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.”
(Tiny comment on voice pitch: I saw some voice specialists-in-training and we found my pitch lowered for Japanese, more reliably than anything we tried. I still use it to prep for recording my voicemail message. Languages!)
Huh, that’s so interesting! Do you have any idea why that might be? Pretty much everyone I know speaks Japanese at a higher pitch than English; I’m trying to think of counter examples, and the only ones I can think of are men trying to sound more masculine by 俺ing and やがるing (but even that doesn’t necessarily lower pitch). I also know that there are female academics who dislike speaking Japanese BECAUSE they sound more feminine (due to both voice pitch and mannerisms) and so people take them less seriously. Languages!
Wow, I didn’t know it was such a widespread phenomenon! I bet for me it has a lot to do with being autistic and imitating speech patterns, actually, and the variety of things in Japanese I’ve watched/listened to lets me access a pretty wide range. Plus there are easier archetypes in anime, than cartoons I think? I guess I feel like I have more control over my pitch and can tap into different roles/pitches more easily (and my unconscious default is indeed a bit lower pitch).
Whereas, in English, for a long time I was planning to be a teacher or therapist and was practicing speaking softly and non-threateningly — and of course there are soooo many English voices I’ve heard, comparatively, and they don’t sort well into archetypes. Idk, it’s hard to pin down.
Huh, interesting! My pitch definitely goes up when I speak in Japanese, which goes along with female Japanese speakers tending to use higher pitch than female english speakers (and watching anime with a lot of really high pitched voices, and learning from mostly female senseis with rather high voices probably doesn’t help).
In general, though, male Japanese speakers do seem to go the other way and have slightly lower pitch than male English speakers. I don’t know how much this effects second language learners, but if you pattern your Japanese language learning off more male speech I wouldn’t be surprised by a pitch drop.
(thinking of this post: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005104.html , though it doesn’t address the effects on language learners )
Interesting about male Japanese speakers–I don’t feel like I spend enough time with Japanese men to notice that (and most of the men I spend time with are over the age of 70 and have their own unique speaking patterns, i.e. INCREDIBLY THICK ACCENTS AND UNINTELLIGIBLE SLANG). A lot of the JSL guys I know speak Japanese at a higher pitch than English–but most of their language teachers are/were women. (It’s actually a pretty big problem in my field, because American men will learn to speak vaguely feminine Japanese from their teachers/girlfriends/wives and then will get to Japan and everyone gives them the side-eye.)
One of the things about being older than most aces in my chosen community is that I have a life that works for me and has for a very long time now. I can easily see myself continuing forward like this for 5 or 10 or more years because I’ve already been doing it in one way or another for 20. It’s if I want to have a different future (such as having a same-sex queerplatonic partner) that there’s no map and I don’t even know how to get to the right territory in the first place.
It is kind of interesting that a lot of the older aces are aromantic or nonamorous/celibate. Maybe the others don’t identify as ace because they didn’t have that context at the time when they would have needed it?
Yeah, I can understand that concern! I think I’m early enough in my life that I don’t really have much stability (also grad school isn’t known for its stability, especially when you’re flying across the world every year), so in some ways it’s easier for me to venture into uncharted territory, because it’s not like I’m leaving anything stable behind. Plus a lot of people my age are in some sort of flux, so it’s not quite as lonely as it could be, even if there aren’t other people facing the exact same issues.
I’ve also wondered about the preponderance of older aros. I know of some older aros who got married (Raven, who writes for RFAS, is one of the first who comes to mind), but there do seem to be a lot of older unmarried, unpartnered folks. (I’ve always wondered if there aren’t that many older ace folks in same-gender relationships ’cause they’re all hanging out in explicitly LGBT communities rather than ace ones, but I really don’t have any evidence either way.)
Relatively, I have identified as Ace for a very short amount of time (5 Years). I still have a lot insecurities about dating and the future, and I think a lot of it definitely stems from the fact that there are no “Older Aces” to learn from. If there was a Neil Patrick Harris-esque Ace to learn from, maybe I would be more secure if there were other aces to look up to.
For now, though, it’s just hard for me to even bring up the subject of dating to people I have crushes on because I feel like the second I say anything about being asexual it would be an automatic rejection. In my mind, I don’t feel like people would be able to separate me and my asexuality in their minds.
