On My Eyes

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May 31, 2021

“You have such beautiful eyes!” Melinda* pulled up her right eyelid to mimic mine. “Your double eyelids are so pretty!” Coming from the prettiest girl in the grade, that certainly was a high compliment. While both of us are Chinese, we couldn’t be further apart. Melinda was popular and friendly, while I preferred to be a lone wolf. Our differences become even more apparent when we stand next to each other: Melinda was taller, slimmer, and more attractive on nearly every level – save a single monolid. Ever since I was young, people – from my parents to Melinda, to even strangers on the street – have complimented my eyes, citing my good luck. For fourteen years, I’ve seen them as a proud feature, one that the Asian community was praising me for. For fourteen years, I’ve gotten a kick out of knowing that many Asians would undergo surgery just to get my eyes.

It was not until this year that I discovered the shocking truth. Whilst researching Asian discrimination for an English project, I learned the shocking origins of double eyelid surgery. I previously believed that such a popular procedure, a surgery that one in five women undergo in South Korea, originated from Asians who like it themselves. Instead, I found it was created during the Korean War. The procedure was for Korean war brides married to American soldiers. These women underwent painful surgery to alter their eyes, just to appear more “trustworthy” and less “oriental” to the white community.

I hated my eyes. First, it was for only an hour, which melded into two. The hours melted into a day, which became a week, and then a whole month of quiet fury. My eyes were not my one beauty, they were my one beauty for white people, the ones who asked beautiful women to change their faces for. I couldn’t look at myself straight in the mirror. I cursed myself for my naivety. Why, oh why, was the only physical trait I was proud of not created by my kind?

It wasn’t until a month later that I finally made peace with my eyes. While browsing the Internet, I came across an interview with Julie Chen, the longest-serving host of the TV show Big Brother. In an interview, Chen revealed that when she was just starting out her career, she underwent blepharoplasty after her director told Chen she would never succeed with her monolid eyes because she looked “disinterested.” The director further said, “You’ll never make it on this anchor desk because you’re Chinese … Our audience can’t relate to you because you’re not like them.” However, despite having to undergo the painful procedure, Chen noted that she now has “no regrets” over her decision. “The surgery doesn’t define who I am; it’s just a chapter in my life. It didn’t change who I am or how I live. I don’t look in the mirror and see a different person who I don’t recognize. I’m just me—and I feel good about that.”

I now understand what my eyes mean to me. It means, keep your head high, the shape of your eyes won’t change who you are. It holds a dark history, but it also holds the victory of the Asian American community celebrating new traditions. My eyes are the modern Asian Yankee Doodle, and it represents the fusion of two cultures. Most importantly, it holds within it every struggle, every battle, every triumph we, the Asian American community, have ever received. My eyes are beautiful.

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