ASIAN AMERICA: THE FUTURE IS NOW
“Grand Country” for Asian America: The Future Is Now
I wrote and performed this piece about being non-binary, the slipperiness of gender pronouns in Chinese and English, and my grandmother. The piece was also published in a collective anthology of the same name.
my grandmother was born in Shanghai in 1939
in chinese, her name means “grand country.”
she was given a name meant for a boy,
because in chinese, “country” is masculine —
i am familiar with the way man can mean space,
boy can mean borders,
how a body marked by its grandeur is often just another way of saying
that gender is not something to be shared freely,
or transgressed easily.
the binary in chinese is not so unlike a great wall,
a rigid, fortified structure meant to keep a kind of person in
and another kind out but that, in the end, never managed to do either —
and instead, stood as a testament to what it looks like to separate two things,
i cannot help but wonder sometimes —
if my Abu knew being a woman wasn’t about being contained
would she be proud of her name,
the way that i am learning to be proud of my own, or
the way that i am just now learning what it means to unlearn that great wall, brick by brick
and reclaiming what it means to belong to your own country.
my Abu tells me one afternoon,
“i’m a girl, but i’ve always felt like a boy,
just like you.”
in that moment, we are the same age,
just old enough to know that being a woman is an answer we are too young to question our bodies into becoming,
we are just learning not to un-peel our fear if it is not ripe yet
we have the same face,
round like a moon that always hides half of herself away.
i want to tell her about the conversations i’ve been having about gender,
tell her that sometimes dysphoria feels a lot like diaspora,
like that “grand country” she knows so well is a place i’m still trying to reach
but perhaps she already knows this,
and perhaps there are no words for me to describe it anyways,
because what is gender if not a question swallowing another question whole?
a younger generation asking what an older one could not?
what is the future if not a homecoming to your past?
the best way to build tomorrow is to return to it.
when my grandma is describing the man who brings her strawberries on the weekend,
she often says,
“she brought me strawberries”
when talking about her girl dog, she says,
“he is so loyalty, he is such a good boy.”
in chinese, the words for “he” and “she” sound exactly the same.
upon hearing tā, you would have no way of knowing a person’s gender
which is often why my grandma gets the pronouns mixed up in english.
she often tells stories about people she meets,
switching and careening and dissolving “he” from “she” like the swish of a fan,
she does not think much of it these days.
sometimes, she catches herself and says a different pronoun,
but her tone stays the same—
i want to believe in her mind that the person does too.
when my grandma says “tā,”
what i think she means is
“i was once afraid to be whole too”
“these words are houses with leaky roofs”
“i still believe i could belong to myself”
when my mother corrects my grandmother
for “misgendering” people on accident,
i can’t help but smile because
maybe in her mind there is a future where these pronouns fail to encompass who we are too, and
i want to believe i can live in that version of tomorrow too,
i don’t think my grandma is getting anything wrong about gender,
i think she is telling us exactly how we’ve always wanted to be so,
meet me there.
there is a version of my future that looks exactly like my grandmother’s past
and in that future, there is no way of knowing my gender when you hear me either
i am a walking tā
like a guiltless bird
i am every bit the place my grandma’s name built her up to be
and every misspoken gender still waiting to greet me
i am not imagining a future beyond gender,
i am embodying it.
and there is no grander country than that.