Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 30 — The Transgender Teacher ("Jiyoung")
People who can span different cultures can gain a superpower in analysing their own culture. In today's episode, we extend that idea beyond the realm of cultural identity, and into the realm of gender identity.
J: Well, how about we stop giving surgeries to people who don't want them, and give them to the people who do want them?
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
With each guest that has appeared on Mosaic of China, there's usually a balance between talking about what that person does, versus who that person is. Well in today's final episode of Season 02, the guest has never been clearer about the importance of both these factors in this particular time of her life. And that's the reason why we agreed to go into 'stealth mode' for this episode, which means that I don't mention my guest's full name, I don't include any photos, and I've also disguised her voice. All of this is explained later in the episode, but I wanted to prepare you for the voice distortion in particular. No, this is not a continuation of last week's episode with Murray King from Disney, even though the disguised voice does sound a little bit like Mickey Mouse.
Another one of the themes that comes up a lot in Mosaic of China is the idea that people who can experience a life that spans different cultures can often gain a certain superpower when it comes to analysing their own culture. It's that inside/outside perspective, that those who don't venture outside the comforts of their own culture can never experience. In today's episode, we extend that idea beyond the realm of cultural identity, and into the realm of gender identity. Before this conversation, I thought I knew quite a lot about all this. But it turns out, I didn't know the half of it. Stick around until the end of the episode to hear how this conversation inspired me in particular. But I hope it in some way inspires you too.
OF: So I'm here today with Jiyoung. Hello, Jiyoung.
OF: And you are from Korea, and you are a teacher.
J: Yes. Yes, I am.
OF: Thank you for inviting me into your home.
J: Yeah, absolutely. It's very lovely to have you here.
OF: It’s actually exciting for me, because I don't do too many interviews outside the studio. So I feel like an intrepid reporter today. Tell me, what is the object that you have brought that in some way represents your life here in China?
J: So I brought this object here. Do you want me to hand it to you, or..?
OF: Yes, please.
J: I guess I'm cheating, because it’s technically two objects in one. So the first object is a card that my students from my very first year of teaching made for me. And my very first year of teaching was when I transitioned in front of my students. And these students saw me physically change. And they were so supportive. And this is one of the most difficult time periods in my life. I wasn't even sure if I could ever be a teacher, being a transgender person. I'd never met a transgender teacher before. So the idea that I could enter this profession, I still had to prove that to myself. And having this affirmation from my students was a huge step in my own journey to believe in myself. And inside the card is a letter from one of my students in China. So the reason I put them together is because in my first school, I was openly out to my students, and they saw me for who I was. And having that vulnerability in front of your students, it really established a connection that is incredibly hard to replicate. But being openly out also meant that I was vulnerable to harassment, from especially conservative parents of children who did not want me to be a teacher there. Contrasting with China, where I'm not out to the students in China. As a result of that, I don't receive any harassment, and it feels very nice not to receive any harassment. But sometimes I feel that I can't connect with them in the same way, because I think about “They do like me. But would they still like me as a teacher if they knew about my background, and where I came from?” But I put these two letters together because, aside from the commentary about my identity in the first few letters, a lot of the compliments are about the same thing: about the quality of teaching. And at the end of the day, that's what students care about. It’s the ability for you to help and guide them, and try to inspire them to become better learners and better human beings overall. So I read both of these at the same time to remind myself that, just because I'm not out - to my students or to my co-workers - doesn't mean it sacrifices all of my authenticity. That I'm more than just my transgender identity. My professionalism means the world to me, and this is just one of the dimensions of my life.
OF: Wow. Well, thank you so much for sharing something so personal.
J: Thank you.
OF: And, you know, I was scanning the words of the messages as you were speaking, and I can tell that those are heartfelt messages. Not just from the people in your original school, but also the letter here in China. And the original school, it's outside of China, of course.
J: Yes, yes.
OF: And you mentioned that it was during the time that you were…
OF: Transitioning. So what does that mean?
