There are only three words running through my head as I shuffle toward my bathroom: hair, teeth, face.
My feet are bare as I flit down the hallway, barely making contact with the dirty carpet. Recently, this house has felt stifling, faintly reminiscent of a loudly distant aunt who demands a hug and holds on for far too long. When I look up at the dingy walls, the cloudy windows, I feel my lungs squeezing. Or maybe that’s the constant knot of anxiety in my stomach, tied tightly enough that it sits there like a rock all day, every day.
The mirror is crooked when I walk in, which is a faint interruption of the chant pervading my thoughts. It’s just straight enough to fit in with the rest of the fixtures, but just tilted enough to grate on my nerves, and I nearly reach out to fix it before I catch a glance of my reflection and the knot pulls itself tighter. Something I can’t quite name jolts through my body like lightning. I have to turn away. Hair, teeth, face. Simple enough.
The comb goes first. I reach for the handle and grip it tightly, watching my knuckles go snowy white.
It’s light, like everything else here, ready to be blown away by the faintest brush of wind. I run it from the crown of my head to my shoulders, tracing the ebony waterfall of my hair. The bottom strands are hopelessly tangled from a restless night spent among nubbly blankets. I tug again and again, ignoring the bolts of pain that shoot through my scalp, until the black falls loosely once more.
Mom used to do my hair. The thought is unwelcome, breaking down the door of my brain and announcing itself through a bullhorn. I remember perching on the bed in my childhood room, half the height I stand today, the walls painted bright lavender and the bed overcrowded with stuffed animals. Her fingers dancing through my hair, crafting it into a carefully done braid, the pieces sliding over and under each other until all that’s left is a raven-colored tapestry.
Even if I let my vision fade out of focus, these walls are still beige. Even if I stood here for hours, willing my hands to work right, my braid would still be as messy as my churning conscience right now.
I toy briefly with styling my hair, but my arms begin to ache, so I drop them and let my hair tumble freely around my shoulders instead. It’s oil-black and uncompromising, doesn’t go YA-protagonist-golden when I step into the sun or fall in effortless waves around my shoulders. Nothing but dark. I shouldn’t be as resentful as I am of that.
The mirror is crooked and I can’t bring myself to look at it. I run my fingers through my hair one more time, working out the last few clumps, then rest the comb back on the sink again.
Hair, teeth, face. One down, two to go.
The toothbrush is small and bristly, its handle the color of scarlet Chinatown lanterns in the afternoon. I fumble with the toothpaste tube for a moment. It’s almost empty, I realize. Maybe I need to go on a grocery run later. The thought fills me with an irrational amount of anxiety, and my head snaps over my shoulder to check the area behind me on a nervous reflex. Worries squirm around my head like mealworms, small and invasive and absolutely nauseating. They make me feel dirty.
I shove the toothbrush into my mouth and scrub furiously, tasting the mint toothpaste seeping into every pore of my mouth. It has a bite to it, cool and striking against my taste buds.
There’s a certain rhythm to brushing, I think absentmindedly as I pull the brush back and forth against my teeth. Graceful, like a violinist, coaxing a melody from their movements. I imagine myself in a commercial for a moment, flashing a diamond-bright grin to the wall because the mirror would return it, and that scares me. Maybe I’d look like the models I see on TV then. Unafraid of their own appearance, unconditionally confident in themselves. And not like this. Not like me.
There’s room for a million words inside my mouth. They boil and swirl during the day, brim near the edges, threaten to flood my tongue until there’s nothing left but passionate waves. Sometimes I feel like I’m so overstuffed with them I might explode, like a limp teddy bear about ten years past its expiration date, sagging on an overgrown child’s pillow, fluff leaking out of its ears. I want to shout and my mouth is stitched shut and I cannot look at myself in this crooked, terrible mirror.
I wonder when I got so troubled, when the vortex in my mouth first became too violent to drain out. Maybe when it felt like the world had stopped listening.
This is my morning routine, armoring myself in beauty and cleanliness. This is some strange form of torture that pulls at my edges, unravelling me. I close my eyes, draw in a breath, and try to knit this stuffed self together.
Hair, teeth, face.
I reach for the tap and let the water run. It babbles against the sides of the sink in a chattering melody. Its icy chill frosts over my skin, and I pull my hand away on instinct.
