My Indonesian Mom Bought Me a Blonde Wig.
And Other Adventures in Internalized Racism
My mom’s big idea was that I should go to my first day of high school wearing a blonde wig and blue eye contacts.
“Why not? It will be a change! Fantastic! I will buy them for you! we can get matching it will be fun!”
So many exclamation points! So much fun! Gesturing at me with a People magazine with Pam Anderson on the cover! I was fourteen; and even then I knew that this situation was no fun. Not for me. And deep down, I bet, not for her.
I wore it once. To Wigstock in New York City. This was way before Rachel Dolezal.
I tried to verbally tap dance out of it. “I don’t have time for all that. I have to get school supplies and clean my room. Ok see you later byeeee.” Tried to lie my way out of it. “Oh yeah, sure I would totally do that, but I want to pay for it myself so it really feels like me.” Tried to reverse psychology out of it; “People should like me for who I really am. Isn’t that what you taught me?”
The one thing I didn’t do was flat out say “No.”
You need all kinds of trickery to deal with an Asian mom who is obsessed with what is fundamentally wrong with you. Like a fly caught in her cheerfully embroidered web of hello kitty hair ties and iron will, you can’t struggle. You can’t resist. It only tangles you up more. Defy her. You will probably get grounded. You might be forced to eat chicken feet for a week. You will be followed into your bedroom and shrieked at about gratitude for hours. Cell phones will be taken away.
I tried a feminist approach “Women have to show the world that we are of value no matter what we look like.”
“That’s bullshit.” My mom enjoyed the odd burst of profanity. It was part of her triumph over English as a second language. Then she showed me dozens of pages of blonde ladies, heads thrown back, smiling, surrounded by some guys in tuxes admiring her carefree easy breezy Covergirl lifestyle.
“Does anyone here look like you or me??? No. This is America. You have to look the part. So why not have the same chance at success as Princess Diana and Princess Grace? Why won’t you let me HELP you!”
I didn’t point out that both of those Princesses were royalty in other countries. Seemed imprudent, given the proximity of a flip flop to throw at my head.
My life as a child was a decades-long gauntlet of eyebrow plucking and mustache waxing and curling my super straight hair til I had burn marks on my temples and professional etiquette lessons to make me more ladylike and sending me to weight watchers as a ten year old because I was “fat.” Which I now know from photographic evidence that I wasn’t. (“Why are you so fat?” is a common psychological discipline tool for all Asian parents so in retrospect I am less bitter about it now. Ish.)
If you have an Asian mom you also might be familiar with super scratchy bath cloth attack that left you red and raw every night until you were old enough to take a shower. My mom made a big deal about exfoliation when I was in kindergarten. She would squeal at how filthy I apparently was. I remember these uncomfortable shallow baths, her gripping the fat on my little thighs and scrubbing behind my knees extra hard. Even then I suspected she was trying to scrub the darkness off me. She told me she was trying to make my skin halus. That’s a word for smooth, dainty, airy. And lighter.
I also was sent against my passive protestations to all forms of what I saw as “white people activities” because of all the white people doing them. I stood out like a brown sheep with poor motor skills: skiing lessons, and skating lessons, and tennis lessons, and cooking lessons and horseback riding lessons. Most Asian kids will back me up in asserting that we only do some of these things to get out of the house for a couple of hours.
My mom was always comparing me to rich, famous aristocratic white people. And when I say compare I mean criticize. “Why can’t you be more like Gwyneth Paltrow? Why Can’t you be more like Ashley?” (Ashley was her best friend’s super white super boring super regular white blonde blue eyed skinny teenage daughter.) When I pressed her “What about Ashley would you like me to be more like?” She would glare at me and hiss. “You KNOW. And don’t talk back.” For those playing along the answer is “Be more white.”
Mom and I have the same hairstyle in this Sears photograph which I was forced to pose for.
