The Culture of Cute
an article by Cathay Lau
Dear Asian Youth,
Do you know those childhood memories that just stick with you? No matter how many years go by, they still manage to cut the weight beneath you, leaving your legs lifeless in the air and your mind racing with the words “OH HELL NO”? Memories that make you physically shudder due to the simple embarrassment of the situation that you were placed in?
I had one of them today.
I was fifteen at the time on one of my annual family trips to Hong Kong when my uncle (who had never muttered a word about my appearance with the exception of the daily “why don’t you exercise?”) told me that my braided pigtails were very “cute” and “traditional Chinese”. I went about my day reasonably happy, glad for once that a positive comment about my appearance was voiced. This all came to a halt at dinner time, when we decided (or rather my uncle, the eldest, decided) to go for seafood at a busy, popular restaurant in the serene Sai-Kung. We had gone with twelve other members of family and close friends.
“Are you full?” he asked me. I nodded. Ah yes, that familiar silent (and obedient) nod that I have performed all my life around my uncle. The nod that quietly means that I want to avoid speaking to him as much as possible.
“Good, eat less rice and you’ll finally lose weight.”
I felt the uncomfortable chuckles that went around the table. The side eyes were unbearably apparent at the time, and I remember distinctly thinking that I wanted to leave; “anywhere but here” was the statement that rang loudly in my head. Something told me that the people around the table agreed with my uncle and that he had simply expressed what was on all their minds. I felt like running, sprinting, aggressively pulling away from the table… maybe even vowing hysterically to everyone that I would never order another bubble tea, eat another single piece of sushi, or grill another bite of K-BBQ ever again. I didn’t want to lose face though. Not in front of my family and most of all not in front of my uncle, who prided himself on being respected: a character who was absolutely without fault in the eyes of his peers. This was regardless of whether he had made me feel unsavoury or not and I knew this; the idea of never “losing face” seemed to be quite prevalent in the Chinese culture that I grew up in. China Mike writes that “Unlike “Western face”– which is more self-oriented and individualistic — Chinese face is more other-directed and relational” and that “the goal of Chinese truth is often to protect the face of an individual, group, or even nation”.
It had dawned on me that my uncle, whether subconsciously or not, had used the word “cute” to shame me. I knew that cute was deemed something good in Hong Kong, but would it really apply to me if I was Western, or what they liked to call a “banana”? Probably not. Looking back at it all, yes, I was embarrassed and frustrated at this, but not any more frustrated at my own sheer questioning as to how he had thought that I was overweight at all. I was no bigger in size than any of my white friends who I had grown up with, no larger than some celebrities in Hollywood in fact. And yet, I was deemed fat and therefore could only really ever amount to “cute” on a good day.
I recall that night when I laid in my bed, the sheets that would normally envelop me in a loving, silky caress felt different. The sheets were suffocating me. The four walls that surrounded me radiated damp heat that made its way into my throat and clung to the edges like tar. I remember trying and failing to understand the double standards. I couldn’t fathom the obsession with East Asian women being solely cute, and why it was a problem if I was slightly “chubby” and had the audacity to feel beautiful at the same time. Why multiple people I knew in Hong Kong had cited crushes on “voluptuous” women like Scarlett Johansson in Hollywood, but failed to see the appeal of the very same thing in women of their own race.
This experience wasn’t helped either when Scarlett Johansson was cast in the film ‘Ghost in the Shell’ as an Asian (more specifically Japanese) cyborg named Major Mira Killian/ Motoko Kusanagi during the mid-twenty-first century. Although this character was claimed to be a robot (therefore needing no ethnicity or race) in efforts to ditch criticism from the public, she was very clearly (to me, anyway) cast due to her privilege as a white woman who fits the world’s beauty standards. This is mainly because of the dominance of Hollywood in worldwide media over the years, the conclusion unsurprisingly being that the majority of the world would prefer a certain ideal/aesthetic over time. It was clear that her beauty and her race would rake in views for the film, as it would have been presumed by the Hollywood casting directors that her name and overall look would have optimised the movie’s success. Time reported that Steven Paul, the producer of the film defended the casting, claiming that “‘There [are] all sorts of people and nationalities in the world in Ghost in the Shell’”. Although defending your own work is understandable, there is a certain accountability ignored when it comes to the influence of the film being in such a large spotlight.
