Three decades ago, fresh from the refugee camp of Vietnam, I was first made acutely aware of my own Asian looks by a schoolyard bully in my junior high. He pulled the sides of his eyes back to make them look slanted and sang the ditty now made famous by Rosie O’Donnell recently on The View–“Ching Chong, Ching Chong Chinaman.” Well, good old I’m-funny-not-a-racist Rosie didn’t say “Chinaman,” but you get the point.
I never thought of how I looked living in homogenous Saigon, but in America, as an outsider barely speaking English, I was fodder for teasing and racist epithets. In the bathroom one night, I used a toothpick to push up my epicanthic folds. They held for a few seconds, giving me the appearance of rounder eyes, and a glimpse of what I might look like with double eyelids. I had contemplated cosmetic surgery, and for a few months, even saved money for the purpose.
I never went through with the surgery, but my experience is hardly unique. The pressure to alter one’s features and body is endemic in every group and ethnic community in America, and in Asia it is as routine as having one’s wisdom teeth pulled. But the number of minorities getting plastic surgery is apparently on a steep rise.
According to a survey by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), the number of minorities getting plastic surgery quadrupled between 1997 and 2002. And in 2005 Asian-Americans had 437,000 cosmetic surgeries, up 58 percent from 2004.
One only needs to open a Vietnamese magazine or newspaper in San Jose or Orange County to see the onslaught of ads for cosmetic surgery: eyebrow tattoos, dimple and split chin fabrications, laser treatments for skin blemishes, facelifts, breast augmentations–you can have it all and with an easy-to-pay credit plan. But the most popular are nose and eye surgeries. In the online business directory of the Southern California-based Nguoi Viet Daily News, where the largest Vietnamese population in the United States resides, there are more than fifty local listings for cosmetic surgery.
Looking at these ads, I must admit that I find both the “before” and “after” pictures slightly disturbing. In the “before,” which is often out of focus, the woman is displayed in a downtrodden, bereft look–a mess of misery to go with her messy hair. But in the “after” picture, she is all smiles, well-dressed and coiffed.
She poses in a kind of exaggerated cheerfulness–cheerful, I suppose, because her features have been altered. Apparently along with the surgery, the image suggests, her outlook on life has dramatically changed as well.
I wish happiness were so easily obtained. While I am not against it, and have friends and loved ones who have had plastic surgery, I can’t help but find that there’s an inherent complex attached to altering one’s facial features–especially for an Asian-American. After all, I have never heard of someone who goes under the knife to have a double-eyelid reversal surgery or his classic roman nose flattened.
For a long time plastic surgeons worked with the Anglo-Saxon ideal of beauty, and medical schools a few decades ago did not acknowledge racial distinctions when it came to plastic surgery. A classic Roman nose was standard, and so was a double eyelid. Going under the knife in the name of beauty was, for a long time, a move toward having a Caucasian face.