn, requires faith in something that cannot be proven.
Language also has limitations. The existence of a body, a colour, a feeling, is not negated if there is not yet a word for it. Neither can language precisely recreate the experience of those things. Although it has the potential to do so, language does not inherently act on the material, political world. I have read poems that love language, poems that are rich in aesthetic but low in meaning. Poems that romanticize pain as a rite of passage into personhood. But I have also read poems that do the opposite, tell it like it is, help us find and hold each other.
The facilitator of the poetry workshop I am at tells us to introduce ourselves by sharing our name and pronouns. Meaning: tell me what your gender is. Or, at the very least, tell me what you want me to think your gender is. We take turns, one by one, around the room.
What I want to say: my gender is a pair of safety scissors. My gender is rainbow turtle-cat. My gender is a dog-eared book of poetry. My gender is old lady. I am not a woman, not not a woman, definitely not a man, maybe neither, maybe something in between.
What I do say: they/them/theirs. Over the course of the week, several people consistently misgender me anyway. The sting of this unintentional violence is not sharp, as a needle suturing my eyebrow might be, but it fades slowly.
For my friend’s son’s third birthday, I bring him a copy of From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea, a book written by Kai Cheng Thom, illustrated by Kai Yun Ching and Wai-Yant Li.
In it, Miu Lan, a genderqueer kid of colour, who can change into any shape they imagine—growing feathers, scales, glitter, shells, and wings—runs the obstacle course of going to school while facing questions from the other children about what kind of being they are. The book’s refrain, sung by Miu Lan’s patiently loving mother: “whatever you dream of / i believe you can be / from the stars in the sky / to the fish in the sea.” The lesson I take from it, plunge into my flesh like a cherry pit: you can be one thing, or changing, or many. You are still deserving of love. You are still loved.
I bring him this book because I wonder who I could have been kinder or more generous to if I’d read it when I was growing up. Because I hope he never feels entitled to explanation from someone he doesn’t understand, someone the world has already deemed unworthy of care or empathy. Because I hope one of his first memories is of safety, snuggled up on a couch with beautiful story. Truest of all, because I love him and I want him to understand me.
Because I also wonder if we will all take personhood as a given, someday. If we will continue to change our minds constantly about who we are, and if we will be welcomed into our bodies each time like old friends meeting for the first time, knowing each other slowly by questions undemanding of certainty, like strangers with sad eyes, like the inside of a seed, like our bravest, most unlanguageable dreams.
JODY CHAN is a writer and organizer based in Tkaronto/Toronto. They are a 2017 VONA alum and the 2018 winner of the Third Coast Poetry Contest, judged by Sarah Kay. Their first chapbook is forthcoming in 2018 with Damaged Goods Press, and their poetry is published or forthcoming in BOAAT, Nat. Brut, The Shade Journal, and elsewhere. They can be found online at https://www.jodychan.com/ and offline in bookstores or dog parks.