The Story I Needed To Have Read, by Claire Gao
Runner-up in the 'The Story I Needed To Have Read' writing competition
There is shame in the crease of my eyes. And now the awkward way in which my monolid folds and caves in on itself, stretched and prodded by my adolescent fingers and Korean eyelid tape to imitate some sort of whiteness makes me feel so unbearably ugly. More ugly than I have ever felt in years of bullying and the self-hatred of my flat, alien Asian features.
This is the only thing I can think about as I lie here in somebody’s double bed. It’s not his fault, but I can’t stand the kind way he looks at me now that we’ve finished, demure and affectionate. It feels fake, undeserved. I want him to see the microscopic self-hatred concealed behind heavy eyeliner, to be disgusted. Instead, he smiles, and we have a perfectly pleasant chat and part ways courteously.
On my dimly lit walk home, I open the notes app on my phone and add his name. I won’t tell you what it is; it doesn’t really matter. I’ve been adding to this list of men, a more neurotic, modernised version of notches on the bedpost, since I forced myself out into the world of sex when everyone else started doing it. I do this almost to gather some sort of evidence, a compilation of witnesses that will testify and validate that I am desirable, not the untouchable freak I was made to feel like from a childhood in white suburbia. As if one day I will be put on trial to make my case to a jury made up of everyone from nursery onwards who drew back their temples in their harshest, ugliest attempt to imitate my upturned eyes and called me names I didn’t even know the meaning of yet. As if I must prove to them that I overcame the impossible odds and became someone worthy of attraction. In any case, no matter the outcome of that imaginary trial, I can’t help now but think that they’ve already won. Their victory is evident in the violence it took to become this version of me that I had carved out of my younger self’s body and discarded the rest; puking myself thin when I couldn’t be pretty, mutilating my own face when I couldn’t be white.
I look back at my creepy little list. I think I mostly do it for myself, to remind myself in those frequent periods when I feel so horrifically unlovable that I was once, however briefly and superficially, wanted. But there’s a name absent from the list, and yet one that harbours a memory that I replay more often than the others.
It started as it always does. I met a man. The real difference was that this was the first Chinese man I’d been on a date with. I was smug that night, felt like I was ‘connecting’ with my own culture after a lifetime of rejecting it, even though our families were from opposite ends of the country (and opposite political sides during the civil war) and I actually had made plenty of Chinese friends during my time in London. Never mind the fact that he also spoke no Mandarin, like me, and had grown up in Surrey. Nevertheless, progress was progress. There reached a point in the conversation where I had tried a little too hard to be funny and relatable, making some throwaway self-deprecating joke about how I ruin pictures by smiling since my eyes disappear (although they actually don’t). It’s the kind of comment that usually wins non-Asians over since it signals to them that I’m one of the ‘cool’ Asians, one they don’t feel the need to walk on eggshells around.
This aggravated something in him, and he politely but firmly asked for the bill. “Sorry, I think I should probably go now.”
“Oh, are you okay? Did I say something?” I asked carefully, a little meekly even, the familiar sense of rejection creeping in.
“I’m just not comfortable with those kind of comments, it’s bad enough when it comes from other people but you’ve chosen to make fun of your own appearance. We have the same eyes! Did you think I’d laugh?”
I saw his point but I decided to go on the defence anyway. “It’s not like I shunned Mother China for God’s sake! I don’t hate myself or my ethnicity, it’s just a joke that people recognise about our eye shape, what’s so wrong with me saying it?” Even saying this I knew I didn’t fully agree with myself.
“Okay look, you seem nice but I think you need to work through some stuff. All you’re doing is reinforcing stereotypes and it doesn’t make us look funny or cool, it makes us look like doormats. I don’t think that I ruin pictures just by existing and being happy, and neither should you.”
The date ended as swiftly and awkwardly as you can imagine after that.
I won’t tell you his name either. It still doesn’t matter. This isn’t a story about me and him, a fragile romance based on insecurity. It’s an embarrassing story to recall, one that makes me feel desperate and coarse and immature, but it is still the one I think about the most.
It’s the one I am thinking about now, walking back to my rented flat. I get home and I want to cry, for no reason other than a symbolic cathartic purge of these uncomfortable emotions. I know in this moment that I am no more happy now, with my collection of nameless men, than I was in my explicitly distressed childhood; a primary schooler, bawling after the lady in the GP surgery waiting room told me and my mum to go back to where we came from and stop wasting Great British resources, just before she was called in to see the Asian doctor; a teenager locking myself in the school toilets after my friends all agreed I was the ugliest in the year group, but if my eyes were a bit bigger and my nose wasn’t so weird looking then I’d go up a few places.
My phone rings, it’s my mum. The screen is swallowed by the profile picture I had set for her, a picture of the two of us at a restaurant. I’m expecting the call, it comes weekly, but it spooks me out of my self-pitying trance. My mother has never been the most sympathetic to my racial identity crises, having lived through a famine and political exile herself.
I look at the picture as the ringing continues. The photo is one of my favourites despite the poor yellowish lighting and blurry flash because we look so alike in it. I’ve always thought my mum was pretty. Come to think of it, my other family members too, aunts and grandmothers and cousins.
I am suddenly nauseous with guilt at the idea that I have so intensely hated the small, flat nose I share with my favourite aunt, or the rounded jaw and singular cheek dimple passed down by my grandma and no doubt by her elders. I feel the desperate need to preserve them in my face, treasure them, my family who have put up with my awful tantrums about how I hated them for making me Chinese.
I am an extension of my parents and grandparents, and the ancestors tracing back centuries and millennia ago whose names have been forgotten, wiped out by cruel emperors and shoddy paper records and the cultural revolution. I make a silent promise that in my blood and my phoenix features I will carry their history.
I answer the phone.