Chloe Kim, slanted-eye pride, “vibe shifts”* and platform phobia

A quick, silly sketch of the the video for Sesame Street’s new anti-Asian bullying song. (I added the new Korean-American puppet)

In the Korean dramas I watch, the characters have a childish but charming habit of raising two fists and saying “fighting!” in a sing-song manner to show solidarity. Think of all the uses for this expression! Your husband comes home from work to a messy apartment and the fridge is a barren wasteland: smile, raise your fists and say “fighting!” Or after telling your six year old who is seated in the backseat of your car rental that you can’t possibly get her to a bathroom anytime soon because mommy is struggling to stay in her own lane on the FDR, try add a “fighting!” (ideally without lifting sweaty hands off wheel to make the gesture).

Lately, there are a lot of reasons to raise our fists in solidarity with Asian-Americans. Think of 18-year-old snowboard queen Chloe Kim who not only nabbed her second Olympic gold medal, she charmed us with her love of snacks, her solid Kim Kardashian impersonation and her candid discussion of her past depression. Who wouldn’t root for a an Olympian who admits her favorite thing about newfound fame is the free food from fans and her ability to use her position to combat bullying? She, like most Asian-Americans, have been subjected to bullying about her Asian eyes. I could go on long tangents discussing our slanty, oft-maligned orbs and I will.

Chloe must, like me, be awe-struck by some some recent related news stories; when a group of Asian-American Northwestern students who were watching a mens basketball game made a TikTok video of a white fan making the ubiquitous slant-eye gesture at them, the video went viral and the offender was removed by security. Quite a sea change! I think of the countless buses, stores, amusement parks etc in which some wayward character has loudly called me a fucking chink, drawn their eyes backwards and/or said Ching-Chong without consequence or raised eyebrows by others. There were always the exceptions.I fondly remember a time long before Asian-American pride was de rigueur, when my friend Liz and I were jogging on the street and some man yelled out konnichiwa to me. Liz dramatically halted her remarkably fast run to inform the man–her tone charmingly indignant–that I was not in fact Japanese and that by assuming I was Japanese, he was plainly a racist. An ally when ally-ship was not the rage. (xoxo Liz)

I appreciate Sesame Street’s new anti-Asian-bullying song “Proud of Your Eyes” even if it’s lyrics and melody aren’t exactly LMM (Lin Manuel Miranda)-grade). I have also duly noted the flood of Asian-pride children’s books available now; a small part of me feels resentful though, kind of like when my law school and college completely revamped their facilities in the years after I graduated. (Ahem, where was my rock climbing wall when I went to Carleton College and where were these books, magazine covers, and songs and puppets that affirm that Asians are beautiful during my formative childhood years? I felt like a toad most of the time).

In the Sesame Street video introducing the new song, the young Filipino-American actress explains to the Japanese-American owner of Hooper’s Grocery store and her African-American puppet friend that she was just told her eyes were ugly by a kid and she’s sad. Her friends sing that she should love her eyes since they reflect her family. I thought that message might have been lost on young me, a Korean adoptee who didn’t know her birth family; nonetheless, I applaud this too-late-to-impact-my-self-esteem affirmation because I certainly want the current and future generations of Asian-Americans to think they are hot! Our increased visibility is mostly a good thing. It is a lovely bonus to see Korean actress Hoyeon Jung (probably best known to Americans for her role in Squid Game) on the cover of Vogue by herself. (She’s the first Korean and possibly first Asian woman to get a solo Vogue cover). May there be many more covers of minorities on their own!

What pains me as much as non-Asians bullying us about our eyes is Asian self-hate. Across many Asian cultures, double eyelid surgery continues to be popular. An Asian-American guy I knew in college told me his own mother begged him to get the procedure but he stood firm. This parental ask is supposedly fairly common for many (but of course not all )Asians/Asian-Americans. Big-eye worship is obvious in Japanese Manga –its characters weighted down by globe-sized eyes. While watching some Korean dramas on viki.com, you can opt to see viewers’ mostly petty comments on display on the upper left corner of your screen. Sometimes this is helpful/entertaining when watching historical dramas but mostly it’s a shit show. The largely Asian commenters dissect the appearance of the actors. When a brave actress has eyes without double folds, these commenters go into a tizzy. Big-eye supremacy most be overthrown!

