I am a Woman
Artwork by Amanda Chisholm
I never walk out of my room without a pair of high-heeled shoes. It makes me feel taller and help me stand straighter. Swaying on the thick high heels, I like to hear the “clicking” sound they make when I walk around. It is like making the announcement that I am here, I am coming. Every time I step out of the door of my apartment, I feel like stepping on the showcase; I feel like my show time begins. I am always aware of men’s eyes flickering over me as I walk and I cannot help swelling a little with pride. Women crane their necks to look at me. Their looks are filled with jealousy. I don’t pay a scrap of attention to them as I walk along, my eyes looking straight, like the models walking on the showcase.
The only problem I have is that I can’t go to toilet when I am walking in the street. The mere idea of going to toilet gives me hives. I can’t decide if I should go to the men’s room or women’s room. So, usually I will do my best not to go to toilet when I am out and a while before I go out, I would try to limit my beverage intake. But when there is a moment of emergency, I would finally go to the women’s room. It is best if there are no other women in it, and if there is any, I would usually wait till they have finished. If anyone finds anything suspicious about me, I will be in great trouble. I have had that kind of trouble in the past, and I don’t want to have any of it any more.
My mother had already given birth to four girls when I was born. I had grown up with my sisters, glued to them all the time. I felt aligned with them, thinking I was one of them. I imitated everything they did and they adored me by calling me “Little Sister”, a name most justifiably applied since I was fonder of girls’ activities much more than naughty boys’ games and a name inspired by my pretty look, with a soft face, curved brows and eyes that are bright and round. My four sisters liked to dress me up as a girl. As if I were a doll, they made me put in beautiful dresses. They also made me keep long hair and then braided it and I, enjoying every moment of it, thought I was the little princess, the prettiest girl in the world.
However, at the start of puberty, I found I was turning uglier and uglier. I cried when I was alone. I hated the part of me that made me different from my sisters. I tried to rid it off with scissors but it hurt so much that I had to give it up.
From the age of twelve or around, I had virtually no friends. In the countryside where I grew up, an unidentifiable sex was unacceptable. Everyone treated me as if I were an evil and backed off from me as if I were harboring a contagious mold. Many parents forbade their children to play with me. They didn’t bother to hide their snickering faces when I came near them and when I was walking in the streets people sneaked peeks in my direction, their expressions a combination of sympathy and disgust. My classmates, out of no reason and without any premonition, would call me “Little Sister” in chorus ironically to insult me. What was most outrageous was that some naughty boys approached me stealthily and pulled my pants down unexpectedly. They would then break into maniacal laughter.
I had barely finished junior middle school, I escaped from my hometown to the city where I could avoid the people who seemed to have arrayed against me. I found a job at a ship factory. My work was very boring and tiring. For more than eight hours every day, I had to weld a brush up and down, right and left to paint the ship white, yellow, red, blue or whatever color. In comparison with the colorful ships, my life was unbearably colorless. Facing the ship’s huge hulk, I felt my life was meaningless and insignificant, and I, as a human being, powerless to make any change of my life. Nothing had ever felt more preordained than this.
Whenever I saw beautiful girls my age walking in the street or buying dresses at the department store, my mind would not let go for hours. How nice it would be if only I were one of them. I was often reminiscent of the best years of my childhood, confident that I would look even prettier than them if I had a chance to put on the dresses. However, when I met their disdainful eyes, standing nearby and watching them, I had to damp down a pang of envy with a sad, fatalistic sigh.
I did not have any friends at the factory. I felt supremely detached from everyone. One night, lonely and desperate, I just could not help putting on woman’s dress. Standing in front of a mirror, I kept striking poses, turning my head from side to side, smoothing down the long skirt over my hips, pulling my shoulders back, arranging my hair. I was convinced at the moment that I was indeed a beautiful woman. Impulsively, I pushed open the door and walked into the street. As if led by an invisible hand, I went to the city’s night club. There, in the din of high-decibel rock music, I danced with other people wildly and hysterically. I tossed my body like it was impaled on a hook I had to wriggle to get free. I was laughing and panting, helpless and breathless.
