Transcript

374:

Somewhere Out There
Transcript

Originally aired 02.13.2009

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/374

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK. So a couple of physicists walk into a bar-- just kidding. They're not at a bar, they're at a school, scientists in training.

David Kestenbaum

I'm sure this story seems strange to you, but to me this is just like another day in the physics world.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum used to live in the physics world. These days he lives in our world. You can hear him in our world as part of NPR'S Planet Money team reporting on economics. But at the time of the story, he was getting a PhD in high-energy particle physics at-- there's no way to avoid the name dropping-ness of what I'm about to say-- at Harvard University. But to paraphrase US Magazine, Harvard physicists, in certain ways around the office, they're just like us.

David Kestenbaum

There was always a time of day when someone made a pot of very strong coffee. And afterwards, everyone drank the coffee and then didn't quite want to work yet. And so we also stood around and talked about various things. And there was a blackboard or a whiteboard or something there. And we were talking about how nobody really had girlfriends.

Ira Glass

So, this being physics world, the next logical thing to do was to employ the power of mathematics to estimate the likelihood of finding a girlfriend. And so they start jotting down a calculation.

David Kestenbaum

I guess it's sort of a variation on, you know, this thing called the Drake Equation?

Ira Glass

No.

David Kestenbaum

That is a way to estimate how many planets are out there that have intelligent life on them.

Ira Glass

OK. So in this Drake Equation, apparently, you start with how many stars are in the universe, that is all the places where there might be life, and then you subtract out all the stars that don't have planets around them because there can't be life there. And then you subtract out all the planets that are too far from the sun, or too close to the sun, to support life, and so on, and so on. You get the idea. Until finally, you come up with the likelihood of a planet with life evolved to the point of intelligence.

OK. They ran the same kind of math now except then-- I realize this is going to sound a little strange, but it says-- they replaced intelligent life with girlfriends.

David Kestenbaum

So, I think, we started to do the calculation on the board and-- can you look up what the population of Boston is?

Ira Glass

Now David's asking me to look this up because at this point in our interview, I actually made him run the math for me with real numbers that we got from the internet. So he started with the population of Boston because he and his fellow physics students wanted girlfriends in Boston where they all lived. The population of Boston, I found online, was a little under 600,000.

David Kestenbaum

So you start with 600,000, which sounds great except that half of them are guys, right? And I'm only interested in girls.

Ira Glass

OK. So it's 300,000.

David Kestenbaum

And then I want people, let's be honest, probably within 10 years of my age or something, right?

Ira Glass

OK. So 10 years on either side, so that means?

David Kestenbaum

I'm actually looking at some numbers here. It looks like if you go from 20 to 40, you're talking-- that's still like 35% percent of the population, a third or something.

Ira Glass

So that means that out of 300,000 women, that leaves 100,000 in his age range. These being doctoral students, they wanted girlfriends who were college grads. Well, OK, about 25% of Americans over 25 years old have graduated from college. That knocks out, roughly, three fourths of these women.

David Kestenbaum

Ouch!

Ira Glass

So you're down to-- we were at 100,000, so you're down to 25,000.

David Kestenbaum

Then you start applying stuff like how often are they single?

Ira Glass

Yeah. Let's say half of them are single. So now you're down to 12,500.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah, see? It's getting scary now, right?

Ira Glass

And then, of course you get to how many people are actually attractive to you. And even if you give a really high percentage like one in five, OK, that knocks your pool of candidates down from 12,500 to 2,500.

David Kestenbaum

Oh, in the whole city of Boston, right?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

That's just like a needle in a haystack.

Ira Glass

And that 2,500 is before you get anything personal like your religion, or how you see the world, what's your sense of humor. So Dave and his fellow students are talking about this, these rather depressing numbers and one of the professors comes in.

David Kestenbaum

She's not married either, and so we start to draw it for her. And then we start to say well OK, half of them are men, so we'd circle half. And then we'd say well what's the age group you're interested in? And then we'd circle a smaller subset. And then she had all these other requirements like the guy had to be taller than her, and she's pretty tall. That really limited things. And then she said he had to be smarter than her, and she's a Harvard physics professor, so that was even smaller. And basically, we got down to there being nobody.

[LAUGHTER]

She's alone.

Ira Glass

During this period of your life when you would think about these numbers, were you sure the entire time that there was somebody out there?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah. I don't know why, but at the beginning of every mathematical proof people often assume that there exists X. Assume we have an infinite surface bound by something or whatever. It's like assume there exists some girlfriend. There is, totally, that active faith underneath it, you know?

But I had a more scientific view, which is that that there are people out there who might be right for me not just one person, that seemed like in a silly novel or something, you know? I don't believe there's just one. If there were just one person out there, good luck! They could speak Chinese, you know? They probably do, right? What are the odds you're going to find them and the translator? You've got to believe there's more than one person.

Ira Glass

But if you do believe that there is more than one person for you, you really might want to keep that belief to yourself sometimes. This may be one of those ideas that you don't want to take out of the classroom and bring into the real world: case in point.

David Kestenbaum

It was definitely early on in our relationship and I think it was our first big fight.

Ira Glass

This is somebody else from the immediate world of our radio show. Alex Blumberg, one of our producers, a while ago he and his then future wife, Nazanin, were out on a date, and because they were newly in love, the topic of conversation was--

Alex Blumberg

How great it was that we were in love, and how happy we were to have found each other, and it felt so fated, you know? And she asked, "Do you really think that we were the only one for each other?" And I said, "I don't know if you're the only one for me but I think that you have to be at least one in 100,000" is what I said. Which I thought was-- in retrospect, now that I'm telling the story, that sounds really bad.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

I was just holding my tongue over here, actually.

