By Olivia Chen
When I was a baby, my eyes were my dad’s. Dark, half-moon-shaped slits that curved sweetly downward around the swell of smiling cheeks—monolids with no folds that swallowed a line of short, stick straight lashes. Amid a mess of thick black hair, standard bridgeless button nose, and pale skin, my eyes served as a distinct giveaway to one half of my ethnicity: the single feature that prompted strangers to exclaim, Oh! Where is she from? when I was out with my mother, just the two of us. Asian concentrate, I used to joke, as if features could become diluted once they were stretched out and displayed upon the larger body of an adult.
I don’t remember exactly when my eyes grew folds, only that they came in one at a time. The left fold was effortless and remained perfectly creased even when I smiled, unshakable like an expertly ironed pleat, beneath it long straight lashes that spanned outward like an open fan. The right one was volatile. Sometimes it creased, sometimes it didn’t. Even on good days, when I smiled for a photo I often ended up looking at a pair of two different eyes, one squintier than the other, the fold on my right having retracted into the thick bulging skin around my eyeball, bringing with it my shorter, sporadic and untamed eyelashes.
Sometime around middle school, I took up the habit of widening my eyes right before the click of the camera, stretching my eyebrows toward my hairline in a punishing command to my right eye fold to fall into its place, covering the odd gesture by feigning pain and temporary blindness from the flash. From there it developed into a routine in the mirror—raising my eyebrows as high as they’d go, relaxing the muscles, blinking to see if the fold had stuck, when it didn’t, using a finger to push it into place, holding it there for a matter of seconds, and then repeating. To this day, I’m not sure if my right eye fold grew in organically, or if I willed it, physically and mentally, to stay.
At a young age, I stare at the mirror and conclude that my two different eyes are a result of my mixed blood. The idea of monolids doesn’t bother me, I mostly just wish that my parents’ different features have been passed down in a nice mixture, not divided evenly onto either side of my face. Nevermind that my irises are beginning to lighten to show glimpses of the hazel color that is my mother’s, my hair is becoming a blend of rich brown, red, and blonde, not black like my dad’s, but darker than my mom’s, and my nose is lengthening between my eyes in a shape that bridges down to a narrower sharper point.
At a young age, I also begin to notice how eyes attract attention in different ways, and all the ways we are commanded to alter them. There are tools: eyelash curlers, different colored eyeliners, fake eyelashes, even colored contacts. There are tutorials: make your eyes bigger, more awake. Make your lashes longer and curlier. We are taught the importance of eye contact and body language—that maintaining eye contact leaves an honest impression while avoiding it seems sneaky. All of these leave a trail that is vaguely sinister toward eyes that are not light, round, and large, which leads me to pose a constant question: If eyes are the windows to the soul, then what do mine reveal about my mixed race?
During the first two weeks of middle school, while all of my peers are adjusting to a new school, new schedule, and new friends, I am visiting China with my dad, his brother, and my grandparents. In two weeks we cover Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. We see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Terracotta Warriors, Li River, and much more. I see the house where my PoPo, my dad’s mom, was born, and the site of the 1936 Xi’an Incident, where my dad’s Wai Gong, my great-grandfather, was shot during the kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek. I see the photo of his face, one I have never known in life, hanging on the wall like a tribute to a hero—traces of my grandmother, my dad, possibly even me, all present in his features.
I am a true American child. I struggle to eat the food that my dad wants me to try, paying my dues by nibbling tiny crab legs (they remind me of pumpkin seeds), then begging to be taken to Chinese McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. I rejoice when we have noodles, dumplings, and occasionally when a tray of dry, mealy french fries appear on the buffet table. I spend most meals pouring soy sauce over white rice, learning to shovel the grains into my mouth directly from the edge of the bowl with my chopsticks.
And everywhere I go, the locals’ eyes light up at the sight of me: They hold my face in their hands and run their fingers through my hair. Groups of girls, slightly older than me, ask my dad to snap photos with me. As I stand awkwardly in a faded hoodie with hoop earrings, jean skort, and dirty sneakers, I cannot for the life of me understand why. Why am I treated like some sort of celebrity? Are people fascinated, even endeared, with my mixed features, delightfully foreign, but Chinese, all the same? Years later, I am told by a Chinese friend that my appearance is vaguely European to the Chinese eye. Outside of the U.S., do I even look Chinese at all?
In the Midwest, the term Asian is nearly exclusively associated with onscreen Kung Fu heroes and egg rolls. For me, that means a childhood of simultaneously confirming my status as an American while defending my Chinese heritage. For the first 10 years of my life, I discover my racial identity in the rehearsed lines my parents have given me: “I am half-Chinese, three-eighths German, and one-eighth Swedish.” In my answers to the all-too-popular questions: “Yes, my mom is white”; “No, I was not adopted”; and the fun, “No, I don’t know Jackie Chan.” I find it in the nicknames that liken me to Chinese menu items, or the sinking feeling of watching a new friend look at me and tug out the corner of his eyelids. I find it in the ripping conflict of the defensive reaction, “No, I wasn’t born in China,” and its immediate afterthought, but so what if I was?
On my first trip to China, this monolithic identity is cast into a new light as I find that with the simple crossing of borders I have gone from being the most Asian kid in the room to the least. I can’t help but rejoice at first, at the realization that the half of me that makes me different at home is precisely what allows me to fit in here. But with this joy comes the simultaneous realization that, though the standard has changed, I am still half different. This confuses me. If I can chase my differences halfway across the globe and still not fit in, then where can I find my biracial footing? As certain as I was before that I was not white, no longer am I simply Asian. I am at once suspended, floating and hurled violently, facing my biracial identity for the first time.
Olivia was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa, went to school in Indiana, and has lived in South Carolina, Colorado, and now Connecticut. Despite the scarcity of Iowan Hapas, she grew up familiar with the term as a result of her parents' honeymoon in Hawaii. At her day job she coordinates small business loans for a nonprofit lender, but her passion is (and always has been) writing. Olivia has tried her hand at screenplays, plays, creative nonfiction, children's fiction and more, but her published work has appeared in Catapult and The Write Launch. Her goal is to write a hit debut novel that will go on to fund the rest of her writing career.
In addition to writing, Olivia loves travel (anywhere), sports (mostly all of them), and learning (anything about marine biology, anthropology, or paleontology). Find her on Instagram @ohh__livia_.