It takes a few minutes for the water to heat up; I poke it gingerly, waiting for the bite of the cold to morph into a comforting warm. When it does, I let it pool in my palms and feel the heat radiate up my wrists, into my shoulders. It reminds me a little bit of tree roots, twining through my body just beneath my skin, clawing through the soil like some primeval taloned creature.
I splash the water on my face, sensing rather than seeing the moisture trail downward, returning to its home in the stained porcelain sink. It runs over the canyons and valleys of my features, carves rivers into my skin.
If my face was a landscape, it would be central California. During summertime, to be exact. Those dusty plains, rolling on and on. It’s pretty, in an objective sense: the fields are endless, and a nostalgic sort of dusty. But there’s nothing specific there to admire. Just things in the process of growing, vague and mundane, leaves curling upward toward the uncaring sun.
The fact that I’m comparing myself to a farm might say something about me.
I want to stay in the comforting blackness of my closed eyes, but I can only avoid the real world for so long. When the water has run out, my eyes flutter open.
The bathroom is faded and the sink is moon-white and the mirror is still tilted on the wall, a child’s tooth, a lightning strike. My gaze is yanked to the girl in the middle, the center of the whirlpool - unnoticeable until you step in, unremarkable until you drown.
She’s small and wiry, built like a willow tree, and she holds her shoulders like she’s trying to fit into some invisible superhero cape. Her hair falls just past her shoulders in a plain black sheaf, and her eyes are brown. She’s-
Like, I don’t understand how people can eat that-
clearly young, lit from the inside with a nervous flame-
Where are you from? I mean, you don’t look American-
falling apart alone in this bathroom, her own pieces slipping out from between her fingers-
Thanks for bringing Covid, you-
A scream slips from my mouth, but not before I can muffle it with my hands, and now the girl in the mirror just looks scared.
My heart is racing for no reason at all. My fingers shake as I lift them away from my face, slowly, because I can’t trust myself not to cry out again.
What was once a carefully-dammed lake of memories is beginning to strain at its banks. The girl in kindergarten, who said my chǎofàn smelled bad in such an innocent voice that I stopped eating it in public all together. The math teacher in high school, who told me I wasn’t as good at algebra as he assumed I’d be.
And just last week, the teenagers on skateboards who spat at my family for bringing the virus and followed us across the parking lot, their footsteps as loud as the heartbeat thudding against the walls of my chest, shouting at me to do one thing: run. Run. Run.
They don’t know that my Mandarin is so broken my relatives barely understand me. They don’t know that, when I look at my family’s Chinese food and art and bright written words, I’m overwhelmed with nothing but confusion. I don’t know this person, who loves her culture and the country it came from. I celebrate the Fourth of July and I eat pizza every week and I work hard, too hard, just to make people treat me like an equal.
I’ve spent so long carefully sinking this mask into my skin, to shield the parts of me I don’t want this country to see, that I can’t tell where the real me begins.
Hair, teeth, face. Bits and pieces of a porcelain doll. I put all my energy into dressing up, trying to be beautiful, trying to make this world love me, but I feel the same inside.
I look at the girl in the mirror and I feel hatred. I look at the girl in the mirror and feel indifference. She is Chinese and she feels American and she wants her pieces to fit together.
My face is still wet, drops of water clinging to my nose and jawbone. I reach for a towel and pull it slowly over my face, letting it soak up all the moisture.
When I was a child, I daydreamed about waking up in the morning, opening my eyes, and discovering that they’d become blue. It didn’t make scientific sense, nor did my parents approve - I just wanted to be pretty, the western way. My eyes would be the color of the sky and they’d be stunning; they’d make people stop in their tracks on the street as I glided by and they’d say, who’s that girl? She’s gorgeous.
I let the towel drop and stare into the mirror. My eyes are as dark as the barrel of a gun.
A few days ago, after the run-in with the teenagers, my family sat me down at the kitchen table and told me I had to be special. You have to do better than all of them, they said, so they’ll accept you. That’s the best way to be safe for people like us.
I shouldn’t have to, I said. I thought of my grades then, my perfect score on my English essay, my A+ in Spanish class. Even if I'm perfect, how am I supposed to escape others’ perception of me?
Bàba laid an arm around my shoulders, and Māmā’s voice was unusually gentle. I know it’s hard, she said. But you’re a brave girl. You can survive.
Now, I brace my hands on either side of the sink and meet my own gaze in the crooked mirror. This time, I don't bother fixing it. I wonder if this country will ever really be my home, or if I will forever be an outsider, her safety assured by nothing more than the hospitality of America’s true residents, wandering, searching for some semblance of surety.
