On Becoming A Woman: Part 1 - Season 2, Episode 9
On Becoming A Woman: Part 1
The first part of our special series on “Periods, Pussies, and Power: Asian American Woman & Our Sexuality” begins with what it means to become a woman. Featuring a vignette of Asian American women confessing their most embarrassing, hilarious, and cringe-worthy spills, one Asian American girl’s vagina monologue, and a story on what coming of age really means, Part 1 explores the internal and external cultural expectations Asian American women face when it comes to becoming a woman.
“Periods, Pussies, and Power: Asian American Woman & Our Sexuality” is a 3-part series of stories from Asian American women about our sexuality in all its color, nuance, and embarrassing hilarity. We explore getting our period for the first time, losing our virginity, discovering masturbation, pursuing sexual pleasure, and through it all, find what it is we stand to gain in embracing our sexuality as Asian American Women.
Special thanks, recognition, and accolades go to Learkana Chong, Abeer Hoque, Joyce S., Melissa Hadiyanto, Serena Olsen and Laura Millar at the Lighthouse Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Priyanka Wali, Jenna Rapues, Lotus Dao, MLin and the good folks at API Equality Northern California, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Kristin Cheung and the leadership of the many women who have come before and will come after. Music credit goes to Kevin Macleod of Incompetech.
Abeer Hoque’s memoir, Olive Witch is available online and in-stories now, Priyanka Wali’s comedy and stand up schedule can be found at priyankawali.com, and Learkana Chong’s writing can be found at lampshadeonherhead.blog.
Periods, Pussies, Power: Asian American Women & Our Sexuality
On Becoming A Woman: Part 1 - Transcript
Learkana Chong: Oh gosh. Back in high school, I wasn’t in charge of buying what pads I could wear, my mom did that; because she’s really cheap, she got these off-brand really ugly, really heavy pads that uhm, sometimes didn’t have wings.
Diana Wong: That’s Learkana Chong, a second-generation Cambodian American writer who lives in Oakland, California and who apparently had to make-do with some pretty terrible pads as a teen.
LC: I was sitting in my 7th period science class so I was leaving and I noticed there was a red stain on the chair and I started freaking out. I, you know, discreetly wiped it off and ran to the bathroom and I checked and there was some major leakage happening and I was so embarrassed and I wasn’t sure when it had started or if anyone had noticed by that point.
I felt like such a great sense of shame even though no one had actually called me out about it, but looking back its not as hard to talk about it, but even now I feel some disgust or shame around talking about it. But a lot of people bleed from their vaginas!
DW: Yeah, roughly 50%.
LC: Yeah, I feel like, it happens.
DW: I think we all know this story, as women who bleed and with that bleeding have been taught to be ashamed and embarrassed about it. And if this doesn’t speak to you, I ask that you pass this episode on to your Asian American friends, partners, sisters, cousins. I promise, it’ll be worth it.
Because this’ll be good, but also because we are doing a giveaway! With the support of Lunapads, a woman-owned social enterprise based in, that’s right, Vancouver, B.C., you can enter to win one of two fully loaded kits of reusable menstrual cups and cloth pads. These gift baskets are loaded with goodies, including their bestseller, the Divacup! And all you have to do is like the Sample Space facebook page and re-share our post about this series. If you can’t wait, the amazing ladies at Lunapads.com are offering the lovely listeners of Sample Space, 15% off all your purchases with the code NEWMEDIA. All you have to do is enter the code and huzzah, your period just got way better. Well, I mean, you get to use awesome products, but yes, the cramps will still be there. Sorry.
This is Sample Space by Hirah Media, I’m Diana Wong and this is the first of a three-part series on Periods, Pussies, and Power: Asian American Women and Our Sexuality. This episode is Part 1, On Becoming A Woman. Today, we hear stories about periods and panties, what it means to embrace our womanhood, and how that embrace comes in the form of self-love.