Alex Blumberg

Yeah. At the time, I thought it was a romantic statement because one out of 100,000, what is there, like 6 or 7 billion people on the planet?

Ira Glass

Sure.

Nazanin Rafsanjani

He picked 100,000, which probably doesn't make any scientific sense and also made me feel bad.

Ira Glass

So Alex thought that saying that there are a 100,000 other women that he could love was simply another way of saying how rare love is. 100,000 seemed like a small number to Alex. Nazanin did not see it that way.

Nazanin Rafsanjani

I know it's ridiculous to think that there's one person out there for everybody, but it definitely feels that way when you're falling in love. And it's not like I actually expect him to believe it, but he wouldn't even say it.

Ira Glass

Wait, he wouldn't say?

Nazanin Rafsanjani

He wouldn't even just say I was the only person for him. He couldn't even--

Ira Glass

He had to get all scientific?

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Yeah. Exactly. He had to get all scientific, like he couldn't just lie for a second.

[LAUGHTER]

It's just like a fundamental difference, you know? Like, to me, it makes me feel good to think that we're the only ones out there for each other. And to him, I think, it makes him feel bad. I think it freaks him out. I think the idea that I'm it in the whole world makes him feel really, I don't know, it just seems impossible and stupid and also that's a lot of pressure.

Ira Glass

Yeah. That's a lot of pressure. There's a saying that goes something like, "How terrible to love what can perish?" You know?

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Right. Right, exactly. But if there's 100,000 people, it's not that terrible to love something that can perish.

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Well, WBEZ Chicago is This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. Today on our show, stories of people looking for and finding the one person out there who is just for them even if it is just a pleasant lie that is just one person out there for each of us. Our show today in three acts.

Act 1: It Ain't Over 'Til the Fat Man Sings. OK, in this act, remember a minute ago when David Kestenbaum said, "If there were just one person out there, good luck. They could speak Chinese." We have the story of that actually happening to somebody.

Act 2: Tom Girls. Two little kids from different parts of the country, each wonders if somebody is out there who can just understand them. And then, amazingly, they find each other.

Act 3: My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. Mike Birbiglia returns to our show and explains how believing that you have found the one person for you can lead to lying, specifically, lying to yourself. Stay with us.

Act One. It’s Not Over Til The Fat Man Sings.

Ira Glass

Act 1, It's Not Over "Til the Fat Man Sings. What's amazing about this guy here you're about to hear next is that he decides that this girl is for him, and he pursues this girl against some really tough odds even before he's fully in love with the girl. Sarah Koenig tells what happened.

Sarah Koenig

This romance begins with a man named Bao Gong, a strong, masculine man, an incorruptible judge.

[SINGING IN CHINESE]

Bao Gong was a famous character in Beijing opera, and in 1995 he was played, briefly, by a 6' 3", 250-pound white guy from the Midwest named Eric Hayot.

Eric Hayot

And then there was this fast part where he's reading the scroll, it was like:

[SINGING IN CHINESE]

Oh no, I'm not going to remember the rest. I don't know where it goes. "If I could handle it," but it's something like that.

Sarah Koenig

Eric didn't really set out to sing the part of Bao Gong. He was 23 years old at the time and on an exchange program in Tianjin learning Chinese. He took an opera class on a lark. And after a couple of months of baffling rehearsals, he found himself on stage dressed in a heavy silken and velvet robe, head shaved, face completely covered in black, red, and white makeup. And hanging down like a thick curtain from his chin, a perfectly straight, two-foot-long black beard. To prepare for this moment, Eric's teacher had given him a cassette tape of the part, singing the entire thing and even imitating the instruments so Eric would know his cues.

Eric Hayot

And I had no idea what those sounds referred to. I'd actually never heard the objects that made those sounds. And then on the tape there'd be this tong, chay, chay, tong, chay, chay, tong! And then I was supposed to start singing, right? He would also sing like nonger, nonger, neenger, nong, or long, dong, neenger, dong. And so all this stuff, and I was like, I don't know what that is, but OK. And I knew I wasn't supposed to sing it, right? And so then we walk in and there's an instrument going, not exactly, nonger, nonger, neenger, nong, but still something like it.

Sarah Koenig

The sound was coming from a jing erhu, a two-stringed instrument that's played upright with a horsehair bow. And playing it, across the rehearsal room from Eric that day, was a 19-year-old musician named Yuanyuan Di.

Eric Hayot

I remember I just could not stop looking at her. And it was incredibly intense. And I remember I couldn't stop staring at her. And this is a ridiculous thing to remember, her back was very, very, very straight. Just something about her posture was incredibly compelling to me. And she looked very beautiful, and she was incredibly beautiful. And so I was sitting on the other side of the room trying to figure out how I was going to get to meet her knowing that my Chinese was not adequate to the task of actually having conversation with her.

Sarah Koenig

I'm going to go ahead and kill the suspense right here and tell you that Eric gets the girl. So, of course, they did meet. Yuanyuan's teacher introduced them. Here's Yuanyuan.

