I hate my skin. It isn’t fair and clear, with peach-tinted cheeks, like the girls in Chinese movies. Nor does it glow with the promise of summer like the caramelised beach babes on the covers of Dolly magazine. Large pores, inherited from my mother, speckle the space around my nose. I hate my hair, which sits against my scalp as flat and black as an oil slick. I spend hundreds of dollars to volumise it, texturise it, bleach it. I hide my broad forehead behind a sweep of fringe. And my bridgeless, button-shaped nose–a stunted runty cousin to the proud pinnacles of my peers–it can’t even prop a pair of glasses up. I hate the way my face prompts others to question my foreign, other heritage.
I love my olive skin. I love the way it deepens to brown at the merest touch of sunlight. Its subtle green undertones remind me of the cool colours of forest undergrowth, or a beach in winter. I love my eyes, which are almond-shaped and shallow with folded lids like my father’s. I like the shiny blackness of my hair. I like my cheekbones, which are high and wide like my mother’s. I cherish the unexpected angles of my face: the strength of the cheeks and the jaw, the wide forehead, the soft chin. I like that it holds both sharpness and softness, both inquisitiveness and openness. I like the way my face carries pieces of my ancestors, and invites others to wonder where I am from.
The top button of my mother’s work pants, a size too small for me, digs into my tummy. My shoulders feel like they are splitting the seams of my freshly-ironed burgundy shirt. They say puberty is a blossoming into womanhood, but my body must have taken a wrong turn. At fifteen, I am gangling limbs and pimpled brow and round gold glasses. They stopped calling me pretty when I was eleven.
I sit in a small office on the first day of work experience. Across the desk from me is a middle-aged man. He’s white. He carries a bit of extra weight around his middle. His green tie clashes with his shirt, which is the colour of old bread.
He talks about the company. He is an unfamiliar entity to me, and so I don’t say much. The office is ringed with open shelves, stacked with folders, bristling with papers. His coffee mug leaves a moist ring on the laminate surface of his desk. The room smells like dust and stale biscuits.
“Well!” he says, standing up. “I bombarded you with a lot of information. Hope you can remember everything!”
I stand up too, smile, and say thank you.
“Ah, you’ll be right. You young Chinese girls, I know you. You’re all extremely smart. Especially at maths!”
He grins expectantly at me. I think he thinks he’s paid me a compliment.
I smile and nod and say thank you again.
Like a snail, I drag a mountain of stuff with me wherever I go.
I have all sorts of stuff. It fills rooms. It wedges wardrobe doors open. It transforms the backs of cupboards into a black hole of forgotten condiments and expired food. I scour the shops in search of storage solutions: more stuff to solve the problem of stuff.
There’s the Stuff They Told Me I Needed. A pair of black boots and a pair of brown boots, because you can’t just have one pair–what if you want to dress down, for god’s sake?! A shiny computer, because to work on that old model would be an abomination, an absolute abomination. A set of $300 headphones, because that song deserves to be heard in high fidelity. It would be wrong otherwise.
There’s the Stuff That’s Supposed To Make Me Beautiful. Oil cleaners and foam cleansers and toners and serums and face masks and BB creams and CC creams. Lash-extending mascara and false eyelashes and lip stain and cheek stain and nail polish. It’s revolutionary technology, until the next revolution.
There’s the Stuff Other People Gave Me Which I Feel Too Guilty To Move On. Keyrings. Souvenirs from Paris from someone else’s trip ten years ago. A book you still haven’t got around to reading, you terrible person. A camera. A diary, unfilled. Sometimes I take out the items and admire their pretty shapes.
There’s the Stuff That Carries the Past. This is the hardest sort of stuff to discard. These items are heavy, even if they’re just pieces of paper. They pull you to the ground and swallow you in memories.
One day, I will peel off all this stuff, layers of it, and slither away like a snake leaving her old, lifeless skin.
Our fathers left their lands to look for better ones.
They left their lands and their loved ones and the lives they had built up around nice jobs and nice houses and the corner-shop snacks of their childhood. They went overseas, often alone at first. Searching for new homes and small money. Trading in the clunky words of a new language, trying not to look the fool. Modern day scouts for their fledgling families.
The weapons of our fathers were moderation and caution. For their families, it was better to have a safety net than an SUV. They learnt to calculate when not to take risks and when to hold their tongues. Because they could not rise in the ranks of a foreign company through youth or charm or eloquence or appearance, they learnt to put their heads down and swallow racism and work hard and complain little.
They weathered anxiety so that we would not have to. They absorbed worry, turned it over and over silently, wore it down. Buried it deep, heaped it over with other things. Traded their dreams for their children’s.
Our fathers put their cultural memories into a little box that they brought with them to the new land, and sometimes opened. The children laughed, thinking that there was no use for such things in this new, loud, opportunistic place. We dismissed their wariness, not knowing that it allowed us to survive, and ventured bravely forth into the world, believing it is ours.
I’m pretty sure he’s Filipino, from his chestnut skin and rolling accent. He wears a short-sleeved shirt, pale blue, with his name embroidered on the pocket: Paul. The same name as the Filipino nurse I met in my first rotation as a fresh-faced intern: too-friendly young Paul who stood against me in the medication room and pressed his hand over mine and made me freeze.
This Paul is a generation above. Salt-and-pepper hair, thinning at the temples. A slight stoop to his shoulders. A slight paunch at the gut. He walks along the corridor towards me, tacking to one side with the weight of his bucket and mop.
‘Hello! Where are you from?’ His round eyes regard me warmly, as though we’ve met dozens of times before. Perhaps I remind him of a daughter, or a niece, or an old girlfriend.
I smile and reel out the words I must have said a hundred times.
‘Oh, I thought you look Filipino! I’m Paul. Are you the new doctor?’
I nod sheepishly, glancing away from his cleaning equipment.
Over the next six months, we wave intermittently at each other, and exchange simple words, with a mixture of distance and affinity.