I said I was white. And by every metric, I was — except on paper — which was a problem, because it was a standardized test. And I wasn’t white.
I’m still not white.
I was reminded this week when I got a school assignment to draw a cartoon of myself. It would’ve been an easy assignment — a light-hearted one — except that I’d tried this before. And I’d failed, many times.
It was the eyes.
Early on, I decided that being white is best, which means big blue eyes are awesome. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Kansas, around white people. Or maybe it’s because no one was ever teased for having big eyes.
In high school, I was pitching a baseball game and, in the first inning, the opposing team yelled “chink.” I didn’t really care, because “chink” describes billions of people. But, in the third inning, the opposing dugout yelled something else:
The corners of my eyes pulsed sideways, forcing my eyelids shut. I tried to open them bigger, but that only made my eyebrows and forehead crunch up into a wrinkle. “Slanty eyes” describes billions of people, but it also describes something specific about me — something that is burned into my permanent mask. By the fourth inning, the sharp outer corners of my eyes functioned as pipettes, dispensing salty droplets onto my yellow cheeks.
I thought I had matured past that stage in my life when a dumb joke about my eyes could make me cry like the time I watched Toy Story 3. But, as I sat down to draw my cartoon, I realized nothing had changed.
Again, it was the eyes. I needed to make them slanty enough to look Asian, so I wouldn’t betray my parents, who fought through much tougher times being Asian in white America; but the eyes had to be big enough to make me, well, comfortable.
After several iterations, I went back and read Scott McCloud’s book, “Understanding Comics.” In it, McCloud says simple comic characters work because they’re universal; they’re relatable. Everyone has two eyes and a mouth. So, McCloud writes, “If who I am matters less, maybe what I say will matter more.”
After years of struggling with my eyes, I finally settled on a representation: two dots.
It’s because I finally stopped making myself different.