Since then, I went to the night club almost every night and soon after I became one of the most welcome dancers. A lot of young men accosted me and offered me drinks. I was no longer the detestable, sick and perverted. I was turned into a totally different person and it dawned on me then that this was the life I wanted to have.
Yes, I wanted to live only as a woman. I started to research for any information that I could use to turn me into a woman. And then one day I ran into an advertisement in the local newspaper, buried under the national and international news. It said a hospital in Shanghai offered surgical operation to anyone who wanted to turn himself physically into a woman. I felt a stabbing sensation shooting through my groin. This was exactly what I wanted. I quit my job at the ship factory and went to Shanghai immediately.
I soon found the hospital and was introduced to Doctor Wang, who made some arrangements for me to have various physical checks. When I had finished them all, he asked me if I really wanted to be a woman and if I had made all preparation for the change.
“Yes, I have,” I said most definitely.
“I mean, all preparations. For example, you might feel uncomfortable after the operation, and then regret that you have had such an operation, or you might feel you really don’t want to be a woman after you have been turned into a woman.”
I started to ponder. Do I really want to be a woman? Indeed, at the deepest level there was a shimmer of apprehension. But something inside me told me that this was a good opportunity and I should not shilly-shally and let it slip.
Doctor Wang seemed to have read my mind. “Or you can consider turning half of you into a woman. In case you regret about your decision, it would be a lot easier to turn back to what you are.”
He then explained to me that I could first of all have a breast operation. If I felt all right with it, I could go on to have the rest of the operation. To this, I readily and delightedly agreed.
It was a sunny day when I left the hospital after the operation. My breasts were bundled with gauze. The pain was most obvious when the anesthesia wore off. My lips were chapped and I had to squinch my eyes and open my mouth wide. Nevertheless, I was delighted and satisfied and looking around, as people hurried and pushed past me, I felt it was a beautiful world where everything was lighted up in the sunshine. Touching gently my new breast, I said to myself that I was now a woman.
I decided to have the rest of the operation as soon as possible so that I could be a real woman. I could even have a boyfriend and get married. If possible, I wanted to have a baby, to be a mother, as every woman would like to.
I couldn’t go back to work as a painter at the ship factory. It was a job for men, not for women. For almost a year, I tried to find a new job, as a woman — working as a waitress at a restaurant, delivering flowers, cleaning at a shopping mall, then as a nanny taking care of an eighty year old man. I finally settled down and got a job at a massage parlor.
It took me almost a month to learn to massage and soon after I became the best masseuse (or masseur) there, because my massaging was much more powerful than others. The work was much harder than other work I had done. After a whole day’s work, I felt my finger almost palsied. But I earned more money, and I planned to have the operation and became a real woman as soon as I had saved enough.
My best friend at the massage parlor was Xiaoli. Almost of my age, she was very thin, but with charmingly bony shoulders and slightly elongated neck. When I was introduced to her, she looked at me and smiled demurely. I liked her immediately.
After work, we often stayed together, eating, chatting and sometimes shopping. One day, she came to me mysteriously. She yanked at the hem of her skirt and gave me a goofy, appeasing smile. She then asked me if I could lend her a sanitary napkin because she was having her period.
My face burned a little. It was one of her excruciatingly annoying habits to talk about everything without any diplomacy.
My insides were struggling when she pressed. “Come on, I will return some to you next time.” Seeing that I was not stirring to give her some help, she became impatient and slapped me on the back. She went on to open my handbag when I snatched it away from her and said I did not have any.
“What do you mean? You don’t use them recently?” She leaned toward me and I scooted back.
“I never used them.” Then I added, “I never need them.” So ashamed that my face pounded with heat and I felt a tightening at my temples.