J: So transitioning, think of it as multiple different Venn diagrams overlapping each other. Transitioning refers to the process in which a transgender person goes from their identity at birth to the identity that they know they are inside. A lot of people focus on the physical, biological transition - whether it's taking hormones, or whether it's surgeries - and that definitely is a big part of transitioning. But that's an aspect that very few transgender people go through. Because most transgender people can't afford the physical transformation, because they're in a country where it's not available, or they simply can't sacrifice their life and their jobs to pursue this transition. So the hyper-focus on the physical transition… it’s actually a minority of the transgender experience. There's the social transition of your friends seeing you for the new person who you are; there’s the family transition for your family, either accepting or not accepting; there is the legal transition, which is changing your markers on your passport, or changing your markers on your identity cards. So that's why I said it's all these things overlapping each other. Obviously, your ability to biologically transition might depend on your ability to get your legal work changed. In many countries, it's required. Or sometimes it's the other way around, where in order to legally change things, you need to biologically alter yourself. So that's why they're all linked with each other. And in many cases, transitioning is not just a beginning and end point, right? It is a continuum. So that would be the long answer to your question about transitioning.
OF: You actually were quite concise in listing all the different complexities that are involved in that one word. And it makes me slightly go fuzzy in the head to work out, where do I start with your story? I mean, you mentioned the legal side. And that was to do with changing the markers on your ID, for example. So do you also change the name on your ID?
J: Yes, absolutely. So the decision to change your name is also, you know, you get to pick your name, right? It can be very empowering, in that regard. And so there was a period of my life where I experimented with a couple of different names. Or “If I go travelling to a new place where nobody knows me, I'm going to go by this name, and see how that works”. So there was a couple of other contenders before I settled on Jiyoung. So that's one of the more pleasant parts of redefinition. It’s more fun than the bureaucratic process of actually changing it, which can be a bit of a nightmare.
OF: Well, I can only imagine. What happens when you have certificates and qualifications in your ex-name. Do you have to then go back and get those changed to your new name?
J: Yes I literally had to go back for both of my degrees, and for all of my legal transcripts, for my police record - I don't have a police record, but you know, you still have to register your new name - literally everything. Because if you have a certificate that still has your birth name on it… I’ve had job offers retracted from me when I didn't have all of my paperwork completed, and they saw this one document, and that was enough for them to say “Sorry, we're not going to offer this to you any more”. And so that's something that's really tied to your ability to make sure that you still have an income, and make sure that you can still pursue your career path.
OF: Right. You are now in China, you have all the records of your new identity. The audience will already notice that we're being quite cagey with a few details. So I'm not saying your full name. I'm not saying what kind of teacher you are. I'm not saying what city we're in. Why are we doing that, can you explain?
J: I'm doing that because if my employers were to find out that I am transgender, then I will very much likely lose my job. And it's not necessarily because my employers are homophobic or transphobic. It's because I work in a private school, and at the end of the day, it's about making money. And we have a large population of students who belong to conservative families. And what they would do is that they would simply request to have their students removed from my class. Or they would go to the rival school, right. And so if this would come out, then my employer would see that the loss of profits, and then they would let me go. And the reason that I speak of this with fair confidence is because I had a similar situation in the second school that I worked in.
OF: Which was here in China, or..?
J: It wasn't in China. It was a public school, so luckily the profit factor wasn't in there. But on my very first day, I had about 13 requests to have students removed from my class. And so from that experience, I learnt a lot, and I became stronger. But I also learnt to be realistic. And I learnt that I need to be strategic with whom I come out to. And so hiding my identity is crucial, because I love my job, I absolutely love my job. I enjoy every aspect of it. It's not just about losing money, I would be completely heartbroken if I was let go of the school from that. And I would feel very humiliated that all my achievements that I've put into this school would be reduced to this one dimension of my life. And I just happen to be working in a particularly conservative area of China.
OF: OK. Well let's talk about that, then. What is the situation for transgender people in China?
J: So it is incredibly varied. Overall, China's transgender situation is considerably behind the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities. One of the reasons is that it is incredibly difficult to change your legal information in China. And as China being such a database of information for each individual… Especially for the ID cards, since the ID card determines pretty much everything that you can do.
OF: The ID card, and your number, is ubiquitous here, isn’t it.
J: And one of the numbers is the gender.
OF: Is that right?
J: So that’s one of the difficulties, you have to change the number.
OF: Ah. You do, OK.
