Whenever I meet someone new one of the first subjects of conversation is my ethnicity, what am I? Some people say I look white, some say I look Korean. I've gotten Filipino, Russian, and even Brazilian. I am half Mexican and half Chinese.
In all honesty, I enjoy the guessing game; a more narcissistic part of me likes being the subject of conversations amongst strangers in New York City. However, I have a different relationship with my ethnic ambiguity when around people of my own cultures and amongst my family.
Let's be stereotypical for a moment: what do Latinas supposedly look like? Busty, brown with long sultry hair and curvaceous hips. What do Asians "typically" look like? Short, very thin and pale with straight and jet black hair. What do I look like? I'm almost 5"9 and 140 lbs with brown wavy hair, somewhat pale skin and almond-shaped eyes, B-cup breasts and wide hips...so where do I fall between the stereotypes? More times than not, I come off as anything and nothing at the same time.
From left: Looking "Chinese" at Homecoming in high school, looking "Mexican" for the 16th of September
Most people think it's pretty cool, a friend recently told me that I could probably pass for most any ethnicity and although that may be the case, this characteristic is not as cool when all you want to do is look Asian or Hispanic to fit in or when members of your family criticize your body for being too big, too small or too flat.
Noel Duan recently wrote a great article for XO Jane titled "'Fat For An Asian': The Pressure To Be Naturally Perfect" in which she discusses the pressure that she (as an Asian) is under to be thin. She ends her piece saying that all women's experiences are different but she knows she's not the only one feeling the pressure to be perfect.
She isn't the only one and by straddling two different cultures with very different standards of beauty and perfection I have learned the hard way that you can never win. By being accepted and rejected by both of my cultures I have come to that age-old conclusion that the only way to be beautiful is to be yourself and that 'perfection' is a socially and culturally constructed ideal that is impossible to achieve, no matter how beautiful you may be.
It was not easy to come to this realization, however.
I can remember being nine years old and visiting my family in Hong Kong. I remember greeting my grandmother and being met with "hao fei," or "so fat." For years I dreaded going to Hong Kong because I knew that my weight would be a source of shame and criticism. Once my mother and I went to buy accessories for my hair at a local shop and I remember hearing women commenting on my weight, calling me fat and sneering at my appearance. I was twelve or thirteen, and I was devastated.
Me and my beautiful Mexican cousins
My mother would tell me to ignore them, that they were ignorant and mean and that I was beautiful as a Latina, but even within my Mexican family I didn't fit in.
I remember running around with my Mexican cousins and slowly growing up, witnessing their bodies growing: their breasts getting larger and their waists getting smaller while I stayed relatively square and short-waisted. The bodies that most resembled those of telenovela (soap opera) actresses were praised as beautiful while mine was always too big, too small, too flat or too pale.
I would yearn for my cousins' dark complexions, their large breasts and small waists. It didn't help that at school people asked if I could do kung-fu and why, if I was Mexican, I was so pale.
Like Duan, for most of my life I was not happy with what I looked like because I didn't fit in: I was also "too fat for an Asian" and too flat for a Latina. I wanted to be like Zhang Ziyi and be thin, have long hair and still kick ass while flying through the air. At the same time I wanted to look like Salma Hayek and be busty and seductive, turning men down with a jut of a hip.
From left: Zhang Ziyi in "The House Of Flying Daggers, Salma Hayek
I thought I was different because I was mixed. I thought no one could understand why I could not be classified as a beautiful Asian or Latina. I never blamed my mother for pointing at Mexican actresses and saying, "now she is beautiful" nor did I blame my Asian aunts for praising thinness and fragility. I thought, how could they ever understand that I can never be like that?
Then I realized that no one can ever be like "that." The standards of beauty and perfection are impossible to reach for anyone in any culture. As I grew older I realized that cousins on both sides of my family were feeling the same pressures to be thin and beautiful. I realized that actresses are airbrushed to extremes and undergo plastic surgeries to look like ideal images of beauty (which, p.s. are also constantly changing.)
I am not unique. Women all over the world are feeling the pressure to be taller, thinner, more tan or more pale and it is never enough. Our mothers and fathers are not immune to these culturally produced ideas and, of course, neither are we. The only way to stop starving ourselves and beating our heads when we enjoy a good meal is to realize that there is no such thing as "perfect" and that there is an ideal within every culture that everyone strives to look like but no one can reach because it is supposed to be impossible.
Heaven knows I am still not immune to these pressures and living in New York City--where Lara Stone's breasts greet me every time I pass Broadway-Lafayette--does not make it any easier. Sometimes I still wish that my breasts were larger or that my hair was straighter but I know that these wishes are remnants of the regrets I felt as a child feeling out of place and ugly. I love my body and love my so-called imperfections and I love my two cultures even if I can never truly look like either.