Now, you probably think I’m a crazy leftist who has no respect for decorum and niceties including not talking about periods and bleeding and flow. Maybe you think I’m a raging feminist who loves sex. But the truth is far more politically subversive.
But before we get to that, we’ve got to talk about why this topic is important. For this special series, I set out to answer one question: as Asian American women, what do we stand to gain by embracing our sexuality?
I realized that to even begin unpacking the answer, we have to consider each part of the question, including what sexuality is, how our sexuality as Asian American women, is unique, and most importantly, why is this even worth talking about?
So, what is sexuality? Well, we know that sexuality is not just limited to sex and intercourse. Sexuality begins the moment we are born, sexuality is remarked upon when a girl is old enough to bleed and be shamed and harassed for her body, sexuality is exploited in the images of demure geishas and kinky dragon ladies, sexuality is shamed upon embrace or acknowledgement that it is ours for us and not anyone else.
But for a more tangible and actionable understanding, I thought about our stages of life as women: puberty and becoming a woman, having our first sexual encounters, good or bad, on our own or with others, and then finally, a step that many women don’t get to: embracing and exploring our bodies. And so these naturally became the topics of this three-part series: the first, this episode, about Becoming A Woman, the second, our First Sexual Experiences, and the third, Owning Our Bodies and Our Sexuality.
So we are going to define sexuality for this series based on how we encounter it in our lives, as women. That makes sense. But what makes the sexuality of Asian American women particularly unique are the internal forces and external pressures exerted upon us.
Internally, Asian cultures tend to avoid addressing sexuality and when our families do, it is most often to lecture about modesty or virginity. And externally, because of colonialism, warfare, and American imperialism, Asian women are now seen as objects for someone else’s sexual pleasure, from GI Joe during the 1990s occupation of the Philippines and the Korean and Vietnam Wars to an American in Thailand today looking for one or more of the many thousands of women and girls who work in the sex tourism industry there.
Given all of this, I would say that Asian American women who find themselves straddled in this intersection face a unique challenge, but why is it worth an entire 3-part series to discuss this? I mean, Asian American women, overall, are killing it; we are one of the most upwardly mobile demographics in America; we drive the model minority myth, we place well in Ivy League schools, we work hard for our families and ourselves, we are breaking glass and bamboo ceilings every. Single. day. We are lawyers and doctors. Business women and ballet dancers.
And we want to keep doing this; we want to keep pushing these ceilings. We want the next Ellen Paos promoted to partner, we want to see Constance Wu star in a major Hollywood production. Instead of tall tales about our sideways vaginas that can exude ping pong balls, we want stories that encompass the whole gamut of our experiences as women, first, second, third-generation Asian Americans, and individuals with unique sexual identities. Which brings us all the way back to the question we are trying to answer: as Asian American women, what do we stand to gain by embracing our sexuality?
So, again welcome to the first part of this three-part series: Becoming A Woman. Throughout this episode and this series, we are going to hear stories from Asian American women about our sexuality in all its color, nuance, and embarrassing hilarity. We’ll explore getting our period for the first time, losing our virginity, discovering masturbation, pursuing sexual pleasure, and through it all find what it means to embrace our sexuality as Asian American Women.
And it only seems right to start at the beginning. This first act is a series of vignettes of women recollecting their first encounters with their periods, in all its hilarious, cringe-worthy, embarrassing, and torturous splendor! Act 1, All of the above.
Abeer Hoque: I think we were like maybe 8 or 9. I remember she took us on a walk and we were walking around and she explained periods to us; I remember thinking it was this mysterious thing; I remember thinking at the time that it was weird that she had made a point to take us out on a walk, so it must mean something.
DW: That’s Abeer Hoque, a first-generation Bangledeshi American. Abeer’s mom had the forethought to take Abeer and her younger sister on this walk to tell them about what to expect, but like many Asian moms, Abeer’s was not exactly comfortable with having this conversation because it meant talking about, or rather, around sexuality.
