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A Letter to a Thousand Other Mothers

Sometimes I’m mad at you for never teaching me how to get away. / Sometimes I’m mad at myself for opening a door I could not close.

Editor’s Note: The following essay is part of the notebook #WeToo, a collection of work published both in the Journal of Asian American Studies and in part here on The Margins. Together, this body of work provides language and theory for lived-experiences of sexual violence in what is usually dismissed as privileged, unafflicted model-minority life. The #WeToo collection is edited by erin Khuê Ninh and Shireen Roshanravan. Accompanying the series on The Margins is artwork by Catalina Ouyang. 

The following piece references sexual violence and rape culture. Please take care while reading.

Read more from the series hereAnd continue reading work from the full collection in the February 2021 issue of the Journal of Asian American Studies, which you can purchase here 



Dear Mom,

I cannot imagine writing you this letter. I certainly cannot imagine sending it. Is it a kindness to you, to never tell you? That’s what I tell myself. 

It’s not that I think you’re fragile. I’ve butted heads with you—you have a hard head. But glass is also hard, and still it shatters. And yet, you’re a person who came to a new country, who left everything you knew to start a new life. You saved lives in a language that wasn’t your first. You raised two kids. You retired and traveled to every continent including Antarctica. You are not fragile. 

But it is hard to tell you. Because you’re my mom. I could tell a thousand other mothers I don’t know, I just don’t know how to tell you. 

And would you even want to know?

It’s been so many years since it happened. It’s not a burden on me. I don’t want it to become a burden on you. 

*

(I wonder if it’s ever happened to you. But that seems impossible somehow.)

*

It seems like all of a sudden, people are talking about sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape. On the interwebs, people are coming out right and left and talking about their experiences—who, when, where, and the post-trauma effects that remained with them afterwards. It’s like a tidal wave. The rage is palpable. You can feel the years, decades, centuries of holding it in. 

I don’t feel rage though. 

I don’t know what I feel.

I was a woman (sort of) for thirty years, and now I’m a man, and so the landscape is much more complicated from where I stand. Rage feels important, necessary even, but also blinding, and since I am both a man and a woman the gift of blindness is not afforded to me. 

These last few years, I think I’ve turned a corner with you and Dad. I think, finally, I’m getting the hang of being an adult around you both. You always said I took things too literally. Maybe I did. I’ve learned to translate you better—what is it you mean underneath what you say? And, weirdly, the less I need you to be proud of me, the more proud of me you are. 

But some things are still hard, like talking about sex. I still don’t know if it’s ever appropriate to talk about sex in front of you, or how to do it. As kids, if the subject ever came up, you used to make a disgusted face, like sex was a dirty thing only disgusting people did. I knew you must have had sex twice, but it made me wonder if you’d ever had sex more than that, and if you’d enjoyed it at all. 

Maybe you were just trying to frighten me away from having sex before marriage, but the only thing it frightened me away from was talking about it with you. 

Even still.

Even still, there are certain words that I say really fast when you’re around—words like sex, gay, trans—and then pretend I didn’t say them. But now you’ve started to say the words: You and Liz talk about her work and you both say words like “sex education” and “abortion” and “rape” and you don’t look disgusted at all. You look like an adult having a conversation with another adult. I remember going to the bathroom once—I was only gone for five minutes!—and I came back to find you both telling each other penis jokes. 

(If you’re fully an adult when you can tell a penis joke to your parents, then maybe I’m not an adult after all.)

*

I’ve got a joke. Once upon a time, a girl—who doesn’t yet know she’s a boy—goes backpacking for a month and is raped on a beach in the wee hours of the morning a few days before she is to head home. 

I can’t think of a punchline though.

This is why I don’t write comedies. I tell such bad jokes.

(Sorry, that was a terrible way to say it.)

*

When I came back from that trip, I told a few people, mostly women, and most of the ones I told made me feel like it was my fault. I told two men: One, a gay friend, told me categorically, it wasn’t my fault and that I needed to get checked out by my doctor; the other was my therapist—I was just a year out of the hospital and still in therapy—and he didn’t give anything away (he never gave anything away), except there was a whiteness in his knuckles and a bit of red under his eyes… and it was enough. 

The weeks and months afterwards were filled with calls to rape crisis hotlines, which are pretty hit or miss. Sometimes you get a nice person, but sometimes you don’t. I lay on the floor a lot and drifted somewhere in the air above my body. Some sensations—a sharpness on my tongue from where he bit me, a hollowness between my legs—followed me around like a shadow, there-but-not-quite-there. Eventually they faded. I went to the doctor and brought a friend to hold my hand (I still do this sometimes, even twenty years later). My doctor back then was an imposing, six-foot tall Germanic woman with unnaturally red hair and when she was examining you, you had the sense that she was really a veterinarian used to working on horses or cattle. It was hard not to dissociate during the exam. She apologized—I had never heard her apologize—and said she had to be thorough. After the exam she gave me a hug, which coming from her was mostly shocking, though I could feel the kindness underneath. I think it was that hug that told me that something terrible had happened to me.

