Category Archives: childhood

Asian Beauty & Canadian Ideals

When my mom was in a Malaysian refugee camp and pregnant with me, she had her fortune told. The fortune-teller foretold her that she’d have daughter. And that daughter’s past life was a warrior who had a fearsome kick. In this life, she would be a short girl, but she’d be beautiful and with porcelain white skin. When she did have a daughter (obviously). And I apparently kicked quite a bit in the womb. And yes, I am short at five feet tall. And while I wouldn’t be so conceited to call myself beautiful, I know I’m pretty. But alas, my skin is a naturally peachy/bronzed tone that tanned easily and didn’t fade quite so easily. More like my dad’s “rice farmer” skin than mom’s milky white skin. My mom likes to joke that the fortune-teller got most of it right.

As a little girl, my mom used to scold me for playing outside so often, chiding me for how dark my skin got each summer. I cared and wanted to have lighter skin badly. But not as badly as I wanted to play hockey outside with my brother or sit outside on the front lawn contemplating the universe with my best friend. My mom was horrified that she had apparently given birth to a little East Indian girl (I know, I know, racist! Yikes! But it’s what she called me!). And I desperately wanted to please my beautiful mom and be more like her, including her pale skin.

Like I said before, I have skin that tans easily but takes forever to fade. I once had a bikini tan line from August until December. So I just resigned myself to forever being tanned which made me always less pretty than I could have been. And all this was true until a few years ago when I started working full-time in an office from 8am-5pm and oftentimes even later. It started to be a regular thing for me to go to work before the sunrise and go home after sunset.

One day, while hanging out with my sister-in-law, she asked me what I was doing to my skin since I was lighter than I had ever been before. I hadn’t noticed, but when I went home that day, I checked myself out objectively in the bathroom mirror. Yes, my skin was lighter, pale even. And rather than thinking that I needed to get out more, I took it as an excellent byproduct of working too much.

Moe to that, at the make-up counter, I’m constantly hoping to be matched up to a paler shade of foundation. If I get matched up to a light shade, I almost always end up buying it, from Stila 10 Watts to Nars Deauville. I’ve got bottles and bottles of foundation in shades too light for my actual skin tone. Alway me trying to be more like my mom. Trying to be pretty in my mom’s eyes and looking for her approval.

It’s funny how I’ve so far rejected most of my mom’s traditionally Asian ideas of beauty. My mom wanted me to be skinnier; I grabbed another bowl of fried rice with sweet & sour pork. My mom wanted me to wear my hair long, black and straight. In my life, I’ve cut it all off, dyed it Barbie blond and permed it once or twice. My mom thought I should do my makeup and dress up everyday. I was a tomboy growing up who didn’t wear makeup and dressed in big t-shirts everyday. But for some reason, the pale skin bit stuck. And while I know it’s based on this horrible idea of class and privilege, I still subscribe to it. Even though I know it means nothing, even though I know better, I can’t help it.

The Things That Shaped My Youth

Inspired by Kloipy’s post: 10 Things That Shaped My Youth, I started to think about what influences in my youth shaped me to be who I am today. Here’s what I came up with:

1) My brother

VyTri & Me

Yes, my brother & I even shared haircuts.

My brother was my first hero. He was two years older than me which meant he was infinitely wiser. I wanted to be just like him. He loved to draw, so I loved to draw. He watched GI Joe and Transformers, I watched them with him. He played hockey, I ended up being the goalie. I was a tomboy because I was a reflection of my brother. He must have loathed me being his shadow and copycat, never getting a moment’s peace. But I adored him and lapped up every bit of play time I could get out of him.

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When I was 5…

Grade 1 picture

Grade 1 school picture. My mom used Christmas ribbon for my hair.

I grew up in a small town about 45 mins east of Vancouver called Aldergrove. Today the population is approximately 12 000 but when I grew up, it was substantially smaller, maybe just under 10 000. My family was one of the few Asian families who lived there. My parents knew all the other Vietnamese people who lived around town which amounted to about half a dozen. There were also some Chinese and Japanese families we also knew about. Growing up, I don’t remember feeling that different from the white people who lived in my town; I never really felt like I was treated differently from other kids in school.

I remember one cloudy summer day we were visiting another Vietnamese family who lived in a different, poorer section of town just beside the local Safeway. The neighbourhood was lined with townhouse complexes coloured a muted grey-beige and dirty dark brown. Back then though, the whole world seemed slighted muted with shades of grey and dirty brown.

As our parents discussed whatever it was parents discussed back then, their two daughters & I left to go to the playground just around the corner. I was excited to go play because I lived in the countryside without anything like playgrounds or even neighbours nearby for miles and miles. We were all sitting on the swings minding our own business, talking about whatever it was kids discussed back then.

Halfway through our conversation, three girls walked up to us, circling the swing set we were sitting on. They pulled their eyes back while chanting “ching chong ching chong” at us. I remember me & my friends watching them stunned into silence. I particularly could not take my eyes off the leader of the pack. She was a tall girl with long dirty blond hair wearing a faded white tank top and shorts. She looked a couple years older and was beautiful to my eye. I remember the distinct feeling of hating her and envying her at the same time.

As her friends continued circling and chanting, she came forward and said to us, “you can speak Chinese better than us but we can speak English better than you.”

I never heard of the word racism much less knew what it was. But I knew in the pit of my stomach that at that moment, it was my Asian-ness that made me different and that was what they hated about me. And I would have given anything to be a blond white girl just like them.

After less than a minute, the three girls took off, leaving my friends and I to ourselves. The only thing I could quietly mutter under my breath as I watched them go was “We’re not even Chinese…” After the coast was clear, we all ran home to go tell everyone what they said.

And although it wasn’t my general experience with most other white kids, I knew I was different. And would always be on the outside looking in.

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