– by Jay Shepherd October 10, 2014
[This is the third in a series of stories about interesting people I’ve known, called “Lives”. I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction. I’ve changed the names, and some of the details, so that in most cases the individuals are not easily identifiable. However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened. The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]
Everyone expands your perspective if you let them. Much of who we are, and how we think, is moulded by the people we meet in our lives.
Knowing some people, though, challenges our basic assumptions about life, and about people. Fah is one of those people, for me. Since I met her, now almost ten years ago, my understanding of men and women – who they really are, and what I should expect from them – has been fundamentally and permanently changed.
Fah has a lengthy and difficult-to-pronounce given name, and an even more difficult surname, but like most Thais she is known to everyone by her nickname, Fah. She chose that nickname at the age of 20, she told me later, because it is the short version of the Thai word for “angel”. She has never told me – or anyone else, as far as I know – the nickname her father gave her at birth.
I met Fah in a business context. She was, at that time, the floor manager at a factory near Bangkok owned by a friend of mine. While I was visiting the factory, she was introduced as the key person in the plant. What I saw – sexist that I am sometimes – was a stunningly beautiful woman in her early forties, who immediately surprised me with her fluent, idiomatic English.
Other than the first impression, nothing came of that first meeting. She worked for my friend. I commented to him later that I noticed her attractiveness, and he commented that the factory could not function without her management skills. Otherwise, nothing.
A couple of weeks later, I had to have a meeting with her to talk about some issues in the plant, and I started to see more of her personality – a tough, highly rational, and unusually intelligent individual. Her good looks were not her real strength. Yes, she sometimes used her good looks to advantage, but she also resented how often men were unable to see beyond that to the real person.
I met her from time to time over the next couple of years, always in a business context, and along the way stopped thinking about her as attractive, and instead just as someone smart, tough, and reliable. I learned that she not only spoke Thai and English, but also very good Mandarin, and passable Cantonese. I found that, despite her icy demeanour, and her rational-to-a-fault approach to business problems, she was successful mainly because she really cared about the employees in the factory. She had personally recruited many of them from the area in the northern Thailand where she grew up. Not just their work, but also their family situations, and their overall happiness, mattered to her. On the other side, many of them would have followed her over a cliff if she had asked.
Thus, I had a front row seat watching her solve difficult management problems in logical, but still creative, ways. When the government of Thailand announced an increase to the minimum wage, that shouldn’t have affected the employees of the factory, who all made much more than the minimum. Fah was the one who saw right away that they would naturally expect a similar percentage increase to their wages, to keep pace with the minimum. She was also the one to go directly to the employees and talk to them, individually and in small groups, to understand their reaction.
While the owner devised a classic plan to mollify his workforce (which never got implemented), she understood that what the company really needed to do was reinforce their feeling that they were special. They were already happy with their jobs. They just needed to be reminded that they were valued. The solution – adding one day to the company’s Songkran break each year, so they would have more time to go back home for the holidays – was better than a pay raise in every respect, for both the employer and the employees.
I was impressed, and I told her so. Her shy response, and a somewhat off-colour joke on my part, led to a long lunch in which we talked a lot about life, and how you manage people, and many other things. She was still quite guarded, but finally I was connecting with her as a person, instead of a business associate. I saw the potential for a very enjoyable friendship.
Now you think you know about Fah. I thought I did, too.
It turned out that assumption required some rethinking.
A few days later I was at the home of the owner, having dinner. His wife, a Thai woman in her thirties, commented on my increasing friendship with Fah. With a look to her husband, she asked if I knew about Fah’s personal background.
I assured her that I had no romantic interest in Fah, given the business connection and the fact that I was in a relationship already. I just thought she would be an interesting friend.
She burst into laughter. “You didn’t know she was a ladyboy, did you?” she said.
Well, I didn’t of course, and my immediate thought was that this news changed everything.
