Sometimes I forget that for the vast majority of my life I hated my eyes. It was a powerful kind of hate: subtle, yet all-encompassing. I did not have to consciously think the words “I hate my eyes; I hate how small they are, too skinny and slanted, just like they say, no eyelashes, no heavy eyelids. Can I even convey expression through these eyes that are so, so small?” Rarely would these thoughts cross my mind in such a steady stream. Rather, they were part of the jumbled, incohesive messaging that constructed my inner dialogue, which informed my very being, whatever small perceptions I held of myself as an adolescent.
The first time I saw an Asian woman I was attracted to, I was fifteen years old — middle-aged in the world of teenagers. It was World History II, a class taught by the same white woman who taught World History I, and Asian Studies, a history elective for those of us who wanted to opt out of the over-populated AP European History of senior year. As you can imagine, this teacher — let’s call her Ms. Troy — spent an inordinate amount of time on East Asian history over other cultures. The day I discovered K-pop was, fittingly, in her class, seated in the very back row closest to the door.
Ms. Troy prattled on year in and year out about her two years living and teaching in Japan. She shared with us how enraptured she felt by the culture, which bled into her teaching methods: invoking Japanese songs and phrases into lessons when applicable, explaining with equal parts fervor, fear and pride how Japanese was the hardest language to learn in the world.
Learning about cultures other than your own is a beautiful and necessary endeavor, especially in today’s global world. By learning how others live, we open our eyes to more compassion and humanity; we recognize how different humans can be and, at the same time, how truly we are all the same. We expand our worldview tenfold. A strong appreciation and celebration of differences is vital to growth, and offers us the necessary reminder that, frankly, we are not the center of the world.
However, there is a fine line to draw between true appreciation and gross fetishization, between innocent interest and appropriation.
Ms. Troy loved Japanese language and culture a lot, which was interesting and refreshing from other teachers’ European-focused lens. Sometimes she would bemoan, half-jokingly, how she wished she were ethnically Japanese. She gave extra attention to her (very few) Asian students. Sometimes she would ask them questions about their life at home, but did not seem to really listen for the answer; rather, she would interject her own assumptions that you would either deny or, to her glee, confirm.
Growing up one of the few people of color in a small white town, I was torn with how this should all affect me. People saw faces like mine and either made it painfully obvious they noticed, but pretended not to notice, and henceforth ignored me completely, therefore provoking shame. Or I would become the object of extreme exoticization, in which people paid extra-special attention to me, but only because they wanted to talk about only race, about Asian beauty, about Asian fetishes. This is what I experienced from the boy I was half in love with at prom, and many boys afterward — a story for another time.
Ms. Troy seemed to be a relatively kind and good woman. She showed myself and others there exists a world beyond Europe and America. She taught us things I doubt other high school teachers across the country ever knew, let alone bothered relaying to their students.
I would sit in World History class, unsure if I should feel flattered by the extra attention bestowed upon me due to an appearance I had no control over, or … what was the alternative to flattery? Discomfort? Sadness? Anger? Was such attention even stranger, more unwarranted and alienating, than the blank stares of the folk who pretended I didn’t exist at all? I was unsure then. I’m still unsure now.
It was in Ms. Troy’s class, sitting in the back of the room closest to the door, where I fell into a YouTube spiral and discovered something that would change my adolescent life as I’d known it forever. “It” was K-pop, a term I’d never heard of, filled with people I never thought would be at the forefront of entertainment. I stared incredulously at my screen as HyuNa danced like no one was watching in “Bubble Pop” and G. Na swung her arms around on tables in “Black and White.” I replayed these videos over and over again in my seat, and then over and over again on the drive home, and in my bed later that night. I clung greedily to the images until my eyes were sore the next day, shrinking ever smaller in their soreness. By then, I didn’t even care about the shape of my eyes, because I was burning with the energy of Asia’s most coveted superstars.
A light that had never been ignited was suddenly bursting inside me. For all of the hundreds of hours I’d sat and listened to Ms. Troy drone on about how Asian cultures had done this and that, it was here, in Korean music videos of all places, that I realized there truly was a whole other world out there. A world where I could be more than just the “nice” Asian girl with the “sweet” personality. I could be empowered if I wanted to be. I could be pretty, desirable, even sexy, if I wanted to be. These were not the answers to all I’d ever wanted to know about the state of my physicality, but until that point I’d never even thought to ask the questions. And now they fell upon me, in droves.
I couldn’t remember a time before I reveled in its existence. The catchy tunes! The stylish outfits! But most importantly to me, the representation. The women, Asian women, showcased as beautiful, sexy, cute, whatever they wanted to be. They were not boxed into “Smart Asian” or “Athletic Asian” or “Too Asian” or “Not Asian Enough,” because they could be whoever they damn wanted to be. No one was questioning their right to exist as leading figures in the entertainment industry. They were stars across the sea, but it didn’t matter how far they were, K-pop brought me closer than I’d ever felt at that point in my life — before To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, before Crazy Rich Asians — to Asian pride.
They — my eyes — were the reason I’d never had a boyfriend or ascended in popularity, why I felt simultaneously hyper-conscious of my body and painfully invisible throughout my 18 years of being the Asian square peg in the circle of my all-white family, my all-white small town. My eyes marked me as irrevocably different, no matter how hard I yearned to be the same as everyone else. When my closest girlfriends and I, girls that to this day I consider my sisters, bemoaned our lack of romantic affections, one friend tried to console me by saying, “I admit, certain guys won’t be attracted to [Asian] girls, but at least whoever you’re with will like you for who you are.” It felt like a punch to the gut, but it was also taken stoically as an obvious truth that everyone knew but only she was brave enough to say aloud. So I said nothing, smiled, accepted it, and was grateful to have been told by a true friend who would not lie to me.
