Questions You Must Answer – Interview Meme

This post is in response to an interview meme at Violet Ink – Aphra kindly decided to pose some questions for me to get me out of a non-blogging rut… if you want to (dare to?) take part, please read the instructions at the bottom of the post!

What was your first queer moment, by which I mean, the moment you first realised something was different?

Oh boy. It took me a long time to realise something was really different, as opposed to suspecting that what I felt was just something people didn’t really talk about. Yes, I confess to a rather arrogant assumption: secretly I suspected that everyone was really bisexual for ages. This crops up in my mind from time to time but I’ve come to understand that it’s not a helpful way to think about it really. I think it’s rude/self-centred of me to even put it like that, now….but it was how I thought about it rather when I was growing up. Having said that there were a few things that happened when I was a kid that gave me a bit of a clue, in retrospect. Like playing kisschase with boys, but also playing ‘truckdriver’ with girls. Or the time my mother came in and discovered my best friend hiding naked underneath the duvet after a game of said ‘truckdriver’ ( I guess I can date to that one the realisation that I was doing something…er, naughty?)

Actually, now I think about it, I kind of realised I was a bit kinky or something before realising I was queer in the sense of relating it to other people. But that’s a different question in my mind – so I don’t have so answer it, phew.

What’s the best thing about living in Japan?

There are lots of good things about living here. I am really enjoying the opportunity to live somewhere completely different to the cities I’ve previously lived in – a small, rural community. It’s a very good chance to practise speaking a new language with the native speakers of that language. Also, for me, it’s been an extremely good experience to distance myself from the culture I grew up in – you know, question a lot of assumptions about the world I didn’t even know I had. One of the most surprising aspects that I hadn’t really considered is the different perspectives I would encounter on global politics…I guess my expectations before coming here were centred around the UK/ Japan but I hadn’t factored in the many other nationalities and interests of people here – other western countries, the US, Canada, NZ as well as Brazil, China, Korea… This is probably more to do with being an expatriate than living in Japan specifically, but it has definitely been a big part of my life here.

What counts as comfort food?

Hmm, I have a terribly indulgent attitude to food. I’m a savoury girl, so no sweet things or cake, but apart from that most food that tastes good and is bad for you. I will say this, b/c I know my friend Knickers will be reading, but I have a terrible weakness for a ham shank. (Yes, Knickers, one of THESE and not the other sort, you filthy minded scoundrel). I also have a tendency to put mayonnaise on everything.

If you could be anywhere right now, where would it be?

I have to say, I’m pretty much happy with where I am right now. Other than here, though, where I’d most like to be is at my friend Sara’s – I want to meet her new daughter!

(And I’m keeping this one from roro) If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

For one so intensely nosy about other peoples’ lives as I, this question is an easy one. It would either be the ability to read minds or invisibility. Since reading minds, I think, would cause a lot of confusion, hubris, even possibly despair, I’m going to have to go with invisibility (that way I could be the fly-on-the-wall in 10 Downing St!). I also have to reluctantly conclude that the ability to Time Travel, IMO possibly the most potent of all superpowers (a la Hiro from Heroes), would not be for me – I don’t trust myself enough not to disrupt the space-time continuum in order to not be late for work.

So if you want to do this meme…

Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me, please.” I will respond by emailing you five questions of my choosing. You must update your blog with the answers to the questions. Whether you like them or not. You have to include this explanation, and an offer to interview someone else in the same post. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions. So, there you go. Cheers.

I am bisexual for your amusement

Because, after all, that’s what bisexual means – just someone who’ll do anything.

It’s difficult to own to a label sometimes. I’ve been watching Big Brother 8 (UK) clips on Utube, cringing at the obviousness of it all whilst surreptitiously enjoying the permission to be a voyeur to a group of social exhibitionists. (Part of watching BB – and other reality TV shows – is this feeling of superiority. Everyone – the media, the viewers – tends to sneer at BB in Britain. The uglier side of this is sneering at the contestants: the banality and stupidity of their actions and conversations, the banality and stupidity of their identities. It’s rather worrying how easy it is to slip from the first type of sneering to the second. The metaphor of the stocks is hard to avoid.)

