A Physical History

I was thinking of calling this post, “I earned my ‘F’, the fuck did you do?”

There was one teacher I used to fight with, back when I was a dance student. She was also the only teacher to push me, to take me seriously as a dancer from the very beginning. I think her modality was that if a student worked hard, pushed themselves, tried to improve, then her role was to be there. This was, and remains a rare experience in more than 20 years of having teachers. The default — in academic and athletic training — is the teacher who only has eyes for beauty, for the good ones, the ones who both look the part (at that moment in time and place) and who are already accomplished. The stars. They shine bright because the teacher holds the spotlight. This teacher though, we shouted at each other in class, which I think was shocking to at least some other students, who’d maybe never even considered pushing back against abusive demands.

I don’t want to say she was abusive though; she did as she’d learned perhaps, and simply wanted to help me improve. When her pedagogy coincided with me neatly, the memory remains for me a good experience: being pushed hard, exceeding one’s self, being rewarded with a “Good!” from the hardest teacher around. I remember her holding me back between classes, those precious 15 minutes when we’d all rush to grab a snack, get changed, catch ourselves from the previous 90 minutes of ballet before the next 90 of contemporary, and making me do the same steps over and over in the vast and empty unlit studio until I got it, or at least began to get it. Giving a shit on her own time. When it didn’t coincide though, it was nasty shit that still unsettles me. I remember why we shouted at each other in front of more than 30 of my year, me at the barre, sweating, in a unitard, nowhere to hide myself, pushing back hard ’cos there was nowhere else to go. Same person. Same people.

The why occurred to me today while I was wobbling and sliding on a half-log of wood, the lower half a semicircle rolling back and forth, and me on top breathing in and raising my arms, breathing out and lowering them, working my voice, back there again, learning, being taught. Before I had to stand on that unstable log, we’d been doing the same exercises, knees ever so slightly bent, and after a year of solid cycling with almost no problems, my knee did that so familiar twinge. This shit’s supposed to be behind me. And we start standing on one leg, waggling the other, a movement I’ve done so, so many times in dance classes back to the beginning, and there’s me, fucking crying.

Yesterday, I read that Dr. Rachel McKinnon won at the 2018 UCI Masters in the track sprint. First on Helen Wyman’s Instagram, then all up in my cycling news. Then I read the pile-on. Because Rachel is a trans woman. I’m holding on to women like Wyman, and Amanda Batty, professional cyclists who stood the fuck up in the moment, and sucked up a torrent of abuse (which is why I bailed from Twitter) to defend Rachel. We’re still so close to the shit I grew up in, which Laverne Cox, when talking about those ‘bathroom bills’ said (paraphrasing here) the purpose of this is to exclude trans women from public life, to erase us.

I described myself as an ex-dancer today, in voice therapy. The why of regarding myself as that currently is to do with this exclusion; the why of my preference for training alone and solitary physicality entirely bound with this. I describe it as ‘potential bullshit’, as in minimising, or reduction of. What bullshit will I have in a dance class? From the teacher, from other students? How do I deal with the changing rooms? How do I balance my need to dance, to be physical, and my selfhood, with a ballet teacher whose life experience has been built on achieving a kind of perfect heteronormativity? I’m just here to dance, but have to drag around a sack of shit in case ‘potential bullshit’ has to be dealt with.

I started serious cycling a few years ago to improve my aerobic endurance, and to deal with those unhappy knees. Which grew immediately into a love of shredding in forests because I am a) a high-speed, high-risk bogan, and b) fucking love forests. Which grew into my currently primary ‘dance’ training, and so much more. And I do it alone because, well, see how Rachel got treated for daring to not fuck off and die. In all this, I did find new things which, you know, cloud, silver lining, etc, like Amanda Batty describing herself as an “insanely competitive, capable and angry racer”, and fuck me do I ever see myself in that, and it’s aspirational.

But there I am, wobbling on half a log, saying to my coach, “Yeah, this is really fucking with my head.” Because of shit I had to swallow, compromises I had to make, in order to both stay with dance (’cos it literally saved my life), and stay with myself, and 20 years later, that still has to be dealt with. I think there’s something in how trans, non-binary, intersex people negotiate physical training, be it dance, sport, singing, playing an instrument — all of which is highly gendered and rigorously enforced — that becomes a sort of chronic abuse and trauma. I want to differentiate this from the default abuse and trauma that pretty much every cis woman, female or feminine-identified dancer or athlete I know of has personally lived through — and all have witnessed and had to work within — which in its mildest from manifests as a bitterness and cynicism towards those early training years, those teachers, and to the practice itself, even while both abuses are indisputably part of the same situation. And another qualification: When I talked about the stars, those accomplished young dancers, I’m not criticising them as dancers or people, or the work they put in: even the ‘natural’ ones worked themselves raw and gave up so much just to be there. I’m criticising the narrative which is addicted to the success story of the naturals, or conversely that of the one who everyone said was talentless but who persevered and made it. There’s still the rest of those 30–something dancers in the studio, and all of us, including those two have their lives and training defined by these fairytale narratives.

