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One of These Things is Not Like the Others

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

Disclaimer: The following mentions specific characteristics of girls that I personally experienced while growing up. It is not my intention to generalize women and girls as a group.

Update: I changed my name from “Mimi” to “Marty” and started using he/him pronouns in July 2019. This article keeps the original “Mimi” and “she/her” self-references in order to maintain a sense of timeline.

Be careful what you wish for, ‘cause you just might get it.

I gave my kilt another tug and contemplated whether I should stay and procrastinate for another five minutes. On one hand, English class was about to start. If I got there early enough, I’d be able to grab one of the prime seats in the front-center. We were discussing John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, and I wanted to be in the middle of the action. On the other, leaving the safety of the bathroom early meant that I’d have to confront the reality that I had no one to talk to, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through the exhausting charade of pretending to be on my phone while everyone around me chatted with their friends.

Be careful what you wish for, indeed, I thought ruefully. It had been my idea to go to this school in the first place. My mother had specifically tried to talk me out of going to an all-girls’ school, citing my past social awkwardness and urging me to also look at co-ed institutions. But I’d been set on going here for high school, lured in by the lush campgrounds and pretty uniforms that everyone wore. Now, barely halfway into the first semester of ninth grade, I cursed myself for not listening to her. What the fuck had I done to myself?

Private mode

Toward the end of middle school, my parents had asked me if I wanted to go to private school. Education was a big deal in my family, and my mom wanted to ensure that I went to a good college. My somewhat masculine haircut and mannerisms hadn’t gone unnoticed at my current school; my classmates spread around vicious rumors that I was a lesbian who was out to “turn” girls gay. [1] The idea of attending prep school sounded like the opportunity for a fresh start as well as a way to get more serious about academics, and I welcomed it gladly.

Things moved quickly after that. The Philadelphia Main Line boasted several top-notch private schools. All of them seemed worlds away from the public-school life I’d become used to. Fancy dining halls, campuses that resembled fancy mansions, polos and kilts, sports such as squash and rowing, the un-ironic use of the word “headmistress” — I felt like I’d been plucked out of my humdrum ordinary life and placed right on the set of Private, The Clique, or Gossip Girl.

The first school immediately caught my eye — its campus sat behind a very large wrought iron gate that bore the school’s insignia. Once you entered the gate, you drove down a charming road lined with cherry blossom trees and lush fields until you got to the main building, which had been a hotel in the late 1800s. The whole thing looked like Hogwarts — it was shaped like a giant turret, with large balconies, majestic wooden floors, and chandeliers. Girls in white polo shirts and royal blue kilts laughed with one another as they walked about the old-fashioned classrooms.

I was immediately sold.

My mom was more realistic about the whole thing. She pointed out that the school was girls only, and that all of my current friends were either cis boys, tomboys, or girls who were pretty sure they were actually boys. I waved off her concerns. This school advertised itself as one that prized intellectual rigor and leadership skills. I was sure that nobody would be mean to me or start rumors about my sexual orientation here. I would be fine.

I imagined my new classmates to be like the heroines of my favorite childhood books — Matilda, Pippi, Emmy, Junie B., Ivy, Bean, even Ramona. I daydreamed about us gathering in the many cozy nooks around the building, having long discussions about our ambitions and our futures and what we wanted to accomplish with our lives. This school seemed like the place for girls who liked burying themselves in books, speaking out about important issues, and going on fun adventures. I couldn’t wait to start.

“Don’t get too carried away by what a place seems to be,” my mother warned me the night before the first day of school. “You have a different way of looking at the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just make sure to manage your expectations.”

It was this warning that I didn’t heed, and this warning that I would come back to again and again in the later months. 

Be careful what you wish for.

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

Hogwarts — I mean, my high school

One of these things is not like the others

My mother had been right; at fourteen, I had no close friends who were girls. It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with girls, or that I actively pushed them away — it just seemed that all “normal” (read: cis) girls and I had nothing in common. It wasn’t like we didn’t try to make an effort. It just so happened to be that every time, the very salient feeling of difference would emerge, and we’d simply feel too uncomfortable to really get to know one another. 

It was as if they all had a secret language that they spoke, full of little gestures and specific tones of voice that belied how they felt about things, and all of it went over my head. I could tell that they were trying to convey something, but I had no idea what it meant, and thus I came off as painfully socially awkward.