One of the most recent housemates is Seany, a man presented to us as so ‘wacky and weird’ that, on hearing his introduction by Davina, I wondered if he was made up. Although he probably isn’t, he has met both Hillary Clinton AND Wolf from Gladiators (not at the same time though, now that WOULD be weird.) Seany’s self-identification, in his VT, is that he has been gay “since last year.” After a day or so in the house, another male contestant was questioning him about whether he was gay or straight.* Seany didn’t answer this clearly enough for another housemate, so he was then asked whether he was bisexual. “I’m just Seany,” said Seany, which as anyfoolkno, is as good a way of ending that conversation as any.

Reader, I groaned. For I recognise the truth AND the inadequacy of that answer. Sometimes I have said it myself. Anyone who has desired more than one gender and been open about it will have experienced the question “WHAT are you?” on a sliding scale which goes from gently curious probing right down to vicious angry demanding.** Yet to answer “I’m just…me” is to avoid answering (and, I think, to imply that one is somehow above sexual identity; are all those gay- and straight-identified people not just ‘themselves’? Can Brian not just be Brian, does he have to be Gay Brian? Pah.)

I understand a little of Seany’s dilemma. He has already answered the question as to his sexual identity. That is, he used to be in heterosexual relationships, and now he is exclusively or mostly in homosexual ones. This is the most factual way to describe it: but just as the housemates’ reactions show, this is not considered an adequate answer. “Yes, but what ARE you?” – Modern western conceptions of sexuality demand that sexuality is an identity, not a behaviour. The identifying noun for Seany’s sexual behaviour is thus either gay (announcing an intention to solely desire men) or bisexual.

So what’s the problem with calling yourself bisexual? If it’s just a description of desires or sexual history….nothing. In fact, if it comes up in conversation, if someone asks, this is the term I use. I don’t want to have a conversation about queer theory and/or the problematically shifting nature of identity demarcation every time, especially if the person asking is just making (polite?) conversation… but I have to admit, I cannot get rid of some sort of shame about using that word. It feels like a defeat, a compromise, something inadequate. I know it doesn’t have to be. In fact, in a strange way, I would LOVE to be able to feel pride. But I can’t…too often I am painfully aware of the negative connotations of bisexuality. Female bisexuality as a spectacle. Male bisexuality as a dirty secret.

Programmes like BB reinscribe this stuff. Anyone remember Adele? She was bisexual, she was a black woman, she was painted in the media as devious, manipulative, questionable. I think this was largely due to the fact that we were all ‘told’ she was bisexual but she herself didn’t announce it, so much, in the house…nobody could ‘trust’ her, she got voted off. In Adele’s edited, public image, part of her “deviousness” was due to her bisexuality, part to her femaleness, part to her blackness (BB, by the way, has always been racist in the sense of the spectacle of the non-white housemates implicitly edited, reported on, talked about in terms of negative racial stereotypes. This has been going on way before the ‘racist row’ over Shilpa Shetty – remember Makosi? Remember Victor?)

Actually, the one to watch may not turn out to be Seany at all, but Gerry – the other male housemate who went in on the same night. A self-identified gay man, Gerry hinted in his intro vid that he fancies ‘a break from men’ whilst he is in the house. He might have just been flirting with the viewer. But it might also be his queer theory game plan! Oh – it’s too much to hope for, probably. But the idea of a camp-acting man like Gerry actually getting down with one of the women in the house – that would confuse the tabloids no end. I can see the headlines now…. “Gerry, what ARE you???” ***

* I’m not saying that only bisexuals get asked this. It’s often an occupational hazard for anyone even suspected of fancying the ‘wrong’ gender.

** This clip is also fascinating for Seany’s discussion of converting to Islam – the awkward tension and fading smiles (see: Chanelle) in response to THAT announcement was priceless.

*** Today’s summary of The Sun reveals a predictable ‘story‘ about Shabnam having “lesbian tendencies! That she isn’t totally honest about! Maybe even to herself!!!” A very odd blend of gay panic and prurient lechery, as usual. Plus, the tack they seem to be taking on Seany and Gerry at the moment is to describe the fact that they are both in the same house, plus platonically sharing a bed (hardly much of a choice BTW since this year, there IS only one single bed) as a “burgeoning romance”. This is actually hilarious.