“People are only brave when they have no other option,” I whisper to the empty room.
And I want to have other options. I want to be happy, and peaceful, and walk my town’s streets without having to glance over my shoulder whenever I hear footsteps. I want to try only as much as I feel like it because I wouldn’t have anything to prove. I want to know myself, really know myself, to look at myself in the mirror without flinching, and I-
I don’t want to be brave.
Before I leave the house to venture into the city that is not mine, I rummage through my cabinets and find a dusty can of pepper spray.
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//tw for this comment too: racism, and me venting like my followers are therapists --- I'm so sorry about being MIA these past few weeks - I promise I have an explanation. My absence and this story had the same root cause, actually. Most of it was schoolwork, since the year has finally ended (yay!) and we had finals (not yay). But a few days later, my family and I - we are very obviously Chinese - went on a vacation and we ran into some racist people. The line "Thanks for bringing Covid" is actually pulled directly from that encounter. Th...
Oh. It's so sad to know that you and your family had to go through that. It's just not ok. I really hope that you guys are doing fine. Ugh! I hate racism!
This story is sooo good!!! Like it's so beautifully written, wow. Just wow. Chef's kiss. I felt all the emotions that were portrayed. The story is amazing.
Thank you so much! (And thank you for your other comments on my work as well! I'm honestly kind of tired and don't really have the energy to reply to a lot of comments, but please know that I really, really appreciate your time <3)
Haha. It's ok. You don't need to reply to them if you are tired. I just needed to get my thoughts across.
Thank you for sharing your personal experience. I'm sorry it happened, but more people need to know that it is happening, and it's not right, and we (all of us) need to speak up and act when we see it (silence = acceptance). As for critique, my only thought was you could intersperse her time at the mirror, with the incidents that's she's recalling. That might make the emotional impact even more powerful (e.g, as she's brushing her hair, she's recalling the things people said about her). But it's a really powerful story on its own.
Unfortunately very late, but thank you for both the kind words and critique! :)
Sending sooo much love and many virtual hugs your way, Ellie. I’m disgusted but sadly unsurprised to hear that this is based on your own experience. I truly can’t imagine how painful it must have been for you, and can only say that you have all my support, always 💜 This story is easily the most moving I’ve read on this site. I can count on one hand the number of times a piece of writing has moved me to tears, and this is one of them. Everything about it feels deeply authentic and emotive. For a subject that is perhaps the most sensitive and...
God, I cant thank you enough for this. Both your feedback and support are so, so valuable to me. I hope you have a great day/night/whatever <3
Hi Ellie - firstly I am so sorry to hear that this is based on personal experiences for you. I can’t believe those people trailed you for half an hour - that’s just awful and I can understand how upsetting and intimidating it would have been. Do people not have anything better to do than go around being hateful to others? I always think these sorts of people must be pretty miserable in their own lives that they have to spend so much energy trying to make other people feel bad too... but even so it’s no excuse for this kind of hatefulness and...
Thank you so much for the support, it really means a lot to me. Your feedback on my writing is also super valuable. All in all, thanks for this entire comment <3
Wow. You payed so much attention to the details that I read some lines over and over again! This was beautiful. Although I'm not Chinese, I am Japanese and people have mistaken me for bringing Covid 19. Which, in theory really doesn't make sense.
Thanks for reading and commenting! I don't think us rational people will ever be able to understand the minds of racists. I'm so sorry that happened to you. Sending virtual support :)
This story hit so close to home for me. I understand this is a personal story for you, but I think you captured the feelings of the many Asians who grew up in a Western country. The looking in the mirror and wishing you looked different, to be pretty the Western way, I totally understood that. I think it takes all of us so long to truly accept the Asian parts of ourselves, when we should be taught to embrace it. What really hit hard was this part: "They don’t know that my Mandarin is so broken my relatives barely understand me. They don’t kn...
I am so sorry to hear about the troll on your story. Whatever their intentions, those are horrible things to say. I’m glad you didn’t let it affect you, but it never should have happened. I hope you’re okay after that <3 And yes! I think most of us Asians in a western country have these same feelings of not belonging. I’m really glad to hear you felt I got that message through. Thanks so much for this comment :)
You're welcome! For some reason they just felt like targeting me and that specific story, which was strange. You definitely got the message through, and it was heartbreaking to read about.
I great story that needed to be told. Kudos! -END RACISM -RS