J: So there are organisations specifically set up to help people change their markers, because that's a huge factor in gaining access to the workplace. Especially in a company setting where people may be expecting to work there for several years. I believe one of the first successful discrimination employment cases was in 2017. I was very lucky, I met the person and the lawyer who was involved in this, and I spoke to them. And in various places around China, they were actually successful, not just the coastal regions, or the metropolitan cities. So things are getting better. It's really in the past, maybe, five years that things have started to pick up a little bit. One of the most famous public transgender individuals is a TV show host, who is a dancer. But there's a big debate in the trans community about transgender people who are visible and get accepted. And it's people who just blend into the community, and go what's called ‘stealth’. Which is basically to just not tell anybody about your past experiences. And this is not in any way a critique of that person. But the general idea is that, if you're a trans person who can ‘pass’… ‘Passing’ is also another controversial term, passing basically means nobody can ‘tell’ that you are trans, right…
OF: … And I must say you are someone who I would say ‘passes’.
J: Well, yeah, I appreciate that, in that regard. But if you pass, most people just simply start a new life, completely start over again, and just don't ever tell anybody. I don't blame people who choose to do that. For people who choose to do that, I completely understand. But that's not facilitating acceptance, right? It's safety. That's what it is. It means you're much less likely to feel discriminated against. Because the trans people who don't pass in China - and this is for most of the world - you’re seen as a joke. As a parody of the gender that you want to be in. And for the people who ridicule transgender people, they always ridicule the most vulnerable people, who are the people who don't pass, right. So if you’re a trans man, you must be this big, muscular, hyper-masculine individual. And if you're trans woman, you must be a supermodel, right? So these exaggerated stereotypes that are used, often against the trans community. And sometimes many trans people internalise that, and sometimes feel that the only way to have acceptance is to have the only visible people being these exemplary members of society. Which is a very high standard for any community, let alone the trans community. And so most ‘passing’ people are ‘stealth' in China.
OF: Very interesting. And I want to make this personal to you. So, you know, when I just jumped in there and said “Oh but Jiyoung, you also ‘pass’”, you took that as a compliment. But it must be very conflicting for you.
J: It is really conflicting, because I have had the absolute range of reactions. I've had people - who had no idea I was trans - express extreme shock when I tell them. I've had people also say “It was very obvious all along, and I just, you know, wanted to be polite”. Then I have people who are a bit too nice, they’d be like “Oh my gosh, you're the most beautiful person in the world. And you’re a complete model superstar”. And like, I understand that they're trying to be nice, but sometimes when you over-compliment someone - it’s when they're using over feminine registers - you kind of see through that a little bit. And also the other reason why it feels conflicting is because I'm stealth at my work. And it's actually quite unhealthy for my mental state, because it makes you paranoid all the time. You're always constantly thinking “Can people tell? Are people suspicious?” And then it actually makes you try to exaggerate your own feminine characteristics beyond what is natural to you. And then you feel like "Am I being inauthentic? Can people notice that I'm trying to put on an act?” So that's why, when I commute to places outside of my work, I am openly out. Because at the end of the day, I would rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not. And that is why I only plan on leading a stealth flight for another five years. In five years, I plan on starting my PhD. And I want to create an LGBT historical encyclopaedia, where the LGBT histories of each country that I've been to are documented. So whenever somebody says "Oh, no, this is a Western aspect, it's not part of our culture”. I can say “Well actually, I've got this whole encyclopaedia that documents the queer communities from this culture. And it's not a Western phenomenon, it’s part of the culture”. As someone who's not Chinese, it's not my job to tell the story of Chinese people, it's simply to do my best to assist, and make it accessible. And that's what I want my encyclopaedia to be, I want it to be an online resource that secondary students would be able to read. And I want it to be available in the languages from that culture, not just in English. So I'm willing to be stealth for five more years, essentially. As a temporary stepping stone for while I do this sort of grassroots research.
OF: Yeah. Very smart. And you've got it all planned out. Like, I can see how your mind is working like a teacher, planning these things out year by year. Well, I hope that in five years time this programme is still around, and we could do an update episode. Until then, of course, I understand why you're doing it this way.
J: Thank you.
OF: With this topic of the encyclopaedia then, let's move in that direction. And this is maybe unfair, because you haven't started your PhD yet. But what are the historical precedents here in China? About people who may or may not have been transgender in the past?
