It was the end of seventh grade when I found myself in the locker room with one of my friends after physical education. We were fixing ourselves up in the mirror, doing everything in our control to cover our prepubescent insecurities with cakey concealer and eye product — she, with the bright blue eyeshadow that brought out her eyes, and I, with the thick black eyeliner to exaggerate the size of mine. She turned to look at me, studying, analyzing, judging.
“You know, you’re actually super pretty, especially for an Asian,” she told me.
To her, it wasn’t meant to be an insult, simply an endearing observation. I remember forcing a smile and muttering a “thank you,” unable to respond in any other way to the blatantly racist comment sugarcoated with a compliment.
She then proceeded to list all of the qualities of my face that she liked, briefly and superficially repairing the damage she had done to my ego. She concluded her analysis with, “If you got double eyelid surgery, though, you would basically be perfect.”
She had smiled kindly at me, as if she had given me some sort of validation — as if saying, despite the one shortcoming I had, the one belonging exclusively to my ethnicity, I am pretty in her eyes.
The worst part, as I think back years later, is how I distinctly remember nodding in agreement. I would be much prettier with double eyelids. I wanted to look like typical American girls — like her — with a face composed of lines that connect in ways seemingly fluid but defined, soft but bold, all at once.
Weeks later, I claimed a sick day. I stayed home from school spending hours perusing YouTube tutorials, trying to figure out a way to artificially induce double eyelids without surgery.
I didn’t understand then how an offhanded comment from one friend had me wanting to change a major component of my appearance, of what makes me who I am. I realized this was the first time I’d ever sought out white validation — and it wouldn’t be the last.
In high school, the urge to be accepted by my white peers made me change my personality to act and appear more whitewashed than I felt on the inside. Pretending that I had the same experiences, interests, goals and values as my white friends, I desperately sought to gain their approval, to get the nod that I fit in, that I was one of them.
Six years have passed since the locker room instance. Though I have been able to leave behind much of my need for white validation — cast aside along with my adolescent insecurities — my discomfort with the feeling of never fully fitting in remains.
Just last semester, while hanging out with a group of predominantly white friends here at Berkeley, I had one friend excitedly insist that she introduce me to another group of girls she’d met because, although she “didn’t particularly vibe” with them, she was sure I’d “fit right in.”
Days later, when she introduced me to a group of strictly East Asian girls, I understood what she meant when she said that she didn’t particularly get along with them, but that I would. I don’t think she had negative intentions, and in fact, she was right. I did get along fantastically with that group, partially because we can relate to one another in ways no one without first-generation immigrant East Asian parents can.
But sometimes, I’ll be walking around campus with this group, and I’ll have a momentary out-of-body experience. I’ll see us as we are: a group of girls, all with the same skin color, same hair color, same eye color, but more importantly, the same cultural background and the same upbringing.
And although there isn’t anything wrong with that, there remains an insecure part of me that plagues my mind with questions about how my white peers may perceive us, how they may judge us. Every time someone’s gaze lingers for too long, I immediately wonder if they’re questioning why we’re “so Asian,” why we can’t fully assimilate even though we live in the United States.
No white person has actually ever explicitly made comments like this to me. Honestly, very few have even given us anything close to looks of judgment. It is my unreasonable need for white approval that’s to blame.
Although I’m proud of myself for leaving behind my middle school shame of my culture, I’m disappointed that there is a part of me that still craves white validation, that still hasn’t fully come to terms with my color and my background. And with that, the inherent guilt that comes with having a group of all-Asian friends is something that I shouldn’t have, but that still occasionally lurks in the back of my mind.
I’m working to rid myself of that mindset this year because I am proud to be Chinese-American. I am proud to come from a culture of swirling cheongsams, of intricate dumplings, of glowing lanterns. I am proud of my monolids. I am fortunate to be able to have a group of friends in which we all have the same upbringing and same cultural background.
I shouldn’t need white validation to make me feel confident in who I am.
Manya Zhao writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]