Asian American

Girls like me

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.

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16 thoughts on “Girls like me

  1. When I was younger, there were many times when I felt that the social environment in the United States writ large was very poor for Asian-Americans. I would say that probably the majority of AAs I knew growing up dealt with some sort of identity-related angst to some degree or another, both men and women. It was just the reality. My sense is that things may have gotten a little better now but I'm not certain. Being in my late 30s a lot of those issues just aren't transparent to me at all anymore.I'd say that the years I spent living in Asia were extremely positive ones for me in terms of developing both as a social and sexual being. Part of that I think is just due to the cultural tourism aspect of being an expat, regardless of background. When you're a cultural tourist and expat, you're afforded that space to live in a liminal fashion, to explore, develop your independence, and not really be accountable to the cultural norms of your ex-homeland or your new environment. At least that is how it was for me. But as an Asian-American, the essence of that expatriate experience was all the more powerful because I was not only removed from the confining spaces and frustrations of being on the margins in the states – culturally, socially, sexually – but I was in an environment where I felt, albeit in a curious way, at home in Thailand.

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  2. The thing about being an AA is that we have a tendency to keep things in and not complain. So I really appreciate you sharing your experience.Hopefully, as our generation gets settled and ages we will be able to speak up on these matters. Because it's really amazing, I never tire of hearing that someone felt the same way as me…in fact I'm often surprised.We get caught up in our own heads and forget that we're all interconnected. Plus, there is still a lot of misconceptions about AAs and expats in pop culture.Liminal, good word, never heard of it before, thank you!

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  3. I can't bring myself to comment on the chin thing because I am horrified and saddened but I am also in awe of you – to not feel any resentment or anger….The whole fascination with white skin has surprised me since moving here. Every beauty item I bought at home is here…only it has added whitening. I bought a deodorant with whitening in it! I have seen a gorgeous young girl try to cover up her skin colour but using patchy white talc.Beautiful people with gorgeous dark skin come up to my children and touch their skin because they are so white and I feel sad.sorry…got a big caught up in my rant there…I loved reading your part about reaching a stage of self acceptance. I am 40 and have spent the last couple of years slowly accepting myself after years of poor body image and self esteem..it's liberating 🙂

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  4. I try not to hold on to any resentment or anger. Life is short, as they say, and if something should happen to me or the people in my life, I want to be able to know that everything was just fine between us.Of course, this is easier said than done!I hope you are settling down in BKK. The pictures of your neighborhood look lovely 😉 If you are ever in Chiang Mai, please let me know!!!

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  5. So glad you linked to this blog post. I didn’t know you at the time you posted it, so I’m glad to go back and get to read it. Thanks for your honesty! I have noticed that Asian moms seem to be a bit different than American moms, just from seeing how my Asian friends mom talk to them about beauty. They are constantly saying that their girls are too fat or not white enough, etc. I would be so pained if my mom constantly said those things to me. So I feel like that helps me understand the pressure from your mom about your chin. I enjoyed reading this and knowing that you are comfortable now in your own skin. I’m still working on that myself! You know what’s strange is I feel a lot less confident when I am in Asia. Asian and American bodies are SO different I always feel huge and fat when I’m there. :/ I just have to remind myself that there’s no way to compare our bodies, as they are so different. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Asian moms are old school, I think. They are still coming from the mindset that a girl’s good looks will automatically snag her a wonderful and rich husband. It’s also a culture steeped in “appearances first” and “everything else second” worldview.

      As far as comparing yourself to another woman. I have another old blog post for you to read! https://lanivcox.wordpress.com/2010/02/06/beautiful-you-and-me/

      It’s your homework Ashley! ❤ xxoo

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  6. Wow. A chin implant? I thought you were going to talk about eyes (horrible to have them altered) or boobs.

    I had a bad case of teen acne which know no boundaries of colour and for me, went on for 5 years. So my parents they were willing to bring me to dermatologist. I had to use ointment and take tetracycline. Helped it abit. I think she and for another sister who had a bad case too, wanted us to feel better. Nothing wrong with that. It helps we are under Canada’s health care system also.

    The only thing mother did was to comment that we not tan too dark. Which we didn’t listen very well. It was just hard..playing in the sun, doing gardening (their garden), etc.

    My mother had 5 daughters +1 son. She herself was a sister amongst 5 other sisters and 2 brothers. So she didn’t overplay the beauty thing nor did she pit her own daughters/compare them in terms of beauty.

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    1. Good for mom! We have such a tendency to put pressure on our girls to look a certain way. It’s mind-boggling and so dated. I think if I was a mother, I’d be fighting this urge to make my daughter look a certain way – it seems to be our strange way of showing we care – or maybe it’s a competitive thing.

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      1. My mother sewed a lot of our clothing. She didn’t give more beautiful things to one daughter over another in terms of style.

        She was also the sort of mom who rarely decorated her daughters’ hair with ribbons, barretts, flowers..She was simply too tired and couldn’t bother with it! It was enough to have our hair washed and tidy. We had rice bowl hair cuts and later grew long hair on our own when we were old enough to wash and look after our own hair.

        Yes, I am grateful for how she didn’t encourage nor create beauty rivalry among her children.

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  7. What an eye-opening post. I knew that Asian girls feel a lot of pressure to change their appearance, but this is something else. I guess it’s because we don’t talk about it that much (at least I don’t). But this made me remember that I used to pinch my nose when I was younger, too! It also didn’t help when your peers would comment on it. I’ve found that whenever I indulge in media that features mostly white people, my self-esteem drops a bit and I find myself staring at my nose with distaste. For the most part, though, I feel good about myself, which is something that I should celebrate more often. Thanks for this post!

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    1. Thank you Camille. And yes, you bring up a good point. I think too much media time can hinder our self-esteem. I’m thinking about all those times folks go CRAZY when a celeb is shown without makeup or Photoshop or everyday people make the mags – we’re craving authenticity.

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    1. Thanks. I’ll elaborate more in my upcoming book. I think it will be a chapter that many women will be able to relate to, in terms of feeling insecure and wanting to be beautiful.

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