Carlina Duan: Not your cutie

By Carlina Duan, Columnist
Published July 2, 2014

In the dark, the flashlight in my pocket chafes against my thigh and I watch northern Michigan huff out its pudding-night. Stars pout stupidly in the sky. A plane hobbles past; I say, “Is that a satellite?” My friend shakes his head no. Somebody else calls me cute for dreaming. In the night, surrounded by a smattering of sand and beetles, I feel itchy. Exhausted. Filled with ache and temperature and unrest.

Frequently, I’m told by others that I’m “small” or “cute.” Ironically, I feel neither. At home, I rifle through our cabinet and eat all the pita chips. I forget to sweep the floors. I overbook myself frequently; fall in love on the hour. Most days, I’m awkward and shy and filled with a windowless joy. People shake their heads. People point and call me “petite.” I’m five feet. The man carting cans of Coca Cola at Meijer tells me not to look at it as a diss. “Let’s put it this way,” he laughs, “You’re fun-sized.”

At work, I’m called “cute” by a co-worker, who chirps out, “You’re just like, the cutest person I’ve ever seen!” and crushes me in a hug. A yellow dog hair rides her shirt collar, and I’m immediately filled with a watery rage. I have biceps. I clip my nails. I have hair that tussles down a wide back. I’m twenty years old, and I’m frequently pegged by others as “cute.”

Cuteness and smallness are terms that are shoved into my world often — by strangers, friends, and peers. They’re not intended as insults. After all, I’m five feet tall. I write poems. I eat sugar. I wear children’s size Nike sneakers. Fireflies light me up with glee.

Still, the project of naming others can become one-dimensional, squashing down, rather than lifting up.

The word “cute” has its rightful place. In the daycare center where I work, we circulate the word frequently. Cute kids. Cute bangs and lost baby teeth. Cute Lego blocks shaped into castles and crayons. At my other job waiting tables, we discuss cuteness in the context of the elderly woman who slides into the restaurant in plum-colored shoes and matching sunglasses, dicing her dill pickle with a fork. Cute baby on the patio, mashing his macaroni with a fat fist. Cute dog slurping from the water bowl. Cute, wagging tail.

For all the times I’m forecast with the word “cute,” cuteness itself seems foreign to me. “Cute” doesn’t strut. “Cute” doesn’t drink its chocolate milkshake with bare feet, perched by the electric socket in July heat. “Cute” doesn’t place its hand on its hip, talking back. There seems to be a strange glossiness that accompanies cuteness. What is nonthreatening, easily cooed at, easily pet on the head — that’s cute.

As a “petite” Asian-American woman, I find it incredibly important to redefine my own sense of space. I find it urgent to shout, to bust out of the words I’m given or made to wear. There’s wonder in shaping the world with my own two hands: Why “cute”? Why “small”? When frozen in these words, how can I do my own kind of snipping? How can I uncover? How can I groove or glow?

Instead of settling into these names, it’s important that we roll into and out of them. The practice of naming with language has such a slow-churned power — it’s important that we don’t retreat. I aim to challenge myself to twist these words inside-out. Smallness, cuteness — I fall into that and so much more. For me, what’s intriguing is that these terms have never aligned with how I feel. So the bigger project becomes navigating a world where I am seen as X but shimmy into Y.

While, at times, it’s frustrating to be pinned down into these terms, I also find that it introduces a sense of awe into my own work and the ways I practice self-care. I appreciate moments of self-hugeness much, much more. I ask questions. I can be cute or small, but I can also brim full of sass, song, trouble. In cuteness, in smallness — I do not rest. I am out-of-breath, I run, I marvel.

In a writing prompt, the poet Shira Erlichman encourages others to, “Snatch a potent name back from the air. (…) How do you make or re-make it? Shake the snowglobe of the name: what floats, what sinks?”

For me, “cute” and “small” give me opportunities to claim mightiness and power in revolutionary ways. I can be cute, but I can also be dimensional. I can name myself — loud-mouthed, long-haired, tall-hearted, giant in wonder, giant in love.

Carlina Duan can be reached at