No matter my romantic orientation or sensual wants, I don’t think I would be accepted by many people because the “need” for sex is so ingrained in our culture. There is a part of me that has a “goal” to find someone asexual to be with, but how realistic is that? What if the person I am “meant” to be with is allosexual?
And how do I sit back and explain to people that I am happy that marriage and children aren’t in my future?
It is so hard to know the answers to my questions when there is no one to look up to or ask questions.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and perspectives with us. As a queer ace researcher (albeit in STEM), I can identify with a lot of what you write here. If it’s any comfort, the queer ace post-doc isn’t that much different from queer ace life as a grad student: your environment will almost definitely make the greatest difference.
All the best to you!
My partner is also a queer ace STEM researcher (soon to be a queer ace post-doc)! The biggest difference between STEM and humanities we can tell is that there are LGBT in STEM organizations, whereas there’s nothing equivalent for the humanities.
(At some point someone should make an aces in academia network, but I don’t know if we’ve reached a critical mass of aces in grad school/in professorships yet.)
Huh, I never really thought about it, but that’s true – we have a LGBT in STEM group here, but no general humanities LGBT organizations I know of (though there are LGBT in business and LGBT in law groups).
I sort of wonder why that is – I guess probably because the humanities tend to be less connected with each other in the way STEM sometimes does?
(And then of course I’m never sure where linguists are supposed to sit….though a LGBTQIA in Ling group would be awesome, considering how many asexy ling undergrads there seem to be)
(Also, I dunno if there’s critical mass for a grad student/staff org, but there’s a growing number of established undergrad groups, so networking those together first could be a start if there’s anyone who wants to take on a project like that).
The observation I’ve always made from talking to friends and colleagues in other disciplines is that STEM knows it has a diversity problem and talks about it, but humanities academia…. doesn’t seem to. And so you get groups like oSTEM and LGBT in STEM and the Association of Women in Sciences and things, so people talk about STEM having this problem…. but you don’t hear about similar problems elsewhere, so people assume that humanities academia doesn’t have them. Which is not actually true.
I really wish there were more people in humanities academia who were speaking out about this, but I think the even more shoestring funding issues and higher levels of competition for even-more-limited job slots are probably not helping on that front.
Hm, that makes sense.
I feel like people in the humanities sometimes sideline the issue by being like “well that’s what the Gender Studies department is for.” (unfortunately, I’ve discovered that I really dislike the field of Feminist/Gender Studies, so…oops).
I also feel like there are less humanities-in-general groups, so it’s hard to get a general group started, but then individual departments often don’t have the resources/initiative to start one just for themselves. Meh.
I’d love to help, but I’m also not in academia atm and still conflicted about whether or not I want to go back.
Yeah, basically this. A section of my department was investigated because of sexual harassment claims last year, and the unaffected professors were shocked! Shocked I tell you! And all the students who took classes in that particular field were like, “…I’m mostly shocked that it took this long for anyone to say anything about it.”
We’ve also had to have multiple conversations (initiated by grad students) about how It’s Not Nice for Male Students to Harass and Attempt to Intellectually Intimidate Female Students and Maybe Professors Should Sometimes Think About Assigning Books Written by Female Academics. A lot of our faculty is publicly quite left-leaning and there are a fair number of people who call themselves feminists, but then they’re like, “Gosh, I am so shocked to hear that it is a problem to only call on men in class. I did not even realize that I was doing it.” So there’s a lot less acknowledgement that diversity might be an issue, which means that the diversity issue is never addressed. (And don’t even get me started on racial diversity, because that is a mess right there.)
In response to Queenie:
“(And don’t even get me started on racial diversity, because that is a mess right there.)”
I remember, at the end of that academic conference I went to on Sinophone literature put together by the Chinese & Comparative Literature Association (a humanities academic association) the man who was responsible for organizing the conference – a white American man – accused the Modern Language Association of being racist, and then made a suggestion for dealing with the MLA’s racism. The incident stood out to me because it is very rare to hear a white man in position of power (tenured professor; leader in an academic organization) accuse a powerful organization in his own field (academia/literature) of being racist to non-white folk in front of an audience of hundreds of people.
To me, that meant that either he was a particularly weird white guy, and/or the problems with racism in literature studies are that bad.
