The other day I went to a really old Chinese barber. The shop was old, as was the barber himself. The shop smelled faintly of medicated oil and had old photos and newspaper clippings on the walls, like my grandmother’s house used to. Teochew music played softly while the men chatted in teochew, my mother’s mother tongue.
I was comfortably at home, and yet also out of place. This is my heritage, one and a half generations removed, such that I can only think about it in English. I do not understand teochew, but hearing it spoken brings up sense memories of visits to Malaysia, listening to the adult women talk about adult stuff in the late afternoon, swathed in the warm glow of half-sleep.
This is my heritage, a few genders removed. Going to the barber is a deeply cultural experience of masculinity and male bonding, as salons are spaces of female bonding. This is why traditional barbers have survived the new wave of anonymised express $10 cuts. This is part of what it means to be a Teochew Chinese man.
In a different life, perhaps I would be at a barber’s with the men in my family, sharing in our masculinity, participating in the banter. Instead I got a glimpse through several panes of glass, listening mutely while people talked around me, the strange girl who wants their hair super short for some reason. But that was enough that I felt a connection I had not realised I was craving.
I rarely think of my gender and my Chineseness together. I am genderqueer, and I am 华人, but not at the same time. I think about almost everything in English, but my memories of childhood and home are in Mandarin. I do not have words for my gender in Mandarin, and so my gender is for me an acultural and rootless “thing I learned from the Internet”. I am now learning how wonderful and important, and possible, it is to reconnect these things. Transition is both detaching and reattaching; I cannot do the former without the latter, because a gender with no cultural place cannot survive. My gender cannot be acultural, and the other day in a barbershop I found a small space for its recognition.
Genderqueer in Hong Kong (cantonese, chinese subtitles)
(Related reading on the classist and racist white narrative of queer liberation that falsely frames the western world as the frontier of egalitarianism, and expects non-white people to abandon our families of origin “too traditional” or “uneducated” to hold space for queerness, Coming Home: Queer South Asians and the Politics of Family, Alok Vaid-Menon)