ompleting endless reams of paperwork on my daughter’s behalf, in the wake of a cross-country relocation, I’ve learned to whiz right by Female, Male, White, Black/African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American and Biracial to the final checkbox.
Other. Abnormal. Unknown. And if our drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Syracuse has revealed anything, it’s that my 9-year-old, Zoe, and I are nothing short of oddities; modern-day chimeras — not the mythological kind, with lions’ heads and serpents’ tails, but a Chinese-American girl who’s also an African-American boy and a woman who’s also her child.
Fetal microchimerism is a concept I first read about while pregnant, in some pop science magazine. In essence, the unborn kid’s cells become part of the mother’s body, establishing their own lineages there (some of which can persist and multiply for decades). Though we know the reverse is possible, too — maternal immune cells drifting into offspring — we’re not quite sure what the mechanism’s consequences are: some fear the fetal cells trigger reactions that have increased rates of autoimmune disease in middle-aged women; others have tracked the fetal material acting as stem cells, repairing damage; still others have deemed the cells’ presence entirely inconsequential, calling them “innocent bystanders.” (Go on: picture them, phones drawn at the scene of an incident, capturing footage.)
On impulse, I asked an obstetrician friend about it. “It’s actually quite common,” she replied, adjusting her glasses with a finger. I nodded. “A researcher I follow studied the fetal cells in a compromised mother rat. They migrated to her left atrium and differentiated into beating cardiac tissue, strengthening her damaged heart. Impressive, yes?” I nodded again.
“So maybe your baby’s helping you out with your tweaked back. If you had a son, we could tell by the presence of Y chromosomes in your blood.” She put her hand on my arm consolingly, flanked in her sunlit living room by framed photographs of her young boys. “But you just have a daughter.”
Just a daughter? Maybe. Probably.
A few months later, once my own OB-GYN had airlifted Zoe from my uterus via C-section, that’s what everyone seemed to infer: White mother, Black father, biracial daughter. Simple.
But I’m not just White, and Zoe’s not just biracial — and not only in the sense that race isn’t a true biological signifier (but more of a roving concept) either. I’m biracial, which makes Zoe Asian-American, Black/African-American, Native American and White. And while she answers to female pronouns, I’ve always suspected she would’ve identified as a boy — at least from ages five through eight, when she had no traditionally female friends or interests — had those pronouns never been uttered.
Our road trip to Syracuse was pretty much a straight shot eastward across the U.S. — which flattens and empties, starting in Wyoming — so even before reaching Iowa, Illinois or Indiana (which we now refer to collectively, as “3I”) we were searching the dashboard for a Fast Forward button. Finding none, we pulled into a gas station where I opened all the windows and rubbed at my face with both hands. “You’re slipping into a stupor, Mom,” Zoe said, because that’s how she talks.
“Yea,” I admitted.
“Let’s take a break and explore.”
So we emerged, squinting into yellow sunlight, and started walking. And it was during this brief walk that Zoe, despite a cascade of long hair and a lifetime on the receiving end of female pronouns, was first mistaken for a boy; an occurrence that repeated itself, multiple times, as we traversed the American heartland. Far from the Bay Area’s urbane, gender-bendy liberalism — where tomboy, butch and stud are familiar identities — we discovered that we still live in an Osh Kosh B’Gosh country: a country in which a small-town manufacturer of adult clothing grew wildly popular for its child-sized overalls, designed in the early twentieth century to help turn sons into their fathers.
We’re an unnuanced country; a color-coded, binary country in which boys still wear blue and girls still wear pink; where Black is viewed as aggressive, and aggression reads as masculine.
“Does he want to come inside and look?”
“How old is he?”
“Does he want any toppings on that?”
The first time Zoe was called “he,” I stopped in my tracks to take stock of her — decked out in baggy basketball shorts, a blue tee shirt and baseball cap — taking stock of herself. Contemplating.
As the male pronouns kept coming, along with questions like “Is that your child?” I gained a bone-deep understanding of how an echo chamber works, how Donald Trump was elected — and how confusing Other can be. The trip wholly revised my understanding of “small-town America,” a place I once thought I’d grown up in. (Lebanon, New Hampshire, is no giant. But it’s not small, either, it turns out.)
In Sinclair, Wyoming, for instance, we ate at a hole-in-the-wall ranked the #1 Mexican spot in the state by the travel site we’d consulted (based, perhaps, on its doughy tortillas and subversive aversion to spices). It was also the only Mexican food for miles. In fact, it was the only bona fide restaurant serving this town of 448 inhabitants, unless one counted the I-80 Travel Plaza.
“Does he like Minecraft?” the waitress asked, smiling down at the Enderman on Zoe’s tee shirt.
“Uh,” I said, “Yes.”
“My son does too, honey.” She shot Zoe a wink.
After lunch, strolling up and down scorched, cracking streets, we took in the parks, the museum — which tells the town’s story in “memorabilia, artifacts and potpourri” — and the refinery that birthed Sinclair. (The town was originally called Parco, after the Producers & Refiners Corporation, or “PARCO,” and renamed Sinclair once the refinery was acquired by Sinclair Consolidated Oil Corporation.) This was a town where “sweet and sour” referred to crude oil, not Chinese take-out; a town with no Target, Starbucks, college or movie theater. And, according to the latest census, no Black people.
Leaving Sinclair, we cruised by the ghost town of Benton, to the south; then Fort Steele, where a small community once tarred and feathered their Jehovah’s Witness neighbors after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) compelled the Witnesses’ children to salute the flag and recite the pledge in school.
Three years later, of course, the decision was overruled. But as we continued east — smiling politely at the array of friendly folks, strewn along the I-80, who took in Zoe’s blue clothes, brown skin and athletic stance and concluded male pronouns were in order — we could imagine how complex it might still be to check Other in small-town Wyoming.
