Eight Ways I’ve Been Made to Feel About My Asian Eyes

1. I’m 15 and for the first time in my life, a teacher calls me out on sleeping in class when I’ve been awake the whole time. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened earlier, because kids have made fun of my eyes since preschool. Times are a-changing I guess. I’m the only Asian in my class, one of three in my entire high school, and people bring it up all the time for the rest of the year. I get it. It’s funny, that time our old, kinda-racist teacher thought I was sleeping because my eyes are small. My eyes aren’t even that small!

Monolidding since 1990

Monolidding since 1990

2. I’m 12 and my mom is teaching me how to smile so that my eyes don’t disappear. No one likes a squint. I’m 0% invested, so I don’t learn. I do know that the word for squint in Mandarin is mī, and it forms your mouth in a squint when you pronounce it, like a lyrical “me,” lips tight for the ‘m’ and barely parted for the ‘ī’. I don’t read much into that. It’s just a happy coincidence, like how “groovy” ends on a smile.

3. I’m 20 and sometimes my friend points out that my eyes disappear when I smile really hard. I think — I know — I think she doesn’t mean it in a shitty way (“I always forget that you’re Asian,” she’s also said), but every time I hear it, it burns red hot in my brain for the rest of the day. I’ve learned enough to know that when I was 15 and people said, “It’s funny because your eyes aren’t even that small,” they were also saying, “You don’t look that Asian.” I suspect this is the same kind of thing. Then I suspect that I’m doing a lot of introspection for a hang sesh with my friends.

4. I’m 17 and my mom is telling me that I don’t need to get plastic surgery. “Why would I get plastic surgery?” I ask. Chinese people like creased eyelids, she says. It makes your eyes look bigger, and many Chinese people get surgery to put creases in their eyelids for that reason. Luckily, I’m genetically blessed; my mom has double creases that appeared in her mid-20s, and my dad got his single creases soon after I was born. My eyelids are still young, smooth and sleepy-looking. I think she’s reassuring me that it’s okay if I’m not attracting any boys, because in a few years I’ll have beautiful eyes. I have negative interest in attracting boys. I have marginally more interest in the future widening of my eyes, because I’m a genetics geek.

5. I’m 21 and I’m scrolling through photos on Facebook after Houseparties, the spring formal event at Princeton. I hate this one photo of me where I’m smiling hard. My face looks like a pug’s, all wrinkles and rolls, and my eyes are gone. They’re just another set of pug wrinkles. I’ve learned enough to know that when people imply, “You’re not that Asian,” they’re referring to a fictional idea of an Asian person whose eyes are literal slits. I feel awful for once being proud that I’m not that Asian, as though being distinct from a stereotype is a personal achievement. I also look up how cheap that eyelid surgery would be in China. It’s pretty cheap.

A rare photo of me pug-facing in a dress

A rare photo of me pug-facing in a dress

6. I’m 3 and 7 and 12 and 14 and 16 and 18 and every year after that when I come home for the holidays, and my mom tells me my face looks too fat or too thin to show that she cares about me. She worries that I don’t take enough care of myself. The way my mom says “fat” taps into a deep and primal feeling. It’s not negative or positive, it’s just familiar, the extended “ffff” and the sharp, bitten off “at.” What I’m saying is that for almost as long as I can remember, I’ve thought about my face in terms of how other people see and talk about it. I don’t have a concrete idea of what my face looks like, just what it could look like.

7. I’m 23 now and I ask my Chinese-American friends whether they’ve ever considered getting surgery for their eyelids. The consensus is that they do think about it, regularly, but they don’t want the stigma of cosmetic surgery. We all know it’s a simple procedure that’s popular in China. The American part of Chinese-American stops them. I think in America, it’s easy to look down on cosmetic surgery when your ethnicity isn’t essentialized and reduced to a single physical marker. There’s an assumption that Asian people get eyelid surgery because they want to look more Western, and that offends me more than when my mom tells me not to smile so hard. Both views are oppressive, as standards of beauty are oppressive in general, but the narcissistic assumption that we would want to get eyelid surgery to look more white still reduces our “ethnic” appearance to a single physical marker. At least my mom, like many moms, is only trying to conform to a cultural aesthetic preference, a shared idea that bigger eyes are more desirable — and so are other features like narrow cheeks and soft, pointed chins. At least my mom sees me as a full-featured person.

8. I’m 23, and when I frown, I can see where the first creases in my eyelids will be, but I’m trying not to frown so much these days.

dogpic


in-article-A-plus-banner


Are you following us on Facebook?

