By Mean Asian Girl
I’m a friend, neighbor and grad-school classmate of Kate’s, but while I’m a faithful reader, I’m not much of a commenter. Every once in a while, however, here is a post that resonates with me to the point that I really have to say something. This was one of them.
Me and everybody else, right? So why do I get my own special guest post — a year late, no less? For starters, read that first part again. But secondly, and more importantly, as someone who has spent a lifetime passing for thin-to-average – and I say passing because, for what it’s worth, I weigh much more than people think I do — my perspective on the issue of self-acceptance is a little different.
First, a little background: as the name indicates, I am Asian-American, specifically Korean-American, and both my parents were immigrants. I grew up in a small city in the greater Detroit area that for most of my childhood was about 70 percent white, 29 percent black, the Gonzaleses, the Yamauchis and us. The Yamauchi girls each graduated high school in three years – partly because they were smart, but I think mostly because they were not enjoying high school so much that they really needed to stick around for prom. Let’s just say that while our community was diverse, it wasn’t exactly multicultural.
I hated myself for being Asian. I hated having a weird name. I hated having parents who ate kimchi and pronounced things funny. I hated my black hair and my bowl haircut.* I, who was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, hated being asked “Where are you from?” or “What are you?” In kindergarten, I drew pictures of myself with blue eyes and blond hair.
Since self-hatred is a pretty difficult concept for a five-year-old to grasp, I boiled down all of these feelings into an intense dislike of one feature: my eyes. They were the problem. If I had different eyes, life would be better. I’d be pretty. I’d be popular. At the very least, I figured, kids on the playground would no longer be able to make fun of me by pulling their eyes into slants and pretending to spout “Chinese” gibberish. What I really meant was, if I had different eyes, kids wouldn’t be mean to me.
I was lucky. I got older, I got smarter, I got nicer friends. And unlike the Yamauchis, I had a pretty good time in high school. I got good grades. I participated in various activities I enjoyed. I had male friends – I was especially popular when it came time to study for exams – who would occasionally turn to me for a sympathetic ear about how some girl wasn’t interested in them. But I, the weird kid, the “Chinese” girl, was clearly not date material.
I graduated from high school in 1986, well before the archetype of the “hot Asian chick.” There was no Lucy Liu. There was no … well, damn. I guess even today there aren’t a lot of specific “hot Asian chicks” who capture the collective imagination. But back then it was Farrah Fawcett, Christie Brinkley and the like. Needless to say, I fell very, very far outside that ideal.
And sure, maybe it wasn’t all about race. But honestly? I think part of it was. Again, this was long before we had a biracial president. I knew very few black-white couples, let alone white-Asian or black-Asian. It was not for nothing that I had to mark “Other” for the racial-ethnic category on standardized tests.
While I was smart enough to recognize that anyone who would refuse to be my friend simply because I was Asian was a racist asshole not worthy of me, I was incapable of applying the same logic to boys I was interested in. Clearly, it wasn’t their attitudes that needed to change. I mean, we all knew Asian girls just weren’t as attractive, right? With the eyes and all?
But of course, it wasn’t. My “Fantasy of Being White” wasn’t exactly the same as the “Fantasy of Being Thin.” Even if I could change all of my physical features**, I would’ve had to change my name and my family members and make up an entirely new cultural background for myself. Not that that wasn’t tempting at times.
Ultimately, I started to question what my fantasy really was, and what was driving it. Did I really want to be white, or at least non-Asian? Or did I just want people to like me? Was it worth it if they liked a version of me that had been doctored significantly to meet some cultural standard of beauty?
Those of us who are fat, or use a wheelchair, or have teeth that aren’t white, or skin that isn’t either, or slanted eyes, or hair where we shouldn’t, or not enough hair where we should, or a variety of other characteristics or combinations thereof, would have to do a lot of erasing and adding and subtracting to reach some kind of beauty ideal. If we don’t, or sometimes even if we do, at some point someone in this society will tell us we’re ugly. We hear it enough and we start to believe it. That sucks, and it’s hard to overcome. Despite my own efforts, I certainly haven’t managed to do it. But self-hatred is a lot of work, too.
What I have managed to do is find friends, a husband, a career – a couple of careers, actually – and some happiness here and there “despite” having slanted eyes. I also have a daughter – she’s “Whasian,” so her eyes aren’t totally slanted – whom I hope to raise with slightly more self-esteem than I had or have.
It would be a great world if we all loved ourselves as we are. But if we don’t, or we can’t, we can at least be aware that the version of ourselves that we’re so eager to change is worth a second look.
*I am willing to embrace the various physical and cultural attributes of my ethnicity, but I draw the line at the bowl cut, which I think to some extent is some westerner’s idea of what Asian children should look like. So long as I have control over my daughter’s hair, I will have eyelid surgery before I allow her to get a bowl cut.
**Fay Weldon has a great book about a woman – not Asian, but fat, actually – who did exactly that.