She seemed a little confused, like she had just been roused from sleep, her mouth half open. She sat down on a nearby chair and asked, “Do you mean you are sick? Are you a stone woman?” A stone woman refers to a woman who does not have any reproductive system. She was really dumb. With such obvious hints, she was still thinking I was a woman, though a sick woman.
I began to sweat. Since we were very close friends, I decided to tell her everything and so I did. When I finished my story, I saw her stiffen. Her hands flew up to her mouth. Her jaw fell slack. She regarded me through the slits of her tiny eyes as if she had never seen me before. She looked pale and panicky. After solid two minutes, she finally gave a little bark of surprise. “Oh, Havens,” she said. “Oh, Havens,” she repeated. Then an abashed hush. She kept recomposing herself, rearranging her hem and her hands in her lap without saying anything.
How I regretted that I had told her the truth. A damp chill ran through me, my anguish overflowing. I just wished I could rewind the whole conversation back to the part where I could invent an excuse and avoid the topic completely. Or if I could roll back time even further, I would never make friends with her.
She left me without saying goodbye. The next day when I met her in the corridor, she did not greet me as she would usually do. When I caught her eyes, she turned away from me. I was terribly saddened. I did not want to lose her; she was my only friend in the whole world. I tried hard to make up with her. I greeted her on every possible occasion, but she either totally ignored me or at best, allowed a thin smile of recognition. When I seized an opportunity to give her some help in her work, she waved off my offer to help. I could feel resistance coming out of her like the push of a hand, keeping me at a great distance from her.
And then, one day at the lunch break, quite unexpectedly, Xiaoli came to me, with a bowl of two steaming buns. She sat down on a chair opposite me. At first, there was a moment of embarrassment; the previous unhappiness hung between us like a veil. Then she shot me a grin and stood up and went towards me. Unexpectedly, she gave me a one-armed hug around the shoulders.
We were good friends again. “Here, take one of my buns.” She gave me a conspiratorial nudge and picked up one bun from her bowl and put it into mine. “I know a man eats much more than a woman.” She then went back to sit on her chair.
I took a big bite and looked at Xiaoli, who was looking at me, too. Simultaneously we broke into laughter. We skidded our chairs closer and started to chat as we used to do.
“Why are you working so hard?” Xiaoli asked.
“I need a lot of money to have an operation to turn myself into a real woman.”
“How much is that?”
“About two hundred thousand.”
“Whoa, that is a lot of money. How much money do you have now?”
“A little bit more than twenty thousand.”
Xiaoli was silent for a short while and then dropped the subject and went on to talk about other things.
Though Xiaoli and I were friends again, I could easily feel that our relations were not exactly the same as before. I did not put it to mind because I was too grateful to care. One day after work, I was just about to go home when the door smacked open. Xiaoli rushed in and took off my backpack I had already hung on my back and said she had some very good news to break to me. She then inexplicably paused and did not say anything; her face twisted and shifted like there was something behind it, trying to get out.
“What is it?” I felt confused.
She handed me a glossy brochure with bright pictures of some beautiful women. “I have a cousin who works in a surgical hospital. She said the hospital offered free operations to those who need them,” she finally said.
I gave a high little bleat of delight. It meant that I could have the operation right away and did not have to save any more money.
“But of course not everyone can have free operation. There are too many applications.”
I felt I had fallen down from heaven and landed heavily on the ground.
“Don’t be discouraged.” Xiaoli noted my depression. “My cousin said she could help with the application.”
Hope started to rise again in me.
“But she can’t do it for nothing.” She blinked her milky and canny eyes.
“I am willing to do anything if she helps me with this.” I was on the verge of bursting into a loud laugh at the sudden possibilities.
“She herself does not want anything but she does need some money for establishing some connections so that your application can be approved before others.”
“I will give her all my money.”
“It is not much. It is only twenty thousand.” she coughed.
“I will give you the money tomorrow.”
