When I was hanging out in Japan this summer, doing research and fieldwork and all that good stuff that gives me a paycheck, I took an afternoon to help one of my favorite old ladies put up some curtain rods. (As it turns out, despite being a teeny tiny person, I am quite tall by Japanese standards, which makes me a prime candidate for reaching things on tall shelves and putting up curtain rods and all those Tall People Jobs I am usually passed over for in the US.) For a bit of context, this particular lady has known me for about four years, and decided a couple of years back that she was going to be “[my] Japanese grandmother.” Over the past four years, she’s had my back in so many ways, and I could put up a thousand curtain rods for her and never manage to repay a fraction of the kindness she has shown me.
Anyway, here I am, putting up curtain rods, and she suddenly turns to me and says, “Queenie-chan, please get married soon. I am getting older and my legs are having problems, and I’m worried that if you take too long to get married I won’t be able to come to America for your wedding. I just really want to see you happily married, so please get married soon.”
I don’t often feel guilty about choosing to forgo the standard path of a husband, a home with a picket fence, and 2.4 children. When I first realized that I didn’t want those things, I felt a lot of guilt and fear, partially for deviating from the path that had been set out for me since childhood and partially for “denying” my parents grandchildren. But that was years ago and I’ve made my peace with my decisions. It’s not that I want any of those things–I emphatically do not, and I’m not at all sorry to not be pursuing them. But, gosh, there’s nothing quite like a little old lady to whom you are deeply indebted wishing you happiness (and a husband and children) to bring that guilt welling up to the surface again. As much as I would like to show her pictures of my excellent girlfriend and my rad roommates and tell her about my awesome community in Boston and show her that, really, I am happy, the happiest I’ve ever been, even if the source of my happiness is pretty non-standard, that’s not a safe conversation for me to have and I don’t think she’d understand, regardless of how well I explained it. So I nod and say, “ああ、そうですか” [“Is that so?”] and hope that she’ll change the subject.
I often feel like I’m living a double life. On one hand, I have my life in Boston. I am out to everyone who matters, and anyone who hasn’t been cool about that is no longer part of my life. My roommates all know that I’m an ace activist, my girlfriend is expected to be my +1 at most social gatherings, and a lot of my friends follow this blog (hi). Sure, I’m quiet about my personal life at school, but I certainly don’t lie about my sexuality or the gender of my partner if it comes up. There are a lot more people who know that I’m queer than that I’m ace, but, hey, visibly queer, invisibly asexual, what can you do?
On the other hand, Japan. I do research on a socially and politically conservative religious group in a socially and politically conservative area of the country, and my advisor has explicitly cautioned me to keep my sexuality under wraps. In Japan, I dress differently, speak about an octave higher,* and am frequently lauded by older men for being a perfect paragon of femininity (usually right before they start complaining about Japanese Kids These Days). I don’t outright lie about my sexuality or my partner, but there is a whole lot of lying by omission. A boyfriend? No, I don’t have one. No, there aren’t any young men I like in my department. Yes, I might marry a Japanese man, but, no, I’d really prefer that you not set up a blind date for me. I have research to do, you know, so busy, no time to think about marriage right now. Whenever anyone asks me about my preferences in men (“Would you marry a Korean? Would you marry a Chinese man?”), I just repeat “縁があれば…” (“if there’s a connection…”/“if it’s fated…”) until they get bored and leave me alone.
And that, well, that’s lonely. I love my research and I have a great deal of respect and fondness for the members of the religious community I’m working with (even when we don’t see eye-to-eye), but having to hide who I am for two to three months at a time really wears on me. I’ve gotten so used to being out, to being able to talk about my girlfriend, to being able to mention people I’ve met through ace activism without coming up with a convoluted backstory for how we know each other (“Oh, you know, I met them…around…”). Plus, being asked when I’m getting married, who I want to marry, what kind of wedding I’ll have, will I wear a Western wedding dress or a kimono, have you ever thought about getting married here, here’re bride and groom teddy bears you can use as decorations at your wedding, would you like some wedding tea, here take two packets because we don’t think you’re getting the hint, etc. is exhausting.
In the past few months, I’ve kept coming back to Laura’s piece on growing old alone. In some ways, it’s a very real worry–while I do have a lovely partner and a wonderful found family, there’s always the concern that my found family won’t prioritize me because I’m not a romantic partner (or a blood relation) and if my girlfriend and I ever break up there’s my super tiny dating puddle hanging over my head. There’s also the fact that in Japan I am often quite literally alone and isolated, which is part of the reason I started mulling over the piece. But, to be honest, I’m feeling pretty secure in my relationships, at least right now. The loneliness I connect to in that piece is a different sort of loneliness–it’s not having role models, not having other people who’ve already navigated the same territory and can point the way.
