A Total Obfuscation of Gender

“I want my body to grow to fit the shape of my soul.”

In the summer of 2021, I wrote the first draft of “Yao” in my notebook at my shitty little retail job in Larchmont Village, a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood (a stone’s throw away from the country club I used to work for — I guess I have a real knack for finding customer service jobs that deal specifically with rich people). At the time I was making $250 a week and going “girlmode” to sell overpriced clothes to white women who had time to stop in for an hour or two on a weekday to browse the racks. It was during the Delta wave and several customers were taken aback when I asked them to put on a mask before coming inside. It was too hot that summer, the way it is too hot every Los Angeles summer. To get to work, I walked that treeless half-mile up Beverly Boulevard, and by the time I got to the store, I was always drenched through with sweat, and I had to pretend that it was okay, that I hadn’t just trekked through a desert to get there in a body that wasn’t totally mine, only for that body at its destination to endure capitalist, patriarchal, and white supremacist violences. Maybe because of that, in response to this relentless outer siege, a new conception of myself was gestating inside of me, a me whom I’d previously been too afraid to unearth.

I only worked there for a total of three months before the place went out of business, but because business was so slow that it got bankrupted, I also managed to read three books nearly entirely on the clock: The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Breast and Eggs, in that order. It was the summer that kicked off my Le Guin obsession: in my head I accompanied Shevek in his horror and disgust at the capitalistic excess of A-Io’s clothes bazaar, while my flesh-and-bone worked one in my reality. Every time I restocked inventory and looked at the “Made In” tags, I was reminded that my exploitation was founded on the exploitation of a garment worker in the global South, situated on the rung below me. Bong Joon Ho, eat your heart out. However leftist I already was before that summer, the in/congruencies of reality and fiction radicalized me beyond what I had ever imagined. I was left with a politics that devastated my inner world, but also one that led me with radical care towards the outer. So I hated that summer, but I also loved that summer. I loved that summer, and I hated it. 

When I went back to my notebook in 2022 to work on “Yao” for my Seventh Wave digital residency, I was surprised to find my initial thoughts that I had hastily scribbled there, most likely in between ringing up customers at the register: “Finding light in darkness: total obfuscation of gender, like moon bending, like a dark phase or eclipse.” I’d forgotten entirely that I wrote this line, and now it was standing out as the description of the piece more beautiful than the piece itself. While writing “Yao,” I strained myself to match the simplicity of its genesis. The dilemma of creation: how can any final form live up to its starting idea? 

Looking retrospectively is always an odd, consciousness-shifting task. As a writer, because I am constantly finding throwaways like this — beautiful, cardial nuggets, far-flung hopes for what a piece was going to be, and a vision that I’m never going to be able to totally fulfill. But doubly so as a trans person, as someone choosing to make a total transformation and can pinpoint the exact moments of change, or the exact moments I wished to change so desperately I felt myself doused in fire. After an editor’s suggestion that I add more clear-cut narrative scenes into “Yao” to clarify its overall emotional journey, I sneaked in something too personal, a mantra that I had repeated to myself many times, once clinging to it like it was anchorage, an assertion of why I needed to do what I was going to do: I want my body to grow to fit the shape of my soul. In truth, this entire short story was a way to explain to myself the nefarious gender envy I had been feeling my whole life, and my discomfort, my dislike, of the body I was born in. Why did I carry this unexplainable self-hatred? For years I had been convinced it was internalized misogyny. But that was an inadequate reason. Sometimes, at my most femininely attractive, it burned me to even look in the mirror.

Poetics can be thrown around carelessly and still remain circumspect about the truth. Simply: I knew I needed a larger, masculine body.

How does one know such a thing, innately, and without needing to be told? In fairness, it took me many years to ascertain the truth. My prior reasonings came caped in the images and lies we all sometimes swallow in order to keep living. All I know is that once I started to grow, and really I did grow, on testosterone, the vessel began to feel more like a home. My shoulders broadened, my back muscles bulked up, and my hips shrunk. I felt my posture improve. When I stood still, I could hold my arms comfortably by my side, without fidgeting, without feeling like I needed to cover or obscure anything about myself. Do most cisgender able-bodied people feel this way? Such an easy and nonconsequential thing to others could be such a gift to me.

