I’ve never accepted the way I look till very recently. Back in Taiwan where I grew up, my appearance stands out in a not-so-good way. I am 168 centimeters (5’6″), which makes me way taller than average for my age. I’ve always been one of the tallest girls in class, and since I’m not skinny skinny nobody has ever complimented on my looks. My shoe size is 38, and when I was a kid I could never ever get female models of NIKE trainers. That was basically the biggest female size and the smallest male size. Since shops always had a very small stock of them (and my mother wouldn’t pay for the models that were not on sale), I was always forced to buy man trainers. I trained to compete between the age of 12-15, but after that I was chained to my desk trying to get into a decent university, so for years and years I didn’t buy new trainers. It was not until I came to Europe and decided to start jogging again that I got my first pair of trainers for women. The marks and trims are magenta, and I had to heave a sigh for finally getting some compensation.
I have never been the most feminine of the bunch. In fact, I’m still very obtuse when it comes to how Asian girls (or girls in general, but particularly Asian ones if I may say) interact with each other. How they would mercilessly trash a colleague they have been working for YEARS with just because she was a bit friendly with this new guy at work at a work party. How they always have to move in pair or group, even if they are just going to the restroom. How they would stop talking to you all of a sudden with no apparent reason. There are some things I’ve never figured out in my life, though it’s not that I still care enough to work them out.
I was in an all-girl’s class in high school, and that was an absolutely nightmare. Most of the girls come from rich families and are really posh. They were into makeup, having custom-made uniform because it is better-tailored, going shopping all the time, and consuming coffee and salad from Starbucks after picking all the olives out. I was just there to get into a good university, and I was the best in class. I had respect because of that, but my failure to interact with girls the way I was supposed to and my body type made me very self-conscious. I was big-boned, nerdy, and “selfish.” It is not a joke. At the end of my high school the teacher handed everyone back a card with some record of our high school life. On mine, the first entry read: she is reported by her peer to be selfish, and during a telephone conversation with her mother this characteristic has been confirmed.” I was furious. I went home to confront my mother, but she said she had never spoken to my teacher on the phone. Whether she lied because she felt sorry for having said that or my teacher lied about having this conversation with my mother so that it would appear she was doing her job, I’ll never really find out. However, I can tell you selfish I think I am not. Not as group-oriented as what my culture expects of me maybe, and the fact is I didn’t like anyone enough to tag along when she went to the restroom.
I was finally given an allowance at the age of 15, and for the first time I went clothes-shopping with a friend. We picked out a bunch of summer tops together, and my mother flipped because they all happened to be sleeve-less. They were not singlets or even tank tops. They were basically only showing my arms. To wear tops like those I also got my first razor, and that was another point of contention. Except for the top of my head, the rest of my body is rather hairless even compared with other Asians (not necessarily a good thing because I have no eyebrows!). Still, if I were to wear sleeveless tops I’ve got to shave my armpits, right? Not according to my mother, or the entire side of her family to whom she rattled out the story. In my culture body hair is scared because it is something you got from your parents (who have god-like status and can never do you any wrong). It is not impolite or an eyesore like what it is in Western cultures. One of my uncles tried to scare me by saying I might accidentally cut my artery open and die during the process (good job, uncle) before questioning why I bought sleeveless tops. “But Aunt Lynn (his wife) has them too. She has even given me some before.” My grandfather said:”But body hair is natural. I don’t know why you have to shave.” And then:”Why are you wearing sleeveless tops anyways?” “Because it’s so hot, grandpa.” “It has always been this hot, but girls in the past didn’t wear sleeveless tops.” Before I could use global warming as my retort, my grandmother who was listening at the other end of the room cut in:”But girls in the past didn’t get to run around the way girls her generation do.” That kind of settled the argument. I have to say even with this storm in the teacup, I was lucky enough to get away like that. I had a classmate back at the time whose mother took a pair of scissors out and sheared through all her sleeveless tops. Granted I’ve always suspected her mother was manic-depressive, it was pretty drastic. After all, it is the beginning of the 21st century we’re talking about here.