Robin doesn't lean in, she spreads out. Her skills include talking up the movie Spice World to strangers. In any situation, she would prefer to get campy. She's a hedonist, lady dandy, and lazy academic. She has a twitter and a tumblr.

Robin has written 43 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. Smiling so hard your eyes ‘disappear’ is totally a good thing. All the happiest emoticon faces have closed eyes x) xD ^.^ because you face moves up. There is no shame in having the perfect face for internet smiles. (Mainly because there is no shame in any face at all).

  2. Related so hard. For most of my life…no, still…I taught myself to believe I look “not as Asian as other Asians” when I see myself in the mirror. Even though I have a monolid and I definitely look Korean, I have convinced myself that my eyes look half-Western. I know it’s not true, but I’m been thinking it so long that it’s still what I see when I look in the mirror. It was only in my late 20’s that I really got honest about that deeply internalized racism I’d been carrying around. For me, it was far easier to identify as queer than it was to identify as Korean.

  3. This really hits home. I remember spending hours trying to stretch my eyes with duct tape and lighten my skin with flour to look more like the other 3rd graders. It always seemed that the options were to look like a “geisha” or “not-Asian”. As far as the disappearing eye scenario, I don’t think I willingly posed for a photo between the 4th grade and my first year in college. All the parents wanted me to smile “nicely”, so that they could see both my teeth and my “full” eyes.What hit me the hardest was this sentence from 6:
    “I don’t have a concrete idea of what my face looks like, just what it could look like.”
    This is something that I relate with so much. I have no clue what my face looks like unless I’m staring in a mirror or at a photo, and even when I’m looking in a mirror a lot of what I see is what my face might be with plastic surgery.

    And I second what KaeLyn said, it was far easier for me to come to terms with being gay, than it has been and continues to be for me to see myself.

  4. This is a great piece, thanks for writing.

    Growing up, I knew I looked different and spoke different but couldn’t comprehend how it would affect me.
    I remember the boy next door, singing “Ching Chong China Man!”, pulling his eyes and making them squint.
    Being told that I was from China, questioned why I was in Australia. My little 6 year old brain, told myself that you aren’t Chinese, but Vietnamese and you were born in Australia, why did you have to go back?
    I was automatically enrolled into the ESL class as they assumed english was my second language, when I had received an academic scholarship for the same school.
    I saw my teacher who had taught me for 3 years, spoke down to a new Asian student.
    Being called a ‘fasian’ (fake Asian) because I had few Asian friends and didn’t have a thick accent.
    It took me a long time to come to terms with being gay because I didn’t see or know any queer Asians. I told myself, that I couldn’t be gay, there’s not even a word for lesbian in Vietnamese.

    Thank you again. Our looks define us through society and racism, but I have learn not to be a product of it and to be proud of who I am; queer, Asian and a woman.

    • I think here was a massive scam going on in Australian Schools in the nineties to rort ESL funding. I’m white, born in Australia and a native English speaker but one of my parents was migrant from Europe and speaks English with an accent so I was put in ESL class… Along with a couple of Italian-Australians in a similar position.

    • Gosh, I relate so much to a lot of this. I think it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I realized how much I internalized the idea that there weren’t any queer Vietnamese girls except me, even though I know logically that there are queer people everywhere.

      Something bone-deep happened when I saw photos of people celebrating a pride parade in Hanoi. I was born and raised in Canada to immigrant parents, and always felt like being Vietnamese was a tangential part of my identity, just because I didn’t see any place for myself in my family’s culture. I thought that was the Canadian part of me. I didn’t think of myself as “Asian” for years and years, even though of course no one ever let me forget it while I was growing up. I remember still, vividly, the time my neighbour and classmate, who I’d known since I was four, told me I looked stupid because I couldn’t even open my eyes all the way. I remember hanging out with my friends and proudly calling ourselves “whitewashed” or joking about bananas or Twinkies.

      It took so damn long for me to reconcile all the pieces of myself — to be proud of who I am, as you said. Seeing pieces like Robin’s and comments like yours makes me think of how important it is that we tell our stories. Six months ago, my 18 year old cousin mentioned how she wished she could get eyelid surgery, and I was so inept at articulating why she didn’t need to. Reading this helps me find the words. Thank you.

  5. Ooooo I love this.

    As someone who caved and got the eyelid surgery, the recovery process was horrible and I’m pretty sure my face doesn’t look all that different anyway.

    Mostly people just assume that I’m mixed (I was born in Korea) and even that’s just an underhanded way of saying that I’m not “fully Asian.”

