Zuo Yuezi: Recovering From Gender Affirmation Surgery, Chinese American Style

 

Words by Fei Lu

PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEXANDRA LEESE

A Chinese American woman learns just how inseparable rebirth, culture, spirituality, and trans identity are with each other — and within herself.

Words by Fei Lu

PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEXANDRA LEESE

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When I first opened my eyes after my gender affirmation surgery, I thought I was dreaming. I remember my surgical team rolling me out of the operating room under blinding hospital lights. They reminded me of fictional depictions of some corporate heaven: groups of angels sitting behind desks typing dossiers of souls about to be born as clouds billow under their feet. “Is this real,” I groggily asked my nurse. I couldn’t see her face behind her mask, but her eyes revealed a smile. “I have a vagina now…right? This isn’t a dream?” Even within my foggy memory, I remember her laugh.

 

“Yes, honey, this is all real.” I spent the next three hours crying.

 

Happy tears. Relieved tears. Tears that waited a lifetime to be cried.

 

At that moment, I knew that I’d never had to experience gender dysphoria-related anxiety, depression, and fear again.

 

Weeks before my operation, I consulted my friend Benebell Wen for a tarot reading. A Taiwanese American spiritualist, she’s like the spiritual jiĕ jie (姐姐, older sister) an Asian woman can only hope for.

 

In our session, I asked how the operation would go—if there would be any obstacles, and how I should plan for my recovery. A few days later, she emailed me a detailed breakdown of the entire operation. Alongside standard health-related advice (i.e., eating healthy), she recommended that I wear some green jade before and after the procedure to “fortify the strength” of my body. In Chinese metaphysics, jade (yù, 玉)is believed to nourish and protect its wearers. Traditionally, mothers will gift their daughters jade bangles as a means of protection, but I decided to go with two jade rings since it was short notice.

 

The next piece of advice stood out to me.

 

Given the nature of the operation (vaginoplasty), she emphasized that foods and recipes Chinese families “traditionally use for the month after a woman has given birth” would benefit me greatly. They would repair my body after undergoing intense physical stress “relating to the hormones and physiology of women.” These foods included bone broth, ginger, garlic, tea, jujubes (红枣,hong zao), goji berries, and Chinese vinegar. On the opposite side, she recommended I steer clear of cabbages, salads, seafood, greasy foods, iced drinks, and root vegetables for an entire moon cycle after the operation. Another thing to avoid? Alcohol. “It reduces the health and strength of your qi,” she wrote. The concept of Qi is fundamental to Taoism, Chinese spirituality, and traditional Chinese medicine. According to TCM Meridian Theory, “As long as Qi flows freely through the meridians and the Organs work in harmony, the body can avoid disease.” One could also translate Qi (气)as “life force,” but that makes it sound like some cheap science fiction trope. And for new mothers, or anyone recovering from surgery, frankly, having healthy amounts of Qi is crucial for a healthy lifestyle.

 

My friend effectively described zuo yuezi (坐月子,“Sitting the Month/Moon”), a traditional Chinese practice that’s almost mandatory for postpartum women. The purpose of zuo yuezi is simple: it allows a new mother to focus on replenishing physical, mental, and spiritual health. During zuo yuezi, women are instructed to stay indoors for an entire month (moon cycle), solely focusing on their recovery. In the past, new mothers weren’t allowed to wash their hair or shower while keeping to a strict diet that’s designed to boost energy levels, replenish Qi, and increase breast milk. Modern zuo yuezi isn’t as restrictive (i.e., bathing is allowed), but the dietary practices remain.

 

While Western medicine doesn’t recognize the existence of Qi—nor does it recognize the supposed benefits of zuo yuezi—both concepts are very much fundamental and revered in Chinese culture and medicine.

 

Before my operation, I did my fair share of post-operative recovery research. For instance, I bought a donut pillow to make sitting up-right easier, downloaded one month’s worth of Netflix shows to binge in bed, stocked up on antibacterial creams for the stitches, and made sure I had all the prescription and OTC medications I might need. On YouTube, plenty of transwomen have posted videos documenting their recovery processes, showcasing the beautiful, messy, and painful recovery phases. But even after all my research, something felt off. Missing. Empty.