In 2021 I was terrified of the idea that I might be transmasculine, and wrote the beginning portions of “Yao” as a test, to see if this dream of a transcestor would come true. In 2022 I greatly edited it and expanded it to encompass my transmasculinity as I knew it at the time, pre-T, urging myself to lay down my fears and take the leap. Now, in my 18th month of T, I find “Yao” as a curious artifact. I thought it was such a stunning display of my artistic abilities at the time, and now I find a lot of this piece overwrought and needlessly dramatic. But that’s what I think of all of my older work, and it’s easy to act blasé and holier-than-thou now that I am no longer in the direct crosshairs of my own unholy fire. I hate it, I love it, I hated and loved a thing, including my own body. “Total obfuscation of gender,” I had written, “like a dark phase or eclipse.” I am drawn to the imagery of an eclipse, which suggests a celestial object making a journey behind another object’s shadow, briefly evading visibility and dipping into the who-knows-where, a plane beyond our comprehension and reality, and emerging once again into the light. Well, isn’t that just the whole story of my gender. Yao, regardless of what I think now, will always be my most important creation. He is my past, my present, and my future. I created him, so that I [could one day] embody him.

Excerpt from “Yao”


Sixteen is the age I start to feel disembodied. The curse is cast by Ghost in the Shell, which I buy off eBay in some chunky black DVD case. In the dark secret of my room I watch Major Kusanagi feel unreal, and then become unreal, and then become something else entirely.

As my body morphs into adolescence, I watch a lot of anime, especially the ones about Japanese gods and folklore. It’s just close enough to my own culture to seem familiar but not close enough to hurt. I grow obsessed with names, not only because I hate my own, but because of this recurring idea across these stories that if you name something, you give it power. Laura, Laura. I know my grandfather named me for a laurel wreath — victory. It’s an invocation I’ve never been able to shake.

In the morning, Māmā sticks her head in my room and knocks on the door, belatedly. “小鬼,” she says. A common Chinese moniker for children meaning rascal, but literally, it translates to little ghost. She uses it so often that it’s become my de facto nickname. “Get ready soon. Your swim meet is in an hour, and I want to drive you there early so that you can get a good warm-up.”

“Alright, alright.” I shoo her out of the room. I don’t even know why she’s so insistent, she doesn’t even like that I swim. She keeps complaining that it’s making my shoulders too wide, my arms too big, that I look too much like a man. She doesn’t know that I enjoy the growing musculature of my body, though I don’t understand why yet. Actually, I do know why she wants me to swim well — she thinks that it’ll get me a college scholarship.

In the locker room before the meet, the other girls gossip amicably between themselves, swapping stories of homework and school scandals, but I am alone, silent, observing my poly-spandex-blended form in the mirror. Māmā is right; my shoulders are growing wide, but it’s not enough. Before I knew it, time had changed my body into something beyond my recognition, and now, I am yearning for backwards momentum. I imagine that, in my reflection, I can see the shape of my soul, and it is big, larger than anyone would know, bleeding out the edges of my own outline. When will my body grow to fit the size of me? To shoulder the weight of everything I have to carry, before it dovetails into hopeless hourglass.

None of the other girls have to worry about this, I bet. We line up at the starting blocks, and all of their faces are set in a perfect picture of focus, drive. Not me. When I dive into the water, I choke. I imagine myself drowning. Treading water, my arms flap against the current uselessly, sending chlorinated spray upwards in arcs. In reality, I am simply fucking up — my leg seizes into a cramp, and I can’t recover the time and distance. The medals and podiums slip out of my grasp, and vaguely, in the faint buzz of my brain, I realize: this is not where I belong. Water is yīn. It is dousing my flame.

Defeated and huddled in a towel, I trudge back to the locker room, only to be intercepted by my mother. Her arms are crossed, and while I can’t ever remember her being warm to me, the denial of a simple embrace is its own devastation in this moment. “You really disappointed me today,” she snaps in Mandarin. A private rebuke, just for me. The other girls filter in and out of the door, laughing, chattering away. Māmā continues: “What’s the point of paying for lessons if you never win?”

This is when I know that Laura is not my real name. Her words flay me alive, strip my soul from flesh and abandon it in some cruel arc of space, out of orbit; in this moment I am more like a little ghost than anything. Nothing solid to hold me down to earth. If you name something so many times, you give it power. You make it so.

“Yao” was originally published at The Seventh Wave on July 5, 2022. You can read it in full here.

jonah wu is a queer and trans Chinese American writer whose politics are oriented against imperialism, colonialism, and genocide, and he believes that Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea. Currently, they are Assistant Fiction Editor at ANMLY and Editor-in-Chief at eggplant tears. They are a three-time Pushcart nominee and winner of Brave New Weird: The Best New Weird Horror of 2022. Find his work in Longleaf Review, beestung, Jellyfish Review, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Seventh Wave, smoke and mold, and the Los Suelos anthology. In cyberspace, he is @rabblerouses.


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