by Sophie Lyu
It was all white, all around, gleaming and fluorescent and stark. White: like hospital white, lab-coat white. White: like the color you’re told is pure and pristine and at once untouchable and inimitable. I sat in this sea of white, suspended in wonder--how peaceful (or was it sterile), how calm (or was it stagnant). A plastic surgeon is buttoned up to the chin in it, crisp white coat crackling at his movements as he assesses my mother in his office, imparting this frigidity onto her. He envelopes her in the comfort of this world of whiteness. He coaxes her with the message that within these white walls, he could save her, bless her with the gift of a new face: don’t you want to look like the rest of the beautiful people?
We watch him as if he is as holy as the angels who bleed this same whiteness, listening to his word as if it is sacred. He turns to me unexpectedly. I’m enveloped in this whiteness. I am blinded by it. He pushes a cold, sharp instrument into my unwilling face. Prods at my eyelids, watching their softness warp under the strain of his craftsman's hand until he turns out a single miracle: a crease. Coldness seeps through me, turning me white, the way he wants: is he god, working me into perfection?
She would be beautiful if she had new eyes, he says, words icy-cold and enveloping me in this whiteness.
I lay in bed that day, stained with this coldness, this whiteness, and weep. I am only fifteen.
I am sixteen. My head is filled with the low thrum of pounding as I continue to move through the world, eyes still blanketed with thickness. I look at the smooth plains of my eyelids and hold myself back from folding them with my fingers, pinching so hard they’re left red-rimmed. I begin to tense my face whenever I am with people, raising my eyebrows and widening my eyes to push the illusion of brightness, openness.
I feel invisible strings pulled and fastened tight in my forehead--strings that threaten to snap at any moment, strings I can feel fraying and withering, strings that each day pluck on--sending tremors through me. Some days I have splitting headaches that I will one day learn to soothe by rubbing my forehead, letting my eyes rest at the end of a full day.
Later that year, a makeup artist pauses and sucks her teeth when I sit before her in her raised white chair, wide blue eyes narrowing to strategize how she would approach my stretched, hopeful face: what the fuck am I supposed to do with a girl with eyes like this?
Glumly, I offer the first blow: I know, they’re a bitch to deal with.
We’ll go bigger, brighter, she says, and I disappear in a whirl of powders and liners. She prods at my eyelids, digging into their softness and sighing at their clumsy thickness, until finally, she turns me to face myself. I am unrecognizable. My face tense, my temples beginning to ache, I stretch my face into a grin as I watch myself. My eyes are empty as I stare back at this girl: a girl with eyes decided upon by someone who found them to be an inconvenience.
I show up to Junior formal bright and blinding, my smile not reaching my eyes in any of the photos.
I begin my fall around the time I am twenty-one. I lay in bed facing a girl I know is beautiful in the sort of way that can be felt even through a pen and paper--all delicate slopes and lines, curves gentle and lovely to draw. I hate how asymmetrical my face is, she whispers. I watch impassively, dumbfounded. We talk, I attempt to reassure her, which I doubt is what she wanted after all--she is not the type of girl to share these things, for fear of appearing like she is casting a net for empty compliments. I, still fumbling around the answers to this question of beauty myself, have very little beyond that to offer her. Looking back on this, I reel at my stiffness. But what would I say to a girl who defined beauty to me?
Friends will go on to tease me for this unsympathetic way of viewing people and their fears. Everyone has irrational insecurities, I will hear time and time again. Never did I think to apply this to my own self.
A professor nudges me toward a poet named Franny Choi one day in her office hours. The gesture follows a sour comment I make in an essay describing my fear that my Koreanness will forever inhibit me from true self-acceptance. I devour Choi’s work that night with a twinge in my chest, sometimes confused, stunned through and through. She is a Korean queer woman, like me, who forges a path to herself through her writing.
This pain, her writing tells me, can be healed.
I develop an interest in Asian-American literature and stories. Memoirs challenge me the most: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong and Tastes Like War by Grace Cho at once absolve me of my individuality and its subsequent isolation, then shift the solution to something greater. Solidarity.
They zoom out from their own circumstances and point not to beauty or superficial means of achieving self-fulfillment, but call out the structures in place that hold us to this boiled-down, reduced version of self. Rather than accept it, they question why we’ve been led to chase crumbs when really we collectively long for liberation.
You are not the only one, they say: the message is only one of many within the chorus of what it means to be a Korean woman in America.
I internalize this message at twenty-two.
I begin to write more, pushing through my slumps and creative ruts with a fervor I rarely exercised before. The act is uncomfortable, stripping and baring me. I often put my feelings on the page and wince at them, overcome with a desire to doctor parts in an obsessive attempt to control my image. But as I write about topics closer to myself, the shame melts to sorrow.
I write about coming out, I write about falling in love then walking away heartbroken, and in each shard, I see myself more clearly than the last. Through writing, I see myself more through my own words than through the gazes of strangers around me.
I feel a pang at this recognition.
There is darkness. It’s heavy, warm, and full, pressing me into the blankets and laying its pressure on my body. I curl into it, the girl I love wrapping my arms around her and curling into me. Heavy with exhaustion, I barely notice when she turns to face me, suddenly jumping when she does, my eyes flying open. Just before, she had teased me relentlessly for my admission that after I do my makeup, I often make faces in the mirror to see how my eyeliner will bend, warp, and smudge when I smile or otherwise, then fix it accordingly.
I’m trying not to laugh, I still say when she makes an inappropriate comment.
Why, because you didn’t practice your laugh face? she now jokes.
She unsettles me in the way she notices everything about me, and all that I do. She studies me now, deep-set eyes warm and heavy in the dark, smiling face turned serious.
Why do you worry about controlling your face so much?
I go into a dark place when I tell the story. But in the stillness of her room, enveloped in her arms and a safe kind of darkness, the truth tumbles from my lips.
I tell her about the white, cold place and the way he spoke to me without provocation. I tell her about the nightmares and headaches and the way it left me confused, cautious, constantly chasing validation.
He told me I would be more beautiful if I had new eyes, I say finally, staring up at the ceiling.
It is the first time I tell the story without crying.
There is a beat before she responds.
I think you’re so beautiful, she says finally, wrapping her arms around me and pulling me into her too-warm skin, kissing me, knowing my face but more than that, knowing me, and I love you.
When I go home in the morning, I pull out my journal and notice the amount of I’s that jump out from the page. I sit and write in front of the mirror on my desk these days, occasionally looking up while writing and catching my own eye, making a face here and there when I’m shocked by my own admissions.
I believed her when she said it, I write. I close my journal, and smile at myself in the mirror.