I read a version of this last week for Queer Nerd, a Midsumma event curated by Lisa-Skye. There’s a lot more I could say about how East Asians are feminised (while other people of colour are masculinised) but maybe I’ll continue that rant later.
I think when I was a kid, I thought my gender was nerd. Of course that’s not all there is to it – I was a girl too. And I think it’s pretty silly when cissexual people like me deny their privilege just because we’re not all quarterbacks and cheerleaders. Besides, I don’t believe that it’s the soldiers and sportspeople who have the most male privilege; I think it’s often the scientists and statesmen, the judges, the economists – the nerds. But if boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls, I was the nerd with five library cards who wanted to read just one more chapter before dinner. Most of my early childhood memories are of reading or masturbating, sometimes both at the same time. That hasn’t changed but I think my technique has improved.
In my teens I became interested in clothes, and over the last few years my style has become more feminine while simultaneously the queer scenes that I’m part of have become increasingly smitten with butch/femme dynamics. I celebrate that, but I worry that sometimes it also means reinscribing gender on everything, albeit supposedly chosen, intentional gender. Whether it’s biology, socialisation or intent, binary gender still operates as an essentialising force, a kind of confinement. It erases the complexities of my past when people associate all these different parts of me with femme though that’s not really it, or not all there is to the story. Often the things that people think are femme are actually nerdy – or just Chinese.
I was never a tomboy. I’d never lived in a house with a yard until I moved out of home at eighteen, so the outdoors weren’t really a big feature in my life. My parents thought of “the bush” as a great curiosity so sometimes we’d drive out and point at sheep and talk about how the trees were all funny coloured in this country but we never went camping or anything like that. We had picnics occasionally, but coming from a country where you don’t ever eat vegetables raw, fruit unpeeled, or drink water from the tap, it took my parents a while to take to the idea of sitting on the ground eating sandwiches with your hands. These things might make me seem like a princess but then I’m not grossed out by eating chicken feet or fish eyes.
I was never a jock. My parents taught me to ride a bike and tried (but failed) to teach me to swim but other than that they never tried to push sport on me. Actually as far as the stereotype of Asian parents goes, they didn’t really push much on me at all – they didn’t make me learn piano or violin or Chinese and as an only child, with both of them working full time, I was mostly left to my own devices – hence all the reading and jacking off. At the end of primary school there was a bit of pressure around the exams for scholarships and selective entry schools, but that eased off once I won a scholarship to a prestigious private school.
The Anglican girls’ school I attended was a minefield of fascinating socialisation practices and I got a crash course in Western cultural capital that is still paying off everyday. But because it was a single-sex school it also meant your academic, musical and sporting activities weren’t immediately gendered. There was nothing especially masculine about soccer or feminine about theatre. Apart from one season of hockey, which I figured would suit me because I’m at least close to the ground, I mostly did drama and debating – and then increasingly politics. In Under Milkwood I played Butcher Beynon and in Aristophanes’ the Birds I played a bird. In Year 9 my best friend and I started a lunchtime poetry reading club. In Year 11 I helped organise an interschool literary festival and got Dorothy Porter to come read in our library. In Year 12 I started an Amnesty Club and gave heartfelt but probably inappropriately distressing speeches about violence against women at school assemblies.
I was never a geek. I taught myself html but only so I could make my Livejournal prettier. In the great battle of art versus science, I always went for art. But being an Asian scholarship kid, everyone assumed I was studying Physics, Chemistry and “the hard maths”. I must have had a faint inkling that Western culture masculinises the sciences and feminises the arts, but my grandmothers were doctors and botanists and I grew up associating arts with freedom and science with doing what my parents wanted. My father warned me against trying to be a writer, arguing alternately that Chinese people aren’t creative, or that white Australian racism would be easier to deal with in hard sciences where you can prove your skills more objectively. I wasn’t sure how I’d get away with enrolling to do a BA but luckily I got a scholarship which made it sound fancier.
My nerd identity started to fall away after high school. Most of my new friends at uni had the same interests as me. Obsessing about politics, reading theory for fun, gossiping about Virginia Woolf’s love affairs – these things stopped being nerdy and became kind of normal. Some of the things I’m into, like 18th century serif fonts, even became cool – I guess hipsters are just nerds whose interests have become trendy. And ever since I representedSouth Africa at a mock UN youth conference in 2004, and hooked up with the representative forArgentina, being a nerd hasn’t had to mean getting no love. Maybe my nerdiness is just better integrated with other parts of me now – like when my friends and I try to develop hanky code into a complete language, a conlang to rival Esperanto. Theorising sex just extends it, like fanfic extends a beloved but cancelled tv show. I think nerdiness is a pretty good companion for queerness. Nerds are people who love what they love without shame, with all their heart (that’s “kun tute mia koro” in Esperanto).