J: So I am still doing my research about transgender history in China. I haven't come across something beyond the past 100 years. That doesn't mean it's not there, it just simply means that there hasn't been enough research done on the topic. So there's quite a wealth of evidence for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. There have been various emperors - throughout Chinese history going back thousands of years - who had male concubines. And one of them is Emperor 哀 [Āi] of 汉 [Hàn], about 2,000 years ago. He's a person who's well known to be the emperor of the ‘cut sleeve’. Transgender people, not so much. If you contrast this with India, for example - and when I say India, I mean the Indian subcontinent, so including Pakistan, including Bangladesh - they have a significant quantity of documentation related to the हिजड़ा [Hijra], which is sometimes known as ‘the third gender’, has been associated with intersex people, and now is much more associated with trans people. And so that goes back 4,000 years. In Thailand you have the กะเทย [Kathoey], right? And that's been documented also for several thousands of years. So within Asia, there is lots of transgender history. China, I am still doing my research on that.
OF: Absolutely. I look forward to seeing the results. And this is another question which I think is not specific to China. Because ‘LGB’ is about sexuality, and ’T’ is about gender. Why are they, in general, clumped together?
J: Yes, so they are separate categories. But they are linked, right? And obviously as a trans person, your sexual orientation changes once you go from one gender to the other.
J: So before I transitioned, many people read me as a gay feminine man. But actually, I was bisexual. And I'm still bisexual. And now oftentimes, a lot people see me as a gay woman, depending on who my partner happens to be. And so I've been every letter of the ‘LGBT’…
OF: Wow, you have!
J: …In different parts of my life. And when I say “I've been” I mean ‘the way that I've been read’. And even though the way that you're read isn't necessarily your identity, it influences your identity. And those perceptions also influence the way you interact with that world. So something about each of those letters resonate with different portions of my life.
J: So this kind of goes back to the idea that sometimes you have to be hyper-masculine to be a trans man, or hyper-feminine to be a trans woman. A lot of people assume that trans people are all straight. And the idea that if you're a trans women, you are expected to be with a man. And if you're a trans man, you're expected to be with a woman. And sometimes it makes me question about, how much do I actually want to be with men? Versus how much do I like the idea of being with men, because this heteronormative society will more likely validate my gender if I'm with a man? And so I'm still questioning about, which area do I swing more towards.
OF: Which is so interesting to hear, because you can articulate it in a way that is very self-aware. Whereas people who live their lives in a very conventional way, they never really even question these things. Where actually, they probably could learn something about themselves if they did.
J: And that's one of the aspects that I think about, that makes me proud to be a transgender person. It’s that I would otherwise have never been in the situation where I'd be confronted with these philosophical ideas - about what it means to know your gender, what it means to know your sexual orientation - and I would have never stumbled across the need to improve - and wanting to improve - society. And so I'm incredibly thankful and grateful for being trans. I don't want it to just be the source of shame. Even though there are times in life where I do still feel that internalised shame, being stealth puts you in that situation. But I am grateful that this has allowed me to interrogate the paradigms of society that we sometimes assume to be default - or assume to be static - and not ever evolving, and fluid.
OF: Yes. And I think that gratitude does come through. It also reminds me of when you and I have previously met. You were saying how actually, you have quite a good situation, because ‘passing’ can come down to your resources. Can you explain that?
J: Yes, absolutely. So classism is a huge aspect in trans communities.
J: Yes. So if you come from a place where it's impoverished, it's very hard to change your gender marker, it's very hard to afford surgeries, and therefore it's very hard to get a job. And if you don't pass, and you can't get a job, and you're evicted from your house, that's why so many transgender people are in sex work. And I have absolutely no problems with people who want to do sex work, you know, if that's what they want to do. But one of the reasons that it took me so long to figure out my identity - and why I was in denial such a long time - is because I never thought I could do anything but sex work. Because the only exposure I had to transgender people was through pornography. And I thought that's what it meant to be transgender. And that's one of the reasons people assume that - not just trans, but LGBT people - are ‘dangerous’ or shouldn't be around students, because it's all a sexual thing. When it completely isn’t, right? When I'm at school, I'm thinking about my work, and thinking about my pedagogy. But going back to the trans hierarchy, you know, there is a sector of trans people who come from very privileged backgrounds - and very wealthy backgrounds - who sometimes look down upon trans people who don't pass. And sort of think "Oh, you're making us all look bad". But sometimes trans women are born into bodies that are just difficult to pass in. And that's just the genetic lottery, that has absolutely nothing to do with it. So why should we value someone's story, just because they happen to be born with a bone structure that's more thin, or where they have less body hair? That has to do with luck, that has nothing to do with identity. So therefore, if we're only accepting of hyper-feminine trans women, or hyper-masculine trans men, we're accepting of their presentation, we're not actually accepting of their identity. And so the members of the privileged parts of the transgender community - who disassociate themselves from that - I would personally argue are actually being quite harmful, and are actually reinforcing gender stereotypes.
