It's the Little Things
an article by Feileen Li
Dear Asian Youth,
“Hey, say something in Chinese,” my friend asks, an inquisitive expression on her face.
I open my mouth, Mandarin already dancing on the tip of my tongue, and I let it hang for a moment, uncertain and a little afraid, a little insecure. Flicking a glance at my friend again, I take in gold and dark blonde streaks and eyes the color of a summer sky and breathe in, my insecurity growing like weeds.
Snapping my mouth shut, I shake my head and cover up my pained grimace with a stiff smile, but it’s a futile effort. My friend dons a sad expression, disappointment lining her features and twisting her lips into a frown. “Come on, please,” she begs, a soft incessant whine fitting for the 12 years that we both are.
It’s always been difficult for me to resist her pleas, and within minutes, I give in, albeit reluctantly. “Okay. Okay fine,” I huff, quirking a lip as cerulean blue orbs grow bright with hope and anticipation. I take a moment to think of something to say, something nice and sweet and simple. Once I figure it out, I scoot closer to her, close enough that inky strands tangle themselves with dusty blonde. “你很可爱,” I murmur, whisper-soft and quiet as if I’m imparting some sort of secret. I’m 12 years old, at an age where I haven’t even hit my growth spurt, haven’t figured out my style, haven't figured out exactly who I am, (I’m caught between Asian and American and a mix of it both and that’s confusing). So maybe, maybe I am–
Imparting some sort of secret that is.
My friend looks at me, an unreadable expression on her face, still slightly supple with baby fat and skin a soft beige. (so different then mine, then my yellow undertones and light tawny skin) She furrows her brows. “Eww, it sounds so weird,” she says, nose scrunched and pink lips pursed in distaste.
Something in my gut drops at that.
“Ha ha, I know right? That’s why I said I didn’t want to,” I reply, tone light and silvery, a poor reflection of what I’m truly feeling. I clench my hands, nails digging into warm flesh, but the pain from my nails is nothing compared to the one growing in my chest and gathering in my throat.
“So, what’d it mean?” she questions, a curious tilt to her head and utterly oblivious to the embarrassment and shame swirling through me like the water of a mid-summer monsoon.
I swallow the lump in my throat and stretch my lips into a false grin, “It means you’re really cute,” I say, trying my best to pretend I’m fine – no, not pretend, not pretend, because I am.
Fine, that is.
“Aw, thanks, you are too!” she says, lightly bumping an elbow into my side and showing off all her pearly white teeth with a cheerful smile on her face.
I smile back, and this time, it’s a little easier, a little less fake, but still not entirely true. I dig an elbow back, “Yea, yea,” I say.
Mama packed me lunch today, and I won’t lie, I’m excited-science class has never felt so long and drawn out as it did today. The lunch is leftovers from yesterday’s dinner, one of my favorites and something I always pester my mom to make whenever she has the chance.
“Cahn cai chua,” Mama had gently answered when I asked her what the name of the dish was, and I had tried my best to say the name, but it had tumbled out of my mouth poorly, inflection and tone and accents in all the wrong places. I’ve always been better at the harsh sharpness of Chinese than the rounded curves of Vietnamese.
Mama had simply raised a dark eyebrow at the failed attempt and sighed amusedly, “Pickled mustard cabbage soup, that’s the name in English,” she had told me, onyx eyes shining with mirth and something warm.
Slipping into my seat on the tanned wooden bench, I smoothly set my lunch bag onto the table, a heavy thud and clatter echoing the movement. Students and staff slowly crowd into the cafeteria, and the discordant and chaotic chatter of teenagers set free brings me an odd sense of familiarity and comfort. Friends and acquaintances fill up the seats around me, and I offer short greetings to those I recognize—a tilt of the lips here and a flutter of fingers there—as I pull out a large silver thermos, the worn metal glinting under the harsh white light of the cafeteria.
I unscrew the cap and the rich savory aroma of steamed ribs blended with the bitterness of pickled cabbages has my lips curving upwards with anticipation. I take a bite and the soft burn of perfectly salted broth against my tongue is a pleasant feeling, and I ready myself for another.
“Wait guys, do you smell that? It’s so gross, whose food is that?” someone shouts from the opposite side of the table, and despite the commotion in the cafeteria, the voice easily makes its way down our table.
