Growing up in the US during the 80s, I hardly, if ever, saw girls who looked like me in the media. This was something that lived unconsciously in me, but I certainly noticed it when I got my Chinese Barbie. I cut her long straight old-fashioned hair into a more fashionable bob. Although, I think ended up making her look even more Asian…It’s funny because I didn’t cut or mess around with my other Barbies’ hair, but for my Chinese Barbie, something needed to be done. She was special.
When my family moved from Mililani Hawaii, to Barstow California, I certainly started to pay attention. For the first time in my young life, I was different-looking. California is not the sea of Asians that people think it is – especially in a small town. I was twelve and soon learned to accept the dungeon that was the desert by I turning to books and magazines.
In magazines like Teen and Seventeen, there was the occasional black girl, but that was about it. To see an Asian or Latino model was really really rare. There was this one model though who was half-Asian. I could tell immediately.
I used to get super close to the bathroom mirror and turn the outside corners of my eyes up. This must have been my way of trying to make my eyes rounder, and less slanted.
My mom made matters worse by telling me to pull or pinch my nose. Even as a child I laughed because I knew this would not reshape my nose. She meant well, like when she convinced me that I needed plastic surgery for my chin so I would have a more defined jawline.
That was a crazy and deeply shameful experience. I was 16 and very very hesitant to get an implant put in. We were in Chinatown, always a GREAT place to go for surgery, and armed with her friend, my mom asked the one question, the right question that put me in the doctor’s seat, “You want to be beautiful, don’t you?”
The doctor numbed my chin, opened my bottom lip, sliced open the skin between my gums and lower lip and pushed in a small plastic implant that looked like a retainer, then sewed me up. I was awake and watched in horror as I had no idea what to expect. It was terrifying to be cut open like that.
The funny thing was it didn’t reshape my face, in fact, the implant didn’t conform correctly and so I had a little piece that stuck out. The only other option was for the doctor to open me up again and I didn’t want to go through that. So I was told to push it and hope that it would eventually mold, which it never did.
It wasn’t noticeable and it was my shameful secret until I had to have it removed. After college I went to see the dentist to get my wisdom teeth removed and the x-ray showed a mysterious dark spot. So, I had to have an open talk about what the hell it was because my dentist was perplexed by it. As it turned out, the implant was eroding my chin. I was put under while Dr. Johnson removed the implant and my wisdom teeth. And I will be forever grateful to my friend Jen who fought with the pharmacy to get my medicine and for taking care of me while I was bedridden.
(What was interesting was I had a summer fling after my surgery. He was all those sexy things you’d want in a man and he had this habit of biting my chin. My chin was a little numb still, I hadn’t gotten all the feeling back yet, but his playfulness was part of my healing both physically and mentally. And no he didn’t know about it.)
My chin puckers, it never went back to the way it was, nice and smooth, but these days I hardly notice it. These days I feel attractive and pretty. Something about living in SE Asia agrees with me. It’s fun to find cute bras and clothes that fit. It’s nice to see Asians in advertising, on magazine covers, in those ridiculous soap operas and movies.
These were in my childhood home because my mom liked to watch Thai soap operas on VHS, drag my brother and I to see Thai movies at the Varsity Cinema and read her celebrity magazines. So I knew there were magazines with Asians, but in the States there wasn’t the integration of cultures and different colors to reflect the diversity of the US.
For the vinyl record, I have a close happy relationship with my mother. My childhood was challenging, but our relationship has been smoother ever since. Although, she wants me to get my eyebrows tattooed. My step dad calls it the “old lady stamp.” Very popular here and since I’m a hairless wonder, she just wants me to look made-up I suppose. This has been a year after year battle, but don’t worry my eyebrows are still tattoo free.
I don’t know why it takes being in your mid to late twenties thirties to finally feel comfortable with your self. I suppose I am just grateful that I’m not one of those women who is still struggling with her image. (Well…) I think that is why I can write about embarrassing moments in decision making and looking in the mirror hoping for a teenage miracle.
Advertising and media are such powerful influences. While it is wonderful to see girls that look like me, I do hope this sad desire for white skin in SE Asia doesn’t make girls (and boys) feel less than who they are. I no longer want to look more Caucasian. In fact, I’m very happy that I’m Chinese Thai or Thai Chinese. I’m wonderful just the way I am – and my students and friends for some insane reason like to tell me this almost every day – maybe they just know that is how I’m feeling.