There are lots of ladyboys in Thailand, especially in the north, where male to female sex changes of varying degrees are more widely accepted than in North America or Europe. There is a word for them in Thai – katoey – which while sometimes pejorative, is more often just explanatory. However, from my vantage point as a tourist, the ladyboys I had seen were mostly in the sex trade, such as the dancers or hostesses standing outside bars, trying to rope in passing men. Some also performed in transsexual cabaret shows (think “La Cage Aux Folles”), and every once in a while you would see a ladyboy working in a department store, usually in the cosmetics section.
After several trips to Thailand by then, I already had a “view” of ladyboys. It was not a negative view. I don’t begrudge anyone their gender or sexual orientation, as long as it isn’t exploitive of the vulnerable. None of my business. But although not negative, my view was superficial and narrow. Ladyboys, from my perspective, were males who had selected a gender identity, and lifestyle, that was flamboyantly, even aggressively, female.
Now, that didn’t really square with my friend Fah, but immediately I felt myself being sucked into the big mistake: forcing her into the stereotypical box for ladyboys that I had come to believe I knew.
For many, the natural reaction in this situation would be to step back: “You’re not who I thought you were”, or “Why didn’t you tell me this?”, or “I don’t know how to relate to you”.
I’m crazier than that, so my reaction was to invite Fah to dinner the next night. Over the first glass of wine, I told her that I had learned she was a ladyboy, and asked her to talk about it. She immediately stood up, without a word, and left the restaurant.
I waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes, and starting to feel stupid. She finally returned…and started talking.
I didn’t learn everything about her in that first conversation. In retrospect, I didn’t much more than scratch the surface of her complex life. We had many more conversations after that. But my eyes were certainly opened a lot wider.
It turns out becoming a ladyboy is neither a single decision, nor an easy transformation once any part of the decision is made. And, more important than that, becoming a ladyboy is inextricably tied up with becoming an adult – the adult you want to be.
Fah talked to me about her own journey, and contrasted it with the journeys of other ladyboys that she knows (including several in the factory, it turns out).
Unlike some others, she did not have gender identity issues as a child. She was not the young boy who naturally wanted to play with dolls and wear his sister’s clothes. She was, as she describes it, entirely asexual, the very bright kid who played with neither the boys nor the girls. Smarter than her classmates, she was isolated most of the time by her overriding interest in ideas.
She also didn’t have any traumatic events that affected her gender self-image. She told me she knows of young boys who, confused and undermined by the attentions of male pedophiles, ended up drawn to the “empowerment” of the transsexual community. She had nothing like that.
Ever rational, Fah won’t say if she believes her choice of being female is the result of an identity she was born with, or an identity she developed growing up. She is not being coy. She says she has no way of knowing, and in any case she can’t figure out why it would matter to her, or to anyone else. It is what it is.
Whatever the reason, at the age of seventeen – late for most ladyboys in Thailand – a light went on for her. She describes it as something that just came into her mind, with neither warning nor context: she saw a clear picture of herself becoming an adult, but as a woman, not a man.
It was a struggle for her. She didn’t resist it out of fear, or disgust, or upbringing. Too cerebral for any of those things, she resisted because she knew she was a teenager, and she distrusted her own judgment. She was worried that most teenagers lack enough good sense to make major life decisions, and this one was about as big as they get. She saw other teenage boys considering the ladyboy life, and she believed many of them had no idea what they were doing.
Her choice to become a woman was delayed when her father, perhaps sensing what was happening to his son, then just going into first year university, took unilateral action. Fah was enrolled in a university in Bangkok, 900 kilometers away. It was a very good university, and she would certainly learn a lot there, but she believes to this day that his motivation was to get her away from the northern Thailand environment that was too accepting of gender changes.
The result of her relocation was that she did not connect with an “older sister” until she was in her third year of university, already a star student known for “his” asceticism and facility with languages. While being interviewed for the grad school, she met a professor who, right off the bat, declared herself as a ladyboy, calling it “full disclosure”. Fah wanted to know more.