But it wasn’t all bad. Because at least Abeer got to skip class once in a while!
AH: In Islam, you’re considered unclean when you’re on your period, so you’re not supposed to go to the mosque or pray uhm, and I remember I would actually take this as a bit of a boon, because we had to take these Islamic classes once a week at this mosque in the Pittsburgh area, and if I had my period I would just be like, well I can’t go and that would be a way of getting out of whatever Islamic study duties.
DW: So aside from telling her mother why she was missing Islamic class once a month, Abeer and her mom didn’t really have reason to discuss menstruation further. That is until Abeer joined the swim team. As part of this series, I’ve spoken to a lot of Asian American women and they all seem to agree on one thing. Tampons are a big no no amongst Asian moms. Most people don’t even want to bring them up, but unfortunately for Abeer:
AH: I had really heavy periods; I had these double pads; I didn’t use tampons at first, my mom was not cool with that; definitely at night I was constantly washing stuff, washing underwear, washing sheets, wearing dark clothes in the hopes that it wouldn’t show if it actually came through.
But when I joined the swim team, I had to start wearing tampons and I had to tell my mom because the coach was not going to deal with someone being like ‘oh I’m not going to swim practice for like a whole week’ no, that wasn’t going to be acceptable, so I got tampons. I think, when I first asked for them, she said no, and I was like alright ok cool, but once I joined the swim team and I needed them, then she said ok fine and she got them for me.
DW: But hey, at least Abeer’s mom believed that she needed them! In our next vignette, we hear from Joyce, a queer second-generation Japanese American whose mom was bit of a skeptic.
Joyce S.: So I first got my period when I was 10 years old and I remember my mom saying ‘oh in America food is really rich, so you’re gonna get your period when you’re young’. I’m older, so at the time the question was would I wear a self-adhesive pad or the belt.
DW: Ok, I’ve got to get in here and talk about the belts that Joyce mentioned. I looked them up for all of us and if you can imagine, the belt itself is a stretchy band around the waist, kinda like suspenders for your hips, with clips in the back and front to secure a cotton pad and then on top of all of this you would wear your normal underwear and then your pants. If you think this would prevent the pad from shifting, you are, sadly, incorrect.
JS: So, fortunately I didn’t have to wear a belt because that was going out, and the self-adhesive thing was coming in. I got maxi pads; and it wasn’t always dry-weave, it was the kind that was pure cotton so it’d get kinda soggy and sloshy and you’d always feel kinda wet.
DW: So happily for Joyce, it was the 1980s and maxi pads with adhesives, like the ones we have now, were on the up and up, so she escaped having to use the belt, but out of the fire into the frying pan, because she was still cursed by the millennium-long tradition of menstrual cramps.
JS: I had really bad cramps; so bad that I would be writhing in pain, I’d be throwing up and then I would pass out. There were very severe severe pain. And Tylenol would not work at all but ibuprofen would; it’s a different kind of painkiller; but I didn’t figure this out for the first 4 or 5 years. So my mom used to say, well first she didn’t believe I was having cramps, because she had no cramps so she thought I was acting and whenever I got my period and the school would call her and say ‘oh your daughter’s dying in pain’ my mom would be like ‘oh she’s just acting’ whatever and then she’d be pissed off she had to leave work to take me home.
It was an intense kind of puberty going through painful painful periods and having your mother not believe you.
DW: I can’t imagine passing out due to cramps but what’s actually harder to fathom is my mom not believing that I had them! Not that my mom was all that involved, in fact, she played a pretty passive role in helping me deal with my period (thanks sis!). And she certainly didn’t get a good look the way Melissa Hadiyanto’s mom did.
Melissa Hadiyanto: When I first got my period, I didn’t even realize that I had it. I thought my underwear was stained like from me not wiping myself after I pooped one time because someone told me I needed to get to the bathroom really fast.