Yuanyuan Di

I'm not used to seeing such a tall and a big person in my life, so I felt a little intimidated by having to look up all the time. So yeah. It's the first time in talking to a foreign-looking and a foreign-speaking person. I was a little nervous, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Somehow they agreed to meet outside rehearsal. Neither remembers much about that first encounter except that it was pleasant and proper, and there was a dictionary in constant use. Their first real date was for lunch. Yuanyuan invited him to a fancy restaurant. It was their first time ever eating at such an expensive place. They both tried hard to be sophisticated but the culture divide nearly defeated them.

Eric Hayot

She is doing this very Chinese thing which is to order crazy amounts of food, just crazy amounts of food. I mean, I would say 10 dishes for two people. I mean, an enormous amount of food. And also the weirder and more exotic stuff is, the more you're showing your hospitality.

Yuanyuan Di

And I ordered something, some kind of a bird, either a pigeon or even smaller bird, that is, maybe, deep fried with every part on the table. And for Chinese people, a lot of people do eat every part: the feet, the head, and the eyes and so on.

Eric Hayot

And so I was just eating stuff and I had no idea what I was eating. And so at one point I put this thing in my mouth.

Yuanyuan Di

And he just casually carried on the conversation and put the head into his mouth.

Eric Hayot

And I bite down and it's hard, and I think oh no, what is this thing? And then I thought, well, maybe it's like an M&M, and if I suck on it it'll disintegrate, you know? Because I had no idea, right? So I kind of, you know--

[MAKES SUCKING NOISES]

Suck on it for a while.

Yuanyuan Di

I was thinking, wow, he must really like it. I don't eat head. I know my mom eats, but I absolutely hate it. I don't even want to look at it.

Eric Hayot

And so I'm like oh, I'm going to have to take this out of my mouth, and you know that's not great. And so I take it out of my mouth and I put it on the plate. And I point at the dish it came from and I say to Yuanyuan, "What is that?" And she says, "Oh, it's blah, blah, blah." Right? This word that I had never heard. And I say, "Well, what's that?" And she says the word of the thing that it is.

And at precisely the instant which I grasped that word, I have this total epiphanic clarity of the object on the plate in front of me which is the head, with beak and eye, of a bird, right? Like this just terrifying thing that I had sucked on, let me just say, so whatever brains were in the bird, I ate those. And so all of that came to me. And I freak out. Just saying over and over in a really high-pitched, kind of squealy, frightened voice, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" in English.

Yuanyuan Di

"Oh, my God! Oh, my God. Oh, my God!" many, many times, repeatedly, one after the other. And his hands just thrown up in the air, and down. And I didn't know what was happening. I was just thinking why is he so dramatically upset with the bird head? I had no idea. So if you don't eat it, you just don't put it in your mouth. But why is he so scared?

Sarah Koenig

Then a couple of more dates, even though they both knew it couldn't possibly go anywhere. Eric was leaving China in two weeks. They spent a day in Beijing, where he almost lost her in a crowded train station. And she invited him to an opera performance. But Tianjin flooded that day, and it took him hours to reach her slogging through the filthy water in bare feet.

Eric Hayot

And I remember, at the time, that she was not nearly impressed enough by my having walked through the flood. I remember thinking, like she saw me, and she was like, "Oh, hey. How you doing?" And I'd been trying for, literally, two hours to get to her, right? And she was just like, "Oh, good to see you." But that's that desperation of needing to find the person. I remember that twice, really intensely, both on the day of the flood and the day of the train station, of just this sense that you have to find this person, and that is overwhelming.

I'm teaching Proust this week. And so there's this moment in Proust where Swann is falling in love with Odep. But the way that he realizes that he's falling in love with her is he goes to the party that he's supposed to meet her at and she's already gone. And then he drives his carriage through Paris, he's going in and out of all these restaurants and stuff. And it's all about how the act of looking for her causes him, in some sense, not only to recognize that he's in love with her but also actually really fall in love with her.

Sarah Koenig

Eric wasn't in love with Yuanyuan, exactly, but he was in serious crush. And then he went home to America and more or less let it go. She wrote a letter and he answered it. And she wrote again, and he never even read the second letter. It was just too much work deciphering the Chinese, so that was that.

Yuanyuan went off to conservatory in Beijing to study the jing erhu and opera, and didn't think too much about Eric either. After all, they hadn't kissed or anything, hadn't even held hands. But two years later, in 1997, Eric decided to go back to China to study, this time for a year. He started thinking about Yuanyuan again.

Eric Hayot

I certainly had, I don't know, dreamed, imagined, fantasized, whatever, about getting together with her. I also knew that it was two years and we hadn't talked.

Sarah Koenig

Did you feel like you even knew her, considering the language barrier and the cultural barrier? You know what I mean? Did you feel like you had a sense of who she was, even?

Eric Hayot

You know, that's a really good question. I don't know. No. I guess looking back now, no. I don't think that if you'd asked me another time, I would have denied vociferously. But what could I know? What did I know? I knew her smile. I knew the angle of her back, but I, honestly, hadn't really thought about it too much. I was pretty focused on finding her and hadn't really thought past finding her.

And so I had her phone number, so I called that number and I got a this number's been disconnected message, though I barely understood it. I actually had to call three or four times to listen to the person speaking. And so then I was lost. I had no way to find her. So I guess I decided that I would go and look for her.

Sarah Koenig

This is an insanely ambitious proposition. Beijing is a city of roughly 15 million people. There are probably more than 100 universities there and all Eric's got is her name, her picture, and the fact that she plays the jing erhu. There's no phone book, no internet, but he doesn't think any of that matters.