After work, I immediately went to the bank where I withdrew all my money. The next day, early in the morning I went to work after I carefully put my money in an envelope and then my handbag. I usually took a bus to go to work, but that day I walked all the way, afraid that someone might steal the money from me. Soon after I arrived at the place, I saw Xiaoli come along, riding a bike. I was so excited that I rushed towards her, which made her almost fall down from the bike. I gave her the envelop secretively, afraid that other people would see us.
In the following month, whenever I heard the squishy shoes in the corridor, I hoped that the next minute, Xiaoli would come in and tell me that the operation was ready, but she never did. Every time I met Xiaoli in the corridor, I asked her anxiously when the operation would be ready. She shushed me with a shake of her head as if this was a top secret and I should not ask her about it in public. She would then say in a low voice that it would be ready very soon.
Days rolled on. A month had passed and Xiaoli was still saying it was not ready and obviously she was avoiding me as much as possible and when almost half a year had passed, she did not come to work. A sense of apprehension started to grow within me. I asked the boss about her. The boss told me that she had quit the job. His words vibrated in the room as if they had come from a giant cymbals, my heart a maelstrom and my head a bedlam.
I felt ambushed. She had taken away all my money and all my hope. I called her but she never answered. I hurriedly went to the place where she lived. I pounded on the door, panting and my entire body jetting sweat through the pores. It was after a while that finally Xiaoli came to get the door.
She seemed to have expected me. She stood at the doorway, crossed her arms in front of her waist and cupped her elbows in her hands. She said her cousin had disappeared with the money. Her answer was so hushed that it seemed barely more than an exhalation of air. Her face drained of any expression. My palms ached to spank her. I knew she was lying but what could I do? I grabbed her arm. I shook her. Her head wobbled and her eyes rolled skyward, without saying a word.
On my way back, I felt as if it was the end of the world. My legs filled with cement and my throat thickened. What was the meaning of life if I could not live as a real woman? Why was it so hard for me to become a woman? Tears kept dripping down on my cheeks. When I came to a river, I stopped. I had the impulse to dive in and drown myself to end my miserable life. If I could not live as a woman, I would rather die. Hopefully, in my next life, I would be a woman.
A pretty girl was playing around. She was rose-cheeked, lily-skinned. She had a sprig of small blue wildflowers in her hair, which made her even prettier. She was sucking a lollipop, knocking it against her teeth. Suddenly she slipped and almost fell down into the river. I gripped her arm just in time. The little girl pulled free of me and went away.
How fortunate it is to live and be a woman. If the girl had fallen into the river and were drowned, what a great pity it would be. I couldn’t just die, because I knew very well that after my death there was no next life. “I want to be a woman in this life.” I heard a voice saying inside my chest.
I decided to start all over again. I quit the job and moved to the south where I could make more money. I hoped that I could save as much money as possible in a short time so that I could have the operation and live in the rest of my life as a real woman.
At the new massage parlor, there were quite a lot of costumers. Every day after work I was exhausted and hoped very much I could find a job easier than this. However, the next morning, I would grit my teeth and go to work at the massage parlor again, rain or shine. I knew the harder I worked, the more money I would earn and the more money I earned, the sooner I would have the operation. I was really grateful to the costumers who had come to pay me and help me in a way fulfill my dream, though none of them had the least realization and none seemed to care.
Lao Zhao was one of my customers. He came to the parlor frequently and every time he asked me to serve him. He was short, probably in his fifties, with a sparse graying head, and a big square jaw. His fingertips were jaundiced with tobacco stain. His face was a flat plate while his eyes were dark and his two jutting ears two wide discs. Admittedly, he was a very ordinary, average-looking middle-aged man, easily mixed up with hundreds of others walking in the street.
While other customers demanded that I use all my strength to do the massage, Lao Zhao always said to me that I did not have to work too hard and asked me to take an easy time of it. He was exceedingly complimentary. “You are really good,” he would say every time I finished the service. We soon became very well acquainted with each other and we often talked freely as if we were old friends. One day, after I finished the service, Lao Zhao invited me to eat out. My first involuntary response was to refuse.
