I’m 100% Korean. But a lot of people – mostly Asians, in fact – mistake me for being half-white.
To be honest, my gut reaction is glee. Half-Asian girls are always gorgeous, so being mistaken for one – to me – implies that maybe I, too, fall into this category of attractive females. But beyond my momentary glee, I wonder why I take this occasional misidentification as such a compliment: Do I simply like being thought of as pretty by association, or is it something more ideologically fraught?
Indeed, I have somewhat atypical physical traits for an Asian person: my eyelids are double-folded, I am relatively tall, and my hair is a mass of natural curls. I like these qualities not because they enhance my appearance, but more for their way of making me a little more effortlessly unique.
But what does “unique” mean in this context? By “unique” do I really mean “non-Asian?” Because I am pleased by my physical characteristics, which are often seen as being more Western, am I then affirming how Western aesthetics are an underlying ideal standard of beauty? And when it comes to physically identifying ethnicity, can differences from the norm be seen as harmless uniqueness, or does it subconsciously become an exercise in examining racial features (that might not even be inherent) and/or racial desirability?
Now that I live in Japan, I frequently see all sorts of made-up Japanese women with chemically altered hair and bug-eyed color contacts. But I don’t think these women are trying to mimic another race – though, since it is Japan, there are always extremes like the ganguro Tokyo girls who, as the word literally implies, wear blackface. Rather, the majority probably just want to enhance their appearance by straying from the brown-eyed, black-haired norm of Asian ethnicity. (Ironically, like most other “deviant” aesthetic trends this leads to the normalization of the once different-looking people, who all end up looking the same. And then it becomes a whole new norm that people are compelled to follow; but that is another issue.) Perhaps then a tangential but relevant question is how the “aesthetic norm” can be challenged and reaffirmed by conflicting (and racially-charged?) notions of beauty.
Likewise, I have had a strange history with my appearance. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, my eyes were very asymmetrical. My left eye was “Asian,” almond-shaped with a single lid; while my right eye was rounder with a more well-defined double lid, which I nicknamed the “White eye” (for its Caucasian-style eyelid). I would spend hours in front of the mirror tugging at my eyelids, futilely pining for symmetry with either “ethnicity”. Then, about six years ago, my Asian eye inexplicably acquired a second fold and has stayed that way ever since. Similarly, my straight hair turned wavy by the end of high school, and some time during college I acquired unstoppable ringlets.
Though I like the odd changes in my appearance, I don’t consciously equate these changes with looking more Caucasian, per se. I like looking “normal” – having two symmetrical-looking eyes – but “unique” – my eyes are not the usual “Asian” ones. Interestingly, living in Asia made me realize that my standards of “normality” are undeniably skewed by having grown up in American Whiteness; I thought my uneven eyes and pre-orthodontic snaggletooth were just plain freakish, but I see people with these characteristics quite frequently in Japan. Here, then, it seems rather “normal” and maybe even trendy. Still, this idea of fitting into a norm, whatever it may be, but being “positively” different from it is alluded to once again.
I discussed this topic with my best friend, who happens to be mixed race, and she brought up a simple but very true point: discourse aside, it can be somewhat of a “primal thrill” to be seen as a different race from what you actually are. There is certainly an element of this unexplainable rush that draws me to the idea that I might look half-White; having always felt physically (and socially, though my “privilege” has confused that) separate from Whiteness, it can be fun to not only “trick” people with my apparently elusive ethnicity but maybe even look good – really, have you ever seen an unattractive half-Asian girl? – in the process.
ABOUT MANDY: Mandy is currently living in Japan. And yes, she’s tried natto; it’s all right.