“Everyone’s so nice, though” Zoe kept repeating as we made our way toward Central New York.
And it’s true. Even in the small towns where MAGA hats proliferated, the people we met were kind. Even where Confederate flags flew. Even in the rural restaurant where we overheard an unabashed man proclaim, “Mexicans are okay. It’s the Chinese that bother me,” and nobody else batted an eyelash. (Frequently, it comes in handy to be mistaken for White.) Perhaps there is something about knowing your neighbors — neighbors who staff the café and laundromat on your block, who attend the farmers’ market you attend — that underscores the practicality of good manners.
Still, as we unpacked our bags at the extended-stay hotel that we’d be calling home for the next two months, I couldn’t help ruminating on how my gut had twisted when the kids in my rural hometown called me “Chink;” reeled off stories of “fag-bashing;” made monkey noises at a Black classmate; when I got hold of a fellow alum’ to ask whether it would be fine to bring a nonwhite woman — my partner at the time — to our tenth high school reunion, and she said, immediately, “No.” And I recalled how this woman had once gently advised me to try wearing Jessica McClintock florals as my jeans and wide, chubby face made me look like “a dykey Sam Kinison.”
“Folks, I’ve been straight for seventeen days,” I quoted back. “Not all in a row.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Ew. Don’t even joke about that. He was just talking about drug addiction.”
I didn’t come out as queer for another six years. Do polite, guileless, ignorant people qualify as nice?
Then something occurred to me: maybe the good people of Middle America weren’t mistaken about Zoe’s gender. Given that sex is a biological classification and gender is a social construct, maybe they were right.
Maybe I was the mistaken one.
Could Zoe be a boy? Despite our trans- and two-spirit-friendly environs, I’d never thought to ask. Now, transplanted to a region that refers to liberal Manhattan as “downstate,” I emptied our suitcases into the hotel’s splintering chest of drawers and eyeballed my kid, who — against his clear advice — was paging through Lemony Snicket’s Read Something Else. “Hey,” I said, “I’ve got a question.”
“And I’ve got a statement. It’s something for Dan to put in his next book.”
This threw me off. “What’s that?”
“Some people drink from a glass half full. Some people drink from a glass half empty. But nobody drinks from an empty glass, because you can’t.”
“That’s pretty good, Bub,” I said.
A week passed. By now, we’d identified our favorite Thai restaurant in Syracuse, our favorite sushi spot in Syracuse, our favorite — well — you get the point. Finally, hovering over a checkbox as I completed the last of our move-related paperwork, I turned to Zoe. “Hey, I’ve got a question,” I tried again. “Are you — ” I squinted at the form “ — a boy or a girl?”
Steady eyes met mine over the Chinese edition of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Outside, stark white sun backlit a marbled gray sky. It was, as ever, about to rain in Syracuse.
“Meh,” Zoe said, turning toward the window as two deer nosed tentatively from the bushes onto the hotel’s lawn. “By the way, before you ask,” she said at last —
I held my breath.
“I’m reading the characters; not the pinyin.”
We’ve settled in for nearly a month now, and Zoe’s in love with our new home. Central New York, like most of America, is plagued by sexism. Queerphobia. Racism. Disparity. Crime. Still, nobody’s been tarred and feathered by a mob here in a good many years, and from our noob perspective, CNY appears to be home to a wellspring of goodwill too; of patience, and a grudging respect for those who stand their ground — stick to their beliefs — even if they are Other.
Whether we live in a minuscule, homogenous town where diversity is a phenomenon beamed out of Hollywood, or a bustling multicultural city, Other confuses us. Whether we check this, that or no box on the form. Whether we color-code, gender-code or codeswitch. But soon enough, Other is moving into our neighborhood. Handing us our daily coffee. Attending our farmers’ market, and sending Other Junior to our kids’ schools. Other becomes Us. Then, some new Other arises to confuse Us.
For seven days, I fretted over being female-identified; not trans, not two-spirit. Not a boy. Despite the fact that most everyone I’ve loved has, at one point, effused or complained that I think/act/argue like a guy, my gender and sex align — and I’ve enjoyed sharing the same pronouns with Zoe. Passing on my firsthand knowledge like tiny Osh Kosh overalls. Sometimes, if I’m honest, I want to absorb her back into my body and keep her safe. And I may not be a physical chimera, but she heals me every day; sends a look, touch, word to my heart like a stray cell differentiating itself to repair the damage there.
When the waitress at Wyoming’s #1 Mexican restaurant brought our check and said “You’re such a cute boy,” Zoe shrugged and thanked her.
“You didn’t correct her,” I remarked in the car.
“Because I could tell she was trying to be nice, Mom. That’s the thing.”
For now, Zoe’s gender-ambivalent and fairly race-ambivalent: as a privileged 9-year-old, she has that option. She has yet to reach the stage in her life when people demand, in a plethora of ways, that she identify herself to them; when the answer may mean life or death.
I stretch and shove my laptop aside. As I pour two glasses of ice water, extending one to her, Zoe smiles.
“Sure.” We toast, cubes clinking. “You know, you’ve gotten awfully good at ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ since the road trip. Did that Middle American politeness rub off on you?”
She sips slowly, closing her eyes. “Some of us drink from the fountain,” she says, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Some of us drink from the well. But we all have to drink, because if you don’t drink, you’ll die of dehydration.”
And if you blink, speeding past it on the I-80, you may miss Sinclair, Wyoming. But Zoe and I rank its generosity #1 in the state. The itty-bitty town embraced us with its soft serve and sun-bleached playground and enshrined potpourri, and we embraced it back. Without even knowing us, it transferred a culture of kindness that lives, now, in our consciousness, establishing lineages that, if we’re lucky, will persist.