I don't so much as see it as I feel it, the various gazes and glances at me and my food. Like heat against my skin, it burns. I can feel myself flushing with embarrassment, ears a soft rosey pink and cheeks glowing a deep red against lemon tinted skin, and it’s utterly, utterly mortifying. Throat closing up and heart a rapidly increasing pulse under my skin, I blink back the warm sensation of tears.
A breath, slow and steady and measured, and I clear my throat, making sure that it’s completely unclenched before speaking, “Um, I think it’s mine,” I say stiffly, not meeting anyone’s eyes (all light blues and rich browns and none like the sleek obsidian I’m so used to at home).
“Oh seriously? What is it, it looks…” the girl at my side trails off, something like disgust in the narrow of her eyes, and now, I think I might actually cry.
Furiously forcing back the new onslaught of tears I respond, “I-I don’t actually know,” I breathe out a wobbly laugh.
“Cahn Cai Chua,” she had told me, affection and pride lilting her words.
“It’s just something my mom packed. I know, it looks so gross. I’m definitely not eating it,” I force out through gritted teeth and a distorted sneer on my face.
(The curl of guilt and hurt rising at the bottom of my stomach is ignored.)
I’m not entirely sure how nobody notices how uncomfortable and embarrassed and upset I am when it’s practically bleeding into every stilted and awkward bit of phrasing, but ultimately, this is something that I’m used to.
I’m fine, I think. After all, I wasn’t even that hungry.
Mama buys me makeup today for my birthday, and in return, I wrap thin arms around the curve of her waist, firm and tight and giddy with happiness. She places a wet kiss against my forehead and breathes out a quiet, “Happy 16th birthday,” in a voice that’s sweet like honey and tinted with a soft Vietnamese accent. Rushing upstairs, cotton socks against gray carpets and Mama’s amused laughter behind me, I whip out my computer and search up cute eye makeup styles to copy. Eventually, I settle onto a simple one, a winged eyeliner against a backdrop of rose pink and soft orange like a miniature sunset.
Once I finish the look, I notice that it seems… off. The eyeshadow is a perfect ombre of pink to orange and the eyeliner too, yet it’s not; it takes me a minute, perhaps two, before I understand why. The eyeliner isn’t meant for people with monolids like me, and without the double eyelids it simply doesn’t work. The realization is—
Painful. It’s painful, but it’s a bone deep sort of pain, something that’s always lingered in the back of my mind—buried and repressed—and before long, like a cancer knotted in my bones, I grew used to it.
I snap my gaze back to the mirror, dark ebony eyes under hooded lids stare back at me, and I frown. It’s a hard thing, to think that I’m pretty when all my life people have used my eyes, stretched and slanted and small, as an insult and a joke. Shaking my head, I search up more pictures of makeup, but it’s all the same, all blonde and brown hair, slender and long noses and large blue eyes, and all undeniably beautiful. Something deep in the back of my head, tucked firmly behind my thoughts, thinks that
maybe—maybe if I wasn’t born Asian, I could be pretty as well.
Gently scrubbing the makeup off, I resign myself to figure out a way to make the eyeliner work. I’m on my third attempt when I stop. I stop and exhale out a long suffering sigh and set the slim length of eyeliner onto the thick glass table. Chewing on my lip, I harshly rub off the makeup, irritation rippling through me, and I make a sound of wordless frustration when the eyeliner simply smears instead of disappearing. The skin around my eyes is now tinged a splotchy red, and I realize it’s because I’m tearing up and not because of cotton against skin. Rubbing my hand wearily over my face, not caring in the slightest if I’m smudging the ink, I turn on my phone and decide to distract myself. It’s when I’m halfheartedly scrolling through the numerous posts on Instagram that I pause.
The girl in the picture is gorgeous, her skin a sandy complexion and hair a rich earthy brown, curled into large rolling waves that cut off at her jaw. Freckles dust the smooth and tawny skin at the bridge of her nose and her features are narrow and delicate, but it’s the pose that made me pause. The lithe and slim fingers pulling at the ends of clear green eyes and slanting them upwards, so that they’re thin and stretched out and awfully similar to a mocking pose that I’ve been taunted with all my life.
“Fox eyes,” it’s captioned, and it feels like a gibe, like a slap in the face.
I scan the comments, all flattering and kind and fitting for someone so beautiful, and it hurts. It gnaws and stings and bites, like a sun-searing burn in my gut that has me breathless and frozen and—and well, I’m used to this, aren’t I?
Hesitantly, I scroll down, something heavy and tight and painful in my chest and that, that too is something I’m used to.
- Feileen Li