… there are many ace undergrads in linguistics? Wow! I never even thought to ask. (I’m studying linguistics and math.)
I should… do that LinkedIn group thing already. Yes. I’ve actually received a surprising amount of career related academia advice from other aces (and given quite a bit myself).
And I mean, even in terms of members of the Agenda we’re like… almost entirely powered by grad students here. Ha.
The lack of a map can be daunting, but it is no small comfort to me that I’m not exploring alone. Having this network of people who are also exploring, if not the same territory and least some fairly close territory, is incredibly helpful. Maybe not in practical ways; nobody can tell me where to go or show me what it’ll look like once I get there, but I can sort of shout over the tall grass and go “Hey, what do things look like over there?” I’m heading to weird unknown places, but seeing other people fanning out and charting out other nearby places makes me feel like I’m part of brave exploring mission and not just blundering around being lost and alone.
Living a life between cultures definitely complicates a situation. Thanks for your thoughtful post about the topic!
I’ve been thinking a bit myself about how I’m going to live the rest of my life after meeting high school friends again and with a moving day coming up.
Regarding older aces who do same-sex partnerships, I can think of like, one (although I can’t atm remember her current partner status) from our local group. She doesn’t do the blogging thing, but she did do this piece here: http://www.blogher.com/aesxual-lesbian (and I can probably put you in touch if you think you need an older ace pen pal or something)
But yeah, most older aces are coming across asexuality later in life, and may find less desire to engage with it when they already have other established identities. And I suspect that older aromantic or single aces might feel more need to get publically involved with ace communities, since they’re more likely to be dealing with having to explain why they are not settling down and getting married/talking about attraction/etc – I feel like that’s less of an issue for people who already have established partnerships, plus there may instead be a little more pressure to just “blend in”.
Plus, as is mentioned in the article above, the asexual community is hella young, so many queer-inclined older aces may find more peers they can relate to in older LGBT communities than in ace communities, and socialize more over there instead, which could be another factor.
Oh, yep, have read that article. There are a few older asexual lesbians I know of (as in, I know they exist, somewhere, have not actually met them), but, yeah, it does seem like a lot of the older folks just blend in. (Interestingly, one of the leaders of the local Bi Women of Color group is demi and didn’t realize that until…gosh, like a year or two ago, but has mostly stayed in bi communities.)
I also wonder the extent to which people feel like they have to choose between asexual identity and LGBT identity; I know that I’m really hesitant to tell people in LGBT spaces that I’m ace unless I already know that they’re gonna be cool about it, so I’ll often just say I’m queer.
One the problems I have with the less nuanced social justice discourse is that they cast anyone who is against a particular cause, even out of ignorance, as being Bad People Unworthy of Respect. I can recognize that as a valid position for someone in pain, however in many situations it’s not a useful approach. I really appreciate that you show these conservative Japanese people as being worthy of esteem and deserving of your goodwill, without downplaying the effects their anti-queer attitudes have on you.
This is a long-shot, and possibly won’t help you, but have you heard of Matt Thorn? She is an American who works as an anthropology professor in Japan and is (now) openly queer. Granted, her path is very different from yours in that she’s not working within such a socially conservative part of Japanese society, she did marry a Japanese woman (at the time of marriage, the Japanese government considered Matt to be male), she’s not (as far as I know) ace, etc. … but even though she can’t offer you a trail to follow, perhaps she could serve as a distinct mountain in the distance which can help you orient yourself?
I think I would have a really hard time doing the research I do if I went for Social Justice Absolutism. Especially since I do work on marginalized people within this particular religious tradition, who are still perpetrating these kinds of attitudes. I think my advisor has been really fundamental in offering me a model for a mode of writing that strikes a balance between “Hey, look, these people are doing some pretty ground-breaking and norm-defying stuff” with “but also sometimes they say crappy things about people of other races, sexualities, etc.”
I have not heard of Matt Thorn! I’ll have to keep an eye out for her. It’s so rare to find queer women in my field (even in the broadest sense of “my field”), so even knowing that there’s someone else out there managing it helps. There’s also a pretty good chance we’ll wind up at the same conferences, so…hopefully “I heard about you from another blogger on the internet, hi” will be a good introduction.
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