So a few days after he arrives in Beijing, he simply asks around for the name of the university with a good music department. Then he gets in a cab, shows the driver the address. His Chinese is terrible at this point, but he remembers the word for office. And so he finds his way to the music department and asks about Yuanyuan Di. A nice older lady informs him that Yuanyuan isn't a student there but why doesn't he try another place, an opera school? So he gets in another cab, which gets lost, and then he finally finds it. And Eric goes to the office of the second music school, it's a middle and high school but Eric doesn't know that.

Eric Hayot

And I start explaining who I am. So I'm, "Excuse me. I'm sorry to bother you." And there's four or five people there and they're all smoking, they're all drinking tea. It's kind of classic Chinese afternoon, no one's working on a thing. And one person's kind of dealing with me but everyone's just totally paying attention because it's weird. And I have the photo, and have Yuanyuan's name. And I'm explaining that I met this young woman a couple years ago in Tianjin. And I was singing Chinese opera. And like, "Oh, you sing Chinese opera." And I was like, "Well, you know, a little bit." And, "I'm not very good at it." And they all laugh. And this was like part of my trick.

Sarah Koenig

Eric's trick, what he was banking on, was his erstwhile stardom. Two years earlier, when he had sung the part of Bao Gong the famous judge, he'd become momentarily famous. He was all over the radio and on TV talking and singing. Even Yuanyuan's grandparents had seen his picture in the papers. So when faced with any difficult situation in China, he knew he had this secret power which he could deploy at will. Apparently, Chinese people really like seeing foreigners do Chinese stuff: Kung Fu, calligraphy.

Eric Hayot

And they really, really like seeing foreigners sing Chinese songs, to the point that there's a show on television every year called Foreigners Sing Chinese Songs.

Sarah Koenig

Like a special?

Eric Hayot

Like a special, yeah. Like the once a year special, Foreigners Sing Chinese Songs. And there's no equivalent to that in the United States. And so there's this fascination. And the fascination is two-fold, right? The fascination first comes from a sense of a kind of cultural inferiority, especially at the time, which any Western investment in things Chinese was taken to be a sign of respect. But also, very clearly, a sense of watch the monkey sing a song. That it doesn't matter how well the monkey sings, if the monkey's singing a song, that's already impressive because it's a monkey and it's a song, right? So knowing what I did about how much Chinese people love [INAUDIBLE] opera, and then these people had never seen-- so it was the thing, I figured, if I could make this happen. And I end up singing for them.

Sarah Koenig

Again, here's that fast part.

Eric Hayot

[SINGING IN CHINESE]

Sarah Koenig

It works. Everybody claps. Everyone's happy. He ends up hanging out with the staff for two hours. And finally, someone calls someone else and it turns out Yuanyuan's former teacher happens to be at the high school that day. And all of a sudden Eric gets news. Yuanyuan has graduated from the conservatory, which, anyway, is in a different building a half an hour away, but he's got her beeper number. And then it takes three days for Eric to figure out how to beep her properly. And, meanwhile, Yuanyuan has stopped responding to the beep. She thinks, maybe, a friend is playing a trick on her. But finally, they connect on the phone. Yuanyuan is stunned.

Yuanyuan Di

He said his name. I said, "It couldn't be. But how could you know my phone number? How could you even call me? That's impossible." I tried to ask all these questions but he, clearly, lost almost all his Chinese language, so he couldn't really explain things. So he said, "Could you meet me?" I said, "Yes. When?" He said, "Tomorrow?" I said, "Sure."

Sarah Koenig

She's more than an hour late and sure he'll be gone by the time she arrives. But he isn't, he's sitting there, waiting. He looks different to her. He's got hair on his head and his face. And she looks different to him too, not as luminous as she'd been in his imagination. But they have a nice walk. And now that he's got a whole year in China, they start spending time together, a lot of time. And as the weeks go by, Eric is trying to figure out how to kiss her. It's surprisingly difficult.

Eric Hayot

She just did not help me at all. I mean, like at all, at all. And so I would try to do these things that were like-- OK, so this is a perfect example of why things were confusing.

So we're walking down the street. I nudge her with my shoulder the way that you do when you're flirting with someone, right? I only find this out later as we've talked about it. She thinks, oh, he's kind of a clumsy walker, I should move further away from him. I nudge her again. She thinks oh, maybe he's trying to tell me I should walk on the other side of him and she switches sides. So she's totally incapable of reading codes. Just last week we were watching a movie where some guy nudged some woman. I was like, "Hey, see that? See that? That's how it works. That's how you know." But she had just no capacity.

Yuanyuan Di

I sensed that he wanted to kiss me, but I was not ready or shy, just tried to shy away. So I just tried to pretend I didn't pick up the signal, I guess.

Sarah Koenig

Had you kissed another boy before then?

Yuanyuan Di

No.

Sarah Koenig

So that was your first kiss?

Yuanyuan Di

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Eventually, Yuanyuan heard all the details of how Eric tracked her down. He was hoping she would think it was romantic, how he searched for her and her alone in a city of so many millions. Nope.

Yuanyuan Di

First thing came to mind was, crazy, I wouldn't do the same. I thought why would you go through all this trouble, because people are everywhere? Why do you want to go through the trouble just to find one particular person? If this is a reverse the story, I was in Eric's position, I wouldn't do the same at all. Still, it's kind of a puzzle to me. I wouldn't go to a huge city trying to track down one person. I just think it was too much work. He's more romantic than I am. I'm more practical.

Sarah Koenig

More practical and also more Chinese.

