a short story by Yi-Ann Li
“Dad, I’m going to wear nail polish tonight.”
My dad looks up from his laptop.
“Bu yao chou mei,” he replies simply. Don’t be so vain.
I have envied the long, colorful nails of the other girls in my class for months now. All the beautiful girls with golden-colored hair have them. I don’t have vibrant, golden hair, but I’m convinced maybe pretty nails will make my muddy, brown locks not so noticeable. I look down at my own nails--wince in distaste. My hands are small, and my nails are short—trimmed down to nimbly fly across the black and white keys of the piano. I decide that one day when I’m no longer playing the piano, I will grow my nails long and rounded, like the other girls, and I will paint them the most beautiful color. Maybe a dark pink, like a mysterious rose. Or a pale blue, like the sky after a fresh downpour of rain. Just no drab, dark colors—dull like my hair. Drab like my eyes.
Later that night, I am sitting on my best friend’s bed. We’re both burrowed under her fluffy blankets, our faces illuminated by the warm light of her lamp. I watch her carefully dip the small brush of the polish bottle into the swirl of baby pink and trace a line down her fingernail. The smell of the polish immediately hits, and I crinkle my nose, but the brushstrokes are mesmerizing. Stroke by stroke, I watch her fill in the rest of her nail—like a painting. A pale blue of the sky like I had always dreamed, dotted with little pieces of white. I admire the beautiful, light colors on her fingers; her hair is black like mine, but it might as well be more gold than all those girls I see at school.
She notices my intense gaze and grins. “Want me to do you?”
“Don’t worry, I have a clear one with small gold stars. It’s very subtle, and it’ll look great on you.”
My mouth becomes dry. My father’s words echo in my head. Bu yao chou mei. Don’t be vain. Don’t indulge in such a trivial act to change your own image—don’t be selfish. But there is a mighty beast clawing from inside, yearning for those mesmerizing light colors to be painted on my fingernails, covering my short nails. Diminishing my not-gold hair.
After a beat of silence, I breathe, “Okay.”
She grabs the new bottle, and pulls my hand into her lap. When she opens the bottle again, I am overwhelmed by the smell that seems to burn a path up my nose. But I don’t crinkle my nose this time, and instead shift my focus to my friend’s steady hands as she fills my small nails with gold stars.
When she finally finishes both of my hands, I look down and lose a sigh. She had painted a little piece of the universe onto my hand. Like a glimpse of the night sky.
I grin back. “I love it.”
But our moment is interrupted by a knocking on her door. It’s my dad. “Time to go home,” he says with a smile. “You girls had enough fun for the night?” My stomach shrinks in dread and guilt.
She squeezes me in a crushing embrace as we bid our goodbyes. And as soon as the chill of the night air hits me, I am lifted from my haze. I look down at my nails, at the gold stars, and then cross my arms for the rest of the way home. My father glances at me on the car ride home.
I am not selfish. I will not mess so trivially with the body my parents gave to me.
Bu yao chou mei. I am not vain.
As soon as the doors close behind me, I run into the bathroom. I turn the faucets on as hot as I can bear, and run my hand under the burning stream, rubbing my fingernails furiously. But the stars don’t come off. As panic rises within me, my heart starts to pound and I tear out tissues and soak them in soap. But no matter how much I scrub, I can’t seem to wipe the universe off of my hands. With tears burning in my eyes, I let out a sob and scratch at my nails. My father cannot see. My family cannot see how I was so selfish to use my time splashing colors on my hands and trying to change what was given to me. I am not vain.
The scratching seems to work—little pieces of the tiny gold stars begin to break off. I keep scratching and scratching and peeling, until my fingers are raw and a few of my fingernails have started to bleed. I feel no pain. Only a fist closing around my chest, as I picture what my mother and father would say if they had seen those stars that didn’t belong to my hands. With most of the polish off, I turn off the faucet and stare at the sink, watching the little gold stars wash down the drain. The little pieces of the universe.
That night, I keep my window curtains open. As I lay in bed, under my covers, I stare out the window, at the dark expanse of the universe, and the sparkling stars sprinkled peacefully across the night sky.
I decided to write this story to delve a little bit into the earlier crossroads I arrived at in disparities between two different cultures. In this piece I explore the views on materialism in Chinese and American culture, and the emotional turmoil many other young Asian American girls out there have also felt at some point. Western cultures are more built on individualistic goals—such as wearing what you like, protesting what you want, chasing your own passions—while Eastern cultures revolve around a collective vision—how your actions affect the community, how your life is not just your own but also part of your family and culture’s. This is where values of familial respect and dignity come from. This difference in worldviews affected me a lot in how and when I could feel good about myself; and in sharing this piece, I hope other girls out there whose views on their self worth, indulgence, or beauty have been challenged by two different worlds may hopefully feel less alone.