DW: That’s Melissa, a second-generation Indonesian American, talking about getting her first period. And like lots of young women, it just happened upon her one day. You know, you look down and there’s some gunk and it’s not the bright cherry red blood you were expecting cuz you’re 12 and you don’t know any better. It’s more dark and murky and unsurprisingly, easy to mistake for poop. And given that Melissa is legally blind, it’s understandable she couldn’t tell.
MH: My mom took me to the bathroom and she saw the stain on my underwear and said ‘is that your period??’ So I found that out while I’m at the amusement park.
DW: Oh my god. How old were you?
DW: Had she kinda prepped you before that?
MH: Well, I don’t know how much prep exactly was put into it, but I mean, my older sisters, I do remember one of them, when they started their period, they had to like wash their underwear in the sink in the bathroom. But that happened at home; this was me, in an amusement park, wondering what I was supposed to do.
DW: And like all of the women I talked to, alongside yours truly, Melissa had no idea what was actually happening inside her body. And nobody bothered to explain: not her mom, not her sex-ed teacher.
MH: I knew I got it, and it just happens every month, but my mom never explained to me like why or anything like that and I think honestly I learned it in health ed in college, and not health ed really in high school. Then I learned oh wow, the period, it happens when the egg is not fertilized and needs to be disposed of, totally didn’t know that!
Health class in college doesn’t skip that stuff, but I feel like health class in high school, they talk about oh what you need to do for first aid, all the bad things that can happen to you like STIs or like drunk driving. Not about like the positive side, like being sex positive; it was nothing like that.
DW: Like most sex-ed classes, Melissa’s focused on being safe and responsible, with no mention of autonomy or pleasure, or understanding your body and its changes in a social context, which Melissa was silently eased into.
MH: When I was in 5th grade, about 10 years old, that’s when my mom started having me wear like those kids sports bras. And ever since I was in elementary school, they used to make us wear these school uniforms that are like a white button upon the top and the bottom would either be navy blue pants or a navy skirt. I wore navy blue pants and my mom always used to make me wear a t-shirt underneath my school uniform and have it tucked into my pants and when I think back on it now, I think she did that on purpose, because of like, the possibility of you know like, when my breasts started to grow. And then as I got older and bigger, I got actual bras. It didn’t really occur to me to ask her why I needed to wear it, I just kind of accepted it, like oh ok, I guess I’m wearing this now underneath my shirt.
DW: I asked! Diana here and I remember asking my mom. I remember having to summon up some courage to do it, but there I was, holding this beige and yellow striped training bra in my hands and asking my mom why I had to wear it, because it was so itchy and so uncomfortable. She gave me this sort of exasperated look and told me it would make me look better in my clothes. End of discussion. And that was probably the last question I asked her about my period and my body for the next few decades. I think that memory isn’t a far cry from Priyanka Wali’s experience. Priyanka’s a second-generation Indian American, who was also encouraged not to ask too many questions about her period, which she got at thirteen.
Priyanka Wali: It was literally on my thirteenth birthday that I started my period and I thought that was really interesting just the fact that the earth had run around the sun thirteen times and biologically my body was like ok it’s time to evolve.
DW: But it wasn’t until she was well into her twenties during medical school rotations when she had her most embarrassing period moment.
PW: I had just done an overnight call; literally managing a bunch of patients, running around, didn’t sleep, didn’t do anything and I had been menstruating. I had been up all night and in the morning, we get together and we go over certain patient cases; it’s called morning report. And basically I was so busy I didn’t realize I had bled through my pad, I bled through my underwear, and my scrubs, and it actually came on to my white coat.
DW: Let’s take a moment to appreciate what’s going on here. Priyanka had been up all night on call at the hospital and she had been so busy that she hadn’t had time to go to the bathroom, so she had ended up bleeding through her pad, her underwear, her scrubs, and then her white coat.
PW: The coat’s supposed to be pristine, right? I had no idea and another colleague was like, ‘Priyanka, there’s blood on the back of your coat’.