OF: Yes. And I can see where somebody who has not done well in the lottery - in terms of their bone structure, or in terms of resources, and when they have no hope - of course, then huge mental issues will arise. And that's, I guess, why there is a higher level of suicide. Is that the same in China? Do we have the details about that?
J: Yeah we do have the data in China, and unfortunately the data in China is quite consistent. It usually hovers around 40%.
J: Yeah. And so when I see an older transgender person - who has been living this life for several decades - it’s hugely inspirational.
J: Yes, so a lot of people believe that being transgender is a mental illness, in and of itself. And that's one thing in China, it is still categorised as a mental illness, while homosexuality was taken off the list of mental illnesses in China in 2001. The WHO didn’t take transgender people off the list of mental illnesses until 2018.
OF: Oh woah.
J: So that's a recent development as well. And it’s because people experience dysphoria. But the road to suicide is largely because of the lack of resources - whether it's having an apartment, having an education, having a job, having a family - that's when a lot of the suicide rates increase. And that's where most of the work needs to be made. But they don't just benefit trans people, they benefit everybody, right? They benefit all people who are in these economically poor situations. And that's why - looking at the struggle through an intersectional lens - we realise that we have so many more alliances than we do barriers with other communities, who might be suffering from similar forms of discrimination, just in different ways.
OF: Yes. And you mentioned, there, the term ‘gender dysphoria.’
J: Yeah. Gender dysphoria is the feeling of discomfort, because of the lack of alignment between your physical biological characteristics and your gender identity. People articulate gender dysphoria in different ways. But usually it manifests in depression and deep hatred for one's body. It has similar overlappings with ‘dysmorphia’, which is the feeling of disassociation with parts of your body. And a lot of people with body image issues experience this when they look at a model on screen - whether they're male or female or non-binary - and they feel sad that they don't have that. So gender dysphoria is something similar. But it's not just the physical characteristics, it’s that you're not seen on a social level, you're not recognised. For me, it was also a deep sense of loneliness that only I could see this. And I didn't know how to articulate it without being accused of being mentally unstable. And so, for me it manifested in deep isolation - and deep depression - that took me a very long time to dig out of. But it's different for everybody. I had access to trans-inclusive therapists, and I can't state enough how much that really did save my life, four or five years ago.
OF: OK. Do you say, then, that body dysphoria is part of the process that everyone goes through, in the acceptance of their transgender identity?
J: There is a debate within the transgender community, to what extent does dysphoria play a role, right? I would generally say for the majority of the trans community dysphoria does play a significant role. There is also a group of transgender people for whom dysphoria doesn't play a big role in their life. And so I'm happy that there are transgender people where dysphoria doesn't play a big part. Because it shouldn't be the central aspect of our narrative.
OF: Right. The other thing I wanted to ask you - because you mentioned it very briefly, in passing - is the idea of intersex.
J: Right. So for intersex it’s in many ways actually almost the inverse experience of transgender people. So intersex people are really the biological proof that sex itself is not a binary, right? Approximately 0.8% of the world's population is intersex. And that might sound very small, but actually there are more intersex people than there are Japanese people in the world.
J: It’s a minority. But when we talk about the world, we're talking more than 130 million people.