Things were better when I went to university. I started tutoring English and making some money, so I could buy whatever I wanted to. I took baby steps to experiment what I should wear, and I gradually got a little better at it. I was not the best-dressed, and I still didn’t know how to apply makeup, but I had friends who love me. You see, the thing is that in my family, what is in our heads is praised, and what is outside is completely irrelevant and even dissed. My maternal grandmother contracted smallpox when she was a child, and that scarred her face permanently. My mother once said it is probably because of this that my grandmother always discouraged her two daughters’ pursuit of beauty. My mother was a fashionista when she was young. She had a lot of custom-made dresses and wore makeup. Blue eyeshadow was her favorite, because she is amazingly pinkish and cool-toned for an East Asian. I was always accused of not eating healthy and consuming too much sweets as a child, because I was “yellow.” Well mother, I wonder if it’s too late to lecture you on different undertones now, but never mind. However, unfortunately her marriage is not a happy one, so she stopped making an effort altogether. She never taught me anything about dressing better or putting on makeup, because she stopped caring a long time ago. So still, I was smart, outgoing, and maybe funny. But not pretty. Not at all pretty. I had a boyfriend who is in every sense a loser, and instead of giving up on him to be a bad job I stuck with him and tried to make him go further in life. I was convinced I couldn’t do better, and looking back, with the state of mind I was in, I really couldn’t.
I did start plucking my eyebrows when I was about 20, aided by my best friend (we’ve been partners in crime for 9 years now). In the beginning it was a(nother) scandal in the house. My mother was angry, and my grandmother told me only married women were allowed to pluck their eyebrows in ancient China (exactly, ancient China). I got my hairlessness from my mother, so she knew very clearly if I didn’t trim my eyebrows and fill them in I would NOT have any, but for her 20 was too young for that. I bit the bullet and continued with it, and at the age of 22 I finally bought my first box of brow powder and started filling them in. For me, it is not even about wanting to look good. It is about being polite. Internally however, I thought I was not beautiful and I will never be. I was scared of doing things differently. I was told that I’m fat, my skin too dark (for your reference I’m MAC NC30 when I don’t tan), and my eyes too slanted. In my culture I am doomed. I tried not to believe it but somehow I was stopped from thinking outside the box and becoming my own person.
I taught English at a cram school for a year after finishing university. During that time I started hanging out enormously with Westerners, mainly Americans and Canadians. I felt a lot more comfortable with them because my individuality was respected. I was no longer “fat,” my feet were not “huge,” and it was OK if I occasionally turned down an invitation. I didn’t have to conform, or maybe I did, but I didn’t have to try too hard to do it this time. I went to the beach with them, got really really tanned, which offended everyone else around me but for the first time in my life I was proud of my skin tone. Instead of going mainstream and buying skin-whitening products, I was using my advantage to have smooth and tanned skin. My mother said I looked “Thai,” I was asked if I surf, as if it were the only possible reason why I would want to do that to myself. “No, I tan.” I saw disbelief in people’s eyes but I didn’t care. I’ve always been too loud and too un-shy to fit into what is normal in my society. People ask me all the time if I were born in the U.S, as if it would explain this strange thing they are looking at. I’ve never fit in while I am expected to. The only solution seemed to be running away.
After that year, I went back to graduate school, receiving training to become an interpreter. I remained the odd one out, and this time I didn’t even have my best friend with me. My lifestyle was conceived as nothing but immoral, just because I went clubbing with my North American friends once every two weeks and had maybe 3 drinks every time I went. Clubbing has a bad reputation everywhere I guess, but for the majorly virginal classmates I had, it was the proof that I slept around. I was accused of binge-drinking just because I knew what it meant when the word came up in a text once. And this once when the topic of Gardasil popped up in a conversation with two other girls, I said:”in my opinion we’d better all go ahead and get it. Let’s face it, it is slightly unlikely that we’re only going to sleep with one person in our lifetime.” They looked disgusted, and they didn’t hide it. For a long time after that I wondered if I did something wrong by being honest, or if I did something wrong by having slept with 2 boyfriends at the age of 24. A couple of years later, when I saw pictures of these classmates in clubs, partying it up with drinks in their hands, I shrugged. I also cut those hypocrites out of my life.