Whenever I was put in a space with only girls, I got the distinct sense that there was something off about me, something that didn’t fit. I felt like an interloper, an ugly, bumbling gremlin in a group of dainty princesses — someone who was always saying or doing the wrong thing, someone who couldn’t interpret “girl talk” or the myriad of nonverbal cues that came with them for the life of me. They felt it, too; every female-dominated or “all girl” event I attended ultimately had me off in the corner, unable to shake the feelings of estrangement and isolation. 

I often escaped to the bathroom in these scenarios to scrutinize my appearance in the mirror. Every time I did this, I was surprised to see that I looked totally normal on the outside — I may have felt like a gremlin, but nobody was able to tell just from looking at me that I wasn’t a typical little girl like all the rest.

I felt this tenfold at my new school. When the novelty of the uniforms and the pretty campus wore off for me, and the novelty of me being new wore off for my classmates, the truth became glaringly obvious: I was not like the others. I had no friends, and I had no idea how to make any. The girls at the school weren’t different from the ones I’d grown up with; they simply just existed in a different environment. I’d made a mistake, and now I’d have to live with that feeling of difference on the daily.

xoxo Gossip Girl

Some time in the fall, the entire ninth-grade class went on an overnight camping trip. I think the idea was to have us bond as a grade or something. [2] This was pretty early in the year, and I hadn’t yet given up on trying to make friends. On the first day, I realized that I felt like talking to people, so I went up to a group of girls who were sitting by a rock formation and started making conversation with them.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“So I have a question,” one of them said by way of response. “Why do you wear your heels at school? There are no boys to impress here.”

“Oh, these?” I lifted a foot, examining the white wedges I’d worn all summer long, the ones that were starting to become dirty and scuffed. “I, um … want to be taller.” Boys? To impress? What the fuck was she talking about? I hung out with boys all the time, and the only comments they’d made had been logistical ones about how heels seemed to be harder to run in. She wrinkled her eyebrows. “You want to be … taller?”

I nodded.

“Why?”

I had started wearing heels that summer because my cis male friends were starting to go through puberty, and I’d wanted to be just as tall as they were. Being taller alleviated my body dysmorphia somewhat, so I still wore the wedges even though I was not in the company of any cis boys at school. 

Even I knew that that was not a normal answer to give. Before I could think of a response that didn’t sound totally deranged, though, another girl cut in.

“I heard that you were involved in a sex scandal at your old school, and that’s why you came here,” she blurted out. “Is that true?”

I felt my insides freeze. I was only fourteen! I hadn’t even held hands with someone in a romantic way, let alone had sex with them, let alone had an entire sex scandal blow up from it. 

I was horrified.

“What do you mean?” I demanded. “No! I haven’t had sex with a single person.”

She shrugged. “People were just talking about it.”

“Which people?” I had to know.

Another shrug.

“Listen — I’m serious.” My heart beat loudly in my chest. “I haven’t even kissed anyone yet. Where are all these ridiculous rumors coming from?”

Her eyes widened. “You haven’t kissed anyone yet?”

I shook my head firmly. 

“Are you serious?”

“Am I … supposed to have kissed someone already?”

At that, she and the small audience who had gathered around me burst into laughter.

“Wait,” the girl said in between fits of giggles, “you mean to … tell me that … you’re really that innocent?”

“Yes,” I replied, looking her in the eye. “I don’t know why it’s so funny. I’m not really interested in those kinds of encounters at my age.”

There was more laughter at this. 

Great, I thought bitterly. Gremlin mode activated.

“At your age! Oh my God, Mimi, we’re, like, fourteen. Are you going to wait ’til you’re like … forty?”

“Maybe,” I said defiantly.

“Do you even like boys?” another girl asked curiously.

“I guess?”

She chortled. “Holy shit. Everyone thought you were, like, some sort of sex symbol, and you’re actually a lesbian virgin?” She and another girl exchanged looks. “This is too good.”

“I’m not a lesbian!” I couldn’t believe I was having this talk, again, with a whole different group of people. So much for long discussions with girls who resembled my heroines from my favorite childhood books. I realized with a jolt that this school wasn’t any different from my old one — all I’d done was purposefully put myself in a group of girls, regular girls who did regular-girl stuff and had regular-girl behaviors. Now, I wouldn’t even be able to go to my guy friends to alleviate my gremlin-esque feelings.

I’d screwed myself over, big-time.

“You’re really pretty and all, but I personally like boys,” the girl told me. “Sorry.”