In Thai ladyboy culture, young men who want to change gender are taken under the wing of an older ladyboy who has already dealt with many of the difficult challenges this decision presents. This “older sister” teaches you things as simple as how to choose the right clothes, the basics of applying makeup, and the differences between walking as a woman and walking as a man. If the older sister is good, she will also be a guide to the pros and cons of hormone treatments, breast augmentation, and Adam’s apple removal, as well as the ultimate, and most challenging, surgery of all, genital removal/ reconstruction. If the older sister is very good, she will also be a mentor and friend, and help with the psychological adjustment to being female (including the most difficult part of that, love and relationships).
Fah’s experience with her professor older sister was a good one, and she was able, over the course of two years, to move from being a male undergraduate to being a female graduate student. By the time she left school, she was, to all those around her, including prospective employers, an attractive young woman whose main advantage was her high intelligence.
There was lots more. This just skims the surface of her life, and the many stories she told me about her journey. I heard about the difficulty of knowing when to tell someone you were transgender. She described her challenges dealing with her parents – different challenges for her father and for her mother. I learned about other ladyboys, whose journeys were much rockier than Fah’s.
I also learned her sad realization, at the age of twenty-seven, that she was never going to have a lifelong romantic relationship. Not interested in the more transitory love life of some transsexuals, and not really attracted to the kinds of men that are attracted to ladyboys, she understood, in her very logical way, that “love and marriage” was not going to be in her future.
That realization made her a different person, she said. Her personal feelings for, and understanding of, the employees – so out of character given her harshly intellectual approach to everything – arose out of her powerful need for emotional connections. She had to teach herself to be open to her feelings. When she did, she found that it felt completely natural. (Her discussion of her initial fear of emotional connection would resonate with anyone.)
So how did Fah change me so fundamentally?
Was it forcing me to rethink my view of ladyboys? Sure, she did that, but that’s not really very significant. I would have figured that out, sooner or later.
Was it teaching me a new perspective on gender identity and gender roles? She did that too, although she was teaching an already willing student. That’s still not so fundamental. Important, but not life-changing (unless it is about your own gender identity).
Did she show me the folly of putting people in boxes? Maybe, but I knew that, and seeing her as the person she is, rather than as a ladyboy first, didn’t end up being much of a stretch.
No, what I learned from Fah was about self-image, and becoming an adult.
When we think of ourselves, we understand that, at some point in our early lives (at 10, or 15, or even 25 or 30), we form a picture of the adult we want to be. It is not a full picture, and we are always evolving, but we make choices about important things that we need to include in our self-image. One person’s self-image is driven by caring for family. Another sees themself as a non-conformist. Another pictures their adult version as Stoic and strong.
Yet when we think of others, and particularly people close to us, we too often see them through our own lens, rather than theirs. We rarely pay sufficient attention to the key parts of their own self-image that are what make them who they are. How often do we say to someone “You should do X”, without filtering that advice through an understanding of the person they actually aspire to be?
Fah didn’t become a ladyboy. She became the adult she saw in her mind. That adult was a woman, but was also tough, and rational, and unafraid. Each of the key parts of her self-image had real consequences, of course, but all of them make up the very admirable person she is today.
I was “forced” to listen to Fah when she talked about her own self-image. The fact that she is a ladyboy, and thus well outside my normal areas of comprehension, meant I had no choice but to check all preconceptions at the door, and just listen. As a result, I had an opportunity to see a fuller picture of her self-image than I get from most of the people I know.
We don’t do that enough. We don’t listen carefully enough when others provide us with clues about the person they see when they look in the mirror.
We should. If we did, we would understand them better, and be closer to them. Sure, it’s more difficult to understand someone that thoroughly, but it should also be that much more rewarding.
Three years ago, when my friend the factory owner had to select a General Manager for the Thai company (basically, the CEO position), Fah got the job. Her gender identity was not part of the discussion. She had, in the end, become the person she wanted to be, and that person was a natural for the job.