Yuanyuan Di

I think there's a saying in Chinese, is [SPEAKING CHINESE]. It means what is meant to be is meant to be. You don't have to look really hard, especially when it comes to a relationship. There's a specific time and location that is meant for the two of you to meet, to get together, and you just have to wait for your turn, and that's something you cannot request, basically.

Sarah Koenig

After Eric left China that year, Yuanyuan came to the States on a 90-day fiance visa, meaning if they didn't get married within 90 days, she'd have to leave and probably not be able to return. So they did get married, but neither of them was really ready at the time. And then the first few years, Eric says, it was really hard. The novelty had worn off and the framework of their entire relationship was an ocean away. And now here they were realizing they didn't actually know each other all that well. During that time they often found themselves telling people the story of how they met and fell in love.

Eric Hayot

And I think we lived on that and it helped us. And it helped us be brave, and reinforced to us, to each other, this sense of the magic of our relationship and the fairy tale nature of it. And I think that we needed that more, right? You think oh, a story that starts that way, how could it end badly?

Sarah Koenig

After going through those rough years when they even considered splitting up, the story of how they met came to feel less and less important and they didn't talk about it as much. Now they have a different story.

Eric Hayot

Which is the story of struggle and pain passed through, and fought through, and overcome. And that's a story that you don't tell in public because no one ever asks how did you two stay together? Everyone always asks how did you two meet?

Sarah Koenig

Minus the singing, and the long black beard, and the jing erhu, and the beeper, and all the rest of it, Eric and Yuanyuan had to make that same transition that all couples do, from the crazy-in-love stage to the other thing, the hard part of love. And it's when you're in that struggle that you most need the story of how you're meant to be because the alternative, that the person you're with could be any one of hundreds or thousands of other people, well if that's true, then why even try?

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, OK, if you've found the one, the one for you, the one you've been looking for, how can you still be number two? Answers in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

This is American Life, I'm Ira Glass. We continue our show which has a theme. We bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Somewhere Out There, stories of people searching for that one person who will understand them in a way that nobody else does. We've arrived at Act Two of our show now.

Act Two. Tom Girls.

Ira Glass

Act 2: Tom Girls. In this act, we actually turn from romantic love to something different, to friendship. But by friendship, I mean the kind of BFF friendship that you have when you're little. And we turn to two kids who weren't sure they would ever have that kind of thing. Mary Beth Kirchner witnessed and recorded their friendship, pretty much as it was forming.

Put your shoes anywhere.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Lilly and Thomasina are hanging out late on a Saturday night. They've asked their parents if they can have a sleepover. This is only the second day they've known each other, but that doesn't matter.

I said, "Hi." And she said, "Hi." and we became like best friends since now.

And here we are right now.

Mary Beth Kirchner

They live on opposite sides of the country, but other than that, they've got lots in common. For starters, they're both eight years old.

She's nice and I'm nice.

I wish I had straight teeth. Like, I have two big teeth.

I have crooked teeth on the bottom.

We have crooked teeth.

Mary Beth Kirchner

And they go on.

We're both awesome.

We both like ice cream.

Do you like Chinese food?

Yeah.

I like Chinese food. That's another thing. I can't think of anything else.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Only when asked do they mention their other extraordinary bond.

I don't feel anything like a boy. I'm a girl, and that's all I have to say. I'm a girl.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Thomasina and Lilly are both transgender, born with the anatomy of boys, but who now live as girls.

And I'm sure there's a lot of people like us, but we just don't know it yet.

Lilly looks completely like a girl with chin-length blond hair and pierced ears. She loves wearing her pink sneakers with her all-pink summer dresses. Thomasina has long, wavy brown hair and delicate facial features. She wears kick skirts, and headbands, and two-piece bathing suits.

Usually, it's hard for Thomasina to talk about how she feels on the inside, but this weekend with Lilly it's different. Before drifting off for the night, lying on the floral quilt of a big bed with Lilly on her tummy and Thomasina propped up with pillows, these two get to share what's usually kept secret in their 8-year-old lives. Before this weekend, neither one had ever met anyone who is transgender.

When I first meet someone, I don't tell them anything.

But like once you get to know them, would you tell them a little bit more?

Actually, now I've been doing something where they later, sometimes, figure out. Now I actually have this one friend who doesn't know a thing about it, and I actually, kind of, like that. But she doesn't know a thing about it, she just thinks I'm a normal person.

Yeah. I like it when people think I'm normal.

Hello.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Thomasina and Lilly, and their parents, are at a hotel in Seattle at a conference for families with transgender kids.

Fred

That's Thomasina. We didn't sign in. When we came in this morning, she wasn't here.

Mary Beth Kirchner

It's just its second year with only about 20 families attending, all of them in the middle of figuring out how to raise children unlike any they've ever met. These parents came together to compare notes about things other parents simply don't have to deal with, like this dilemma that came up with Thomasina's parents, Fred and Mandy, before the conference.

Fred

In the car yesterday when we were driving with our child, and our child-- I'm saying carefully for a reason you'll understand in a second-- said, "When you talk about me, say 'she.'"

Mandy

That's the first time that we've gotten a instruction to us. "Mommy, when you talk about me say 'she,' all right?" And I said, "OK." "Daddy, when you talk about me, say 'she.'" And what did you say?

Fred

I said, "OK, I heard you."

Mandy

Yeah, but you didn't agree.

Fred

"I understand that that's what you want. Right now, that's the best I can do, is to understand that's what you want."

OK, but we did sign her up. That's for today. And then if you want her to come to day camp again tomorrow, you just sign her up again in the morning.