The girls giggled as I stomped away from them. I made a beeline for my cabin and sat on the top bunk, contemplating calling my mom and getting the fuck out of there. 

Not only had I definitely blown my last opportunity to make friends — why couldn’t I have laughed off the rumor and pretended that I was sophisticated and experienced like they clearly assumed me to be? — but the idea that my looks could have been taken as sexy or thirst-trappy on purpose really bothered me. It wasn’t that I opposed girls who liked dressing that way; there was just something that deeply disturbed me about being seen as, well, a female sex symbol. Their casual assumption that I wore heels to be sexy, which hadn’t even crossed my mind as an option, seemed to me yet another example of how much we didn’t understand one another, how far removed my reality was from their own.

I laid in my bunk and squeezed my eyes shut. To this day, I have no further memories of the camping trip — I seem to have blocked that experience out entirely.

Social consequences

So here I was, a few weeks after the camping incident, totally friendless and contemplating the consequences of what that meant. I still wore the wedges — I liked being taller, and the “lesbian virgin” story had spread like wildfire. I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t, so I figured that I might as well do what I liked if I was going to be talked about anyway.

I weighed my options. To be obviously friendless amongst my peers or to be secretly friendless alone in the bathroom? To be or still to be, that was the question.

I decided to go to class early, after all, slipping my way into the English classroom unnoticed. I then read ahead in another book we’d been assigned until the room filled up and class began.

Dysphoria is interesting (and sad) in how it affects your self-image — for the rest of freshman year, I felt awkward and out of place and unable to express myself in any way. It was as though the school had made a mistake in admitting me, a gremlin who they’d mistaken to be a princess. I could not be myself here. I did not belong. 

I thought about the friends who I’d left behind in middle school, who had their own lives and adventures now. Why had I been so eager to leave? Why had I ever thought that going to an all-girls’ school was a good idea?

I became shy and withdrawn; every interaction I had was a reminder of how unlike everyone else I was, how I was unable to speak their language and just get along like they did. My grades slipped so much that the headmaster himself called my mom and expressed concerns about how I was adjusting to private school life. I zoned out at school to make it easier to get through; I resisted doing homework because it reminded me of school. This was a far cry from middle school, where I’d gone in to class even when I was sick to maintain my perfect attendance record.

You made a mistake, they made a mistake, you’re not welcome here, everything in that place seemed to say. You fake girl, there’s something wrong with you and everybody knows it.

Redefining realness ????

My parents, who had initially been resistant to the idea of me transferring, finally came around after they saw drastic changes in my personality after that first year. My sister, who was two years younger than me, was starting to look at private high schools herself. I’d have to go through one more year of all-girls’ education, but after that, I would be allowed to go somewhere else.

Sophomore year was drastically different from freshman year because I knew I was leaving. I figured that I had nothing to lose, and I stopped giving a fuck about being friendless or different. I unleashed my gremlin personality and said exactly what I thought, all the time, spoke up in class, and ate by myself at lunch if I had to. Paradoxically, this made me able to have real conversations with some of the girls who went there, which made me able to acquire real friends — friends who had not been part of the conversation that day during the camping trip, who didn’t see any truth in the “lesbian virgin” rumor. Friends who indeed reminded me of Matilda and Pippi and Emmy and Junie B. and Ivy and Bean and Ramona. Friends who had ambitions similar to mine. Friends who I still keep in touch with to this day, many of which are queer themselves.

Still, that first year haunts me, and when I think of one of the most dysphoric times of my life, I think about that feeling of difference and how constant it was, how much it permeated into each interaction I had and how I thought of myself. I’m glad that I got out and grateful for the lessons it taught me on social dynamics. I’m glad I unleashed my inner gremlin, because he’s a fun dude and it makes me happy to be myself.

Going to an all-girls’ school made me learn a lot of things the hard way, and while I regard that as a valuable experience in and of itself, I’m much better at reading environments now. If I can help it, I’m eager to never repeat this particular mistake ever again. ♚

Notes

[1] Little did I know that, in a few years, I’d be sitting in a therapist’s office stressing over the fact that I wasn’t a lesbian. Funny how life happens, isn’t it?

[2] I actually forgot what the point of this trip was, and asked my friend if she remembered. She replied “I think it was for purposes of bonding or some equally contrived bullshit.” I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt this way.

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© 2019 by Marty Noel Chenyao. All rights reserved.

marty@fakeandbasic.com | @fake.and.basic

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