Pretty Like Me
– Non-Fiction by Rim Chon –
I sat in the dark movie theater watching Crazy Rich Asians and found myself crying. Crying is not unusual for me, especially while watching cheesy romantic movies, my favorite genre. What was unusual about those tears was that they weren’t about the story, but about who was telling the story. Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood studio film written and directed by Asian Americans to feature an all-Asian cast. I went back a couple of days later and watched it again, trying to sort through the flood of memories and emotions that the diverse Asian cast released in me.
I spent my teen years watching St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, pining over boys–bad boys, brooding boys, shy rich boys. It was the eighties and my family had moved from Korea to Houston just as I was turning eleven. At the peak of my puberty, I crushed on the boys of the Brat Pack and cried over unrequited loves, both real and imagined. My favorite was Andrew McCarthy. I’ve always had a thing for baby faces and I fell in love with him in St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink. I desperately wanted to be Demi Moore or Molly Ringwald. I permed my stubborn straight hair, willing it to emulate Demi’s wild and sexy curls, but my mom’s home perms always came out the same: frizzy. As for having Molly’s strawberry blond hair, I wasn’t allowed to color my hair because that would mean I was becoming too American. So coloring my hair became my ultimate goal when I got old enough to make my own decisions. I wanted to be like them, with their small faces, soft wavy hair and big round eyes the color of the sky or the Caribbean ocean. I wanted to look like them so that someone like Andrew McCarthy would want me. He would stand up for me and pick me over his friends and family. Because he loved me. I cried when McCarthy’s character in Pretty in Pink, Blane, succumbed to peer pressure and pulled away from his unpopular girlfriend, Andie, leaving her geeky best friend Duckie to take her to prom. It was a bittersweet moment for Duckie who had always loved her, but I was mad. I was team Blane all the way. I didn’t want to settle for Duckie. I wanted The Guy.
After watching these movies and wiping away tears of joy when the girl finally got the boy, I hoped to find love like that. I dreamt about standing in front of Blane or Jake, them holding my face and whispering that I was pretty and that they wanted me. But then the camera would pan out and I couldn’t see my face in the shot. I was always a faceless girl in my fantasies. I could picture myself looking into the bright, blue eyes of Andrew McCarthy and feel like I was floating in a cloudless sky. But what would he see in my black eyes?
Looking at western faces all day, what the mirror reflected back at me was always jarring. I hated seeing my face in the mirror. The person who stood before me had small eyes that disappeared at the slightest hint of a smile. No one sang about the color of my eyes and my typical, flat Korean face seemed twice the size of Demi’s or Molly’s. No matter how much eyeliner I drew on the rims of my eyes or how much I tried to contour my cheeks and jawline with blush, my face never looked like theirs. I wasn’t pretty like them and certainly Andrew or Rob or Emilio would never want me. The reflection in the mirror was a daily reminder of my otherness. So I stopped looking at my face in the mirror and decided that unrequited love would be my specialty.
When people ask me what it was like living in Texas in the eighties when there were few Asians around, I tell them how surprisingly normal my teen years were. I played in the marching band, went to pep rallies and football games. I hung out with my friends from band and honors classes and had a stereotypical teenage life. I don’t remember experiencing overt racism.
But there were things that happened. Little things. These flashes of memories got stuffed in the back of my consciousness and mysteriously bubbled up to the surface while watching Crazy Rich Asians.
In the 6th grade lunch line, a girl with blond pixie hair stared into my face and asked me if I could see my lashes. I don’t think she meant to be mean or racist. She was just a little girl too and hadn’t seen many Asians with our single-lidded eyes. My eyes looked different from hers and she was curious. Without the crease in the eyelid that help point lashes upward, my straight lashes shot out, almost at a downward angle. I stood there silent until she walked away. I didn’t speak much English back then, but it wasn’t the lack of language that kept me silent. It was embarrassment. I became self-conscious about my eyes and how different they looked from those around me. To this day, I don’t let anyone see me without my lashes curled and mascara on. I use waterproof mascara, not because I cry all the time or sweat a lot, but because waterproof mascaras hold the curls better than regular mascaras. I’ve spent a lifetime willing my lashes to curl upwards to help me feel like everyone else.
Every Asian American kid has been taunted by some version of, “Ching Chong Ching Chong.” This is especially painful if the other kid also closes their eyes half way to mimic the stereotype of small Asian eyes. In junior high, a group of boys who all reminded me of Ricky Schroeder told me they knew how to tell Asians apart. They pulled the corners of their eyes down and said, “Japanese,” then pulled their eyes up and said, “Chinese,” and finally pulled their eyes out and said, “Korean.” They repeated the gesture over again laughing, “See? Japanese, Chinese, Korean!” I could feel my face getting hot, but I wasn’t angry. I was mortified. I wanted to close my eyes and make myself disappear.