*

(Are these details useful to you? I’m sorry, I don’t know how much to say, and how much is too much.) 

*

I had to get an HIV test, of course. I was certain that I was either pregnant or that I had contracted HIV. I can’t remember all the details, but back then there was a delay before you could get the test, and then another before you could get the results. I happened to be home one weekend during this waiting period—a family gathering, I think—and I had this small skin tag on the right side of my neck that you wanted to remove. (It’s impossible to explain to people what it’s like to have doctors as parents, how vaccines and minor surgeries often happened at the breakfast table.) You got out the alcohol swabs, a local anesthetic, and a surgical blade. I knew I should tell you that I might be HIV+ before you did the procedure, but I couldn’t do it. I kept thinking, what if you contracted HIV from me?! What if I was responsible for killing you?! 

I’m still ashamed of that moment. You didn’t wear rubber gloves, and why would you, I was your kid. And the chances were very small that you would prick yourself with the blade, but on the other hand, I was certain that I would test positive. It would be my ironic punishment for being depressed and suicidal for so long—now that I wanted to live, life would be taken from me. And though I knew it wasn’t my fault, it also was my fault. And for all those reasons, I knew I was putting you in danger. 

And I didn’t say anything.

I should have said something.

*

Two women in our family knew about the rape. They both said, Don’t worry, you’re not going to test positive. They were trying to make themselves feel better—it certainly didn’t make me feel better. Only testing negative would do that.

And then the test came back negative. 

And I didn’t feel better. 

There was no end, no punctuation mark. 

Just more days that I had to get through.

*

I used to think that all men were bad. Not the men in our immediate family, but all other men. I don’t know when I started to think this, maybe in college? Or when I was hospitalized for my depression? There were so many women in the hospital who had been abused, harassed, stalked, raped, assaulted, coerced—as adults and also when they were children, sometimes once, sometimes many times over many years. It seemed a safe bet to say all men were bad until proven otherwise. It seemed prudent. (Except gay men.) (And except the exceptions.) But as a rule, all men were suspicious until proven otherwise. 

And I hadn’t been raped yet, but I had had experiences with men that were confusing, uncomfortable, maybe bad. Or maybe the bad part was me, for opening the door to those kinds of experiences. That’s part of what makes it confusing. 

You said when boys and girls got to together, especially in this country where there were no morals and no decency, bad things happened. And so when bad things did happen, I didn’t think I could tell you about it, because maybe when you looked at me, I would see disgust or disappointment on your face. And I didn’t think you were right, but for some reason, I kept having bad experiences. 

I was fifteen, eighteen, nineteen years old and every time it was, well, not great. My friends had boyfriends and I wanted one, too. And it felt good to have someone pay so much attention to me, and there was a kind of touch that felt nice: being held, being able to lean on someone. But it seemed like if I wanted that kind of touch, I had to put up with the other kind of touch, the kind that was insistent, that tried to get under my clothes and wanted to take something from me. And I know I shouldn’t tell you this because you’ll think I had no morals, but it wasn’t like I was against having someone touch my skin softly, and it wasn’t that the touch wasn’t usually soft—often it was. It’s just that it didn’t seem to matter whether it was my skin or not. These guys weren’t interested in me, who I was, being with me specifically. I was just a girl like any other girl, exchangeable, replaceable. 

But that’s not completely fair. Because weren’t they exchangeable to me, too? These weren’t men I was dating (I wasn’t dating anyone), these were men who hit on me and I didn’t know what was meant. 

But then, when they came at me, when they made clear their desire, I didn’t understand it: I couldn’t understand why they saw a girl when they looked at me. I didn’t have the words to say this back then, but I knew somehow that I wasn’t a girl, and so it caught me by surprise when they acted as if I was.

Every single time I dissociated. I left my body. I watched. Three different men, three times my body went limp, three times they didn’t seem to care or mind. They kept going.

I had asked for this, in a way. I had walked into the room. I had not said no. But also, I had not been able to say no. I had walked in, but I had no idea how to walk out, how to get away. 

Sometimes I’m mad at you for never teaching me how to get away.

Sometimes I’m mad at myself for opening a door I could not close. 

I still don’t really know why I dissociated, or why it happened so fast. Maybe because I didn’t yet know I was a man; because they treated my body as if it was a woman’s body, and some part of me just froze, disappeared, couldn’t be around while it happened.

Now when I dissociate, which is not often, I assume it has to do with the rape. At least there’s clarity now. 

*

When I was fifteen, eighteen, nineteen, was I someone with no morals, no decency? Have I redeemed myself since then, do you think? Are you disappointed in me?

*

I don’t think you would tell me that the rape was my fault. Or at least, I don’t think you’d really mean it. Most women I told intimated that it was my fault: Why didn’t you scream? Fight back? Run away? Women who were my friends, one woman who was a social worker, women who were family members. I understand their reaction now. If there was something I could have done to prevent it, some action I could have taken, then it’s not a totally random act that we are indefensible to prevent and the world is a safer place to live in.

I don’t blame myself for the rape. I wasn’t even in my body for most of it. 