“It is already time for supper. Why can’t we have supper together?” he hedged. He brushed his sparse hair across his forehead and looked at me, his eyes pleading.
Why, I really couldn’t think of an excuse to refuse him.
We went to a small restaurant. After a cup of jasmine tea and a few desultory chats, Lao Zhao started to tell me his life story. Almost ten years ago, he came to the city as a migrant worker. He first worked at the construction sites and then he went to help some of his relatives with the interior decoration. After he had accumulated some money and experiences, he opened his own interior decoration company.
“The business is good, but the biggest problem with me is that I need a woman to help me.” He tapped his index finger on the table in rhythm with the words and cocked his head in a flirtatious way. I sat there with my palms sweating, starting to feel embarrassed, and then irritated that I should have agreed to come out with him.
“What kind of woman are you looking for?” I asked, feigning interest. I tried not to be squeamish, though my heart was beating frantically and my face burned with shame.
“A woman who is hardworking, willing to endure all hardship with me.” Lao Zhao’s eyes held mine for an instant and then swept away. He leaned back and licked his chapped lips. His fingers strummed his knees.
“A woman just like you,” he tacked on. Suddenly, he stood up and leaned over. Before I could figure out why he was doing this, he took hold of my hand and started to rub and pet it.
“You must be joking. I am not the woman like you think.” I withdrew my hand with some efforts.
“No, I am serious,” Lao Zhao said. He slumped down on his chair. “I don’t mind what kind of woman you think you are. I am willing to wait for you for as long as it takes.” He then leaned forward with burning, needy eyes.
My face blushed. His words made me feel flickers of guilt. I had never expected him to say such a thing to me. In the rest of time, I barely listened and said a word. During the whole meal, I kept eating without lifting my head to look at him while his words buzzed around in the room like bees escaped from a hive.
When we had almost finished, I made up my mind and looked at him.
“I am not a woman,” I confessed. My voice shook. I didn’t know if it was with despair or relief.
“What do you mean? You mean you are not a good woman?” A big grin froze on his face, which then turned confused, with furrowed brow and pursed lips. He looked at me, mystified.
“I mean I am trying to be a woman, but I am not a real woman quite yet.” I breathed out, barely able to hear my own words. I wiped my fingers across my face and pretended to smile.
There was an instant of electrified silence in the room and some indefinite tension lingered in the air. My heart was thumping.
“You are not a woman?” he finally said; his voice cracked and a little wild. His eyes practically popped out of his skull.
“Not exactly a woman,” he repeated, his voice rising, crowing like a noisy mynah bird. His face drooped and the expressions on his face were a funny combination of confusion and annoyance.
“Then why didn’t you tell me earlier?” he asked when the meaning finally sank in. He made a frowning face and his nostrils hoist in distaste. He had wanted to say more, but came up blank. He managed a dry chuckle instead.
I clamped my lips shut. I felt a flash of disappointment, then a cold, sick feeling in my stomach. Suddenly, his cell phone started to ring, salvaging the moment. He drew the cell phone from his pocket and stood up, the table almost flipping over. He clamped the phone over one ear and his hand over the other. He wrinkled his brows, turned around and padded out of the room with a slight penguin waddle and then disappeared outside.
I felt relief that the whole thing was over, despite the pang of disappointment. After we departed, while other customers showing up and withdrawing, I never saw him again.
The experience taught me a good lesson. I made it a rule that I would never go out with any man. I had to remind myself from time to time that though everyone thought I was a woman, I was not a real woman yet before the operation. It had made me feel more desperate for the operation. After the operation, I hoped there would be a day when I could go out with a man I loved and would not feel any hurt, disappointment or embarrassment.
Life went on. Two years had passed. I had almost accumulated quite a sum of money. In at most half a year’s time, I would have enough money to have the operation.
As if predestined by fate, Li Xiang turned up at that very juncture of time. I met him on a bus. He was standing in front of me. Both of us were getting ready to get off. He was searching all his pockets for his traffic card. His face had turned scarlet; he could not find his card. All the people getting off were waiting for him.