DW: And if you can remember how embarrassing a spill in high school was, magnify that by a thousand and that’s what Priyanka was feeling when she was told, as a doctor in training, by her colleague, while at work, that she had bled through four layers of clothing.
PW: And it was very obvious it wasn’t like a patient had bled out on my arm, it wasn’t anything like that, it was positioned in a way that was super obvious; this is coming from her bottom area and you know, it sucked. I was super embarrassed because I felt like, ‘oh I didn’t take care of myself, oh I didn’t have my shit together’, basically.
DW: So yes, it was deeply embarrassing. But why? Because she is a woman? Because a regular bodily function had happened to her? Because she was so busy saving lives she hadn’t gone to the restroom for eight hours?
PW: Yeah, it was just super embarrassing, as a female working in a male-dominated profession I couldn’t be like ‘oh I need to work less because I need time to change my pad’. That would have been so inappropriate; I would have felt so uncomfortable advocating for myself like that, which is unfortunate; because that kind of comment, it would have been viewed as oh she’s hard to work with or something.
DW: That’s deeply ironic considering the field you work in.
PW: It’s deeply ironic, yeah.
DW: Did it occur to you you shouldn’t be embarrassed?
PW: Not at the time, because I was so stressed out taking care of the patients. I did this back then, I’m getting better at not doing it now, but I really internalized it. I really internalized it and wasn’t very self loving, I was like ‘oh why cant you get your shit together? Just get it together.
DW: And that’s our initiation into womanhood; it’s all of the above and more. As Aber, Joyce, Melissa, and Priyanka shared, it’s stained underwear and bedsheets, mistaking blood for poop, and telling your friends they could have all your stuff because your cramps are so painful you’re certain death is imminent.
But for every time we perform that awkward backwards twist to spot for spills from behind, for every time we whisper about our periods or buy sanitary napkins for our unsanitary vaginas, we are conceding a kind of shame and embarrassment about our bodies and our identities. Which is why it’s important to open up this conversation and well, take a good long look at ourselves. And where better to start looking than down there?
Act 2: Foreign Cuntry: One Asian Girl’s Vagina Monologue from Learkana Chong
LC: Your mother’s pussy is a Cambodian slur I heard growing up.
It’s similar to how “motherfucker” is employed in the English language.
It’s similar to how my mother instilled in me the belief that my vagina is inherently dirty.
“Girls need to bathe everyday,” she said in Khmer. “otherwise our vaginas will become filthy.”
Every time I heard my mother say pussy she spat out the word, as if she couldn’t be rid of it fast enough.
I stayed as far away as I could from my vagina. I never looked at it under my mother’s roof. I never touched it. It was some distant place that just happened to be located between my legs.
After hitting puberty, I started getting discharge. I thought there was something wrong with me. My mother thought so too. She took me to the doctor, a middle-aged Vietnamese man who always prescribed my mother drugs to solve her problems: physical, emotional, and psychological.
“I think I have an infection,” I mumbled, and said little else.
He solemnly nodded and scribbled a prescription for antifungal cream.
I tried using it. It didn’t work.
I felt dirty and shameful about my private parts for many years after that.
Sometimes, I would scrub down there with soap. It would sting and never fix the problem, but for the few minutes I did it, I felt clean.
I watched The Vagina Monologues a total of four times in college and felt empowered, in an abstract sense. I didn’t really love my vagina. I was frightened by it. I was repulsed by it. What I loved was the idea of loving my vagina.
My friend from high school was the first person to tell me about the stereotype of Asian girls having “sideways” vaginas. I didn’t know my vagina very well at the time, but I was acquainted enough to know that was some racist, sexist ass bullshit.
My friend and roommate from college, a biology major, told me vaginas are very clean and know how to take care of themselves. I wondered if mine was the exception.
I had my first pap smear when I turned 21, the recommended age to start getting them. Because I had no health insurance at the time, I went to Planned Parenthood. The doctor there asked me to spread my legs and scoot up the exam table. The speculum was a motherfucking pain in my vagina. I tensed up as she examined a place I rarely visited myself.
