An update from Jaime Shim, SMU ’17, who is writing a graphic novel memoir in the Korean “webtoon” comic style.
I was playing with the scrolling bar, jerking the Engaged Learning logo about. The red label with white spikes flew up at a flick of my fingers; flew down. I was clicking through the SMU digital repository, looking at the collection of completed creative projects and reading their abstracts and introductions. What did those before me do their projects for? What did they hope to gain? What was their purpose? Up and down. The sides of the logo shimmered—like a twinkling star, and as a grateful recipient of “SMU’s most prestigious student engagement award,” as the EL homepage declared, I was supposed to be one of the stars of the school.
Looked at another way, and in a different mood, the logo was something else in the night sky. A moth fluttering flimsy wings, disoriented by light pollution, and drawn away from the guiding moon to circle the nearest streetlamp. I saw no stars, plenty of lost moths, during my late night walks through the heart of Seoul in the latter part of my high school days, chasing my dysphoria. I never had any destination in mind. Wandering off sidewalks, off roads, I just went. Looking back, I still don’t know what I wanted more out of those trips: to get away, or to find something. I may have thought, that if I just wandered, I was bound to stumble upon my direction.
When I talked to my parents about applying to Engaged Learning, they opposed. I was supposed to be focused on preparing for Law School, studying for the LSAT, keeping my GPA up. This would be a distraction. I had to do well in political science because that was related to my career course and, as an international student who wasn’t eligible for most internships or jobs, the numbers were all that mattered. I had thought that Engaged Learning might fill the out-of-the-classroom section of my résumé, and argued so; they exploded that creative projects would mean nothing to Law School admissions boards. I told them that the project would mean something to me. That gave them pause, for a moment. In the end, they remained convinced that the time investment would not be worth it.
When I got accepted, they expressed relief. Thrilled to my satisfied, they raved that this would bolster my résumé and that Law Schools would be pleased to take such a well-rounded applicant. It was an incredible turnabout from what they had said before, and I could tell that they still held to their previous concerns, at least in part. I also knew that they were trying to be supportive. My parents had always told me that they would support me in everything—they didn’t always show it, but they always said it. What they found the hardest to support, or even accept, was my being trans; what they found the easiest was where I conformed, well within their upper middle class white collar professional worldview, in career choice.
I have always had an answer ready for that vapid question: What do you want to be? Despite the open wording, it was clear, even to my first grade self, that I was being asked about my career aspirations. I remember meeting my mother’s PhD students and giving them my reply: an English professor. It’s stayed with me how one of them laughed, and how he said that when he was a kid my age, all he wanted to be was a man. He said he thought my choice was impressive. I thought his choice was stupid. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, when I found out about myself, that I reconsidered and, in retrospect, felt that his choice had something to it. That was also the time when I changed the career choice that I had held onto my whole conscious life and switched to wanting to be a lawyer.
My change to wanting to be a lawyer wasn’t due to my change in gender identity, but it was related. Struggling with gender dysphoria, trying to deal with my parents’ rejection of me and convinced that all my relationships were doomed, feeling freakish, I thought that at the very least no one would be able to push me down if I became a successful lawyer. If I had to live unloved and abandoned, at least I would be able to support myself, and in some comfort. I knew, of course, that doing well on the notorious LSAT and going through the storied terror of Law School would not be easy, but they were possible. Being a lawyer was something that was clearly possible; not like transitioning. I had to take what I could get.
I thought that I would be able to see the stars at SMU. Compared to Seoul, Dallas felt so small, with less bustle and less activity, with clearer skies. But I still couldn’t. It didn’t and doesn’t matter now, as I don’t go on night walks much anymore. I’m not dysphoric anymore. The SMU campus is where I started living as a guy, where I started transitioning. There’s no need for escape, for some kind of solution, or whatever it may have been that I sought on my night walks through Seoul. My parents used to keep me from going, saying that walking about the city after sundown was dangerous for a girl like me. Now, they don’t tell me off, even though they know that I still go out walking at midnight, just for a breath of air. Part of it is because they believe that it is safe on the SMU campus and part of it is that they think that, as a guy, I am not so vulnerable to attack; but most of it is because they know they can’t stop me anyway. I’m grateful for the freedom. I tell them, in appreciation, that I stay on the main road, which is the truth, and that I’m always well within the streetlamps lighting my way.
One of the hypotheses about why moths circle around artificial lights is that they are confused; they’re flying to the moon, using it for navigation, but they never expect to reach it. Applying for Engaged Learning, preparing to look back at the darkest period of my life, I thought that I was trying to find closure. As soon as I was accepted and I began outlining seriously, I knew I was looking for something I already had; and not something that I had found, through a moment of epiphany, but something that I had made for myself. I had made my closure in an incremental process, through the simple trick of staying in the present with the inexorable onward drive of daily life, in the way that transitioning is never a simple switch but a patient evolution.
I take what I get—all human beings take what they can get—and I’m happy and at peace with my body now, taking into account that hormone therapy is still working on me and that I have concrete plans for surgery in the future. I enjoy living as a guy in the way that I enjoy breathing the cool fresh air on my occasional night walks still. I love that virtually nobody knows that I am trans outside the select few friends whom I have seen fit to trust. And I know that I’m privileged, not just in my educational and financial status and not just in the level of love and support my parents give me, but in that I can pass as a normal cisgender male. There was a time, not too long ago, when my status today seemed as out of reach and out of sight to me as the stars in the night sky—My hope for my Engaged Learning project is that it let the trans kids who come after me know, that that is far from true.