In the meantime, some puzzling assertions

…were made by some of my students the other day during a lesson. I haven’t really posted that much about my job, since I guess there’s rather a lot of “students say the funniest things!” going around the internets regarding Japanese students: I would love to be able to read Japanese well enough to know if there’s a similar “eigo no sensei say the funniest things!” meme surfacing on the Jpnz student blogs (I suspect so).

Still, I intend to post someday about what I do, which is teach business English to salarymen, and how it is actually a pretty surprising and rewarding job at times. Not least because my students are often times not quite what one might expect from the outside, given the stereotypical view of salarymen working for a traditional large Japanese IT company. Usually, I’m pretty surprised in a positive way by just how motivated they are to learn English, and not just in an economic, business sense either. I’ve also been challenged quite regularly on the way I see things from a western perspective: a discussion with two students on capitalism, trade unions and the Japanese models of business hierarchies (what I would call paternalism) was quite enlightening.

Anyway, despite all this, I’m still confronted sometimes with the surreal cultural gaps between my culture and some of my students’. I recently started teaching an executive class, which basically means that the students in this case are the heads of departments within the company, and as such are a bit older than my other students – from mid-forties up to late fifties. From the first lesson, they seemed a bit more outspoken and relaxed, and as such, the lessons are quite back-and-forth. We were talking about some differences between the UK and Japan, and the diet thing came up. “Japan and the UK are both islands,” said one of my students, “but the Japanese eat way more fish.” He asked me why I thought this was so. I don’t really know the answer, but I suggested it had something to do with various historical and geographical factors – the fact that there are different types of fish in the sea around Japan, the fact that Japan’s landscape terrain includes lots of not-very-hospitable-to-grazing-cattle mountains, and plenty of easy access to sea-fishing, the settling patterns of the population in more coastal regions, the lack of indiginous cattle and so on. At this point I asked the other students what they thought the reasons were.

“Well, it’s a lot more simple than that…” said one guy. “Japanese people have longer intestines. In fact, their intestines are twice as long as the intestines of foreigners.” It appeared this was a bit of a consensus in the class. I told them that I didn’t think that was true. I think the guy who said it was a little surprised that I didn’t believe him. “How do you know this is true?” I asked. “Who says so?” One of the other students was laughing. “Japanese medical knowledge says it is true.” Hmm. Well, we had a brief discussion about this (another student then introduced a theory which was basically, from what I could tell, an evolutionary theory that all people are descended from either “hunting tribes” or “farming tribes” and that ALL Japanese people are descended from “farming tribes”) but it was getting a bit off topic so we continued with the lesson.

I was pretty curious about the origin of this belief in different intestines; I’d heard about it as a rumour, as being something said to foreigners, but never actually had it outlined to me clearly by a Japanese person before. Of course, the questions that always get asked about whether foreigners can use chopsticks or eat raw squid or whatever: well, maybe the motivation behind these questions is a belief that foreigners are innately (physiologically) different or maybe the questions are just about different cultures and expectations. But as to the possibility that genetically, we have different intestines: just, well, hmmm that sounds implausible to me. I mean, is that even possible? That genetics could influence intestinal length to such an extent? Or is this just an example of nihonjinron – which is quite the cultural phenomenon itself? I tried googling about it, but all I got were other westerners as puzzled as I am as to where this belief comes from…

Update

Hey, Sara, and anyone else wondering why I haven’t updated for a while-

don’t worry, the B will soon be back up and posting. I’ve been pretty busy here for a while, having taken on some extra work until July, and also doing more Japanese lessons and stuff. Also, Knicks has only 10 weeks left until leaving so I’ve been spending more time in Osaka (and probably will be until then, mournfully caterwauling to Half The World Away)..

The stumbling blocks of solidarity

Winter has been posting recently about women-only spaces, and infighting amonst feminists. She has an understandable reaction: she’s keeping out of it. (Not the women-only spaces, but the infighting). Blogwars being the latest symptom in our binary-riddled, politically polarised culture to illustrate why having to pick a side isn’t always conducive to progress, and can often be draining.

What is it with identity politics and infighting? It’s not just feminists who argue over the definition of feminism, although given the loaded way feminism has been represented in mainstream culture as either a monolithic sisterhood or a ‘cat-fight’ its no surprise that debate and disagreement can be a sensitive issue for the movement. Wherever people feel passionately about a subject, there’s bound to be dissent. So a major issue for feminists is: how to encompass dissent without alienating supporters?