“Your vagina is healthy and normal,” the doctor reported.
I didn’t believe her.
“But what about the discharge?” I asked.
“Every vagina is different,” she said. “Some women get a little discharge, some get a lot. It can depend on your cycle.”
A year later I went to Planned Parenthood again and saw a different doctor, who said the same thing. I still couldn’t quite believe what they were telling me, although there was no good reason for them to lie to me.
By the time I was back on actual health insurance, I was on friendlier terms with my vagina. I made eye contact with it, interacted with it, but was still somewhat wary of it. When my OB/GYN reaffirmed to me that my vagina was normal, I realized maybe it was time I start believing it.
Instead of fixating on the possible dysfunction of my vagina, I began obsessing over its appearance. It didn’t look the way a porno vaj did. And even though I knew nothing in porn is realistic, and that porn is primarily constructed through the male gaze, and fuck Eurocentric/Western standards of beauty and blah blah blah, I couldn’t help but feel that my vagina looked kinda ugly, and any hetero cis dude who jacked off to porn and internalized ideas of what women’s bodies looked like would take one look between my legs and say no thanks.
“Any guy who says shit about your vagina is a douchebag,” my friends told me, and some rational part of me agrees with this.
I’ve eventually come to terms with my vagina, but I don’t love it the way white cis women seem to love theirs. I know genitals do not equal gender, but cannot deny that my genitals have a nebulous history and relationship with how I personally experience the amalgamation of my gender and my race. I wonder if I would be a better self-loving person if I loved my vagina without apology. Or maybe, my cathexis is enough in a world where ignorance is bliss and apathy reigns supreme.
My vagina is no longer a foreign land. It is a vacation house I don’t frequent enough nor tend to enough. Most of the time I simply stop by to trim the bushes. My only other visitor is my OB/GYN, who knows her way around better than I do. I’d like to invite a guy over, but it never feels right. I wouldn’t know how to treat such a guest in my house. I couldn’t be sure he could respect my house and agree to its rules before venturing inside. I wouldn’t know if he could accept my house the way I have learned to.
Every story I hear, from the graphic horror of being unconscious behind a dumpster with a strange man on top of you, to the unsettling, bleary scenario of an ex insisting you have sex with him and you caving in because you’re so tired and he’s already unbuttoning your jeans, makes me want to board up all the windows and doors of my house and move far, far away.
But that’s not possible. (This metaphor has limits, after all.)
For now, I can take refuge in this house. Maybe the porch doesn’t look how I want it to, maybe the bedroom ceiling leaks, maybe no one but my OB/GYN will come to visit. But this is a home owned by me. This is a home meant for me. And one of the most important things I’ve done in my life is embrace this incontrovertible fact.
DW: That was Learkana Chong, a Cambodian-American writer based in Oakland, California and you can read more of her writing at lampshadeonherhead.blog
This is Sample Space by Hirah Media and we are at the third and final act of this episode, on becoming a woman. As we’ve heard so far, becoming a woman is a beautiful, painful, joyful, and frightening. But it’s not just about the physical changes, bleeding, or vaginas. In fact, it’s really about embracing what you have, who you are. To become a woman is to love yourself. Act 3, Three Waves.
Jenna Rapues: My name is Jenna Rapues and I am 41 years old.
DW: Jenna was born in the Philippines, but grew up in 1980s San Francisco with her working-class parents, who were pretty traditional.
JR: My family's also very Catholic--grew up in a very traditional Filipino family with one older brother. So, my parents, they made sure that my brother and I went through Catholic school just because they thought that that would be in alignment with what their dream was--to have a better life in the United States, obviously for us, and particularly for me and my brother.
DW: Growing up, Jenna was a good Catholic, volunteering at mass and assisting with services. But she was also reclusive, preferring to be left with her own thoughts than to share them with others.
