Pretty For an Asian

imageBY Joy Ong

As part of ‘Bring a Family Member to School Week’, my grandfather sat down with my classmates and taught them about his culture and his immigration to Australia. As his lesson came to an end, he sang a folk song from his home village in China. My classmates all sneered and made fun of him. I wanted to disappear. Feeling embarrassed and ashamed, I told my grandfather to never come to my school again.

‘Pretty’ is a six-letter word that shouldn’t mean much, but holds an attachment of immense human gratification to it. Growing up, we may quickly learn that ‘pretty’ includes only a very specific set of values within our current society.

As a child, I developed my definition of ‘pretty’ from what I saw on my friends from school, and the characters and people I saw on TV. They were pretty. Their wide, bold eyes were pretty, their slim arched noses and pale complexions were pretty. Naturally, I compared myself to them. As a young, second generation Chinese/Korean immigrant, I felt inadequate.

I had only been teased a few times for my looks throughout my childhood, but it all stuck with me. It was a feeling of deeply-rooted un-confidence that I couldn’t escape, though I desperately wanted to. Eventually, I simply became convinced that I was not enough. Not Taylor Swift enough. Not white enough. Not pretty enough.

When my teenage years began, I blossomed. I spent most of my time trying to cover my ethnicity with makeup and new ideals. I was always trying to look better— look whiter, look prettier. It was the mask I used to conceal the un-concealable part of me, which I knew wasn’t considered conventionally pretty.

Soon, people believed it. I became labelled as ‘Pretty, for an Asian’, and I was okay with that. A casually racist comment became the most validating compliment someone could give me. Even though it heavily and falsely implied that Asians were unattractive, I didn’t mind. Even though it went against everything my family had ever taught me, at the time, I didn’t mind. I was getting closer and closer to the fabricated concept of ‘pretty’.

One day, my nine-year-old cousin told me that her classmates didn’t invite her to a party because she looked different. At that exact moment, I remembered the girl I was at her age— the same girl who wondered why she didn’t look like her friends. I realised, that just like when I was younger, I still desperately wanted, and tried, to hide my traditionally East Asian features. More importantly, I realised how much I didn’t want her to be affected the same way I had been.

I had forgotten everything that made me who I really was. Then, I looked into the mirror and saw a face that told a story. I looked into my own eyes, through which I could finally see clearly, and saw that they bore the same gaze of my mother, and my grandmother. I breathed in deeply with my flat and proud nose. My cheeks flushed with the same blood that flowed through my ancestors.

It was when I stopped looking within other people, that I finally found beauty within myself. I found acceptance, and truth, in that beauty. Conventional standards rarely acknowledge differences, and this may be extremely detrimental to young people, as it promotes false ideals.

Beauty is an internal strength that you cultivate. It is believing in yourself and embracing yourself whole.

I decided that I was different, and was always going to be, and that was okay. I wasn’t ashamed. I finally decided that ‘pretty’, didn’t mean much at all.

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