Mary Beth Kirchner

This conference marked a turning point where Fred and Mandy agreed to use the pronoun "she" to refer to their son as their daughter and to call her by the new name, Thomasina.

For most of her life, Thomasina was called Tom, named after his Irish grandfather. Tom was a boy who, from age two or three, always liked pretty dolls and flowey clothes. A lot of boys go through that phase and Mandy and Fred were open to it. They let him wear dresses when he wanted. They always felt Tom's non-traditional style showed flair and a free spirit.

Mandy and Fred are both actors. Fred has a sister who's gay. They sent Tom to progressive schools in Southern California from the time he was little, and Tom's nursery school friends didn't notice a difference. But when Tom still wanted to wear girls clothes in kindergarten, his parents started to pay attention, and Tom was starting to express some confusion.

Mandy

We were in the garage, actually, and I don't know what precipitated this. And he said, "I'm mad at God because I'm a girl, but I'm not." And he said, "You know mommy. You're my mother. You know what I mean. You know who I am." I had never been so brought in.

Mary Beth Kirchner

So Mandy started reading online. She found a therapist at a local children's hospital who eventually said it sounds like you have a transgender child. Tom was five years old.

Mandy and Fred thought of themselves as open-minded, been around the block kinds of people. But Mandy says when she got the news, she collapsed into Fred's arms in tears. They tried to organize a local support group but no other families came forward. Until this weekend, they'd been completely alone.

Fred

A lot of our friends, I think, that wish us well are kind of saying so your kid is gay, right? And that would actually be a blessing. Most people today, even if they are homophobic, at least our society has a structure in which you can understand, I think I understand where gay people fit. Once you say OK, now I want this transgender person to be part of your world, someone says I'm not even sure I even believe that's really true. That's kind of just a disorder, isn't it? If you'd stop letting your kid dress like a girl, it wouldn't act like a girl.

Does anyone ever tell you, like your best friends, that you don't just seem like their best friend who's a girl, you seem like both?

Me and my friend, sometimes she would bring that up about how I am transgender and stuff. But I'm fine with talking about it as long as she won't bring it up to other people because then I bet that they would just open it up, and then half the city or the world would know. And reporters would be banging on my door, and that would feel painful.

Like, how do you feel being transgender? Or why did you change your name? Or I like your new haircut. What's your favorite kind of jewel?

That would be very painful and annoying.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Thomasina and Lilly's parents just wanted to find a place where their kids could thrive, but it's been hard, especially for Lilly's mom, Colleen. They live in a mid-sized, Midwest town. Colleen asked me to use a pseudo name for her and Lilly, which I have. Colleen says Lilly never acted like a boy. She always felt like she had a daughter who loved Barbie castles and second-hand store dress up clothes. And for a while, she blamed herself.

Colleen

I wanted a girl because I had a boy. So I prayed and prayed to God and I prayed to God to please give me a girl. So when they gave me the ultrasound and said it was a boy, I still prayed to God to give me a girl. And I thought maybe I prayed too hard, and that's why my child was transgender, you know? And my mother said, "For goodness sakes, there's no way."

Mary Beth Kirchner

By the time Lilly was old enough to talk about it, Colleen had a different take.

Colleen

And I said, "Honey, you know, I don't think God did this. I think nature has ways of messing up." I said, "There are children born with one arm. There are children born with a larger nose. And everybody has something that they feel insecure about."

Mary Beth Kirchner

And when Lilly was seven, Colleen let her start dressing and living as a girl. But Lilly's dad, who's now divorced from Colleen, was never on board.

Colleen

He is a very homophobic, burly, all guy.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Colleen says when Lilly would go to her dad's for the weekend, he would still call her William. He would make her wear a boy's bathing suit when they went swimming. But mom prevailed. Last year, during the summer before second grade, Colleen allowed Lilly to start growing her hair. She moved her to another school across town where she could more easily transition to being a girl, but her father had other plans.

Colleen

The day before school her father took her to the barber shop and shaved her hair like a boy. And I had to put a clippie in it to send her to school the first morning. And it was so hard, but she was so brave and courageous to walk into school. It was just amazing. And so it was really, really hard because she looked like a boy. So she went into school. And I asked her did she want me to walk her, and she said no. And she got out of the car with that backpack and walked on right in. And I just was so proud of her.

Mary Beth Kirchner

After Lilly moved to the new school across town, it was still impossible to hide her old identity. Even with a new name, there were kids who found out about her past. Colleen traced it to a letter she'd written to their neighbors.

Colleen

I wrote it the night before school started. I had in my mind all these things that I was going to include in the letter. I jotted it down, and the morning before school, as soon as I saw people's garage doors open, or saw anybody outside getting the newspaper, I ran over and gave them the paper.

Mary Beth Kirchner

And roughly, what did the letter say?

Colleen

I think I just told them that there is a change in our family, that my son is now going to be living as a girl. And I tell you this so that you can explain this to your children, and discuss it among your families, and deal with it however you would like. So word got out to the surrounding neighborhoods like that. You think everybody that morning was on the phone.

Mary Beth Kirchner

And word soon spread to her new school.

Colleen

So this child would take her on recess and say, "I know your secret. I know your secret." And then she'd go up, turn and go, "And if you do what I say, I'm telling everybody your secret." And then she went up into her ear and said, "And I'm telling everybody your secret, boy." So this girl said, "And now, you're going to push me on the swing set."

