The default

I Am Glad To Be Wrong: Spring, Orange, and Rainbow Avatar

“It’s 68 degrees and breezy, and my neighbor downstairs has their windows closed and their AC on.”

A Facebook friend posted on his wall, and I used to agree without a second thought. I was a responsible citizen who could not tolerate such a blatant waste of fossil energy to maintain an enclosed house at the exact same temperature as that of outside. Spring in Missouri is beautiful. Step outside and a cool, sweet breeze will sweep through you, taking away all the winter blues. Everyone swings their windows open, lets the fresh air in to detox every dusty corner it reaches. Life can’t help but pouring out. Birds sing. Magnolia trees cover every inch of their canopy with huge pink flowers. People leave their winter burrows and cruise on sidewalks in colorful t-shirts for the first time in four months. For the first time in four months, the air doesn’t scrape any bit of exposed skin it could find with its freezing wind. It doesn’t hurt your entire inside to breathe anymore. Every gulp of air is a delicious bite of freshness, so cool, so smooth, so watermelon sweet.

Unless you have allergies.

Then, imagine waking up to a heavy congestion that swells in the entire space behind the face. Imagine a running nose, constantly dripping like glaring stalactites in the middle of the face. Imagine itchy eyes, fervently calling for violent rubbing and scratching. Imagine buzzing ears, bubbling like a pot of stew inside the head. The body becomes an unusually busy shift in the ER, red lights flashing, sirens wailing. While the outside world blooms and casts pollens into the breezy spring air, the allergic immune system thinks these specks are dangerous terrorists and frantically calls all hands to battle. Allergies are the false alarms that the body never learns to undo.

Awesome comics by AC Stuart

So you buy Kleenex by the case of eighteen. You overdose on Benadryl. You wash your face, your nose, your eyes with warm water, cold water, salt water, hopelessly trying to rinse off as much allergen as possible. You become scared of the outside world. You close the windows and turn the AC on. It is 68 degrees and breezy outside, and here you are in an enclosed box maintained at the exact same temperature by fossil energy.

“If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them.”

A Whole Foods customer tweeted. The oranges in discussion were peeled, packed in plastic tubs, and sold at Whole Foods. This is the go-to store of nature loving shoppers, the store that asks you to bring your own bags, that sells all natural, organic, minimally processed food. So, the act of removing oranges from their natural cover and put them in wasteful, hazardous plastic tubs is an act of blasphemy. After the tweet went viral (110,000 retweets and likes), Whole Foods apologized and removed the oranges. They are not for Whole Foods customers. They are for lazy, eco-destructive monsters.

Are they?

It’s intuitive: pre-peeled, pre-chopped, prepacked food is convenient, a fact so obvious it overrides any further thoughts. We immediately conclude that this is just another example of the lazy convenience that makes take-outs so appealing, kills the real food experience, creates numerous environmental and societal problems. We want to stop it. We pledge to sacrifice our convenience to stop it. We can’t imagine anyone would want these peeled oranges in plastic tubs for any reasons other than sheer convenience. In fact, we don’t even give it a thought.

So, let’s give it a thought. As far as I know, there are two ways to peel an orange: with and without a knife (I use a knife). Either way, I’m pretty sure you need to use both of your hands. You hold the orange with one hand, then use the other hand (with fingers or a knife) to remove the peel of the orange. You might make a little mess here and there, but eventually, you’ll get an edible orange.

That is, with the assumption that you have hands and they are functional. This ability for the muscles of your hands to nicely coordinate with one another and with your eyes is called dexterity. If you never have to think about it, congratulations, you don’t have any dexterity problems. Some people are not as lucky. 52.6 million people in the United States alone have dexterity impairments of one kind or another. Some conditions even sound familiar: muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s, arthritis.

52.6 million, that is one out of five people. For them, a simple task like peeling oranges is difficult or impossible. As long as pre-prepared food is available, they have the option to eat safely and easily. They would buy these packages and tolerate onlookers who labeled them as lazy, eco-destructive monsters. They objected when these packages were removed, but somehow, their tweets never went as viral. Perhaps it’s the voice of a small group. Perhaps it’s a voice that disturbs the default thinking and by default, it is not welcomed.

“It’s not that simple. It’s not natural. It will create complicated consequences on our society.”

A stranger commented on my friend’s new Facebook profile picture: a photo of her with rainbow stripe filter. It was a trendy thing to do on Facebook that day, June 26th, 2015. The Supreme Court in the United States just ruled that states could not ban same-sex marriage. At the other end of the earth, in Vietnam, the news spread on Facebook. The rainbow avatar trend caught on. Everyone my age did it. It was cool.

Report on social media rainbow

There wasn’t much religious concern in Vietnam — most of us declare “None” under “Religion” on our ID (yes, we do that in Vietnam, putting religion on ID). My circle of friends was mellow, and there weren’t many heated fights in the comment sections. Most of the comments were “Your rainbow avatar looks cool, how did you do it?”. Many of them were harmless jokes: “Nice guys are already a rare breed. Now they are in love with each other. Sigh.” Quite a few were unnecessary questions: “Are you gay?”, to which the thread owners often felt obligated to respond “No no no, of course not.” And then there was this. .

“It’s not that simple. It’s not natural. It will create complicated consequences on our society.”