My mom married a white guy which I think represented so many things both in her life, and in meta East-West, Hollywood imagery hegemonism, cultural colonization kind of ways. She gave up a super successful career in radio broadcasting to marry her blonde blue eyed doctor and move across the world, Princess Grace style. And she went all-in on her own physio-cultural modifications: elocution lessons and tattooed eyeliner and a nose job and outrageous amounts of sunscreen and a wardrobe that would fit in at any golf slash country club. She learned French cooking and read historical novels about the Tudors.
We barely saw her large extended family. She didn’t teach me bahasa Indonesia (the language) or adat (our culture) or much about my family tree. Which is mighty extensive as it turns out. When I was 20 I took a class in Indonesian language then begged her to take me to Jakarta to meet this giant family of people I had only seen in a pictures. Oh the kling klung of gamelan, the clove cigarettes, the sweet acrid tasted of pickled vegetables, the heat, the crisp smell of batik, the majestic wood furniture! And the 10 brothers and sisters she had left behind with their hundreds of children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews. I also belong to a lot of brown people across the world. Some good, some bad. That is family.
When I asked her why she gave up her big huge clan of doctors and businessmen and writers and teachers, their relatively prosperous lifestyle and their whole entire ancient culture of music and spicy food and clan traditions, she didn’t miss a beat. “Because my whole life I grew up under my brothers’ thumb. I was a second class citizen and if I had stayed I would have been under my husband’s thumb. That’s how it is over there. I wanted to work. I wanted to travel and have my own money. And I wanted that for you too. I knew if my baby was a girl I wanted her to have freedom. I wanted her to go to University and be somebody.”
She wanted to be as free as Grace Kelly. And me too. To go around the world and eat good food and have a job. And call the shots like Queens! Oh I see you now ma, I see you with your curlers and your Chanel lipsticks and your knockoff Gucci glasses. These were the accoutrements of freedom. This was the part and she was dressing herself and me for it, no matter what.
Identity angst is a luxury of the privileged. And I was privileged. And I was/am angst. The fact that I have time, space, and a vocabulary to tease out my own relationship to race and representAsian, and to lobby for more gender equity or fight for diversity in Western media and culture, means that I am already living my mother’s American dream. It wouldn’t look like that to her. Nope. She used to sigh and roll her eyes when I did shows like “Birth of an ASIAN” at the Smithsonian about Asian American identities. She was furious when I got into Juilliard because it meant I was not going to morph into a blonde doctor by sheer force of her will. And she would still be mad today that I am not pursuing her dream of passing as one of the Real Housewives of Assimilation Hills.
“Why do you have to talk about Asian stuff all the time? You’re not even Asian, you’re American.”
I am neither of those things. I am both of those things.
And I am so grateful be in a life where I can learn words like “hapa” and “post-colonial discourse” and “biculturalism”. It means, that I am free enough to opt out of the giant Instagram fueled shame spiral of dye job, eyebrow bladed, thick lipped human blow-up dolls selfie-ing their, and our collective, self esteems to death. It also means that I am in possession of enough time to write — and not currently fighting for my life on the freezing floor of an ICE detention center, hoping to be reunited with terrified migrant parents. This is why I choose to spend my privilege on others. For every day that I can silence the voice in my head screaming “Why Can’t You be More Like Taylor Swift?” I know I have the strength to write a song, make a donation, speak at a college, tell a joke about mixed race issues, create a vibe of wellness around people of color and Asian Americans in particular.
Mom never did get me to wear that blonde wig in public. And by the way, she never wore one herself. It was my job, in her mind to make her dream of blondeness come true. That to her, would be success.
So here’s the kicker.
Mom, You were a fantastic giant success. You did it, you gave me the world.
And this struggle with body image, shame and anxiety and self examination live inside this world of freedom and possibility — so much possibility that I am free enough to examine your internalized racism, hurt from it, joke about it, and ultimately appreciate us both moving forward in the game of Life as Immigrants of Color in America.
“Hey ma, is that a wig?”(“Yes but it’s not blonde. I am saving that for you.”)