I hate my big nose. My Korean mother never liked it either. She told me once that it reminded her of my father. It was symbolic of a marriage broken; many years later, she would tell me that she never really loved him and just wanted to come to America. I don’t believe her, but that might be the smidgen of hope I have that I was born into a loving family.
My nose isn’t the only thing that sets me apart from my mom and brother, my eyes are round and large. Their eyes are half moons; they have to put effort into raising their eyebrows in order to show the whites of their eyes. The only time I look Asian is when I laugh or smile. My cheeks push into the bottom of my eyelids and then I have to conscientiously exaggerate opening my eyes to avoid looking like I’m asleep with a smile on my face.
“You use BB cream on your face-ah?” My mother said to me one Thanksgiving as I stood in her living room. BB cream is a magical cosmetic potion that claims, with regular use, it will erase blemishes from your face so you can look like Nicole Kidman and make out with Tom Cruise.
She stood in front of me wagging her finger in my face, lightly pointing at the various age-spots I’ve accumulated over my forty years, exclaiming, “You use BB cream! I show you! BB cream!”
Some people say that they are freckles, others call them sun-spots, but whatever they are, Umma clearly found them offensive. She came from a time where her mother imprinted the idea that those with a fair, clear complexion were to be admired as high class; were assumed to be cultured and educated. Whereas, those freckled from the sun with browner tones to their skin, like myself, would be considered a laborer of the lower class. Personally, I prefer the latter. I like people who understand the importance of work and who are driven. Additionally, I love the look of creases in weathered dark skin because it reminds of me of rebels and people who persevere, like Maya Angelou and the Dalai-mutha-fuckin-lama.
“Mom, I like my face,” I said in defiance, realizing that I meant it. It took me decades to accept that my face was never going to be my mom’s or brother’s face; faces with perfectly sculpted petite noses that pointed down in slightly rounded arrows, and chins that were the center of slightly V-shaped faces. My head looks like a slightly deflated balloon. My face is a mirror of my father’s, except with eyebrows that are too thin and highly arched. The only thing missing is the silver capped tooth that sat at the front of his mouth, that would light up every time his laugh would boom with immeasurable force into a room; a laugh that I inherited.
“Ohhhh…” She replied in a low growling voice. I watched her bare feet step back onto the hardwood floor as she re-examined my face.
As I stood there, wishing she would leave me alone, I felt as vulnerable as I did when I was nine years old; when she dragged me to Kay’s Fishmarket, a tiny Korean market owned by a friend of hers. While standing at the counter, my mother was speaking to Kay, when suddenly, she grabbed my left boob and they both laughed. Noticing that I was blushing and horrified, my mother turned to me, as if to pay me a compliment and said, “Oh, I telling her, Risa – she rook rike a Prayboy model.” I didn’t know what a Prayboy was.
“Mom?” I said trying to break her concentration on my face, “C’mon. I like my freckles.”
Umma placed her hands on her hips, slightly on her back, just below her loose, long green t-shirt, almost leaning into them, as if something was blowing her over. She moved in closer and using her whole torso, she checked out my right cheek, and then my left, “OK, I show you.”
My petite mother ran to her bathroom. My two teen daughters giggled on the brown leather couch under a “mink” blanket. Both had heard the stories about my mother’s criticisms–my face, my body, my lifestyle–but to watch it happen in real time seemed to bring them a ridiculous amount of joy.
“See? This is BB cream. It make your face white. Make spot disappear. Make you more beautifurl,” Umma proceeded to show me the plastic tube containing the miraculous creamy potion that would turn me from frizzy haired, overweight mother-of-two, to Pamela Anderson (before Tommy Lee). Sticking her finger out, she squeezed out a tiny bit of BB cream and spread it on my face.
“You using everyday and you face will be clearing and white,” my mother beamed with pride.
I looked at my mom carefully. Her face had aged beautifully. In her mid-sixties, her skin still had the elasticity she had in her early-thirties. Although, her face was whiter than it needed to be, her eyebrows slightly green from the time she had them tattooed, silver strands caught in her burned and thinning hair from a decade of perming in the 80’s, Umma looked radiant.
Beauty is a complex subject, especially for women. I tell my daughters that they don’t need to wear makeup because they are perfect without it, while I never leave my house without it because I’m, obviously, a troll. I have invested so much time brushing and braiding and pinning and combing and straightening their hair because even though they are perfect the way that they are, they can always look a little better. Not to mention, I don’t want any of those stupid parents in PTA judging me. Just kidding, I don’t go those meetings; I’m too busy drinking gin and practicing my perfect Mommie Dearest nighttime routine.
As much as I am uncomfortable with the complexities of “beauty,” I love the rituals. Not only do I enjoy the feel of products on my face and the confidence I have after, I also love sharing “beauty secrets” among the womenfolk in and around my family. Things like making sure you always moisturize, use homemade egg and kleenex masks to firm up your skin, and my personal favorite, “No one is ever going to want you if you look like a man.” Thanks, Umma.
Even though I was a grown woman with my own children, I actually loved my mother smearing lotion on my face like a child. It reminded me of how I used to bathe my girls, and then slather their faces with baby lotion because, god forbid, your baby’s skin is dry. I thought about how my mother’s umma used to probably do the same to her and that my daughters would do the same to their children.
Then something in me calmed down. I chose to believe that my mother didn’t hate my face, but rather she was motivated by a mother’s need to care for her daughter. I looked at my girls as they stifled laughs. I thanked Umma and began to walk away when she grabbed my arm and said, “Oh, Risa! I show you one more thing. I think you want it.”
I followed my mother into the guest bedroom and watched her pull down a bag, “My friends bring this for me from Korea!” In horror, I watched as my mom pulled out padded butt undergarments and fell back on the bed as she said, “See? These make your butt look more rounding.”