By Carlina Duan, Magazine Editor
Published January 19, 2014
At first, it plunked. An intelligent red, the shade of dahlias in March, swooping down on cheap carpet. Then, it crashed. “Nosebleed! Nosebleed!” Nick shouted from the back row, “Mustache Girl’s got a nosebleed!” All my classmates turned to look.
My throat stung.
The blood wasn’t shy. It slushed out — splashing down my desk, skating across my half-open geometry textbook, spanking the pages with a vicious crimson. My face swelled in guilt, but it wasn’t because of the blood. Mustache Girl, Nick cawed, his voice like a vegetable peeler, cutting me into sharp curls of shame.
Mr. Grady stood up slowly in his white sneakers as I flung my way across the path of desks. The bathroom was out the hallway, past six classrooms, near a water fountain spewing liquid of questionable yellow. As I scrambled out the door, I heard Nick, followed by a chorus of disgusted laughter: “She got blood all over his shoes!”
In seventh grade, I got nosebleeds frequently. I got used to the blood flailing down my throat, the familiar hum of metallic red. Cotton balls I’d wet beneath the sink, then shove up my nostril. The nurses, who’d tell me to pinch tight my nose and tilt my head up. Fluorescent lights of the middle school ceiling. The bright red blooms on my hands, inked with blood.
In seventh grade, I got used to the name. Nick and Ben would call me Mustache Girl on the sly. At first, it didn’t shake me up too much. I had friends. I had a pink lunchbox from the GAP. I had a violin case with a tiny, glittery keychain in the shape of a cat, which my Dad had gotten me from a business trip to Tokyo. In early winter mornings at the bus stop, before the sun composed its dear and simple light, the cat would flash a hazy pink against bitter snow. In seventh grade, I had a fondness for pears, and courage, and cats.
I also had a mustache.
Rather, I had black hair, and dark eyes, and loud hips. I had bad vision, and a callus on my middle finger from writing with the same purple gel pen. I had undergone puberty as a Chinese girl, and what resulted were the soft, black hairs that had dusted my upper-lip, my legs, my arms — bashful, shaming black.
In the mirror each morning, I’d glare at my reflection. I’d pucker, and pout. In geometry class, I’d gaze at the back of Ben’s buzzed head. I’d eat dumplings at dinner and wonder why they weren’t cheese sandwiches. At my all-white cafeteria table, I’d watch Lindsey’s arm, swept by a patch of blonde hair. My own arm: mowed and blazed with black.
After I became Mustache Girl to Nick and Ben, my lip became my own small criminal. I punished the hair solemnly with my hands. I grew out my fingernails to try and yank it out. In secret, I tried using scissors, but wimped out. I Googled hundreds of pages: “The Female Mustache,” “3 Secret Weapons for Fighting Your Lady-Mustache,” “Girl mustache pluck,” “Girl mustache removal,” “So, what do I do about her Mustache?!”
In school, suddenly, I wouldn’t show my mouth. The mirror exaggerated my face into a bold, black roar. I wasn’t feminine — I was hairy. I wasn’t cool — I was black-haired.
Raised by a woman who opposed wax and razors, I bought a self-bleach kit and bleached my upper-lip hair with white cream, meticulously setting a timer on my mom’s phone to make sure I didn’t overdo the time. In the mirror, I balked. The cream was cold, thick and smelled of rubber boots. When the timer went off, I washed my face twice. My hair turned amber at the roots, white-blonde at the ends. Transparent. Almost gone.
In middle school, it was almost about proof: showing a room filled with other tiny, livid bodies that I could be just as tiny and just as livid, too. It was almost about becoming like Jane, like Nora, like all my white girl friends who poured tubes of sparkly pink gloss over their mouths before class.
Until it wasn’t.
I envied their slim gold, but knew I’d never have that kind of blonde luck. Black hair was in my blood, my own body’s dumb magic.
On the exterior, it’s an easy story, filled with easy headlines: Middle school is hard. Growing up can be mean. Kids dump lunches in red lockers. Hormones flock. Chinese girl sprouts peach fuzz above her lip and worries about it in the bathroom. Courage, cream. Growth spurts, ache.
It’d be almost too easy for me to raise my fist in the air, and triumphantly gaze at my stubby middle-school self and the distance I’ve trekked since then. To crack up about it now. To ignore the strips of wax at my apartment, sealed in a green box. To act like I let it all — the naming, the shame, the hair — grow out of me.
Poet Shira Erlichman writes, “It is important to snatch back from the air the words others attempt to dress us in. To create our own deliciously expansive, wild, deliberate dresses.” Ben and Nick called me Mustache Girl for a year. I let them. Then, eighth grade hit, and all of a sudden, I was Carlina again.
As a Chinese-American woman, how do I rebel? Define? Re-fashion? Undress the word and world that’s been given to me? How do I “snatch back?” At times, it’s hard for me to feel empowered by hair, by blackness. It’s easy for me to feel engulfed by shame. Still, there’s a type of strength and hilarity to looking back. How much power and shyness we find in the project of naming. In giving ourselves up to the shapes others carve out for us. How hard it is to carve space for ourselves. Yet how urgent, and how brave.
I’m never sure how to remind myself that I’m a woman who knows what’s best for myself, and a part of knowing what’s best is naming myself — not around the angles of others’ mouths, but around my own curves and muscle and black hair. In middle school, there was shame in being called out for not knowing. There was strange duty and pressure to fit a homogeneous idea of beauty, of girlhood. But today, there’s a sureness to understanding that I am complex, unwinding and not reducible to one name, or, for that matter, one cubed version of beauty. More importantly, there’s pride to understanding that homogeneity is not how I strive to splash through life. Difference is funky, and there's color involved. There’s name-calling. And name-shaping. There’s independence, which feels humble. It doesn’t feel small.