“You could be a model for Benetton,” J.S. said — this being a time when Benetton was putting people we all considered to be highly unattractive on their posters. This being after she had “assigned” future modeling gigs with Gap, Banana Republic, Vogue and Seventeen magazines to everyone else on her private “my dad’s a lawyer” party bus for us junior high-schoolers. This being a moment when J.S. had just listed the magazines and stores that we all considered to be the crème de la crème of beauty (after all, we were 13 or 14 years old) and throwing me a modeling gig for Benetton was a scrap from the table of upper middle class suburban fashion.
For many of us, growing up where we did and as we did, our obvious lack of blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin was an all self-perception shaper that our mirrors only mocked. We accepted “being ugly” at a very early age without any sense of drama. It was like accepting that the color of the sky is what it is.
Since we suspected that the only other options our ugly selves had were to become the school slut or to hedge our bets on others wearing beer goggles, we accepted the standard comments and questions — “So you know karate? You related to Bruce Lee?” — as the highest compliments that we would ever get.
“I know karate. So if you don’t leave my friends alone, I will… HI-YA!” the six-year-old version of me growled, threatening a bully at church. I was small, but it worked. I didn’t even really know what karate was, except that, according to my white older brother and his friends, you said “hi-ya” a lot.
And as we grew older our ability to respond to or even label comments by peers was something we were ill-equipped to handle, as our white mothers and fathers had never thought to warn us of how white boys had learned to see us.
“You know, you Asian girls have really tight pussies,” said C.S. As the student council president, he “bequeathed” this statement as some kind of boon from his elevated status. He stated it as a fact that I needed to be made aware of.
Many of us were growing up in the kinds of towns, villages, or suburbs where beauty meant being everything that our bodies were not. Quite often at our high schools, the homecoming court consisted mainly of white girls with good tans. So we’d known from a very young age that we wouldn’t have much say in the matter. By the time we were old enough to vote on it, we’d accepted that we’d be doing it from the sidelines.
“Like, ohhh my gaawwwd, you are like soooo popular and beautiful and nice—of course you’ll be queen,” we would squeal to the white girl with the really good tan as the long line of boys queued up to date her.
Adolescence made it exceedingly clear to many of us that we were either desirable for the “tightness of our pussies” or for being the “Asian friend.”
“T.D. likes a Chineeeessseeee… But you say she’s just a friend, but you say she’s just a friend…” was the response sung by T.D.’s basketball teammates after he told them that he’d be taking his best friend, me, to his junior-senior banquet.** “Oh baaaabbbbyyy, youuuu… you got what I need…T.D. likes a Chineeesssseeee,…” they sang on at practice. (**Christian schools don’t do proms, they do banquets, which is another story for another time.)
Adolescence and our childhoods made clear to us what we were and were not good for to others. We learned that our “ugliness” was not so much a defect but a fact.
Some of us played the role of the “Asian friend” for the next several years, and we accepted that we would one day end up marrying some white guy that we’d meet in college—a white guy who had a thing for Asian girls but who told us that he just had always had a “real appreciation for the East.”
Those of us, for whom boys like C.S. used our broken sense of beauty to their advantage, dreamed of a love and beauty that did not require the spreading of legs.
We dreamed of mirrors that did not mock us.
So now, as adults in our 30s and 40s, we occasionally have these conversations about how and when it began to dawn on us that maybe we aren’t ugly, and that maybe we never were ugly. And yet, we still see ugly—or nothing at all—in the mirror. And like everything else about our stories, we can’t go back and tell our past selves, “Hey, kid, listen. You’re not actually ugly, you know.”
We speculate on whether or not knowing this would have changed anything for us. Some of us may have been a little less “easy,” others a little more.
The good side (if there is one) is that none of us tend to fish for compliments when it comes to looks, having accepted so long ago that there are no compliments to fish for. So, no matter the bravado we put on, many of us still feel just like that duckling who was startled to see a swan staring back. Some of us are still living like ducklings.
But the fact that many of us have finally begun to move into the idea that beauty really isn’t determined by having blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin with a good tan, well, is a step in the swan’s direction. And for today, that step is enough.
Perhaps, one day, we shall be able to trumpet proudly as swans. But even if the inability to believe that is still blocking our capacity to fully exhale, at least we’re finally getting that maybe… just maybe…
… we weren’t ugly all of those years.
~ kim thompson/김종예
*This is a reworking of a piece from December 2011 and is based on conversations that kept coming up among friends about how we grew up as 2nd (and early 3rd) wave adoptees, where we grew up, who we grew up around and what we were taught to believe was “beautiful.”