Pronouns Don't 'Work' the Same in All Languages. Here's How One Multilingual Family Navigates Gender

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a family of five with one in graduation clothes poses for a portrait at a university
Emmett Chen-Ran (middle) and his family at his belated commencement at Yale in May 2022. (Courtesy of Emmett Chen-Ran)

In his senior year of high school, Emmett Chen-Ran decided to tell his parents he was transgender. He was grappling with a lot: Would they accept him? Would they be upset? Would they understand?

But there was another challenge too. Which language should he use to tell them — English or Chinese?

Now 24 years old and living in San Francisco, Chen-Ran was born in China. When he was 5 years old, his family moved to New York. As a kid, he learned some Mandarin. One summer in elementary school, he and his mom, Yanfei Ran, spent almost every day watching cartoons, playing badminton and practicing Chinese. But as he got older, he mostly just retained enough of the language to do things like order food at a restaurant.

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“I don't think I've ever been prepared my entire life to give a soliloquy about my feelings in Chinese,” Chen-Ran said.

The situation was reversed for his parents. They’re both lawyers, and according to Chen-Ran, they mostly use English in the workplace. But they were much more comfortable speaking Chinese.

As a way to find community when they got to the U.S., Chen-Ran’s parents immersed themselves in Christianity. And around the time Chen-Ran was in middle school, his parents sent him to summer Bible camp. One summer when he was there, Chen-Ran developed a crush on a fellow camper who was “super butch” and “super confident in being masculine.” But he was a bit perplexed — did he want to date them or be them?

He explored this question throughout high school, and by the beginning of his senior year, he was seriously considering hormone therapy.

When it came time to talk to his parents about his gender, Chen-Ran was torn. He wanted to tell them in their native language, but he wasn’t sure he could find the right words. So he went with English — except for one word.

Before he descended the stairs of his Long Island home, Chen-Ran pulled up the Google translation of “transgender” (biàn xìng, at the time) in Chinese, “just so I could ground that term in their cultural understanding of what it was.” The translation that shows up today is “Kuà xìngbié,” which directly translates to “transgender” — but at the time it was “biàn xìng,” which is more akin to the derogatory “transsexual.”

“There was a single light on the dining room table lit, and the rest of the living room and dining room were dark,” he said. “And we were just sitting in the living room in the dark.”

Chen-Ran told his parents, "I am biàn xìng," adding, "I want to be a man." (Chen-Ran knew that terminology wasn't quite right, he said, but again — he wanted to "put it in terms of their understanding.") Chen-Ran was trembling the entire time. “Not because I was scared to tell them, but because just the act of voicing these things was so uncomfortable for me,” he said.

“For dramatic effect, I was sort of like, ‘I might kill myself if I don't transition,’” he said. “It wasn't too much of a stretch to think my quality of life definitely would've been severely impacted if I wasn't allowed to transition.”

Even though Chen-Ran had been having some doubts about his identity (researching online “How do I know that I’m trans for sure?”), he felt a sense of urgency when he came out to his parents. He worried that bringing up any of that doubt would give his parents an opportunity to delay his transition or stand in the way.

He still vividly remembers how they responded to his announcement. His mom cried.

“My dad was making this face that he does whenever any mention of, like, un-Christian things comes up,” Chen-Ran said. “It’s a twisting of the mouth and a furrowing of the brows. And he just looks very disgusted and uncomfortable.”

But after that day, Chen-Ran and his parents never really talked about it again. That conversation was the first and last time he spoke to his parents about his gender.

“I've honestly never gone in-depth with explaining why I think I'm trans beyond that initial coming-out talk, because I don't really have the words for it,” he said. “I feel like I could explain in English, but I don't want to, because I don't think they would pick up on all the nuance of what I'm saying.”

Without knowing exactly what his parents thought about his gender, Chen-Ran was apprehensive about how they’d identify him in public.

A year after that initial conversation, he headed off to start college at Yale. On freshman move-in day, his parents were there, and he tried to keep them away from his roommates and their parents. But he braced himself for an awkward moment.

“I remember before move-in day, in my head I was like, if they do slip up and call me ‘she’ and someone asks about it, I'll just be like, ‘They're just bad at English,’” he said with a laugh. “And I was like, I know I'd be sort of problematically throwing them under the bus as immigrants, but it's life or death here.”

He made it through move-in day relatively unscathed, but the uncertainty remained. To this day, the language barrier between Chen-Ran and his parents has made it difficult to know what they think of him. It’s been seven years since he told his parents he’s trans, and a lot has changed — he moved to San Francisco and works as a product manager now.

But he still sits with one question: Do his parents still view him as their daughter?

a young child and and their mother plant a tree on a hillside with a banner with Chinese characters hanging behind them
Emmett Chen-Ran and his mother, Yanfei Ran, planting a tree on a mountain in China in 2001 or 2002. (Courtesy of Emmett Chen-Ran)

It’s hard to tell, he says, because there are no gendered pronouns in spoken Chinese. So when his parents talk about him in Chinese, it’s not clear if they’re misgendering him. And in English, they misgender him constantly. But they also misgender a lot of other people, he said, even their close friends who are cisgender — because of the linguistic differences between Chinese and English.

Chen-Ran’s mom, Yanfei Ran, confirmed this. She said she mixes up Chen-Ran’s pronouns because she’s not used to the differences. Chen-Ran didn’t want to talk directly to his mom for this story, but he was curious about what she would say, and said it was OK with him if we reached out to her.

“Yeah, I think it’s the language. In Chinese … when we mention ‘he’ or ‘she,’ we will use ‘ta’ as the same pronunciation,” Ran said. “So there’s no distinguishing between ‘he’ or ‘she.’ We will just use ‘ta.’”

But language isn’t the only barrier standing in the way of her understanding of Chen-Ran and his gender. Chen-Ran thinks part of the reason she cried when he first told her he’s trans is that she was afraid for his safety, especially when it came to hormone therapy and surgery. She confirmed that fear.

“I think health is the (biggest) concern for me,” Ran said. “Even now, I really think he’s just like destroying himself gradually.”

Ran didn’t mention anything about the flip side — how surgery and hormone therapy helped her son’s mental health.

Her views about Chen-Ran’s gender are complicated, and they have changed somewhat over time. But she made one thing clear.

“As a mother, again, you just always want your child to be happy and to be supported. So even if we don’t support her idea, this family [will] always just tolerate her, or him, and always welcome him home,” Ran said, grappling with the pronouns in real time. “And this is his home, and I am his mother, forever. That’s the most important thing.”

In an ideal world, Chen-Ran said he’d like to be able to confide in his parents the way he does with friends. He wants a relationship that would let him express both triumphs and doubts. He wants to be understood in all his complexity. But he has also come to terms with the possibility that he may never get that.

“I think I'm at a point in my life where, like, all of society basically sees me as my gender,” Chen-Ran said. “And so ... it doesn't really matter to me if they misgender me in their heads as long as I don't feel the ramifications of that in our interactions.”

Even though Chen-Ran wants to be able to talk to his parents about his gender identity the way he talks about it with his friends, right now it’s more important to him that they have a good relationship. It’s a “cherry on top,” he said, when his mom affirms his gender by using his pronouns correctly. But maybe it’s OK, right now, if they can’t yet find the words to fully understand each other.

This story was originally broadcast on NPR’s Code Switch. For more information on the linguistics of gender and pronouns in Chinese, check out the Gender in Language Project.