When I got the scholarship to study somewhere for a year, I didn’t let the chance go. Partially because I knew I didn’t stand a chance of becoming an interpreter back home, even if it was the job I wanted the most. I’ve shocked too many professors who were working interpreters, and since the circle is so small I knew nobody would ever introduced me to the right people. Basically I fled, because resistance is futile. I knew if I didn’t make it out there I’d never be my own person. After my first year I got to stay for another 2, because I apparently reminded my thesis adviser of the younger version of herself, not wanting to “go home” when she got the chance to study somewhere else.
I stayed with a local family the first three years I was in Europe, which is mostly good except for the fact that I had to eat what they ate, and I’m not that big of a protein-eater. Believe me, food has more power than you think it does, not only over your body but also over your mind. Because of the high amount of protein, I gained 10 kilos, and my self-confidence again went down the drain. I tried SO hard to lose weight, buying into the theory that I should cut out on carbohydrates. I was eating a small yogurt for breakfast, a salad or soup with no butter on my tiny bread for lunch, and only meat and vegetables for dinner. I was losing weight, but very slowly, and I was so deprived, miserable, and cold. Looking back, it wasn’t a good year. My mother came to see me at the end of that academic year, and the first thing she said when she saw me at the airport was:”why are you so fat?” And the next:”whatever happened to your hair?” Well, I knew I wouldn’t find a hairdresser here who knew how to handle Asian hair, so by that time I hadn’t had a haircut for 10-11 months. But still, thanks for the tough love. I lost some weight during my trip home later that summer, but upon coming back I again gained weight. The beginning of the second year was stressful, but it gradually got better. By the next summer I went home, I had already made some friends with some nice classmates, and I got to spend some time with my best friend again (who was away on honeymoon the previous summer because I didn’t coordinate with her too well). “You are actually shy, you know that? It’s just that when you were a child you had to help your mother look better in front of your relatives that you’ve been pretending to be outgoing all your life.” Her observation unblocked me. I had actually found it energy-consuming to be around people. Sometimes after a day of it I felt so exhausted that I started loathing myself. I was “supposed” to be outgoing and happy all the time, but that’s too much to ask of anyone and I’d never realized. The moment she said that however, the self-acceptance kicked in. It’s OK if I don’t like EVERYBODY, it’s OK if I make a fool of myself in front of real friends, and it’s OK if I am actually shy. I finally learnt that I don’t need all the pretense to be loved, even though I had not been pretending to be someone else for my own benefit. It was shaped so early in my life that I never realized what I was doing.
I hung out extensively with the new bunch of friends I made starting the end of that summer. M, my best friend here from my first year of studies in Europe started introducing colors into my wardrobe. I had always believed my skin is “too dark” and “to yellow” so no color would ever look good on me (at least that’s what people tried to make me believe back home), therefore I wore a lot of black. M made me realize there are a lot of colors I rock better than white girls, including orange, salmon pink, magenta, sapphire blue, and certain shades of green. I started to experiment with makeup, emphasizing features such as my slanted eyes and high cheekbones, features I had previously conceived as flaws. I dined very often with friends, who cooked rice and pasta (students almost never eat so much meat because it’s expensive). Instead of gaining weight with carbohydrates, my weight stayed constant that year. I learnt to love, accept, and make peace with myself. I was having so much fun on my own that I didn’t think I would have time for a boyfriend, despite the fact that I had been single for 3 years at that point. And then all of a sudden, I met this guy in my language class. It was love at the first sight for both of us, though two weeks apart because I wasn’t paying attention to anything else in class till he finally mustered enough courage to talk to me.
I decided to write this all down not because I’m bitter. It is true that I still wish someone had the insight to tell me I’m beautiful and great in my way, so that I didn’t have to feel so bad about myself for the longest time. But I don’t mean to hurt anyone, and I have no intention of making people who were unkind to me regret it. For everyone who doesn’t dig you, there are 10 out there who would. For me writing is therapy, and this blog will remain mostly uncensored by those who know me in real life. I just need to look at all this one last time before throwing it away, knowing that without all the suffering, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I’m happy with how things turned out.