JR: I was always aware of my uniqueness and my difference in growing up and so I never liked myself. I was like self-hate and self-doubt and awkwardness--body issues galore!
DW: And this wasn’t just a case of teenage self-consciousness; it went beyond being embarrassed about pimples and growing pains. But then high school ended and college offered Jenna an opportunity to reinvent.
JR: And so, after I finished Catholic high school, I went to college--and that was when I felt like I was most free and liberated and At first I thought, you know, I identified mostly as being gay. And so, in college, I was actually really heavily deep in API LGBT, and participated in establishing UC Santa Cruz's first queer of color student organization--I was really heavily involved in that. Really made an impression on me and who I was at that time.
DW: Out and proud of it, Jenna was a new person. Gone was the reclusive Catholic teen, the new Jenna was a social warrior and her work with the API, Asian Pacific Islanders, LGBT community in college led Jenna to pursue activism as a career. She moved back to San Francisco in the early 90s with this new sense of self and affirmation of who she really was, now that she had found her tribe and her mission.
JR: So, life happened, obviously. You know, you finish college, come back to San Francisco, with my family, and expected to change the world. My first job, actually, out of Santa Cruz was working at Lyric in San Francisco, which is an LGBT organization working to empower and connect young LGBT youth in San Francisco, and that really actually made an impression also in terms of who I was and really the connection with particularly the LGBT community in San Francisco
DW: And that was the first wave of Jenna’s coming of age: coming out to her Filipino Catholic family as gay and becoming an activist in the API LGBT community. Yet there was still something missing.
JR: But after a while, I knew that there was always still something different. I just never really felt like I belonged or I fit in. It was just something about me-- there was something there that I knew that was missing.
So, later on, couple years later into getting really more heavily involved in HIV work in the city, I met Jealousy Jiggetts, who was a drag queen, actually. And that opened up my world and my perspective in terms of the trans identities, and who transgender people are, and that made me have like this aha moment of "Wow, I really can identify with being trans."
Cause I think Jealousy opened my eyes up in terms of people who were born uniquely different and identify with the other gender and really opened my eyes up in terms of what gender identity and gender expression was. That was an eye-opener for me. So, it took me a while to make that decision in terms of "Could this be possible for me?" and you know "Could I really be transgender, and what does that mean?"
DW: I want to take a moment here to differentiate between these two conflicts Jenna faced. In listening to her story, it’s pretty easy to lump her struggles over her gender identity and sexual orientation into one. And as interconnected as they may be, I think that pretty often, on the outside, we conflate how it feels to be trans with how it feels to be gay.
Back in her days as an altar boy, Jenna was a teenager struggling with an attraction to other males. This confusion and uncertainty was met with the social norms of the 1980s and an explicit homophobia in Jenna’s religion and culture. But having found a community of supportive Asian Pacific Islanders and LGBTQ folks in college, Jenna was able to come out and embrace her sexual orientation. Jenna’s second wave, of understanding her gender identity, was a really different kind of struggle. Jenna saw this great divide between how she felt on the inside and how she looked in the mirror and to the rest of the world on the outside. For Jenna, this divide manifested itself as self-hate and self-loathing until she met Jealousy and started to question her gender identity.
So Jenna went through these two distinct waves of coming of age, first as a gay Asian American man and then later as an API trans-woman.
Eventually, in 2000 when Jenna was in her late 20s, she started transitioning. And as she entered this new part of her life as a woman that the rest of the world could see, she finally started to feel comfortable in her own body for the first time. And it was then that she met Jimmy Ta, a Vietnamese American. They fell in love and were together for 9 years PAUSE, cue music until Jimmy, who cared for things like this, suggested they get married.
JR: I was the one who never was really into the idea of marriage or anything like that, but he was really into it, so I went along with it, and it was actually really joyous moment, thinking about it now.
In 2010, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and so he struggled [with] that for a year, and I supported him, and he passed away in 2011.
