Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In Tehran, I was a boy

My name is Esther. When you meet me I am doing warrior two pose on a front lawn in Venice Beach. I am a Yoga teacher and have a body like a Diego Rivera painting. I am South Korean. I am also in some ways Persian and Canadian. I joke that I can’t do this pose or that pose because of my big ass. My smiles are not cheap. I have traveled far and wide to find them, and have come just as far to share them.

In Tehran, I was a boy.
Running around with the local children I would get into so much trouble. Backtalking to teachers, getting into scuffles on the street and dirtying my clothes, stealing a toy, some cherries, getting caught and chased down the street. My mother would scream and make a fuss about how it wasn’t safe for a young girl to be such a troublemaker. My mom thought it would be safer for me to be a boy. So she made me one.
When I was seven my mother and I stood in front of the mirror together. The light that crept in through the window landed on my long black hair. I didn’t notice at that time. My mother would tell me this years later. She cut my hair until it was not even an inch long. She took a bag down from the shelf and pulled out a new pair of trousers. She had me put them on and had me stand back so she could get a good look at me. I smiled at her jokingly and flexed my tiny biceps. I stood in the mirror looking at my new haircut and my new clothes. I ran the flat of my palm over the stubble where my hair had been, letting it tickle my hand. “Ok, works for me, I thought.” I ran out to play. And she raised me as a boy for two years.
My family was originally from South Korea, where I was born. My family moved to Iran when I was seven, keeping my memories of Seoul relatively few in number. I had just barely begun to grasp what Korean was, when I blinked and opened my eyes in Tehran. As a boy.
A week after getting my new haircut, my friends and I broke into the hotel pool while it was closed. It had been unbearably hot that day. Similar to how it was everyday. We had been kicking a ball around the street for while, but gave up before very long out of pure exhaustion. We sat in the shade, debating how to escape. How could you escape, the heat was a vast oppressive expanse with no holes or end. That was when I suggested we sneak into the hotel pool. We ducked in through the small opening in the gate, threw off our clothes and dove in.
The cool teal water replenished our young dried out bodies. We splashed around and competed in breath holding contests. When I swam under I could feel the heat melt off me and I could think again. I came up for air, wishing I didn’t need to, and my friend Pegah challenged me to a breath holding contest.
“You’re on,” I said.
We both dove under. When I came back up for air, a man was standing at the edge of the pool screaming at us. There was not time to gather our belongings so we had to flee in just our underwear. Fifteen of us sprinted down the street in our undies dripping, a sloppy trail in every direction we went, with the pool manager screaming his head off and chasing after us. The man eventually caught me, and dragged me all the way to my house where my parents opened the door to find a soaking wet child and an irate pool manager. My mom had to buy a new pair of trousers.
It took me awhile to get used to all of the women walking around in Burkahs. I remember walking with my mom in a crowd. I turned my head to look at street vendor and I lost grip on my mother’s hand. I turned back to find her and was confronted with a sea of black cloth-covered heads like rolling hills out in front of me. I shouted “mama!” and twenty women turned around to see who was calling. My mother ran up and angrily grabbed my hand, upset that I’d wandered off. Boy or girl, I was supposed to stay close. It happened again the next day.
One day I discovered her underwear. In the Middle East, there are tons of lingerie shops. Tons. There are also tons of women walking around wearing burkahs. That means that there are tons of women walking around in Burkahs and the sexiest lingerie imaginable. Head to toe covering hiding head to toe intricate lace, stockings, bras, and garter belts. I remember finding my mother’s red lace bra. I had decided to prance around the house with it as a hat. My parents were not amused.
We left Iran for Canada not long after that, and it all changed, again. In Vancouver, I would no longer be a boy. I remember my first day of school. I was nine. After my first class I went into the girl’s bathroom to go pee.
“Get out of here!” A girl turned and around and screamed from one of the sinks.
“What are you doing in here?” another girl barked at me, walking out of one of the stalls.
“No boys allowed!”
I debated pulling down my underwear to show them I was a girl. I didn’t do it. Instead I just turned bright red. As I sat in the principal’s office, stunned by what had happened, I ran the flat of my palm over the stubble and let it tickle my hand.
As the years went on, I morphed from being a stick figure drawing into a Diego Rivera painting. I have always been drawn to Diego Rivera’s murals. The characters, like the overweight painter, seem swollen. Their full cheeks and large thighs make the painted people seem expanded to hold in everything they’d been charged with communicating. I’m not sure how to name what’s inside me. I don’t know if it is my memories pushing in every direction, or if it’s hope for more. But what I see in these characters is what’s in me. It’s not that they’re fat. Even the skinny characters have the same bursting quality. They seem so full and rich that you could almost squeeze the two-dimensional images, like you could hold on safely to them if you were drowning.
I think about Diego Rivera when I look at my ass in the mirror. I look at my thighs and I feel strong. I grab onto them when I feel like I’m drowning in my own head. I hold onto the thickness of my own flesh and keep breathing. I feel like a human being. Like a woman. A strong woman. I do a lot of positive thinking when I just focus on breathing. I also think things like “my ass was painted by Diego Rivera.” Those thoughts that seem to expand and fill my body, pushing my skin out ever so slightly. The thought of being a boy in Tehran and buzzed hair girl’s bathroom shrieks, and this woman who looks back at me from the mirror.

My name is Esther. When you say goodbye to me I am outside of a nightclub in Santa Monica. I am from a Diego Rivera painting and wear a black dress. I still remember what my trousers felt like and the sea of black heads bobbing in front of me. When you say goodbye to me I will have still more traveling to do.

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