    Sometimes I wish that I had come out before I had gotten it, because then maybe I would have been happy with how I looked. 😐

  6. I AM SO PROUD OF YOU AND THIS ARTICLE AND YOU KNOW I LOVE THAT PICTURE OF TINY YOU.

    If I were a dog, my tail would be wagging as I gaze adoringly at you while I drool on the couch. Good thing we both love cats.

    — FOREVER AND EVER, ALEX

  7. First off, I want to say that you have great writing and I’m glad someone has addressed this. This isn’t from personal experience but I know some people who get teased/laughed at about their eyes..I’m def going to share this article with them. =)

    I want to second the ‘fat’ thing. Why are Asian moms always doing that? The other day my mom said I have big thighs and that I should go to the gym to lose weight not gain muscle. I said I’m happy with the way I look and actually feel than 3 years ago when I wasn’t even going to the gym.

  8. I relate with this so much, thanks for writing this! After being teased so much for my “chinky” eyes, I’d finally started liking them because they’re so me, they can be cute, etc., but my mother keeps asking me if I want to get eyelid surgery, and I always firmly tell her, “No,” because I’m finally okay with the way I look.

    But as aware as I am about the oppressive beauty standards that compel so many Asians to get surgery, I think people should get the surgery as long as it adds to their happiness. Whatever floats their boat, I guess.

  9. Super great article. Thanks for sharing. I definitely learned something from number 7. I lived in South Korea for a few years and felt a little uneasy about eyelid surgery. I didn’t know a lot about the reasoning behind it and it also scared me that kids as young as middle school were having it done. But I think the reasoning behind it is much more personal than I had realized and you helped shed light on that.

  10. It irritates me to no end that it doesn’t even cross people’s minds that in any culture where status was indicated by not having having to work or even be outside that pale skin could even possibly become a standard of beauty. Classism and sexism impacting what is considered beautiful are not the sole intellectual property of European descended people.

    Is it some sort of white privilege derived ignorance/superiority founded isolationism that causes this? Why can’t people figure out that other standards of beauty not derived from theirs exists?

    • Ah shit didn’t mean to submit cause as soon as read what I typed I felt it takes away from the topic and the sharing of people who share Robin’s experience. There’s not delete 🙁
      My apologies if I have bothered anybody

    • Yo dude! I was emptying my inbox of comment notifications and I came across this, and I wanted to say, however belatedly, that this is definitely relevant. I agree, preferred skin color, like preferred eye shape, is a standard that develops independently across cultures, which all have their own systems of classism and sexism! It’s not like the ancient custom of white face makeup and red lip coloring in China and Japan ~suddenly developed~ because some Europeans came along.

  11. …amazing(ly accurate) thoughts. I am half Asian and am constantly asked by white people if I am stoned (maybe). I say no, those are just my eyes. Then it’s : oh, you’re the first Mexican I met with Chinese eyes. And then I wonder to myself why I even bother talking to anyone.

  12. Thanks for sharing! I think it’s bloody crazy how no one is ever happy with themselves. Too white. Too black. Too Asian. Too thin. Too fat. Too tall. Too short. I personally find Asian women attractive regardless of the size of their eyes. Wouldn’t the world be boring if we were all Caucasian? Thanks again!

  13. Are you kidding me?! I had no idea why people are so hung up on freaking eyes. They’re beautiful. Besides, the master race is black hair black/brown eyes.

  14. I found the article hilarious. My family is East Asian and it had always been a difficult task for us, especially my bro, to have our pictures taken for legal stuff. My bro would always be told by the photographers to open his eyes. We laugh at this all the time because he eyes were damn open. Plenty of times photographers would redo our shots because they either thought we were squinting or something, like we were doing it on purpose so our eyes were like that. This was kind of annoying, though. I personally like it how my eyes are always smiling. Lol

  15. My driving instructor refused to believe me when I told him that my eyes weren’t closed when I laughed at the jokes he made to make the lessons less stressful. Poor thing! He must have been so scared, whenever my eyes looked closed! Bless him. I know I wouldn’t want to sit in a car when the driver drives with his eyes closed… Hahaaa… Oh well, differences make life interesting interesting I guess.

    My younger sister had her eyes done and my mum used to tell me off for not getting mine done… One day, I just had enough. I told my mum that whatever she had given me was more than good enough for me, and I truly was happy with how I looked. Plus, who could guarantee on the result? The what-if would be a risk I simply couldn’t take!

    Apart from the driving instructor, the only ppl who ever said anything remotely “negative” were my own ppl… I’m happy with what I have, all that I have, or do not have.

  16. One of my friend’s told me that my eyes ‘disappear when I laughed’. She’s really nice, so hopefully, she didn’t point it out as a bad thing, but just as a neutral observation.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.