Letter to My Younger Self #3: About What Happened in Chinatown
Lani V. Cox addresses her 16-year-old self, a girl who underwent plastic surgery at her mother's urging and emerged determined to never let others dictated how she looked.
This is Lani from the future. Do not panic. I’m here to talk about what happened in Chinatown, not catastrophic future events in which you must save the world because only you can. This isn’t The Terminator, but more like The Breakfast Club where you’re in detention with me, your “coming soon to a theater near you” self.
And you can quit looking around. The door is still locked. You’re alone in your “girl versus teenager” decorated bedroom. We can blame Mom for the Holly Hobbie-inspired doll paintings on wood over your bed, but we can’t blame her for the “Love is an Illusion” sign you created in a fit of pubescent angst.
Look, you know it’s me because who else knows why you use “Dear Pillow” in your diary?
I’ll tell you why, Miss “sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” (NOT!) It’s because your pillow is what you squeeze when you’re feeling lonely. It’s what you practice smooching with, and it catches all your tears. I know how much you cry, and while you’ll get better at controlling the waterworks, you’ll remain a sensitive soul. Embrace it – and maybe keep tissues on hand during films and touching bank commercials.
After you leave the nest, Mom’s classic playlist will consist of: “Did you eat yet?”, “Did you brush your teeth?”, and “Are you fat?” You’ll learn later why she asked the first one (think: immigrant mom), chuckle at the second, but with the latter, you’ll give an exasperated, “No,” until you finally realize, “Mom, I’m never going to be fat, so quit asking.”
Yes, you’re one of those annoying people. You can eat whatever you want and still be thin. Congratulations.
Your pillow is what you squeeze when you’re feeling lonely. It’s what you practice smooching with, and it catches all your tears. I know how much you cry, and while you’ll get better at controlling the waterworks, you’ll remain a sensitive soul.
You’ve wasted SO MUCH time criticizing your looks and comparing yourself to models (MODELS!) in Glamour, Elle, Teen, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Seventeen, and Shape. Your obscene magazine collection spilling out from under your bed needs to be thrown out, donated, burned, or something. These girls don’t look like you, and you will never look like them.
They’re like flamingos. Do you want to be a flamingo? You think you want to be a flamingo, but you’re way too practical for standing on one leg all day. What’s that bird you like? Kingfisher. That’s what you are – a short, colorful, damn cute bird.
But I get it, you want to be supermodel tall. Height as an attractive feature has been bred into our belief system. For Thais, being called short is considered a little insulting, but whenever you’re around the community, Mom’s friends say you’re tall. Yes, you’re only 5’3”, but what I’ve learned is, tall is relative. And think of all the guys who will be taller than you! (That got your attention.) Seriously, it’s a superficial obsession because we all know that beauty begins and grows from the inside out.
You’ve wasted SO MUCH time criticizing your looks and comparing yourself to models (MODELS!) in Glamour, Elle, Teen, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Seventeen, and Shape…These girls don’t look like you, and you will never look like them.
So, take a healthy step back from the mirror and stop tugging at the outer corners of your eyes to make them less slanted. I’ve got a newsflash for you, honey: you’re Asian. And there is nothing wrong with that. You’re quite lucky in this department. Your eyes are big, unlike your breasts – and no, they won’t get any bigger. It’s okay. You’ll meet women who’ve had breast reductions, live with back pain, or wear two sports bras at once to go running.
The crazy thing is you won’t even realize you have big eyes until you’re much much older, until you’re a teacher in Asia and students ask if you wear “big eye contact lenses.” (Yeah, it’s a thing. Weird, right?) How can it take you so long to appreciate your Chinese eyes? Your father’s eyes, your grandma’s eyes, the eyes of your ancestors who escaped Communist China and the Civil War?
This brings us to the incident that took place in Chinatown, Hawaii—where you go shopping for flowers to put on Dad’s grave, for second-hand produce, fresh noodles wrapped in butcher paper, good eats, and Mom’s Thai celebrity magazines, and eye-rolling soap operas on VHS. The part of town marked by fish market smells and whole pig heads on ice, a place you’re supposed to actively avoid at night.
Mom thought she was being clever when she hijacked you here for a “consultation.”
Take a healthy step back from the mirror and stop tugging at the outer corners of your eyes to make them less slanted. I’ve got a newsflash for you, honey: you’re Asian. And there is nothing wrong with that.
You need to forgive yourself because while you were old enough to say no, you were young enough to be bullied into getting that chin implant. As you know, Mom meant well. She thought it would give your jaw a more defined look, maybe reshape your face to look less round and soft. For Thais (and I daresay within Asian culture in general), plastic surgery is considered natural. But for us red-blooded first-generation Americans, that’s debatable, isn’t it?
You had no idea that they would do the surgery right then and there. As soon as you said yes, they ushered you into another room with a dentist's chair. Then after they injected you with a local anesthetic, the “doctor” sliced you. He pulled your lower lip open and ran that knife where your skin meets your gums and shoved a plastic retainer-looking thing into your chin. Tears ran down your face in horror. The female assistant and male doctor avoided eye contact. Sew her up, bandage, and off you go.
I wonder how much this quick and dirty procedure cost? Because however much your mother paid, it was for naught. Your face looks the same, the implant didn’t mold properly, and you play with it, pushing it in, in hopes it will conform, but it doesn’t, and it won’t. And now that shame lives in you, and you won’t tell a soul, which is remarkable, the tell-all share-all book. It’ll be ten years before it becomes a problem that shows up in the x-rays.
Yeah, I’m not sure how much I want to tell you.
Mom thought she was being clever when she hijacked you here for a “consultation.”...You need to forgive yourself because while you were old enough to say no, you were young enough to be bullied into getting that chin implant. As you know, Mom meant well. She thought it would give your jaw a more defined look, maybe reshape your face to look less round and soft.
But let’s go back to what put you in that damn chair in the first place. When it was clear to Mom and the doctor behind the desk that you had your doubts, she called in reinforcements. By calling in her friend, it became two against one, because, at this point, the doctor didn’t want to coerce you and was silently waiting for something to happen. Enter Mom’s friend. More talking, and torment, and tactics, and then...
“Don’t you want to be beautiful?”
And just like that, she unlocked all your fears and desires, so you said, so quietly, “Yes.”
Now, you feel uglier and in too deep with regret, but here’s the secret that will get your head out of the “survival of the fittest” mindset. It comes from spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson, who said, “There’s room for all of us to be beautiful”.
Yes, say it like a mantra. It’ll be your healing balm so that when you walk into a room, your demeanor will transform because you’ll no longer feel competitive against other women. You’ll walk over to her (and her, and her) and greet her with warmth and give honest compliments with joy like candy at a holiday parade.
Do you truly feel better when you see yourself as the more attractive woman in the room? That’s some suffocating business. And it makes you a loser even if you’re a winner. I mean, you can take pride in your appearance, but let’s remember to not put others down. I wonder if it’s an evolutionary trait, something our lizard brains default to in the midst of a crowd or gathering.
There’s room for all of us to be beautiful, unlocks the tightness across your chest, and gives you the power to be you and let others do the same. There’s room for all of us to be beautiful means you already have it and so does everyone else.
And yes, there’s a happy ending to the chin implant because it will have to be removed ten years from now, when you’re 26. Don’t worry. You worry too much. Love you, babe.
P.S. The 8-ball was right. Duran Duran will get back together.
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