When My Chinese Trans Identity Gets Lost in Translation

"I’ve grown increasingly exhausted with the implication that if I don’t adopt a white or 'American' transness, I’m somehow living wrong.”
How I engage with my gender is heavily influenced by my Chinese culture.
How I engage with my gender is heavily influenced by my Chinese culture.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images

As a Chinese American woman who used to be the eldest son of a Chinese family, I was taught from a young age that sons carry the responsibility of continuing the family lineage. This patriarchal idea of family preservation is directly tied to the philosophy of Confucianism, one of the most influential Chinese schools of thought. Thankfully, my parents never put that type of pressure on me because they didn’t subscribe to gender roles as strongly as some of their peers.

Sure, my mother took a while to start referring to me as her daughter. But three years later, in 2022, calling me her daughter in Chinese and using she/her pronouns in English comes naturally to her. Even today, though, I don’t care how she genders me as long as it implies that I’m her child. But white Americans and many second-generation Americans of color have given me a lot of unsolicited advise about how I should interact with my family and interpret my Chinese sensibilities when it comes to transgender discourse.

Four years ago, I wrote an article about my coming-out experience with my mother. I discussed how I navigated my transgender and Chinese identity when talking with her. During the drafting process, the editor I was working with suggested that I gave my mother too much “leniency” when it came to my family acknowledging my new gender identity. I went along with it, but looking back, I realize that the article had one too many influences from American notions of transgender discourse than I would have liked.

Today, when I share the article with white or assimilated transgender friends and acquaintances, I’m met with hostility — many are shocked and upset that I didn’t consider my mother to be transphobic, ignoring the fact that my mother now proudly calls me her daughter. People’s sentiments usually include comments such as “if they don’t immediately accept you, it’s transphobic.” I have tried explaining that for many Chinese families, being born a son carries weights predetermined upon birth, and these beliefs are intrinsic to the Chinese cultural experience. It’s deep-rooted, multifaceted and definitely not as black-and-white as “my mother is transphobic,” “my mother is an ally” or “Chinese culture is intrinsically transphobic.”

That being said, I’m not defending patriarchal practices. I simply understand that cultural context affects the way people process a new gender identity. And while my mother has never said she misses her son or felt like she lost a son, I’m sure, deep down, a tiny sliver of that exists, and that’s OK with me. The relationship she has with my gender has never tempted me to discard the relationship or threaten to do so, as I feel the larger non-Chinese community would hope or suggest. There is no perfect mother-daughter relationship, and it’s not someone else’s place to tell me how I should feel about my mother.

In recent months, I’ve begun reexamining the broader conversations I’ve had with my non-Chinese transgender friends about how my culture affects how I move through the world as a trans person. And I’ve grown increasingly exhausted with the implication that if I don’t adopt a white or “American” trans identity, I’m somehow living wrong.

Whether we want to recognize it or not, in the American transgender community, whiteness is the default. But this doesn’t mean that white transness is the only way to be trans.

In my world, Chinese acquaintances who occasionally misgender me by accident are not transphobic. Spoken Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have pronouns; “he” and “she” are both pronounced “tá,” but in written Chinese, “he” is written as 他 while “she” is written as 她, with the particle determining whether the character is meant for male or female individuals. For non-native English speakers, memorizing gendered pronouns (which exist in multiple Western languages, including French, English, and Spanish) can be challenging.

While my mother has never said she misses her son or felt like she lost a son, I’m sure, deep down, a tiny sliver of that exists, and that’s OK with me.

Yet another example is when I talk to white trans people about the concept of “passing” and how I feel more comfortable passing than being visibly transgender, they’re quick to label me as self-hating. What these individuals refuse to acknowledge, though, is that it’s hard enough being Asian in white professional and social spaces already; I don’t need my marginalized gender identity to be another obstacle to my moving through life as easily as possible.

Ultimately, I have often felt pressured to disassociate myself from my Chinese community to be accepted by white trans people and trans people of color who want their trans identity to align with Western sensibilities. This isn’t in the true queer spirit of “being who you are” — it’s judgmental and ignorant.

We need more nuanced conversations around intersectionality. One of my favorite examples to bring up is intersectional feminism in America. In a country that has women of all cultures, races and identities, how can we even remotely say that all our experiences of being femme are the same? How can a white woman say that she understands a Black woman’s day-to-day experiences, or how can an Asian woman say she understands an Indigenous woman’s full life experience?

But just because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method to practice feminism doesn’t mean we should force all women to adhere to one type of feminism out of convenience. And the same goes for transgender discourse. And until I see changes happen, white trans America is not for me.

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