Look at my face and tell me what you see. Do you see the features of a sleep-deprived woman who has a passion for the histories and stories of people that continues to compel her to keep striving for an answer in this confusing world that demands too many things of a soul that is only just beginning to listen? That is what I see when faced with my own reflection every morning.
Not everyone sees that though. Other people see an ambiguous face with features that blur and do not make any sense until I finally relent and confirm their suspicions that no, while I was born in Hong Kong, I am not from around here: I am 1/8 Slavic, 1/8 Aboriginal Taiwanese, ¼ Swedish, and 3/8 Mainland Chinese. Did you get all that? Do you want me to repeat it? Only when confronted with statistics are they then satisfied.
I have heard a whole range of different answers over the course of 20 years, but no amount of experience or practice will ever prepare me for when someone answers with this:
“You have a face that is pretty for an Asian.”
What I once thought was a genuine compliment took me years to realize that it was instead a crude piece of criticism. By unnecessarily throwing in my ethnicity into what could have been an innocent statement you are subconsciously telling me that while Asians are not pretty, I for once, am. By calling me “pretty for an Asian” you are not telling me that I am pretty. You are reminding me of oppressive Eurocentric beauty standards that I do not, and will never, fit; that while I am pretty for an Asian, I am not pretty for an individual human being. By being “pretty for an Asian” you are telling me that all you see on my face is yellow skin, black hair, and slanted eyes. Nothing more.
When someone calls me “pretty for an Asian” I get angry, because I hear those words wherever I go. Passing by the window display of a shop lined with large advertisements of gorgeous Caucasian models with their bright blue eyes and perfect pale skin caught mid laughter and I catch a glimpse of my own face and feel my heart constrict because I know they are laughing at me. Laughing because I will never look like them. Laughing because at this very moment there is a sink that is filled with a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and the tears of an Asian girl that curses the dark hair that she was born with. When I am in the skincare aisle of a convenience store and my sun-stained hand reaches towards the shelf to grab some lotion and instead bombarded with brands upon brand upon brands of whitening creams. Reminding me that I will never be pale like them. Reminding me that there are girls out there currently soaking themselves in toxic chemicals in an attempt to drain the natural colour from their skin until they are nothing but broken on the outside to match how they feel on the inside. When I am staring down at my legs perched on the cold edge of my bathtub glaring at the hair that keeps growing on my legs despite my constant efforts to hack it down to nothing armed with a sharp razor and my determination to keep my legs looking feminine and acceptable and normal. Because sometimes, despite all of my efforts to not succumb to society’s harsh and unforgiving expectations, despite how easy it is for me to scoff and say that I am strong, that I do not listen to anyone, I end up being that girl.
And all I hear is yellow skin, black hair, and slanted eyes.
I am not pretty for an Asian. I am angry for an Asian. Angry for someone that has to live with this burden of being too ethnic and too Oriental, furious that I have to struggle under the weight of centuries of racial oppression within the very society that I live in. Angry that it took myself years to destroy the armor of internalized racism that I used to shield myself with, because back then it did not matter to me if other Asian girls got hurt, as long as I was protected. Angry that I did not realize how destructive this was, as I breathed racism and hatred everyday, burning my lungs, and scarring my skin. But that is nothing compared to what other girls have done to themselves. They slash their monolided eyes to make them appear wider, they deform their noses so that their nasal bridges appear higher, they break the bones inside their very own legs so that they can heal back longer, making them appear taller. All this so that people will no longer mention their yellow skin, black hair, slanted eyes.
But I am lucky. Why am I even complaining? I have been blessed with high European cheek bones from my Swedish grandmother who was forced to fend for herself at age fifteen in an unfamiliar city that she did not know, thicker eyebrows from my Slavic great-grandmother who fled from country to country to give her child the opportunities that she was never granted with herself, and double creased eyelids from my grandfather who grew up in two Scandinavian countries after being evicted from the first one due to being too foreign. Other Asians should envy me and the pain my ancestors went to to make me pretty. But I am still not good enough. Even with the straight black hair my mother gave me to remind me of my heritage, the brown eyes my father gave me to see the world with, and the colour of my skin that I inherited from my Chinese great-grandfather that reminds me of the sacrifices that everyone in our family has made to have a chance at a better life. And I will still never be good enough.
It is easy to sell your product if you incorporate centuries worth of racial persecution in your marketing strategies to remind your target audience of their lack of self worth based on the colour of their skin, the darkness of their hair, and the shape of their eyes. Do not think that I can not outsmart you though. I can streak my arms with chalk white wall paint just as easily as your advertisements remind me of the necessity of having pale skin. I can pour bleach over my dark hair just as easily as your product representatives educate me on the beauty of blondes. I can claw my eyes out until blood streams down my brown irises just as easily as you try to tell me why I need to bright-eyed to finally be pretty enough for you.
I am angry for an Asian. But I do not want to be. I want to be able to love my body for the colour and shape and size it is, no substitutions, no additions. I want little Asian girls to love themselves how I was never able to. I want girls and boys with dark skin tones to know that the only difference between them and their lighter skinned friends is that the sun loves them just a little bit more. I do not want there to be any more angry Asian girls because I have lived an entire lifetime of anger large enough for a whole continent. I just want there to be pretty girls. Everywhere.
Isabella Dia-Tsi-Tay was born and raised in a mixed-race background in Hong Kong, with heritage from Sweden and Taiwan, and recently moved to the United Kingdom to study for a Bachelors Degree in Literature and Creative Writing, specifically focusing on poetry.