In part, resentment and/or dissent often spring from the tension between the concept of group and the individual. Nobody likes being discussed as just a representative of a group, yet solidarity insists they must form as such to act as representatives within society. Feminism is an interesting case because the traditional (but contested) mode of entry – being female – is not a chosen category (not usually, anyway.) Recent blogwars were centred on trans and pro/anti porn issues, which is interesting. What do those issues have in common? They are threatening to the notion of solidarity, that is, of class solidarity/traditional notions of such: trans issues; because the issue of whether gender can be chosen, undermines the idea that women are bound together through something not their choice: sex positive feminism, or pro-porn feminists, because to the radical feminists who insist on the idea of ‘class woman’, and women as the sex class, again the notion of choice threatens the solidarity there. It’s dangerous to the consistency of theory.

The very term ‘feminist blogosphere’ kind of creates a false sense of unity. Each blog is an individual, or loosely/tightly associated collection of individual voices – virtual, real. It’s hard to tie them into types. Some blogs are there as a sort of alternative news source. Some concentrate on activism. Some on theory. Some are a focal point for discussion and debate, etc. And all of this becomes infinitely more diverse if one understands that some blogs are explicitly feminist, named as feminist, with a credo explaining the blog’s particular feminism, and some aren’t.

The problem, for feminists online, is partly to do with this issue of unity. The unity of feminism, as an ideology, is partly descriptive (following Foucault) and partly productive. In the case of blogs the descriptive part works in a positive sense, to give a sense of community and interconnectedness – feminists finding other feminists to debate with, and work with. This is essential for any political movement. However, a lot of feminists (who by their political nature tend to be kinda…sensitive to/questioning of the status quo) have a problem with the productive side of this discourse. This sense of ‘toe-ing the party line’, the pressure to conform which any discourse produces raises a fair few hackles.

I don’t see this as simply a problem within feminism. It’s a tendency which has beset all political movements, particularly those which have been countercultural. When identity politics are thrown into the mix, the issues become that bit more heated and personal. I think we are living in the age of identity politics as never before.

So the tension between ‘group member’ and ‘individual with overlapping affiliations’ is one thing. There’s also, I think, a danger when we consider that feminism is both a theory and a practise. The tension then seems to manifest around issues relating to activism. The question here is all about solidarity. How far should it go? How truthful is it? And is it necessary for a movement to enact political change?

I think solidarity is needed for activism. It’s needed for compassion, and empathy too; but solidarity in feminism has been a powerful and effective force. People have a great need to feel that they are not alone in their experience. When I read about, say, Islamic dresscodes in Iran, it is solidarity that enables me to know whose side I am on. Those women may be living in a totally different society from me, they may have different beliefs, and very different lives, but solidarity not only makes me want to work against their oppression – it also enables me to draw parallels and trace patterns in the female experience. I want to help draw attention to other women’s voices who haven’t been heard. Solidarity can be a great positive force for change and growth.

However, it does have its problems. I see those problems most starkly when it comes to theory, philosophy, and the investigation into human existence. For solidarity has the effect, if we’re not careful, of flattening and decontextualising the very group that it unifies. That is, I am a woman, but I am also many other things. My truth may not be your truth. My experience may contradict your experience. And so on.

Why is this a problem? Well, because, in order for a group to make an impact politically, it often needs to simplify its message, shape its message around and against the prevailing culture. (Think of the arguments around Jessica Valenti’s recent article). The way our political (and cultural) system works does not tend to allow for complexity. I think this is what happened, partly, in the post-stonewall Gay Liberation movement, for instance. The political arguments of GLBT (in those days, perhaps just ‘G’) groups struggling for political (human) rights have to be understood in the context of the prevailing political climate – which was extremely homophobic.

To illustrate this: there is an argument that desire is somehow ‘hard-wired’ into our brains. That we cannot change what we find attractive. It’s an argument which has been very important, politically, to many, especially the gay rights movement. It was needed, because while desire was described (after Freud) as something which one had been conditioned into, it was too easy for homophobic discourses to describe homosexuality as a disease which could be cured. (The history of the work of Anna Freud, for instance, who believed that homosexual desires were a result of incorrect socialisation, were bad for society, and could be treated in psychoanalysis.)

