My Asian Mom Bought Me a Blonde Wig
“It will make you feel like success! You can be anyone you want in America. So why not have blonde hair and blue eyes?”
My mom’s big idea was that I should go to my first day of high school wearing a blonde wig and blue contact lenses.
“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 14; and even then I knew that this situation was no fun, not for me. And deep down, I bet it wasn’t for her, either.
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 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. “Okay, see you later, byeeee.”
I 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.”
I tried to reverse psychology my way out of it: “People should like me for who I really am. Isn’t that what you taught me?”
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 guys in tuxes who were admiring that easy, breezy Covergirl lifestyle.
“Does anyone here look like you or me?” she barked. “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?!”
Even then, I suspected she was trying to scrub the darkness off me.
I didn’t point out that both of those princesses were royalty in other countries. It 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, mustache waxing, curling my super-straight hair until I had burn marks on my temples, professional etiquette lessons to make me more ladylike, and sending me to Weight Watchers at age 10 because I was “fat.” Which I now know from photographic evidence that I wasn’t. Very. (“Why are you so fat?” is a common psychological discipline tool for all Asian parents. In retrospect, I am less bitter about it now. Ish.)
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 extra hard with scratchy cloths behind my knees. Even then, I suspected she was trying to scrub the darkness off me. She said 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 perceived 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. I did not excel.
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, teenaged 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.”
My mom married a white guy, which represented so many things — both in her life, and in meta, East-West, Hollywood imagery hegemonism and cultural colonization kind of ways. She gave up a super successful career in radio broadcasting to marry her blonde-haired, 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 hair dye and a wardrobe that would fit into 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 cultural history) or much about my family tree — which turns out to be mighty extensive. 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 pictures. Oh, the kling klung of gamelan, the clove cigarettes, the sweet acrid taste of pickled vegetables, the heat, the crisp smell of batik, the majestic wooden furniture! And the 10 brothers and sisters she had left behind with their hundreds of children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews. When we arrived shortly after my 21st birthday, I found out that I belonged to a lot of brown people across the world. Some good, some bad. That’s family.
When I asked my mom about why she gave up her big huge clan of doctors and businessmen and writers and teachers, and their relatively prosperous lifestyle and their whole entire ancient culture of music and spicy food and ancient traditions, she didn’t miss a beat.
Identity angst is a luxury of the privileged.
“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. To go around the world and eat good food and have a job. And call the shots like a queen! 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 have had and still have angst. The fact that I have time, space, and a vocabulary to tease out my own relationship to race and represent Asian, 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. Not that it would look like that to her though. Nope. She used to sigh and roll her eyes when I did shows like “Birth of a nASIAN” 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.” Mom logic.
I am neither of those things. I am both of those things.
It was my job, in her mind, to make the dream of blondeness come true.
I am grateful be in a life where I can learn words like “hapa” and “post-colonial discourse” and “biculturalism.” 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 means that I am in possession of enough time to write. I am also not currently fighting for my life on the freezing floor of an ICE detention center, hoping to be reunited with some terrified migrant parents.
This is why I choose to spend my privilege on others. If I can silence the voice in my head screaming, “Why can’t you be more like Princess Grace?” I know I have the strength to write a song, make a donation, speak at a college, tell a joke about mixed race issues, and create a vibe of wellness around people of color and Asian Americans in particular. And b-t-dubs, Princess Grace helped so many of my colleagues in the arts with her generosity so I don’t mind that call to action.
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 the dream of blondness come true. That, to her, would be successful.
So here’s the kicker. This is what I say to her when I catch a glimpse of her in my own eyes:
“Mom, you were a fantastic giant success. You did it, you gave me the world.”
And my struggles with body image, shame, anxiety, and self examination all exist inside a 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.