DW: And so it has taken these three waves of coming out, transitioning, and finally, finding then losing love for Jenna to really truly understand what it means to love herself.
JR: I think, having to deal with that the past three years of grief and just the disappointment and like having to navigate the world without this person that you've totally thought you were going to be with has made me grow up even more the past three years. And by "growing up" I mean that I immersed myself in who I was and what I was and what I was about.
You know, I think that's something that I've realized over my past 41 years is that I really have to love myself first before I can do any of the other stuff that are parts of love.
DW: So even though womanhood may seemingly begin with our cycles and bleeding, as Jenna suggests, becoming a woman is just as much about loving who you are and what you have, be it a vagina fit for pornos or not. So we should love ourselves. That seems like an obvious answer, empowered women love themselves. But we usually aren’t alone when it comes to sex and sexuality. So self-love is only a partial answer to our original question, what do we stand to gain by embracing our sexuality as Asian American women?
Here’s a teaser of Part 2 of this series, wherein we look at what happens when are touched for the very first time.
Priyanka Wali: It was a total whoa whoa whoa; I think someone farted at one point and someone was like what’s that smell and then he lost his erection.
DW: That was an excerpt of Part 2: Touched For The Very First Time, and because we’ve released all three episodes at once, you can listen to Part 2 right now. But before you do that, make sure to enter our giveaway for one of two gift bags chockfull of awesome products from Lunapads. Founded by two She-EOs, Lunapads is a social enterprise that makes reusable period cups and pads and their Divacup is life-changing! I can hear your skepticism about putting a cup up there, but you can wear it for 12 hours. Think about not worrying about your period for 12 whole hours. Get yours by entering our giveaway now! All you have to do is like Sample Space on Facebook and re-share our post about this series to all your friends! Or, if you can’t wait, you can use this special code just for Sample Space listeners and get 15% off all your Lunapad.com purchases online; just type in NEWMEDIA at the checkout!
This is Sample Space and that was On Becoming A Woman, the first part of our three-part series on Asian American Women and Our Sexuality. My name is Diana Wong, thank you for listening, and if you enjoyed this episode, you can listen to the rest of the series now by subscribing to Sample Space on iTunes or your podcast app of choice. We would love to hear what you thought of this episode and our three-part series so tweet to us @samplespacePod or email to email@example.com.
The interview between Jenna Rapues and Lotus Dao was recorded in 2015 and is a part of the Dragon Fruit Project, an intergenerational oral history project that explores queer Asian and Pacific Islanders and their experiences with love and activism. The Dragon Fruit Project is a project of APIENC* (API Equality - Northern California), a Bay-Area based community organization that builds LGBTQ API power. You can learn more about Dragon Fruit Project at dragonfruitproject.org
Special thanks, recognition, and accolades go to Learkana Chong, Abeer Hoque, Joyce S., Melissa Hadiyanto, Serena Olsen and Laura Millar at the Lighthouse Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Priyanka Wali, Jenna Rapues, Lotus Dao, MLin and the good folks at API Equality Northern California, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Kristin Cheung and the leadership of the many women who have come before and will come after.
Abeer Hoque’s memoir, Olive Witch is available online and in-stories now! And Priyanka Wali’s comedy and stand up schedule can be found at priyankawali.com!
We are going to end this episode with a poem by Learkana Chong. This is Womanhood.
Learkana Chong: when did i become a woman.
it was not when blood
fell from my womb
for the first time
the fifth time
the umpteenth time
staining my underwear,
covering me in shame.
it was not when blood
on toilet paper
after he was done crashing into me
in the backseat i will come
to think of as a memorial
i want to rip out and set on fire
to desecrate the site
of his hit and run.
it was not when blood
red lipstick became
my new favorite weapon,
teeth that learned to bite.
highlighting a mouth
that would lure you in.
and puke out your remains.
i became a woman
when i found the grace
to fall in love with who i am.
began to taste bitter
on my tongue.
my pain and joy
was the only
way to heal.
was my becoming