I remember looking at my body on the beach, trapped between two enormous logs, pinned down by a sinewy man, much stronger than I. I remembering wondering: Will the tide come in and drown me? Are there scorpions on the beach and will I get stung? Would that be preferable or worse? I remember stars like grains of sand, and grains of sand like stars. I remember the sun rising. 

I don’t blame myself. I know my instinct did what it did to protect me the best way it knew how. There was no thinking; there was only surviving. Like a deer caught in headlights, my psychiatrist said. Maybe. I knew things though, like, Don’t make him mad, and, Cater to his ego. If you can, Distract him

I did what I had to do to get through it. 

It was so hard to speak after the rape. Words became so difficult. Some people got angry for me. I found their anger frightening. The angrier they got, the further they drifted away and the more alone I felt.

*

I think about that a lot now. There’s so much rage. Everyone is talking about their sexual assaults and because of the interwebs, it’s not just a few people talking to their friends, it’s everyone talking to everyone all at once. The newscasters are talking about it, Rachel Maddow is talking about it, even you’re talking about it. Which still feels so foreign, you talking about anything sexual at all. 

I guess we’re all adults now.

And I can see that the rage is a good thing. Because it’s not a secret anymore, even you and I can talk about it as long as we’re talking about other people. And you feel sympathy for those poor women, and I can imagine that maybe you would feel sympathy for me. 

But maybe you would feel rage on my behalf, maybe you would feel helpless because you couldn’t stop it from happening and maybe that would make you angry now, and I would watch you, also, drift away from me. 

I guess that’s why I’m writing you a letter. 

So I don’t have to see you leave. 

Perhaps that’s why I’m writing you a letter that I will never send. 

So I don’t ever have to see you leave. 

You always said your father taught you to never hate anyone, and you taught me in turn. I’ve always appreciated that lesson. I don’t hate the man who raped me. I feel that I’m somehow expected to hate him, but I don’t. Perhaps because my life is a good one. Perhaps because I’ll never see him again.

*

I used to think all men were suspicious persons until proven otherwise. I think you may have planted that seed in my head, when you said, in not so many words, don’t ever be alone with a boy or bad things will happen. When I came to understand that I was a man, I fought it. I didn’t want to be one of those bad men, which was every man. 

It’s ironic that I used to think all men were guilty until proven innocent, and now that society has caught up with me, I’ve changed my mind. 

I’m forty-four years old. I’ve still lived in the body of a woman longer than I’ve lived in the body of a man, but the other side is catching up. All the hair on my head has migrated to my shoulders. The hair on my back are like two wings, or memories of where wings once were. I’ve used all the bathrooms now and been to both sides of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I’ve had to relearn what to do with my gaze—never look down, always look away (submissiveness can be dangerous for a man)—and I’m still no good at speaking the Man Language: I don’t have the knack for talking about something sideways; I talk about my feelings too much.

Sometimes I really mourn not growing up a boy. They seem so at ease with their bodies, they are taught to like their penises, and they can pee in the woods without getting poison ivy. They have learnt the language of men and I feel so out to sea when it comes to talking-by-not-talking. But at other times, as hard as it was, I’m grateful I’ve had this longer journey to manhood because I’m more facile with my feelings, more able to see the outside edges of the boxes we put each other in, I have more of a choice. … Most straight men I know only ever open up to their wives, all their emotional eggs in one basket. It’s still the rare little boy who’s allowed to wear dresses. What teenage boy is allowed to cry when he gets his heart broken? What is that small box that we put all boys into, ostensibly to keep them safe from the other boys? How many boys would report a rape? 

Even before I transitioned, the butch masculinity in me had already learned that I had to make the first move, pay for dinner, never cry, and above all, be useful because I’m only valued for my usefulness and my ability to provide for others. Ironically, transitioning helped me to let some of that go, but some of it runs deeper than I’m able to excavate.

Having been on both sides of it, having lived through a man raping me, and now being a man in the world that people sometimes look at with fear, I can see that men have traded their emotional life for power, and it was a decision that was made for them before they were born.

We live in a world that doesn’t want men to rape, but also doesn’t want men to feel. 

*

You used to say, A son is a son until he gets a wife, a daughter is a daughter all your life. I think about that a lot. Is it what sons do? Or is what they’re told to do?

In my late teens, I left you because I didn’t have a choice.

In my late thirties, I came back to you because I understood that I did.  

With love, your son.

Pictured above, by Catalina Ouyang:

These two sculptural works are part of a series of “fonts,” or holy water basins, I began in 2016. Each “font” features a piece of hand-carved soapstone with a hollow carved into it, inside of which rests a raw egg that has had its shell eaten away by white vinegar. The egg is left as a wet, translucent, squishy bulb; I am thinking here about porosity and vulnerability. How the nourishing liquid inside of the egg takes the place of the sacred water of the font.

The object on the left references Italo Calvino’s manuscript Invisible Cities, constructed around a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, to speak to the complicated intersections of colonialism, memory, imagination, and death of empire. The manuscript—at once Orientalizing and formally profound—is slowly destroyed in bleach, inside a bath adorned with two hands in a position of spiritual offering.