 

It took me twenty-plus years to come into my womanhood, and I was looking for a ritual (secular or spiritual) to complete the transition—to complete my transition.

 

I wanted to treat my recovery as a moment to heal my surgical wounds and metaphysically enter womanhood as a Chinese woman. I wanted to do something that would connect me with the women in my life beyond just looking physiologically the same. While Western medicine and medical practices gave me great tangible advice, I couldn’t find anything Chinese that vaguely addressed transgender surgical recoveries.

 

I wanted a physical and spiritual metamorphosis, not just a rapid physical recovery. The longer it took to find that solution, the emptier I felt.

 

It wasn’t until I consulted Benebell that I found what I was looking for.

It took me twenty-plus years to come into my womanhood, and I was looking for a ritual (secular or spiritual) to complete the transition—to complete my transition.

Giving birth and gender affirmation surgery are very different experiences, and I don’t equate them as the same by any means. However, there is something poetic in that both acts deliver life. One is about new beginnings, and the other is about a rebirth of oneself. A woman leaves the pregnancy a mother with child, and for me, I finish my operation as the woman I always saw myself as. While I can’t name a single Chinese trans woman who’s used zuo yuezi as a recovery technique, I can name countless Chinese cis women who’ve sat the month.

 

So I decided to go with it.

 

One month later, in the hospital recovery room, I put my friend’s advice into action.

 

My first post-operative meal was Shanghainese soup dumplings, pan-fried pork dumplings, red bean soup, and clear chicken soup with goji berries and jujubes. I imagined a Chinese auntie nodding with approval, saying things like “jujubes are good for replenishing blood” and “chicken soup nourishes the body.” In my mind, they were glad that I wasn’t sustaining myself on bland hospital food. For the first seven days post-op, I refrained from washing my face or body unless needed (i.e., before changing my gauze wraps). I also cut out people who gave me unnecessary stress. Those were the more traditional practices.

 

For a more unconventional touch, I made a playlist of Chinese and English songs sung by women I admired. I prayed every evening, thanking the universe for having birthed me in a year where gender affirmation surgery was well developed. In conjunction, I meditated with my two jade rings during my prayer sessions, imagining them balancing my Qi, strengthening me by the day. Day by day, I could feel my surgical site healing, the inflammation going down, and my true self growing stronger.

 

And most importantly, I finally recognized the body I’d inhabited for so many years.

 

Now, at the end of my reimagined zuo yuezi, my body has surprised me at how fast it recovered. I stopped taking all pain medications 11 days post-op. While I’ve read online that this operation is arguably one of the most painful experiences someone can undergo, it was relatively effortless for me. I stopped all bleeding two weeks in, and I’ve regained most of my nerve sensation (After all the cuts and stitches, it takes a while for nerve endings to reconnect).

 

While my doctors and nurses may attribute my healing speed to having a high pain tolerance and biological makeup, I believe that by consciously reconnecting with my Chinese roots during the recovery process, my body and spirit had the crucial building blocks both desperately needed.

 

Recovering from gender confirmation surgery is a year-long process. I’m only one-twelfth into the journey. While the journey seems arduous, I’m grateful for the advice my friend gave me. Additionally, I learned how powerful reconnecting with one’s cultural roots can be.

 

During the month-long healing session, I used that time to appreciate the decades of wisdom those who came before me refined, developed, and delivered. I spent my nights in awe of the inherent healing abilities my body holds and the spiritual strength of the universe, and my Chinese roots embedded in me once I learned how to ask. And now, I’ve gained a new understanding of Chinese womanhood I never saw.

 

Too often, narratives around being the child of immigrants center on the challenges we face: never fitting into either community, being a constant outsider, and lacking real connections with either root. Instead, I focus on the positives.

 

Being Chinese American means that I have full permission to access both cultures to their fullest without reserve. I have my family and friends who can guide me through a lifelong journey of discovering Chinese culture, and I have my mind, body, and spirit to explore aspects of Americanness I resonate with. And as a Chinese American transgender woman, I have two cultures of womanhood I can reference and build myself up from.

 

In a year, when this surgery becomes a distant memory, I’ll know that the process made me the woman I’ll have become.

 

And I’m so ready for that day to come.

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