by Calliope Wong
I’m Calliope, pre-med English major at the University of Connecticut Honors Program.
I’m also 5’8” and the daughter of Chinese immigrants from very different backgrounds, my mother from mainland Nanjing, my father from the once-British-colony Hong Kong. Looking at me, most people’s reaction is probably that I’m an awkward-turtle Nerd™—true!—and I make no excuses, with my professed love of videogame design and my happy squeeking every time I get into a conversation about the metaliterary criticism and cultural ramifications of ‘90s anime. I am totally that girl…that Gold-level support on your League of Legends friends list, that fan of Apoptygma Berserk that arrived to the party 10 years too late, that girl on your newsfeed, posting about transgender activism at women’s colleges. I’m the girl to call when you need living proof you’re not too weird.
But, like anyone, I sometimes get trapped by self-doubts and internal conflicts of the Weird Meter. Like on that late-June day, with the “Hot/Scorching/YOU ARE ON FIRE BUY OUR STUFF” Sales” already going up for July 4th—that Saturday when I went clothes-shopping for school with my mom.
The day didn’t start off with me thinking I was too weird—actually, it was very pleasant at first. Although shopping with Mom has historically been an exercise in body-shaming and contorting into clothes that didn’t fit, compounded by the fact that people used to misread me as a “militantly-queer man shopping in women’s aisles” earlier on in my transition, it’s changed over time into mom-daughter bonding time. (A prayer here: I am thankful, so thankful that I no longer feel threatened whenever I go clothes shopping. And I am grateful to Mom, for enduring with me through all the public shaming unto now. Let this be every queer kid’s brave mom.)
So here we were at the end of June, frizzy-haired and stalwart 5’5.5” Chinese lady with goofy, 5’8” daughter, entering the local secondhand shop called Savers.
I made a sleepy, pawing effort to look through some Things Mom Liked–and by logically fallible extension, she thought I would. Sequined sundresses wouldn’t keep me safe from the winds howling down on the UConn campus (my school lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere); I just did not do hot pink sweaters. We settled for a few dressy button-ups and a pair of red shorts.
I didn’t really need shoes—in an indulgent and perhaps guilty step, Mom had bought me a bunch of things when we first went shopping together as mother and daughter. I had 2 pairs of decorative Converse at home! There was no need. (And I really wanted to just go home and nap!) But this particular Saturday was my mom’s day off. I couldn’t fight a woman sacrificing for me; she got her way. We went shoe browsing.
I’ve always had an issue with shoes. My feet are larger than I think they have any right to be—they remind me of the things people say about transgender women in order to invalidate our lives and identities. They remind me that, in many peoples’ minds, my body and I have no place in this world. I also want to re-iterate that I identify as a girl who sees herself as—did I say it before?—a goofy nerd.
But sitting in the women’s size 9 aisle were these perfect shoes. Blue velvet at the bottom, with teal and red straps intertwining like fighting serpents: they were Jennifer Lopez-brand stilettos with what must have been 6-inch heels. They were $10.
I wanted them very, very badly. At the same time, fear ripped at me from all directions. It felt like being dragged many backward steps into places I outgrew a long time ago.
And I began to worry in overdrive:
About how capitalism has become this necessary part of my bonding with my mother, as if the only way in which we can share quality time is through the purchase of things we like but don’t need. I don’t want to be dependent on material goods for happiness—I can be happy without so many things, and money isn’t easy to come by anyway.
About how I felt so guilty for updating my wardrobe so many times in the past few years, in an effort to close the lagging gap between who I and what I looked like, functioned like, could be in the physical world. At the quiet heart of me I’d always wanted, in a desperate kind of way, to be found attractive—or to find what “attractive” meant to me. But it was at my parents’ monetary cost.
About who I was, if I wasn’t just the nerdy girl at the bottom of the “attractive” pile. I wasn’t meant to stand out in a crowd, right? I was a plain-at-best Chinese girl, boring in body but interesting when you got to talk with me…or something. I wasn’t supposed to attract anyone’s attention—because I’m transgender, and attracting the wrong kind of people could spell social or physical violence. Right?
I didn’t really know what to think—but that I was messed up and weird for this internal conflict. I liked these pretty shoes. I was so, so stressed. This wasn’t normal, right?
But the swarming worries seemed to swallow themselves, the moment I tried on those ridiculous shoes.
I’ll admit that life had been moving pretty fast up until that Saturday, when I went clothes-shopping with Mom and ended up essentially panicking about this pair of strappy heels. From my own brand of militant-queer granny aesthetic (combat boots and brown floral-print handmedowns) during high school, complete with overgrown mullet, to half a year later with the Invisigoth girl who refused to wear anything but black turtlenecks and skinny jeans, to the current, goofy nerd who sometimes threw in colored socks with Mary Janes for fun but refused to be looked at.
It might seem like I’m some sort of image-obsessed person. But it wasn’t about aesthetics—it was never just about how I looked. I just kept on looking for ways to fit comfortably, inside my skin.
And the moment I actually tried these strappy, impractical heels, I felt… powerful.
I felt that no one could push me down from where I stood—I was owning up to my body, my sexuality, the whole of me. Rather than fearing for my safety or trying to divert attention away from myself–rather than holding the weird and loud person in, I was wearing myself in a way other people could see me. In the moment, I didn’t care that Mom was telling me to “come down from there or else I’d break my ankles.” I didn’t care that I was over six feet tall and blatantly calling attention to myself. I loved that the women trying on shoes next to me gasped a little bit at me as I stood and walked to the dressing room with my head held high.
“Those look nice on you.”
“I could never wear those like you.”
I wore those shoes with a pride in myself I had never known.
In the end, I probably spent a good twenty minutes with those J-Lo heels before I put them back down in the bargain pile. Mom was pressed on time and wanted to go to the Goodwill down the street; she asked me several times that if I really wanted them, I could get them—“just hurry up and make a decision so we can go to the next store.”
It wasn’t her rushing me, though, that made me return the heels. I’m still not sure what it was.
But I reasoned that if I could feel that good with the shoes on, then I didn’t need them.
I told myself I was and could be hot, just the way I was.
And here I am in September, looking back at summer days. I’m trying to remember how to feel the same way.