J: And so, intersex people are people who are born that either don't have XX or XY chromosomes or have another variation; or have other variations of physical characteristics of their body. Alright, so neither male nor female. There are hundreds of animal species that also are intersex. One famous example is the lobster, that's literally half male and half female. The struggle that many intersex people go through, is that doctors look - when the baby is born - and they can't actually figure out if the baby is male or female. But there are only two boxes to tick. So oftentimes, they would make the judgement and say that “This looks more… male.” And actually physically alter - and perform surgeries - on babies and young children, without the child's consent. And oftentimes provide misleading information to the parents saying there's a higher risk of cancer developing, which is scientifically very questionable. And oftentimes, they're prescribed hormones. “OK, we decided that you're female. So we're going to alter your genitals to make you look more female. And we are going to give you hormones. And raise you as a girl.” Which might align with their identity, or might not align with their identity. Many intersex people grow up not realising that they're intersex.
OF: Right. Because sometimes it's not visible, right?
J: Yeah, sometimes it's not visible. A lot of these variations are inside the body. So the reason I say trans people often have the inverse experience, is that many trans people want to pursue hormones, and want to pursue surgeries. When many intersex people have surgeries and hormones given to them, without their consent. Well, how about we stop giving surgeries to people who don't want them, and give them to the people who do want them?
OF: There you go. Easy.
J: Exactly, you know. So a lot of people who are opposed to providing surgeries for transgender people, also don't have a problem with doing this to intersex people, and assuming that they know better than the identity of intersex people.
J: So I feel like we already do this, we just do this to the wrong people.
OF: So in an ideal world, we never bother to put them into one box or another, right? Is that the ideal world?
J: For me - and everybody has a different variation of the ideal world, right - but instead of having a girl’s section and a boy’s section in the clothing store, just have a clothing store. It's a spectrum, there are feminine clothing, then there are masculine clothing, and there's also unisex clothing. And also the definition of what is considered to be feminine or masculine also changes over time, right?
J: So why not let your child go in to the shop and just pick the clothes that they want to pick? And this doesn't just apply to intersex people, but for trans people, also to cisgender heteronormative people. There are plenty of men who love wearing dresses. It doesn't mean they’re gay, it doesn't mean they're trans. Just let people grow up choosing their presentation. And that’s why acceptance of the queer community - or gender non-conforming people - is benefiting everybody. Not just, you know, the small percentage of people who are queer.
OF: Yeah. I feel like I'm asking questions that other people would want to ask. And I'm peppering you with questions, I've asked you a hundred questions. Which is obviously not what normally would happen in your everyday life. But what is your advice to people who, you know, perhaps would objectify you, when they're asking these questions? Like, how do people ask questions? And how would you tell them to improve the way they ask questions?
J: Right. There are some transgender people who are more than happy to answer these questions, and there are some transgender people who don’t. And actually by asking them in a public setting, and outing them, can actually affect their safety. I appreciate it when people say “I have some questions about the queer community.” Therefore it's more broad. “And I was wondering if you feel comfortable answering them”. And I feel as long as it's prefaced that way - and that it's done privately, it’s not done publicly - then you lead the person to make the choice. Because there are people who pretend to ask questions in order to receive blackmail that they can use against that.
OF: Oh god.
J: So that's something that a lot of people have faced before. And I think also, just understanding that the transgender community is not a monolith.
J: You might get very different answers to the same question.
J: These are my experiences. And take that with you.
OF: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Well, I'm looking at your object, it's still sitting here in front of us. When you think about where you were when you received that first card - at your school while you were starting the process of transitioning - and you think about where you are today, what parallels do you make? And what differences are there?
J: It’s that self-acceptance is still the singular most important aspect of maintaining one's mental health. I still struggle with accepting myself, sometimes. It doesn't matter how many compliments are showered upon me in that regard. If I don't love myself, then those compliments would be met with a numb heart, right? So that's what it reminds me to do.
OF: Which is a totally universal lesson, you know. All of us have that outward façade, where we project whatever level of confidence we want to. But then there is so much underneath in most people. And I think you going through this in a physical way, is only one manifestation of the way that most of us live like our whole lives.
J: Yeah. And I don't think you have to be a member of a particular marginalised community to not feel inspired by it. Or to not have a sense of solidarity towards others.
OF: Agreed. Thank you so much, Jiyoung.
J: Thank you.
OF: We’re going to now move on to Part 2.
OF: OK, so are you ready?
OF: Then here we go. Question 1, what is your favourite China-related fact?