When I was finally old enough that I was allowed to wear makeup, I searched through pages of beauty magazines for tips on how to apply it. I wanted anything to help my eyes look bigger, rounder. As I stood at the drug store makeup aisle, I was disappointed to find that the instructions on all the eye shadow combos–Sweep light base shadow over the entire lid then follow the crease and apply darker shade to bring more dimension to the eye–didn’t apply to my single-lidded eyes. Since I didn’t have a crease that folded, there was nothing to guide my shadow application, just my stupid, bulging eyelids. There are some lucky Koreans who are born with eye folds, but not me. I got the worst of Korean eyes. With a pencil, I traced a line on my eyelid where a fold should have been and opened my eyes wide, forcing a crease. I could see the full circle of my iris and the entire length of my short lashes. Am I prettier now? More lovable?
Most of my non-Asian friends have no idea what I mean when I talk about double or single-folded eyelids, also known as monolids. It’s a non-issue for them, but I’ve been struggling with it all my life. How do I explain that so many of my insecurities are tied to how I see my eyes and my face?
Then there’s Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles, emasculated comic relief character embodying every negative Asian stereotypes, including broken English and sound of the gong introducing his entrance. At least Bruce Lee was considered cool. While I laughed along with my friends watching the movie, there was a part of me that felt uncomfortable. None of the boys at my Korean church were like him. Most of them grew up in the US, spoke perfect English, and were smart and funny. But those guys never had a chance against the curse of Long Duk Dong.
When I was a sophomore, I was standing outside the band hall after marching band practice when a group of football players carried a chubby freshman player toward me and plopped him at my feet. I had seen him around. There were only a few of us Koreans in school so we were aware of each other. The kid tried to leave, but the big, burly football players blocked his escape and shoved him towards me.
“Hey, he likes you!”
“You want him to be your boyfriend?” they teased.
Kids are mean. I get it. Maybe it was some sort of mild hazing for the new freshman player on their team. But in that moment, I loathed that kid for his flat face and slanty eyes. All I saw was Long Duk Dong standing in front of me and I didn’t want to be associated with him. Looking back, I can see that he was embarrassed too. Maybe it’s true that he liked me and made the mistake of confessing to his teammates, but I liked boys with hazel eyes and wavy hair named Richard, Patrick and Dallas. All I remember is feeling humiliated that the football players could only see me with that chubby Korean kid, and not with one of them.
Fast forward to 1993: I watched The Joy Luck Club, an important movie because it was the first major studio film to feature a mostly Asian cast. The movie dealt with various mother-daughter relationships in Asian immigrant culture. I related to all of those issues, but they are not the reasons I remember the film. I remember it because of Andrew McCarthy. He was one of the few non-Asians in the movie and played a husband to one of the daughters. Andrew McCarthy, the man of my dreams, was married to an Asian woman. And somewhere deep inside, a little Korean girl rejoiced. So he likes Asian women! I felt hope.
After that, I waited 25 years through Memoirs of a Geisha; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and Kill Bill to finally see myself reflected on the screen again, not as an object to be collected, not as a martial arts expert nor as a bitchy killer, but as a fully-realized person worthy of love. No Asian fetish and no yellow fever. No Madam Butterfly and no Miss Saigon waiting for Lt. Pinkerton or an American GI to save me from myself. Just two people who look like me falling in love and figuring out how to have a relationship against all odds. Crazy Rich Asians. It’s your basic girl-meets-boy romance. They fall in love. They encounter obstacles. They overcome them and they live happily ever after. Nothing special. Nothing new.
But everything new and so magical. In middle age, I fell in love with another silly romantic comedy. Crazy Rich Asians is funny and sweet. It’s got cute guys. Goodbye Andrew McCarthy! Hello Henry Golding and Chris Pang! And checks off all the things I love about rom-coms. But mostly, I loved the movie because it validated me. No Asian stereotypes to fit into or fight against.
Representation in media matters. There are people who argue that there is too much focus on race. It’s just a movie for entertainment, they say, not a statement. But for me, Crazy Rich Asians was much more than a movie. It made me see that our eyes are beautiful as they are, whether they are dark, small and single-lidded, turning into a crescent moon when we smile, or are double-lidded and almond shaped, or some form in between. It was an affirmation that we exist, in all our diversity. I’m not saying I’m going to go outside without makeup because of a movie or anything crazy like that. All I’m saying is that I saw myself in an ordinary love story on the big screen and I can finally begin to picture myself in my fantasies.
About the Author – Rim Chon
Rim Chon is a corporate number cruncher by day and an aspiring writer by night. In her former life, she was a classical musician. She lives at the northernmost tip of Manhattan and is currently working on a collection of stories that are manifesting into a memoir about her journey through faith and spirituality. *“Pretty Like Me” was previously published by The Paragon Journal.
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