“Let me pay for you. I will swipe my traffic card twice.” I offered my help.
Li Xiang tensed his forehead for the initial moment and then agreed. “Thank you so much,” he said. When we both had got off the bus and were standing on the curb of the street, he asked me to give him my number so that he could return the money. While he was saying this, he smiled a strained smile, dimpling his cheeks. His dimples just melt my heart. I took a closer look at him. He looked young and fit and tan in gray trousers and white shirt. His teeth were very white; his shoulders broad, forearms solid and bulging out near his elbows. I had a sudden insuppressible crush on him, which made me terribly embarrassed. I swallowed. My Adam’s apple bobbed to the top of my throat.
“No need,” I managed to say. “It is only one yuan. It is not big deal at all.” I smiled and did an exaggerated shrug to hide my embarrassment. I had wanted to shift my weight to my opposite hip, but I was too tensed to move a muscle.
“I insist.” His forehead wrinkled in seriousness. Bright blossoms appeared on his cheeks and his ears flushed pink.
“Well, you can pay me back when we meet again. You can then swipe card for me.” I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from trembling.
After we departed, I tried hard to forget him though he kept popping up in my mind. It was not realistic at all for me to fall in love with a man before I became a real woman, I warned myself. Besides, it was such a big city and there were so many people in it, how could I meet him again. Then one afternoon, I was just about to swipe the traffic card and get off on my way home when someone grabbed my arm to stop me and swipe the traffic card for me. I turned around to see it was Li Xiang.
“So. Why are you here?” he asked me when we were standing again on the street curb, an inquiring smile slanting across his face. This time, he was wearing creased jeans, western shirt, and bright yellow sneakers. He looked downright handsome.
I was wearing a dark blue blouse, and my hair had been pinned back with a rainbow-colored barrette. I felt fortunate that I looked very pretty that day. I told him I was on my way home. He then invited me to eat something at a nearby KFC. I accepted the invitation without a second’s hesitation. There were quite a lot of people when we arrived there. All the way, he guided me through the crowd, his hand hovering lightly at my back. When we came to two empty seats, he swept out his arm in a stagy way and asked me to sit down. I was quite amused by his exaggeration and at the same time great tenderness suffused my body. After we got seated, I couldn’t keep from staring at how his brow and cheekbones stuck out sharply from his face, how his skin stretched over them, shiny and translucent. I struggled hard to stay calm as my lips were trembling and my breath was coming in great gulps of air, the food on the table hardly touched.
Very naturally, Li Xiang and I fell in love with each other. On weekends and holidays, we stayed together all the time, eating, going to movies, shopping, strolling and whatever. However, there were things I would try as hard as possible to avoid. For one thing, I never let him stay at my place for the night and I always refused to spend the night at his place. Most of the time, our places of dating were the park, the river banks, the restaurants, the cinemas, the shopping malls.
On a warm day of early spring, we were both lying on the meadow in the park. Li Xiang whispered in my ear, talking to me and squeezing me tightly, taking a playful nibble from my ear from time to time. Then he asked me, quite suddenly, if I wanted to have a boy or girl after we got married.
I tensed. “What if I can’t give birth to any baby?” I asked, vaguely, cravenly. My heart was thudding in my ears, causing a knot to swell in my throat.
Li Xiang opened his mouth and prepared to blurt something out. Then, he changed his mind, and said, “In that case, we won’t have any baby. You are my big baby.”
I gave him a grateful peck on the cheek. In response, he took my shoulders and kissed me back with a loud smack.
That night, after I got back home, I cried bitterly. I wanted to be a woman at whatever cost. I would like to have a family just like every woman. Should I tell Li Xiang the truth? Of course I can’t because he will surely be frightened and then I will lose him forever. Perhaps I will tell him everything after I have finished my operation. But will he still love me after he learns all about me, particularly about the operation? I don’t know. I choose not to think about it as long as we are together.
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