So back to the chronic abuse and trauma then. My thinking lately is that for trans, non-binary, intersex people, living one’s selfhood is incessantly hit against by the culture, history, and methodology of training. Training often slides uneasily close to abusive, or not so healthy or good — and all those words are loaded in themselves and weapons as well as descriptors simply because of the terrain they operate in, the implicit meaning and value they are given. Me doing intervals or committing to a long session is agreeing to physical discomfort, suffering, a lot of mental and emotional anguish (of the“Please stop, this isn’t really fun” type), yet I know also it’s part of the process and I enjoy it. This is utterly different from being clad in skin-tight lycra and the associated cultural judgement (of bodies in general but specifically here female or feminine bodies, or those perceived as such) from which there is nowhere to hide, which I had in those years of dance training and potentially every time I go out on my bike. And that is different again from doing the same as a trans or non-binary or intersex person. However I might have lived the last twenty years, every time I step into a training environment, part of the process will be receiving hits for having the body I do, for living my selfhood. I walked away from dance because of this. I train alone because of this.

Quote

There have been too few works written about the va…

There have been too few works written about the value of service work and of housework in particular. […] Yet there are few feminist studies that examine the extent to which well-done housework contributes to individual well-being, promotes the development of aesthetics, or aids in the reduction of stress. By learning housework, children and adults accept responsibility for ordering their material reality. They learn to appreciate and care for their surroundings. Since so many male children are not taught housework, they grow to maturity with no respect for their environment and often lack the know-how to take care of themselves and their households. They have been allowed to cultivate an unnecessary dependence on women in their domestic lives, and, as a result of this dependence, are sometimes unable to develop a healthy sense of autonomy. Girl children, though usually compelled to do housework, are usually taught to see it as demeaning or degrading. These attitudes lead them to hate doing housework and deprive them of the personal satisfaction that they could feel as they accomplish these necessary tasks.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks
I've been badly paraphrasing this section on the regular lately, from bell hooks’ 1948 work, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. It's 34 years old now. Some of hooks’ language and philosophy I find dated, it speaks to me of an undercurrent in her thinking (from Paris is Burning to Lemonade) that is hostile to certain groups, identities, selfhoods. Nonetheless, “housework promotes the development of aesthetics” is a banger of a line.

asian labour news august summary

Asian Labour News published their monthly report on labour-related news for China a couple of days ago. This site is an unparalleled source of information on the state of labour in China, and is updated several times daily, reporting in an impartial and non-polemical way. The most upsetting thing though is the daily unending roll of workplace deaths and gratuitous exploitation of people who have few people of influence advocating for them. It’s not all grim though, and like Andrés Gentry’s piece below is another must-read.

The major labour-related news out of China during August was about the migrant worker shortage. However, it was also a month that initiatives designed to improve health and safety came relatively thick and fast. And lots more. I’ve categorised stories for August under five titles: i) occupational health and safety, ii) migrant workers, iii) workers and working conditions, iv) labour law, industrial relations, trade unions, and related issues, and v) standoffs, shootouts and barricades.

[…]

The statistics for accidents in the 7 months to July were not encouraging: 2,346 accidents per day caused 350 deaths. The numbers were approximately the same for the same period in 2003. In addition, there were 83 serious accidents (accidents causing 10 deaths or above) that resulted in 1,301 deaths. Compared with the same period last year there was a decrease of 168 deaths, but the number of serious accidents rose by 3. Xinhua also reported that industrial accidents cause more than 200 billion yuan in economic losses per year.

In coal mining, the figures are as equally depressing. In one of the better English-language stories on coal mining in China, the author restated the statistic that 14 miners die per day in coal mines alone.

[…]

Disgruntled explosives expert blows up coal mine in revenge after boss – with whose wife he’s had an affair – rejects request for back pay; expert subsequently holes up in destroyed mine for 9 days holding off armed police by living off provisions stolen from local stores. If it happened in America there’d already be a mini-series.