J: I was gonna say Emperor 哀 [Āi] of 汉 [Hàn], but I've already talked about him. So it will be something that I've recently discovered, which is that in 福建 [Fújiàn] Province there is a rabbit deity that's dedicated to homosexuals. And I think that's amazing, that in Chinese mythology there is a deity that's actually dedicated to gay relations.
OF: Why a rabbit?
J: I am not sure. This is stuff that will eventually make its way into this encyclopaedia.
OF: Yes. OK, great. Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
J: I like that 同志 [tóngzhì] is the term for ‘gay’, because it's a communist term for ‘comrade’. And I love - I absolutely love - how that's been reclaimed as a secret term.
OF: Yes. What’s your favourite destination within China?
J: I don't have a particular favourite destination. But a destination that I have recent enthusiasm for is 海南 [Hǎinán] Province. Because after my surgery, that's the place where I wore my bikini in public for the first time. And it was such a huge affirming aspect, to be on the beaches, and to be seen in public. So, at this point in time, that has a huge place in my heart.
OF: Wow. I love that. If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
J: I would miss all of the Chinese LGBT advocates, who always inspire me, day to day. I will not miss having to hide my identity at work. So, yeah…
OF: Yes. And I did read that there have been another few successes in the courts, with anti-discrimination, right?
J: Yes. And also in conservative places. And so that's also a big beacon of hope.
OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
J: Yes, oftentimes people in the West look at China and be like "Oh, they're just a crowd of obedient peoples”. And I must admit, sometimes I had that stereotype in my head, before I came to China. And to see that being broken over and over and over again, is something that surprises me. Because the way that they navigate obstacles, now that's replaced my paradigm of how I view the cross-section of Chinese society.
OF: Yes, that's very well said. Next question, where is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or hang out?
J: All the queer bars are my favourite places, because I can let loose and I can totally be myself. But there’s this kind of sense of companionship in each other's eyes, where you can see, like “OK, yeah, we're both in this together”.
OF: And if I was to really be a bully, and to ask you to choose one place - be it a bar, or be it any other kind of queer-friendly hangout - would you be comfortable to name that place?
J: Well, I guess the classic would be Roxie, just because it was the first queer bar that I went to in China. So, yeah…
OF: Great. That’s Roxie in Shanghai, right?
OF: Awesome. What is the best or worst purchase you've made in China?
J: My best purchase is my electric guitar.
J: I had a hiatus of music for a while. And then during the lockdown, I bought it. And I'm getting back into playing guitar. So that was very helpful in dealing with the isolation of being quarantined.
OF: And you could rock out here in your apartment block, or how did it work?
J: Yeah, I mean, I had to have headphones, but it still works
J: And the worst purchase was a drink that had fake alcohol, that made me sick for like, two days.
OF: Oh god. And was that here in your city? Or was it elsewhere?
J: Unfortunately it's in multiple cities that that has happened.
OF: Oh no. Next question, what is your favourite WeChat sticker?
J: I mean, I have a lot. But at the moment, my favourite one is this little pig that says ‘amazing’ with a rainbow behind it. Because it's still quite queer, but it's vague enough that my co-workers will not be able to tell that it's queer.
J: So I like that I can use it in versatile circumstances.
OF: Oh, that's good. And what is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
J: 'From Me To You', by The Beatles.
OF: Ah, nice.
J: Because most of them have it, so I can expect it. And it's short. And it's easy. And it immediately puts me in a good mood.
OF: You've rationalised that pretty well actually. Yeah, very nice. And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
J: I think when you're looking for LGBT data, it's really important that you go directly from the website, or from the organisation itself. Because when these things get reported on - in many large media organisations - some of the small touches to things are not fully understood or explained. And so I think getting it directly from the Chinese source - from the people who collected the data - is the most legitimate.
OF: And there are plenty of organisations out there - some more in the limelight, some slightly less so - is there one in particular that you would point people towards for resources?
J: I'm trying to not name specific organisations, but the United Nations Development Programme has worked with some of these organisations. So I'd say those are particularly reliable.
OF: Yeah. OK, I'll find the link, and I'll make sure that I post that. Jiyoung, thank you so much.
J: Thank you, thank you so much.
OF: Well, you've been very patient. And I can see exactly the way that you hold yourself when people do ask you questions, you have a unique way of weaving in information in a way that's kind and very personal. It speaks to me. And I hope that other people will also learn something from this recording.