Mary Beth Kirchner

And the stories go on. Parents told the principal Lilly was molesting their kids. Neighbors called Child Protection Services accusing Colleen of being an unfit parent. Colleen says she's been on the verge of a nervous breakdown for more than a year.

Lilly

I feel kind of sad that people don't respect us. And nobody really likes to be my friend.

Thomasina

If they know.

Lilly

If they would, I'd probably scream and pull my hair. I would if everybody knew. There are two second grade boys that always tease me about it. They're barely ever nice to me and I really don't like it. And I have some advice for you, boy. Don't tease me or else.

Fred

For some of these people, they really believe well, this is some obsessive choice that your child has made.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Fred, Thomasina's dad.

Fred

So why in the world do I have to adjust to that because your selfish, little, spoiled kid has decided they want to be whatever they want to be in this weird world we live in? I think that if I met my child, and were not the parent, I think my first reaction would be I am not really sure this is--

Mandy

That we should condone this.

Fred

You know, I'm just fessing up that I think that that's a very logical mind that likes to put things in boxes can't help but have a very hard time with the whole idea of a transgender kid.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Fred and Mandy kept telling themselves that even though they never met another child who was transgender, they weren't crazy. They weren't bad parents. There must be other families like them. They believed Tom when he said he felt so deeply like a girl.

Fred

This is his reality. It's not a choice, it's not some obsessive craziness, it's not some mania, it's not something he saw on television and has decided to imitate. This is something that every morning he wakes up and he's living it. He's experiencing it. This is his experience. This is what's going on inside of his brain and soul as he looks at the world and he simply reacts. It's perfectly natural.

Do you ever feel just like a normal kid?

Sometimes. When I'm just at home and doing stuff with my friends, or just at home watching TV or something, I don't really think about it, or I just feel like a normal kid.

When I'm watching TV and I'm just focusing on the show, I'll forget I'm even something. I'll just think I'm a little tiny speck just laying there, and I'm not even a boy or a girl. I'm just sitting there.

I just think of myself, a lot of the time, as a regular kid.

As

A boy or a girl?

No. A lot of the time I just think of myself as a regular person, regular, just any regular person because I don't feel like I'm different.

That's how I feel.

I just feel like I don't think anything about my gender, or blah, blah, blah. I just think I'm a person.

Mary Beth Kirchner

At the end of the weekend, these two new best friends begin an elaborate goodbye.

I'm going to get her phone number and her email and her--

Address.

Address so I can send you letters.

Yeah. But I'll probably forget. And you will. And we'll probably never see each other again.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Even if they don't see each other again, this was a big night.

Unless it's amazing, like a miracle, that we're meeting at a grocery store or something.

Or maybe, in this exact same room, we might see each other.

In the exact same room?

Mary Beth Kirchner

Months later, Lilly and Thomasina haven't been in contact. Mandy says, like with any kid, she had to push Thomasina to write Lilly a letter just a few weeks ago. It was mostly about school and the holidays.

Bye again.

Hey, hey, we're leaving.

Do I get a hug?

What? Can I get a hug?

She's saying bye.

Mary Beth Kirchner

It ended with a P.S. Do you have crushes on any boys in your class?

Not too rough. Gosh!

Oh, my golly. Good bye.

Bye, everybody.

Ira Glass

Mary Beth Kirchner, she produced that story with Rebecca Weiker with funding from the Diller von Furstenberg Foundation.

SOMEWHERE OUT THERE, THE SOUNDTRACK TO "AMERICAN TAIL"]

Act Three. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.

Ira Glass

Act 3: My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. Comedian Mike Birbiglia has this story of some of the extreme things that some of us put up with when we believe that we have found the one person in the world for us. He recorded this in front of a live audience. And a quick warning, there's not really any sexual prurient content in the story, but Mike does refer to the fact that sex exists and happens between people.

When I was a senior in high school, I had my first girlfriend, Amanda. And this was a big deal for me because it was that first time you fall in live where you're like, oh, there is someone for me. You know? This is it. I've found her.

And she was great. She was so beautiful, and she played tennis, and she wrote for the newspaper, and she was a bad girl. And I was a dorky nerd, kind of an outcast. This was at a boarding school that I didn't board at. I was only there because my family lived nearby.

And she had a major street cred. She had been expelled from her previous school for dealing acid.

[LAUGHTER]

I remember at one point she said, "It was totally messed up because it was actually this other girl who was dealing acid and I was framed." And I was like, awesome.

[LAUGHTER]

I thought it was one of those things where we were opposites and we knew it. And that made it more exciting. Like where she wanted to be a writer and in student government, and I wanted to know what it was like to be cool.

[LAUGHTER]

Well, I find that when you fall in love, you tend to overlook certain red flags.

[LAUGHTER]

One of them was that she was a liar.

[LAUGHTER]

And I don't mean that in an offensive way. At boarding school, lying in something of a way of life. I remember there was this one guy in my class. He was a legendary liar. His name was Keith Robbins. And he used to lick his fingers like a bookie, you know? He would go, "Yeah. Yeah. Nice. Nice. Nice."

And he would lie about things that weren't important. He'd be like, "Yeah. Yeah. Nice. My uncle's Tony Robbins, motivational speaker. Yeah. Nice."

[LAUGHTER]

And I found out later that, that wasn't even true. But even if it were, it wouldn't be that impressive, you know?

[LAUGHTER]

So you didn't bother protesting. You'd just go, "Oh, OK, Keith." You know?

[LAUGHTER]

The other red flag was that Amanda used to say really mean stuff to me, and then she'd say, "Only kidding."