Understandably, many gay rights activists argued that sexuality was in fact an orientation, one was ‘born’ gay, and thus any attempt to ‘treat’ gays was not only wrong ethically, but cruel and impossible. This argument was not only crucial to fighting homophobia but also the way many people actually experienced their desire.

While I would not want to deny anyone their identity, I think that the fact that the arguments over the origins of (queer, but by extension, all) desire became politicised has muddied the waters. In political discourses like this one, the arguments become streamlined, forced into a makeshift dichotomy, and robbed of their original complexity.

What I am saying is not that desire is or is not ‘inborn’ but that, for a long time, and to a large extent still, consideration of this topic was/ is very affected both by the participants’ knowledge of the antecedents of this argument, and by consideration of the potential consequences. Thus, there is a pressure to believe one way or the other, depending on what political motivations you have, and the authenticity of one’s own experience (let alone that of others) gets further and further out of reach.

This – the expediency of activism, and the elision of experiences under solidarity – is very dangerous for theory. Not only because it leaves theory open to criticism, and allows later, the tearing down of it’s arguments, but simply because too many people are affected by theory (or rather, the effects of theory upon culture) in a way which is not truthful, and is restrictive.

Theory itself may also be oppressive, even within a liberatory framework. I’m thinking here of the arguments over transsexuality that have occurred within feminism (academic and activist). On one level, feminism should not be prevented from discussing the way transsexuality affects/enacts gender, and how this is to be viewed by gender theorists working from an explicitly radical agenda. ‘ Is transsexuality a subversive or repressive act?’ is not a question people should be afraid to ask. Indeed, transsexual theorists (feminist or non-feminist) themselves have long been investigating this and many other questions. However, what happened, or seemed to happen, with some feminists was perceived by others as an enactment of hierarchy, a creation of insider/outsider status groups relating to trans-friendly and trans-hostile camps. How did this happen? Was it simply a result of bigotry? Was it a legitimate standpoint?

The discussion that resulted from the issues over transwomen (a discussion that has been going on, in one form or another, for a long time, but in recent years was symbolised by the exclusion of pre-op transwomen from Michigan Womyn’s Festival) can be seen as useful to feminism in many ways. Feminism needed (and still needs, often and repeatedly) to have a conversation about womanhood, because of the ways certain groups of women have been positioned to ‘speak’ for all women – and the ways this has resulted in marginalisation and silencing for non-white, non-able bodied, third world and trans-women, as well as other groups.

So what’s the answer? Tracey has some good ideas at Unapologetically Female (as well as further links). I like the way she points out that diversity can and should be a strength, and also this:

“Ever hear that old saying that we learn in spirals instead of straight lines? We all have something to learn from each other, no matter where on the scale we happen to fall.”

The history of feminism, as written by the world, has been one of spirals, if you think about it. Women’s voices buried and elided by history, forgotten and remembered; the rights of women moving forward, and often back. But one of the most hopeful things about it is the solidarity that kept the voices and ideals alive, resurgent through times of struggle.

 

 

Ouch

You hear a lot about the falling birthrate in Japan (“birthrate in crisis! Selfish women refusing to have babies!”) even though I don’t see the evidence here in my village. Well maybe: there’s definitely 10 pensioners to every 1 ankle biter. ..

Still, as Knickers pointed out to me the other day, the fact that Japanese women aren’t having kids, or more than one kid, is maybe a pretty logical response to the fact that they aren’t usually given the option of ANY pain relief during childbirth. Oh, and episiotomy is still done as a matter of course.

A message for my blog “partner”

I know I haven’t updated in a while (as opposed to S, who seems to have the ability to blog whilst asleep) but I have been quite busy. Also lazy.

But not as lazy as Knickers! Yes, knickers, I am publicly rebuking you: it is now almost 1 year  since you said you were going to write a series of hilarious guides to gay dating in Osaka’s nether regions. Amongst other things. We have had the conversations, the experiences, sang the karaoke, destroyed the photos, I have even seen your notes for the write up but I, and the rest of the world, are still waiting. Spare a thought for those coming after you! We wouldn’t want them to fall, unwary, into the traps waiting for them at Physique, amongst other places…would we?