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Michigan in Color: I am not a geisha

Courtesy of Carlina Duan

By Carlina Duan, Magazine Editor
Published February 13, 2014

For Halloween that year, I wandered the costume store, watching low-cut sailor suits dangle on plastic mannequins. As the automatic doors whirred open and closed, a shrill scent of sugar pierced the air. I swallowed. From the corner of the building, a neon pink octopus skirt adorned a display. Next to it, a Pikachu suit wobbled on its plush yellow head.

Along the aisle, a discarded wig nestled across a shelf. The blonde curls were jarring — coiled into slick, light spirals. Soft to touch.

I stood, shy-mouthed.

I almost bought the blonde wig.

The month I turned fourteen was also the month I realized all my ideal Halloween costumes were blonde and white. In fact, I couldn’t really be any character without resorting to classic Asian figures in fiction — Cho Chang, Mulan — figures who I felt were demure, somewhat voiceless, and, for the most part, predictable.

“You could be a geisha,” a friend suggested. “Those are always cute.”

I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to be badass — to shout, to eat lollipops that would make my tongue turn bright, bossy colors.

Instead, I spent that Halloween in a traditional Chinese qipao, a silk dress my aunt had brought me from Beijing the previous year. “I’m a geisha,” I told everyone, sweating. My dress itched, the moon lit up. My friends flocked the streets as Hermionie Grangers, Princess Leias, Rory Gilmores. They flicked their black wands, brushed their blonde carpets of hair. I dragged along clutching a pillowcase of candy, drenched in a sheet of shame.

When I got home, I ate two packets of Skittles while crying, peeling off the dress and shoving it into a cardboard box in my closet, which my mother later mistakenly donated to Purple Heart.

At fourteen years old, I loved cucumber salads, owned two Victoria’s Secret bras and hated how the word “cute” couldn’t unbutton itself. My Hello Kitty watch ticked the time cutely. My pink GAP lunchbox zipped cutely. Every morning, the sun clicked desperately in the sky, and I stood beneath it, a small “cute” blob.

Fourteen years old, and I was Chinese, which meant I was allowed to be cute. But not hot.

From a young age, I mistakenly equated attractiveness with whiteness. Asians weren’t on TV, unless we were Jackie Chan, who shouted hoarsely in kung-fu movies. We weren’t on radio stations. We didn’t make out with the sexy brunette dude with the brawny arms. We didn’t wrench open windows, dash from bombed buildings, or save the famous art museum from burning. We didn’t wear capes. In cinema, we wore our yellow skins, and sometimes, we wore our accents — which always sounded louder and harsher next to our all-American counterparts.

Asian women, in particular, always seemed to appear on the margins of movies. I watched them, black-haired and red-lipped, standing stoically alone, or used as the emblematic “Oriental” waitresses who poured white characters their steamy mugs of tea at the takeout restaurant. Asian women were either hyper-sexualized or de-sexualized, and I watched them totter on both sides of the spectrum: clad in silk dresses, hair in tight buns, faces painted a porcelain white … or turned girlish, cute, flat-chested, in-love with Sanrio characters, karaoke and kitties.

When I roamed the bookstores, I rarely saw a hot Asian female on magazine covers. There were brown eyelashes, green eyes, creamy-pale skin. In commercials, if there was an Asian figure, she was usually set in an Oriental-looking landscape, complete with bonsai trees and pagodas. Sexy Chinese women in sexy American backdrops were nowhere to be found. We were typecast into films that had eerily similar names as Americanized Chinese restaurants: Daughter of Shanghai, The Forbidden Kingdom.

Moreover, Asian women were frequently lumped into broad categories that disregarded individual cultural identities. In popular media portrayals, we were either all geishas, or we were all Chinese waitresses. We usually weren’t distinguished for being Filipino, or Korean, or Malaysian. There was homogeneity with our presence on the big screens, and it aligned with fortune cookies, soy sauce and white cartons of rice. After all, we looked the same. We all had black hair, and bronze skins. Our individual histories and cultural intricacies as Chinese women, as Indonesian women, as Indian women — all of these were scrapped in favor for an overarching “Asian Female” type.

Meanwhile, I secretly still ached to be blonde and white. Movie screens, music and cultural literature all seemed to designate that blonde was gorgeous, leggy, simple. Women of color were “exotic” and confusing. We were portrayed as temporal objects of fascination. White boys would be interested, and then flicker away. I was ashamed of my black hair, my small breasts, the way my eyelids would swell rapidly in the summer heat. Growing up, these were things I could never share with my white friends.