I quietly scrolled on, but that comment stuck with me. I would have said the same thing four years ago. I was cautiously neutral when there were sides to pick. Being gay sounded like a harmless but weird way of life. I felt like the parent of a teenager who is going through their goth phase, wearing all black and bobbing their head to heavy metal: I tolerated it but hoped it would be over soon. They would come back to a normal lifestyle: wear boring clothes, be a straight boy, be a real girl. I had two simple assumptions set at default:

  1. The world has two bins: boys and girls, and
  2. Jumping out of your assigned bin is a recreational choice.

Little did I think, if being gay is a lifestyle choice, it is a lousy option. It would be like middle school started early and lasted an eternity: full of confusion, self-hating, bullying. No one, upon realizing they don’t fit into one or another bin of sexes, would simply shrug and go back to scrolling through their news feed. I googled their stories, upon realizing that I have been assuming that being gay is lifestyle choice without ever asking a gay person, that is, a primary source, what they think.

I didn’t find any stories about quirky lifestyles. Instead, there was fear. And shame. And pain.

“I was afraid […]; afraid I would lose everyone I loved, afraid of what I would look like, afraid of what people would say and what a freak they would think I am. I thought I would have to move far away and never talk to my parents, extended family, or friends again.” — Charles Thomy
“I thought that I was completely alone in what I was feeling, that something was severely wrong with me, and that I needed to be ‘fixed.’” — Kayla Raniero
“I attempted suicide, was depressed for a long time and tried shutting everyone else out.” — Chris

Third World” has different meanings in English and Vietnamese. In English, it is a political term coined during the Cold War to group countries that were neither NATO (First World) nor Communist (Second World) into a convenient Third World. The word gradually morphed to mean “Poor Countries”. In Vietnamese, it implies the community of LGBTQ people. First, they are not male. Second, they are not female. They belong to the Third World of either or neither. Just like the Third World of Poor Countries, this Third World is an imaginary bin for a myriad of diversity, They are different even in the criteria that puts them in this bin — sex, gender, sexual orientation. The only thing they share is a hard life, for they don’t fit in the default bins.

The thinking that there are two bins of sexes is intuitive, natural, default. The ultrasound result is a logistical convenience for future parents — to pick a name, to paint the nursery in an appropriate color. It is the first question asked when a baby is born “Boy or girl?” Friends and family want to get the right gifts for baby shower and birthdays: dolls for girls, robots for boys. The baby grows up, learn to use the right bathroom, and before you know they start dating and picking college majors.

But long before that, there was a time they were only a tiny clump of cells in mom’s uterus. At 6 weeks after “that night”, however hard we look with ultrasound, there is no answer to “boy or girl” yet. We will only see tubes and ducts and folds and a bump that, upon hearing instruction signals in the cells, could take either turn to become boy’s or girl’s bits. If the cells have a Y chromosome — a tiny string of genes compared to the other 45 chromosomes in each cell — a testis will form. The assembly line starts rolling. The testis makes several hormones that run around giving instructions as what to do with the tubes and ducts and folds and bump: turn these into the tubes to transport sperm, make this grow into a penis, shed those ducts — we don’t need to grow a uterus here, knit these into a bag and put the testicles in there.

On the right: The Y chromosome, tiny, appropriately colored in blue, carries a couple of genes that trigger maleness to develop. Source: BBC

If the cells don’t have a Y chromosome, they will take a different turn. An ovary will form instead. A testis isn’t there, so its hormones are also absent. In their absence, the tubes that could have become boy’s bits close up their shop. The rest — Jack-of-all-trades structures standing at a fork on the road of sex determination — quit pondering and commit to the female track. The uterus, vagina, and other female parts flourish. Several weeks later, the ultrasound tech could say with confidence: “Congratulations on your beautiful princess!”

But things go off track in the cells just as they do anywhere in life. The Y chromosome might be there, the testis forms and sends out hormone instruction, but the cells might not listen. In a condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome, the cells are deaf to male hormones, and they won’t make any male structures, even though the Y chromosome is there. The fetus will develop as a girl but with Y chromosome, internal testes, and some missing female parts. Or there might be an extra chromosome that competes with the Y chromosome’s signals and confuses the cells. Or a gene might quit working and instead of eggs being formed, sperm would be made. The pathways that form and maintain sex are intertwined into a complex, intricate network that we only have a few loose threads to grab on. The more we wander into this maze, the blurrier the boundary of sexes become, and the more we realize that chances for something to go off track are pretty high. When something does go off track, the baby’s sex falls out of the default bins. Because this happens so often — a probability between 1/100 and 1/1500 births — and in so many ways, there might not be bins after all. Sex might be a spectrum, the way night falls from bright day through various blending shades of twilight.

The default is convenient and straightforward. Meal combo number 8 at Chick-fil-A. Recommended settings for the new phone. Select, go, skip all hassles. It is often a good thing and we often choose it with good intention. We want to conserve fossil energy, to protect the environment from plastic waste, to maintain traditions and standards. But I’m glad to have the option to customize. I get to choose between the anger over a jerk who turns the AC on in spring weather just to waste electricity and the empathy with the poor guy who is suffering from allergies. I get to smile at a plastic box, thinking someone is able to eat the orange in it. I feel relieved knowing that my natural way of life is not turned upside down because some people decide to be unnatural with their genders on a whim, but that is how they are naturally.

Life is easy with the default. But life is beautiful with options.

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