My brother was born in 1994. My dad decided to name him ‘智铭’ (Zhiming), meaning ‘knowledge engraved.’ Five years later they had me, their youngest daughter. They named me ‘智文’ (Zhiwen), meaning ‘knowledge in literature.’ My dad sometimes used to accidentally call me by my brother’s name. He also stumbled with English pronouns, mixing up the ‘he’s and ‘her’s.
I spent most of my childhood glued to the TV. Like any 2000s kid, I grew up watching Kim Possible, Hannah Montana, That’s So Raven and Lilo & Stitch. Girlhood seemed so enjoyable — Kim got to be a cheerleading secret agent, Miley got to be a superstar, Raven got to see into the future and Lilo got to go on alien adventures. I watched the same shows with my brother and we shared all of our toys. My brother was the coolest person I knew — he tinkered with robotics and would make functional crossbows out of newspaper. He knew so much about everything. I wanted to be just like him.
For the longest time, I didn’t know that penises existed. I just assumed everyone had the same parts.
We aren’t a religious family but we would still go to temple a couple of times a year. Mostly at special occasions like Lunar New Year or the Qingming Festival. We would also go to a temple during funerals. Chinese funerals never feel sombre, they feel just as festive as other special occasions. Even outside of special occasions, we would go to temples when we’re travelling to other parts of Malaysia and when we visit China. Temples are very peaceful places. At one point I wanted to be a priestess.
Once we were visiting a relatively small temple during a day trip to Kuala Selangor. There was only one idol there. My dad asked if he could handle it and was given permission by the caretaker. I asked if I could, too, and my mom said that girls aren’t allowed to touch the idols. I felt that my parents would’ve loved for me to be able to, but they couldn’t violate the unspoken cultural laws of such a sacred place.
I used to be only friends with boys from when I was five years old to when I was seven. I was a pretty rambunctious kid. When I switched schools at eight, suddenly the boys were mean to me. I went to the girls but they kept telling me to close my legs, that I was too skinny, that I should eat more. They kept telling me that I wasn’t behaving ‘properly.’ It felt like I was the only girl in Malaysia with short hair, and somehow I was no longer a girl for it. It also didn’t help my case that I was frequently the only girl that got in trouble like the boys do.
When I learned about feminism when I was twelve, everything suddenly made sense to me. I doubled down and tried to be proud to be a woman. Subvert expectations as a woman. If I couldn’t stop being a woman, then I would have to change how other people saw me as a woman.
I remember asking my high school health teacher if I’ll be able to grow breasts. But even if I did grow them, I probably would’ve wished they were gone. The more I saw what girls were meant to look like, the more I wished I wasn’t a girl. It felt burdensome. It felt like so much to upkeep. And the eyes that would be on your curves seemed so violent. I already felt disgusting as a girl, I didn’t want to grow up to be a woman. I wanted to stay a tomboy. I did not want to mature, I wanted to stay free.
I wanted to be 智文, I didn’t want to be ‘little girl.’
I didn’t always have the best relationship with my dad. He was away a lot on business. He saw so much of the world. He’s a proud Chinese man but also understands the limits of our culture. At the time, I didn’t know any of that — all I saw was a man who would be gone for months on end, and would suddenly be in the house for a couple of weeks. He felt like a stranger to me.
Eventually he transitioned into a career as a lecturer at his alma mater. He was suddenly home a lot more often than he used to be. Being his daughter felt like new territory. He started driving me to school instead of my mom. We didn’t talk much but every single time he dropped me off at school, he would always, without fail, say he loves me.
I get to know him more every single time he says, “爸爸 loves you.” I did tell him to stop calling me ‘princess’. He stopped.
When I went back home for winter break after coming out as non-binary in university, I was renegotiating my gender and how it is in relation to my family. They kept referring to me as ‘she,’ but I didn’t bother correcting them. I didn’t feel comfortable being just a ‘sibling’ or a ‘child’ to them — those terms seem so nebulous, so lifeless to me, so devoid of the culture I grew up with.
When we had a family vacation in China, my dad would frequently refer to me as ‘千金’ (Qianjin), meaning ‘a daughter worth a thousand gold.’ Chinese daughters are treated as property, like gold. But coming from my dad, it didn’t feel that way. As I got older, I looked up to my dad more and more. The more I find out about him, the more I find him worthy of admiration and respect in my eyes. I even found myself behaving and sounding like my dad at times.
I still get happy whenever little kids call me ‘姐姐’ (jiejie), or ‘older sister.’ I hold immense love for my heritage, it wraps my family in its embrace. I am proud to be a daughter to my dad. His respect for me transcends the embedded misogyny in our beloved culture.
You don’t actually understand yin yang if you think of them as a binary. Think of a hill — yin is the shady side and yang the sunny side. There’s still the colours in between, and it shifts with the passage of time. North and south. Left and right. Front and back. Father and daughter