On a nondescript day of elementary school, I stared at my reflection in my dirty bathroom mirror and asked why God made me look different from all the blonde, blue-eyed boys in my suburban Virginia neighborhood. It was the first time I considered my race.
When we reminisce about our childhoods, we tend to remember firsts. The first day of kindergarten, the first time seeing the ocean, our first crush. Sometimes these memories are formative, blissful and rosy, while some are bad or even traumatic. For me, my most vivid early memories share a common factor: my identity.
A couple years later, I had my next prominent first: hearing the word “chink” targeted at me. “Your eyes are so chinky,” a faceless kid told me on the school bus. I don’t remember the details after the fourth or fifth time, the faces blurred together into a nebulous, colorless shape looking down on me. But I do remember knowing immediately what the word meant. My eyes were small, abnormally so, and I was ashamed.
They say that the first way people connect with each other is by looking into each other’s eyes. But when you have small eyes, people don’t look past that. When I was younger, I would tense up every time my eyes came into question. I would be reduced to an object of scrutiny, exposed to my peers and their unbridled curiosity.
“Do you see everything, like, wide-screen?” they would ask.
“Are you squinting? I can’t tell.”
“You wear contacts? How do you even put them in your eyes?”
I would answer their questions half-seriously, half-jokingly, mostly to get them to stop bothering me. There was nothing to retaliate with having big eyes was a good thing. I would just wait for someone to change the conversation and move on.
Conversations like this peppered my childhood, even though my race was hardly something I thought about. I was a second-generation Korean American in a heavily diverse community in northern Virginia. I was surrounded by people who looked like me, spoke like me and ate the same food as me. But people thought living in a diverse community afforded them the right to talk about race unapologetically. Being around so many other Korean Americans compelled me to compare myself to them, and that usually took the form of seeing if my eyes were bigger or smaller than theirs. Many of the comments about my eyes came from other Koreans and after a certain point, I started to criticize other people’s bodies, too.
But the way I view my appearance has changed in the past couple of years, especially with the shift in how the media treats people with small eyes. In fashion specifically, more and more non-white models are celebrated for their unique facial features, including small eyes, and have become more visible in a dominantly white, Eurocentric industry.
And yet, there is still some risk with these images being celebrated in fashion. Casting models with smaller eyes toy with the line between representation and fetishization: Calling these models “ethereal” in their beauty harkens back to proclamations of the foreign and non-white as “exotic” and “mystical” during the 20th century. But still, it’s hard not to feel a little better when I can see myself in a model and know that someone with small eyes can still be considered attractive.
Now, as an adult, I’m more self-assured in my appearance. I can understand the context and history that made me so insecure about my eyes and looking “too Asian.” Still, it’s hard to unlearn all of these concerns and insecurities; I still feel a little self-conscious when I smile in photos, afraid that my eyes will look closed. It’s a long process, albeit a worthwhile one.
When people ask me about my first memory, I remember one that doesn’t have anything to do with my looks, emotions, or growing understanding of the world. It’s of seeing my grandmother walking through the hallway of my preschool to pick me up and take me home. It’s a simple memory, devoid of much context, but one that still tells me about my family history: who came before me, where I came from and who I am. And there’s power in that.