Workers in Chongqing barricaded themselves in their factory after the government refused to look into how the manager was able to sell it for 10% of its true market value. The standoff between workers and security forces lasted for 13 days before they were ousted. This is not particularly unusual, but such stories rarely make it into print.

asian labour news

Asian Labour News is a source of labour issues in China and Southern Asia which is daily read for me, which at times seems to be an endless roll-call of deaths and injuries in mines and other shoddy industrial practices. They have just published China: A summary of labour-related news for July 2004, and maybe it’s not all grim.

It’s hard sometimes to see beyond the tragedies, but a story in China Energy Online that mentioned Chai Jiumao, Managing director of the Shanxi Fenxi Mining Group, provides some small glimmer of hope. Chai said his company has invested more than 100 million yuan in 2002 and 2003 to install safety equipment such as gas monitoring and controlling system for its new coal mines. The Beijing Morning News announced, also, that the city aimed to eliminate small coal mines with poor safety conditions and frequent accidents. Later in the month, Beijing News announced that the city would in fact close all township and village coal mines by 2010.

In further positive news, Beijing announced it would develop a rescue centre for workplace safety, mining and dangerous chemicals. Specialised rescue teams for construction and chemical accidents will be set up and given specialized training.

Happy Labour day now get down that mine

As International Labour Day rolls by, China Labour Bulletin released some figures for reported deaths and injuries in the country’s death-trap coalmines, and Channel NewsAsia has a piece on the latest daily disasters in two northern state-owned coalmines which have left 50 dead.

The accidents came as China pledged to improve worker’s rights and as a Hong Kong-based labour rights group warned that a total lack of independent worker’s organizations was contributing to the appalling safety record in Chinese mines.

A gas explosion ripped through a mine in northern Shanxi province on Friday leaving 35 dead and one missing, while 15 miners were feared dead after a flood in an illegally operating mine in neighboring Inner Mongolia, officials and press reports said Saturday.

Shanxi governor Zhang Baoshun was overseeing rescue operations and the investigation into the blast at the Liangjiahe state-owned mine near Linfen city, Hou Jieyan, a spokesman for the Shanxi Coal Mining Safety Inspection Bureau told AFP.

Although the governor interrupted his holiday to direct operations at the accident site, before the blast the mine had intended to work through the week-long labour holiday to avoid costly safety procedures.

Most of China’s energy comes from coal, the demand for which is driven by the insatiable economic growth of the last 15 years. Many of the mines are old, unstable and operate clandestinely using workers who have no access to basic safety, health and rights and are unable to form independent unions or engage in collective bargaining.

“Workers and farmers in China are the weakest social classes and they are mainly weak because they have no collective power, if you give them the freedom of association, then these groups would not be so weak,” Han [Dongfang, director of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin] said.

The accidents come as China Friday agreed to work with the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) to address growing unrest among its tens of millions of unemployed workers and up to 100 million migrant workers through internationally accepted practices.

Unemployed given nice uniforms

Xinhua and Channel News Asia reported a White Paper has been released today on the situation of the 161 million unemployed and surplus workers in China by the Information Office of the State Council. Faced with a ballooning workforce and massive pressure to provide social security, the report pledged to keep unemployment under 4.7% of the nations 744 million workers.

Canada.com today said

That figure excludes, however, many workers who no longer have jobs but who remain on factory “payrolls,” and those employed in temporary or part-time work. The official figure is considered by most experts to be well below the number of actual jobless.

Figures carried in the report illustrate a steady decline of employment in state-run factories and agriculture. The number of workers employed in state factories plunged by 34.7 million, or one-third, between 1990-2003, to 69 million people.

By the end of last year, China had 256 million urban workers, or 34 per cent of the total, and 488 million rural employed, or 66 per cent, the report said. In 1990, about three-quarters of all Chinese still worked in agriculture.

It is these 150 million rural disemployed whom the report imagines will become the urban drudge workers joining 11 million urban unemployed by pushing them into low-paid city jobs, as the economy rapidly expands but job creation fails to keep up.

As for the funky uniforms:

In Shanghai, some of those laid off have been issued brown uniforms and whistles and stationed at busy intersections to act as “crosswalk guards,” policing pedestrians and bicyclists. Some drive taxis. Others are assigned to do landscaping or clean sidewalks.

Sadly, the report only paid scant attention to the national crisis of workplace safety, the human detritus of which amounts to thousands of dead and tens of thousands maimed and forced into unemployment annually.