[LAUGHTER]

She'd be like, "You're not good at anything. Only kidding."

[LAUGHTER]

"Nobody likes you at all. Only kidding."

[LAUGHTER]

The final red flag was that she told me not to tell anyone she was my girlfriend. She had another boyfriend at home that she was in the process of breaking up with and it was over, but if it got back to him, you know, it'd be bad.

So she would go home every weekend and visit him. And at one point, she said she had to go home more frequently because his parents were sick, so she had to console him then. And I thought well, you know, the guy's parents are dying, so I had to be understanding.

[LAUGHTER]

I also put up with it because I couldn't believe how lucky I was just to be with her. In retrospect, I understand how selfish she was, but at the time, I didn't know that. When you're in a relationship with someone who's selfish, what keeps you in it is the fact that when they shine on you it's like this souped-up shine. And you feel like you're in the club and you don't even know what the club is. You just know you want to stay in it.

We'd been going out two months. And we went on Christmas break, and she invited me to meet her parents in New Hampshire. And this was very exciting. This was going to be my big moment. It would vindicate me and legitimize me as the main boyfriend.

And so I drive my mom's Volvo station wagon from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and I meet her parents. And it's going really well. And then this guy shows up. And his name is Scott. And then the three of us are hanging out. And it dawns on me that I'm hanging out with my girlfriend's boyfriend.

[LAUGHTER]

And it's going OK.

[LAUGHTER]

He seemed like a good guy. He was an all-state wrestler, but he was remarkably nice. I could totally see what she saw in him.

[LAUGHTER]

And there are some consolation because every time he would go to the bathroom or go into the other room, she would be very affectionate towards me. She'd kiss my neck or say something in her sweet voice. But then there was a moment where I was in the bathroom and I thought, what's happening in the other room?

That date took a strange turn when Scott suggest that we go hang out at his house. And so we go and I meet his parents. And it's a very strange thing, meeting your girlfirend's boyfriend's parents for the first time.

[LAUGHTER]

Part of you is angry for obvious reasons, and then part of you still wants to make a good impression.

[LAUGHTER]

As a side note, they seemed in perfect health.

[LAUGHTER]

I drive home defeated. And I sort of knew that, at this point, this was her life and I was like her secret life. Like I'm Maury Povich.

[LAUGHTER]

So I was like, this is it, you know? I'm going to stick up for myself. It's either him or me. And I convinced myself that given that choice, she would go with me because what we had was so special.

So we got back to school, I called her and I said, "We need to talk. Let's meet at the hockey game." And she says, "Great." And so I go to the hockey game and she's not there. Hockey game ends, still no sign.

I have that pit in my stomach, you know? Like this was going to be my moment and I was going to tell her that she had to pick me or that's it. And so I start walking around the school to the library or the cafeteria, the places she might be. And I asked people where she is. And finally, someone says, "I saw her with Keith Robbins down at the tennis courts." I remembered earlier that day at lunch, Keith had said to me, "I'm sleeping with your girlfriend. You know that, right?"

[LAUGHTER]

And I thought well, first of all, I hadn't even slept with my girlfriend, so that would be insane. And second of all, he's a liar, so he must be lying. And I remember I said to him, "Yeah. I know." But at this moment, it dawns on me that Keith was her new second boyfriend and I was done.

And it was that horrible, lonely feeling where you're walking around someplace and there are people all around, and there's only one person you want to be with no matter how mean they've been to you. I just wanted to hear that "Only kidding." I remember people were coming up to me and I couldn't even hear them. I couldn't even tell them what had happened because even though I was being dropped, the relationship itself was based on a secret.

And that spring I graduated. Keith was expelled for making fake IDs in his dorm room. He had built a life-sized license from Arkansas that people stuck their face in.

[LAUGHTER]

And he would photo it and then laminate it. He later took a job at Goldman Sachs.

[LAUGHTER]

That detail seems made up. It's actually true.

[LAUGHTER]

And Amanda was expelled the next year for dealing Ritalin.

[LAUGHTER]

At boarding school, you can't go to the graduation if you're expelled. It's one of the shames of being expelled and it's very strict. And I found out later that Amanda actually did show up to the graduation in a disguise. She wore a wig and sunglasses. My friends laughed about this the way that friends do to make you feel better when you've had your heart broken. But I could relate to her doing that because sometimes when you want to be in a place so badly, you'll do anything.

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Mike Birbiglia, that's various parts of a book that he's putting together called Sleepwalk with Me: and Other Stories.

(I'D GO THE) WHILE WIDE WORLD - WRECKLESS ERIC]

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Feltes, Robyn Semien, and me with Alex Blumberg, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and Nancy Updike. Our Senior Producer's Julie Snyder. Production from Andy Dixon and Brian Reed. Seth Lind is our Production Manager Emily Condon is our office manager. Music help from Jessica Hopper. Special thanks today to Michael Spivek, Eli Gondaseth, [UNINTELLIGIBLE], Robin Wise, and Stephanie Grill.

Today we say goodbye to our talented intern Aaron Scott, who, I can attest, is ready for a job, America. Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can now find links to download all of our show's episodes from iTunes.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International, WBEZ. Management oversight for our program by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, I gave Torey a tape of a recent show and I told him he had to listen to this show. And he keeps making these excuses. He swears there is something wrong with the recording.

And then on the tape there'd be this tong, chay, chay, tong, chay, chay, tong!

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

(I'D GO THE) WHOLE WIDE WORLD-WRECKLESS ERIC]

PRI: Public Radio International.