J: Thank you. I really appreciate that.
OF: And before I finally let you get on with your weekend - and get out of your hair and out of your apartment - let me ask you the final question which I asked everyone. Which is, out of everyone who you know in China, who would you recommend that I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China?
J: My friend Emma is an incredibly talented artist and musician, where a lot of her work centres on being mixed race and for being queer. And I think there will be lots of potential for some amazing narratives.
OF: Very cool. Thank you so much.
J: Thank you.
OF: I really hope you learnt as much about the trans experience as I did from this episode. The positivity of Jiyoung's story should inspire you. But then also be sure to remember that cycle of erasure, exclusion, paranoia, pretence, shame, in-fighting, and all the other potential dangers that can be a part of the lives of any misunderstood minority, in any society.
The parts that also resonated with me were the ones that I remember having in my conversation with Sebastien Denes from Season 01 Episode 11, who was talking about people on the autism spectrum in China. We all throw around words like tolerance and acceptance, but when it comes down to it, a lot of this just comes down to jobs. It's about access to the workforce. And not just the human dignity part of it, it's the 'putting food on your table and a roof over your head' part of it. Those parts that are so boring that in future there'll hopefully be no need to include stories like Jiyoung's in a podcast series.
Until that time, let me say thank you once again to Jiyoung for taking part in today's show. You can follow the transcript and check out the extra photos and graphics on the Mosaic of China website. And as with every other episode in the series, there is a longer version of the conversation available in the PREMIUM version of the show. Just search for 'Mosaic of China PREMIUM' on Apple Podcasts; or find us on Patreon and 爱发电 [Àifādiàn]. I've done the calculations, and over the whole series there's an extra 375 minutes. That's 6 and a quarter hours of extra content, people! Here are some clips from the extended version of today's episode.
J: It was very very painful for me to walk for about two months. And obviously, the students had no idea what I went through.
J: Gender-fluid people feel very masculine on one day, feel very feminine on another day.
J: It's possible to be marginalised for one aspect of your identity, and privileged in another aspect.
J: Throughout the entire year, I got hate mail. Sometimes anonymously, sometimes not anonymously.
J: If a cisgender woman was to cut her hair short, it's a masculine presentation, but that doesn't mean she's any less of a woman.
J: I mean, there are people who say “Oh, you're just like a drag queen,” thinking it's a compliment. When actually it really isn't a compliment.
OF: Oh dear.
J: Not that it's bad to be a drag queen.
[End of Audio Clips]
OF: And with that, all that's left for me to do is to thank all thirty guests from Season 02 of the show. And also the 27 guests from Season 01 who came back for a catch-up. It's been great to see the connectivity between the Mosaic tiles of these two seasons. And none of those tiles could stick together without the mortar between them, which is you the listener. Thank you so much for being the most important part of the Mosaic. And thanks also to Rebecca Kanthor for interviewing me in the bonus episode halfway through the Season, where we came up with that concept of mortar together.
I mentioned at the beginning of today's episode that the conversation with Jiyoung inspired me personally in a certain way. Well, what I meant by that is with my final thank you, which is to Denny Newell. I mention Denny at the end of every episode, because he does all the artwork for Mosaic of China. But he's not just the guy who does the artwork, he's also my husband. If you've met me in public or at a Mosaic of China event, or even seen me on social media, I make no secret of this. But as with Jiyoung, I made the decision to 'go stealth' with that part of my private life in this podcast until now. And there were reasons for this. I always want to focus on the guest, not myself. Secondly, I wanted this to be a long-term project where I can reveal more about myself gradually rather than reveal everything at once. I also didn't want to drag Denny's private life into the public without knowing exactly what boundaries he was comfortable with. And finally, I wanted to present myself as neutrally as possible, so that I can portray stories from all kinds of different people without being accused of having some kind of personal agenda.
Well I think I've gone as far as I want to with those ideas. And having had a conversation about this with him the other day, I think Denny has too. So thank you to my husband Denny Newell. And thank you to all of Denny's friends and family listening, who may have also been starting to feel that it was a little weird that I hadn't mentioned any of this until now.
I will be back with a special end-of-season Wrap-Up episode, which will be an exploration of more of the themes from the Season, as well as a glance into what's happening next. So I'll see you back here for that.