By Hui Tang
Father gifted me Chicago Bulls T-shirts and shorts for my birthday before I knew what a sports team was. In retaliation, Mother gave me a frilly pink dress. Truthfully, I loved the way I looked in the dress much more than the shirt and shorts, but I preferred the sports team outfit because I liked running, jumping, getting grubby. What child didn’t?
I walked the tightrope thus, between boy and girl, masculine and feminine. The line was everywhere, parting the most innocuous things. Roller skates were for boys, I discovered, but ice skates were for girls. Calligraphy was manly, but watercolors were feminine. Every time one parent pushed me toward something, the other would counter it with something else. They agreed, at least, that I should excel at all my subjects in school.
When I arrived in the United States, I discovered more lines that tried to carve me up, box me in. Did I think my parents were oppressive before? It was nothing compared to the expectations of my classmates, my teachers. Math was for boys, but Chinese girls got a pass, so it was okay for me. Science too. English was fine for girls, but how could a Chinese girl like me ever hope to speak beautifully? I stomped those lines down, ground them flat under my sneakered heels. Under my parents’ joint pressure, I excelled at languages and sciences both, new classmates be damned.
One day, while I was dancing my precarious boy-girl dance, my parents asked me. Did I want a little brother?
I recoiled, stomach flipping. Why would I want a little brother? That phantom he would upend my entire world! I did not want a brother, an external reminder of my external cues. My heart pattered painfully against my ribs as I breathed through the ramifications.
Hypothesis: if my parents decided to have a second child, they and I would both suffer.
Possibility one: a sister. Father would be furious. There was a reason he had always given me boy things. It was a reason I had never dared look at directly before, but now I stared at it. He has always wanted a son. He would have preferred I were a boy. He would push her to boyness, as he has pushed me. Mother would be fine with a second daughter. All she ever wanted was for me to behave appropriately. As long as my sister behaved like a sister should, that would be satisfactory. Sister would be crushed between them, unless she took up the boy-girl dance as well.
Possibility two: a brother. Father would be delighted beyond measure. He would either ignore me utterly, or… The alternative did not bear thinking upon, so I left it alone. In any case, being ignored would be terrifying enough. How would I continue my boy-girl dance if there was no one else pushing against Mother’s feminizing insistence? And brother would be crushed under their joint expectations, now in terrible alignment.
I fought against my unborn sibling, railed and cursed, screamed and cried. I fought like a boy, like a girl, like a frightened child in an alien land. Mother did not want a second child either. We won. In the quiet darkness of my victory, I wept.
I’m sorry, sister brother. I’m sorry to deny you your life. But I do not think you would have liked it here. I’m sorry for my cowardice, but I do not think I could have lived, if you had lived.
As I aged, the pressure that I had been leaning on to maintain my balance changed. I entered puberty. I bled. I failed to grow breasts, though they did become annoyingly tender. Father’s pressure changed so abruptly I lost my footing. Now, it was all about propriety. They were in agreement at last, that I should be more feminine.
Was my long, lustrous hair not feminine enough? Was the exquisite beauty of my music inadequate? Were these not enough to balance out the heat of my temper, the lash of my tongue? You pushed me to this place, I thought. And now you want to push me into something else. Screw you then. I shifted my stance, and I continued my careful dance.
Those last few years at home were the hardest. I had to find my own way to boy. I threw myself into sports, running away from my unbalancing heart as surely as I ran toward the finish line. I could not keep up with the boys, nor even the girls, but I did outrun my heart for a while.
I left home finally, dancing my way to myself, and discovering new words. They shone in my spirit like sunlit jewels, delicately outlining the shape I have always occupied.
About the Author
Hui Tang is an angry Chinese American woman. She immigrated to the US at age 8, and lives with one husband, two dogs, and three cats.