The casting perpetuates the idea into viewers’ minds even in the Eastern hemisphere that East Asian women should look whitewashed with Eurocentric features and if not, then they are not the standard in the West nor the East. It was due to these types of misrepresentations that I coined a term that would only prevent me from appreciating a part of my culture to do with beauty. One that I named after months of lingering on this memory in time, the memory that serves a catalyst to my biggest fears: ‘The culture of cute’.
It didn’t help that I had countless cousins on my mother’s side who were K-pop consumerists and avid anime/manga watchers/readers from childhood either. We were all completely sucked into the media of the East, just as much as we were to the West. I recall speaking to Martin (one of my male cousins) one night; he had an obsession with a certain female anime character. When I asked him why she was his favourite, he turned to me with his usual deadpan stare and stated, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, that she was “cute” or rather “kawaii”. My other cousin Ashley to this very day (although now married) insists that he still has a place in his heart for every single ‘Girls Generation’ member, being a proud ‘sone’ since 2009 and insisting every family member has known about it since 2012. However, I always knew that his absolute favourite member was Sunny because she was and still is very much … (wait for it) … cute! It was already clear to me by these points in my life that the idea of wanting to be desired and perceived as someone's favourite, meant that I should aim for cuteness. I never really sat back and thought about how it affected me and my outlook on my own attractiveness, until I had grown older and realised that if something made me feel negative, I didn’t have to stay around for it. As much as I respected and cared for my cousins, I didn’t want to follow their unconscious beliefs on what attractiveness was (and still is), even if it would never change because it was embedded into the society that we were exposed to and influenced by. This is why I believe it is no secret to this day that both of these sectors of the media world in East Asia are largely tied to what I perceive to be ‘the culture of cute’.
Growing up as a minority in the western world, I felt alienated at times from my own culture. It seemed like there would be no genuine peace with myself and my ethnicity/background for a while, until time passed and I found myself naturally and gradually becoming okay with being an “overweight” Chinese girl who at a push was cute. Although a lot of changes happened overtime in terms of my outlook on my own beauty, it wasn’t until one particular night that I finally thought enough was enough. One of my non related aunties had come over to visit and as I was pouring tea into her cup, she asked me a question that I had never gotten before. However, it was enough.
“Cathay, have you ever considered double eyelid surgery? You would look beautiful with them.”
As polite as I seemed when shaking my head and sitting down quietly for the rest of the visit, I felt like I was bubbling beneath the surface. The pot was threatening to spill, however I kept my composure and repeatedly told myself that auntie just wanted the best for me, even if it potentially meant hurting my feelings. My father’s quote “Chinese people will call a spade a spade” when describing the culture was all I had ringing in my head, and it seemed to bring a sense of purpose to the way she was acting, therefore making the comment more bearable. Maybe it was due to my own personal love for my monolids that caused this shift in me. Since my weight was something that I had always been unsure about, it may have been harder to move my opinion on the beauty of the shape of eyes. I had always loved them, so it was only natural that this comment irked me in a different way. I had gotten plenty of compliments from other aunties in the past that complimented how my eyes suited the rest of my face, and how they were unique (in a good way). It had dawned on me that everyone who had ever made a comment on my beauty was subjective. It was masked by their objective tone of voice, which for a lot of my life had fooled me into believing was fact. It all came clear to me that much like my own individuality as a living, breathing, human, being in between cultures was a strength that was unique to me.
Although the West had its negatives, it had allowed me to be more of whatever I wanted. Although I could struggle with my weight and appearance limitations wherever I went, it didn’t matter because it was just an arbitrary standard that some outdated people adopted and attempted to enforce onto me, as well as everyone else around them. Cao for Teen Vogue sums it up perfectly for us fellow Asians who grew up in the Western hemisphere: “belonging to two cultures yet not wholly being a part of either, we have been fed two different beauty ideals that make the line between Western standards and our community standards hard to distinguish. It is important to commemorate our heritage, but this year we must use our past to understand all aspects of our communities as we move forward”.
To the Asian Youth reading this, I believe that the sooner we start identifying and working on our issues that were caused by our peers and people we respected in our youth, the sooner we can truly find ourselves (as cliche as it sounds) and finally feel like a person who is worth respecting. You can be whatever you wish when you are liberated from ideals that don’t support and accept you.
- Cathay Lau