It was a given that a boy would never like me for my looks alone. He would have to be “different,” because he liked a girl who was “different,” even if the differences were tissue-paper, superficially thin. It didn’t matter if I was the most American personality he’d ever met; I would still always be different, which some guys just “wouldn’t go for.”
It was innocent as it was insidious, this inner hatred I had for myself that never defined itself until I moved away. By then I was inexplicably, finally in New York City, where suddenly I was surrounded by the most beautiful Asians I’d ever seen outside of a TV screen. People with eyes and skin and hair like mine, who looked pretty and beautiful and desirable but, most importantly, their own. These girls — these women — had style, confidence, things I couldn’t quite imagine Asian Americans having, let alone me. I know this sounds like a hyperbolic way of speaking. Believe me, I wish it were.
The first time I ever saw an Asian American girl in a nationally syndicated pop culture magazine, it was Seventeen, and the girl, then-15-years-old, smiled brightly in the photograph, flashing straight white teeth. She had gorgeous, natural, wavy black hair, eyes that crinkled at the sides like mine when she smiled. Underneath her headshot was the quote:
“I used to compare myself to white people. But then I realized it was a losing game, and I would never be white, so why compare? I started to be proud of my ethnicity.”
These are not the words verbatim, but I remember them, which is saying a lot for me. Anyone who knows me knows my memory is a sad retainer.
Memory is an extraordinary thing. What we choose to store, subconsciously or not, because of its effects on us. This moment, for me, was emotionally jarring — reading in a national magazine a girl who looked like me express happiness with who she is and what she looks like, instead of shame. A girl able to articulate some truth about who she is, how she feels, even while the younger version of me recognized but could not understand the depths of this truth. I remember this girl not by conscious choice, but because something in her stirred something in me. Something I did not know yet, but could identify as important.
The first time a man commented on my eyes, it was a former boss, and I’d hated working with him and his arrogance. At the time, I was a sophomore in college, still green to the city, still green, period. I worked up to 30 hours a week, part-time as a waitress/busgirl/barista at an Italian café in the Bronx. It was actually more Albanian than Italian, but I wouldn’t know that until later, when they closed for good.
My boss was only a few years older than me. Tall, handsome in that vaguely European way with a strong jawline and piercing green eyes. The quintessential Straight White Man. I never in a million years would’ve thought he would find me remotely attractive. Even with my self-confidence boost of getting romantic attention for the first time earlier that year, I was still alone in a new city, and I didn’t yet understand what being Asian meant here. What being a person of color meant in a city that truly is every color of the rainbow.
It was dark outside, sometime in late winter. It was a weekday, which meant it was slow as hell. I was amusing myself to pass the time, sweeping clean floors, dusting display windows that had already been cleaned twice. He was doing nothing, as per usual, leaning against the counter and playing with his phone. The picture of I-don’t-give-a-shit, or at least, I’m-trying-really-hard-to-look-like-I-don’t-give-a-shit, which for some reason I was attracted to once. I tried to get past him to get onto the floor, to clean the other cases around the counter.
In one fast, fluid motion, his arms bolted out to stop me. I yelped, lips curled in mock-disdain. This was how it was, him and I. All snarl and sass with the occasional sweetness thrown in.
“Chris, please move. I have to things to do.” I motioned swatting at him with my towel.
He folded his hands across his chest, making a big show of ignoring me. I mimicked his stance to show that fine, I wasn’t going anywhere either. We had the rest of the night, after all. The cleaning part wasn’t even necessary – I’d already cleaned the case three times – but neither was I about to continue standing there stupidly, feeling antsy with his eyes on me.
He looked at me a second longer, then went back to his phone
“Christopher,” I sighed, exasperated with our game. “What is your problem?”
He glanced at me once more before smiling and putting his phone down.
“You know, don’t you?” he said, waving his hand in a circle around my face.
“Can you please move?”
“I can’t get any work done here, and neither can you.”
I blinked up at him.
“Your eyes,” he said, pointing. He waited a beat. “You have such beautiful eyes.”
The first time I felt wholly, desirably, shamelessly mine, it was last year with my move to Manhattan’s Chinatown. Passing faces like mine everyday and seeing all the joy, sadness, laughter, love our faces can give. The expressions our eyes convey. It is a given, not an exception.
It has taken 23 years, and the journey continues every day. Some questions have been answered, but a whole floodgate of new ones has opened. I have come to terms with my physicality, while at the same time trying not to be owned by it. Visions of my appearance, of how I appeared to others, dominated my life growing up. I had no Asian role model, no reference point on how to move through this world as an Asian woman. Life is not all about race, but race inadvertently affects life. It is futile to deny it.
I spent the first 18 years of my life hating my eyes, hating what made me different. Now I cannot embrace it enough. I never cared about fashion growing up, because more attention was the last thing I wanted. Now, I’m seeing fashion as a way to further express myself and choose how I want to show myself to the world. I have a long way to go, but I love the exploration and freedom it affords.
It is a fine line between wanting to feel seen and wanting to simply fit in. For so long, I focused my energy on the most superficial of things: my body, my face, and how it was perceived by others. Now I look forward, not to how others see me, but how I wish to see and express myself, whether it is through the clothes I wear, the opinions I’m unafraid to voice, or the thoughts I finally feel confident enough to share.
About Lisa Calcasola
Lisa Calcasola is a transracial adoptee and advocate for literacy, the environment, and free love. She enjoys talking about all things creative, arty, strange and sublime. Follow her @punkelevenn to join the conversation.