I don’t know what will happen when I get older and don’t get married. Right now I can brush off not having a boyfriend by telling people that my dissertation has me really busy, that grad school hampers my ability to meet eligible young men, that I’d really rather focus on my studies. Right now my not having a boyfriend gets a sigh and a “Well, you’re young, so there’s still time.” But what happens when I stop being young? What happens when I’m 30 or 35 and still haven’t married? Or, worse, what happens if I get married and can’t tell anyone?** Right now people see my lack of interest in men as proof of my dedication to my research, but what will happen as I get older? Will I start being read as queer, or will I start being read as Too Stubborn and Willful to Be a Proper Wife? (Is the latter really better than the former in terms of keeping research contacts?) How do you handle the Two Body Problem when both of you are the same gender, and one of you can’t be 100% out without fear of losing her research contacts? Does following this career path mean having to leave my partner behind for several months a year? (After all, it’s not like I could bring her on my visa and how would I explain her to my research contacts even if I could?)
I sort of know how to navigate American heteronormativity, but Japanese heteronormativity is a different beast entirely. I don’t even know how many of the rules apply to me. I’m not Japanese, but I’m also not quite gaijin (at least, not in the standard sense); I’m a foreigner, but I’m not a white one,*** and I can speak the language with a high level of proficiency. I’m accepted and integrated into a Japanese community (to some extent), and expected to adhere to Japanese social norms or face the consequences (whereas many American ex-pats are given a free pass, thus gaijin smash). That acceptance is great for my research, but not so great when it means that now I have a gaggle of self-appointed grandmas and aunts and big sisters who care deeply about my happiness and believe the only way to really be happy is through marriage and children. And as much as I want to make those grandmas and aunts and big sisters happy, I also want to protect my own happiness and live my life on my own terms.
It’s scary to admit, but I can’t imagine what my life will be like in 5 years, let alone 10. The ace community is so young (both in terms of how new it is and in terms of demographics) that I don’t really have role models. I am so incredibly grateful for swankivy and ace-muslim and redbeardace all the other awesome older aces who have spoken about their experiences. But many of the older aces are aromantic, and I don’t think any of them have same-gender partners. And many of those “older” aces aren’t that much older than me. I’m navigating without a guide, trying to forge a path without the faintest clue what I’m doing.
There’s an essay by Itō Noe called “The Path of the New Woman” (you can find it in Jan Bardsley’s The Bluestockings of Japan) which I reread when I’m feeling down. It’s as spectacular and melodramatic as you would expect a 1913 essay written by an 18-year-old Japanese feminist to be; the New Woman, among other things, is cut by thorny brambles and stung by poisonous insects and wails in feverish prayer and “live[s] in agony and die[s] in agony” (yikes).**** But, in some ways, it’s very comforting:
The New Woman does not trudge in endless search of the dusty footprints left by the women who have walked before her. The New Woman has her own path. The New Woman will advance beyond the point where so many other women have stopped and, as a pioneer, will dare to tread an entirely new road.
She does not know where this new path originates nor where it leads. Consequently, she understands the danger and the fear that attend the unknown. (131-132)
Itō would probably not consider me a New Woman–even putting aside issues of historical context, I cannot say that “every second” of my life “is one of hardship,” which is apparently one of the prerequisites (yikes). But there’s something about the New Woman being a lonely trailblazer that I can identify with, something comforting about knowing that others have had similar fears and worries when they’ve ventured into uncharted territory.
I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know what life will be like for me in 5 years. I don’t know what will happen as I get older. I don’t know what it will be like being a queer ace post-doc or a queer ace professor instead of a queer ace grad student. I don’t know how I’ll navigate this international snarl of heteronormativity. But I know where I am right now. I know who I am right now. I know what I want right now. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s a start.
*It’s very common to speak Japanese at a much higher pitch than English, especially if you’re a woman. When I’ve spoken English in Japan, people have often remarked on how I sound completely different and/or like a man when I speak English. (My English speaking voice is unusually deep, to be fair.)
**I would consider getting married for legal benefits, but that’s pretty much the only reason; I have no emotional attachment to the concept of marriage. I also strongly doubt that I would ever marry a man, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.
***Being a non-white, non-East Asian researcher in Japan is its own seriously complicated kettle of fish that’s way beyond the scope of this post.
****Seriously, check out Bardsley’s book if you want to read a lot of early Japanese feminist writing, which ranges from “what are you even trying to say, Hiratsuka Raichō, and why are you suddenly talking about Rodin” to “Yosano Akiko, I love you and your activist burnout poetry and want you to duel Hiratsuka over metaphors forever.”