An unbearably ditzy-sounding Korean YouTuber whose videos I embarrassingly binge-watched, challenged the idea that Koreans like perfectly pale skin and big eyes because they want to look more Western. She declared that Koreans historically have always wanted pale skin and big eyes, which has nothing to do with them wanting to look Western. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, my verdict is: this young lady is 100% white-washed. Perhaps I am wrong and in the pre-modern era of Korean Kings and Queens, with nary a white person in sight, Koreans wanted moon white skin and enormous, off-kilter eyes a la Barbara Bush (or me when I am hyperthyroid). I could be wrong though. (This is why I need more Koreans in my life to educate me).

The same popular Korean influencer/YouTuber mentioned above has videos that address topics such as “Would you be attractive if you moved to Seoul?” (According to her, super pale and tiny is the idea). I was fascinated by one video I watched that addressed how Koreans believe there are five main types of faces that are categorized by animal. For a complete respite from complex human thought, here are the categories that are so oddly specific:

Dog face: you have a round face, round eyes, small, plump lips, and the end of your nose is round.The end of your eye is a bit lower. You have a weak, feminine jawline and straight, not arched brows. This look is described as more cute than sexy, “a harmonious, soft face with droopy, kind eyes.”

Cat face: you have a sharp jaw line (Koreans are supposedly obsessed with jawlines and for women, getting a V jawline not a U or other shapes); the end of your eyes tilt upwards like model Gigi Hadid. You have a long neck and a”pleasing neck line.” Your look is described as a “sexy and cold look.”

Deer face: you have big eyes not tilted up or down, a long neck, nice neckline and long eyelashes. Think Bambi.

Rabbit face: you have white skin, glowy blushy cheeks and your two front teeth are slightly bigger and forward. Similar to dog but more “cute, bouncy, girly and citrus-y.” (My brain is under assault!)

Fox face: Think desert fox, not sexy fox. You have a long eye in width, a distinct nose, a coveted v-jaw line. Described as “looks bored and does not look kind.”

Turtle face: Supposedly based on the Squirtle character from Pokemon. You have big, round eyes and a big mouth; the end of your lips tilt upwards and you look particularly cute when you smile.

(For fun, try downloading a free app called Animal Face Test. Provide an existing photo or take a new one of you and find out what animal you are. (I am apparently a deer/dog/turtle combo, something new each time).

Watching these videos made me particularly glad not to be an anxious young woman, so self-conscious about my appearance. As Chloe Kim has described, the anxieties of an Asian girl living among mostly white people can be intense. I remember being the only Asian girl at the Dalton School as a first or second grader and having a cluster of boys call me “monster nostrils” for my flat, Asian nose. Because I was inordinately sensitive, I remember holding my breath as I walked past this crew for a while, afraid if I breathed my monster nostrils would flare and be more conspicuous. I have since progressed; I don’t restrict my air flow for anyone. If you are lucky, when you see me, I may even flare my nostrils extra big for you (because, you may have missed the trend, big nostrils are hot).

I would like to console these Koreans obsessing about round eyes, v shaped jawlines and the size of their trapezoids (for large trapezoids supposedly disrupt the pretty idealized neckline) and introduce them to almost zen middle-aged path of self-acceptance. For at 48, I like my different, non Western features, my nose is so squishy and sweet if you throw a baseball at it, it would just bounce off and not break a bone. That’s a bonus! I patiently and delusionally await the day that small eyes are coveted. They can be part of the next “vibe shift.” (I hope you never hear me uttering this expression and if I do, it will we laced with irony). It’s time to flaunt your squinty, slanty eyes! Take it one step further like me and rock those progressive lens glasses so that your pupils recede into tiny pinpricks. If you don’t, before you know it, you’ll be the subject of mockery and derision! You’ll be that person stumbling out of COVID times, still wearing mascara and applying eyeliner. For shame!

But on a more serious note (I apologize for the whiplash-shift from citrus-y content to darker fare), increased Asian-American visibility has its pitfalls. It’s hard to gage how alarmed we Asian-Americans should be regarding the anti-Asian attacks. I curse myself for not paying attention to my college Statistics class and letting my brilliant partner do most of the work; now I can’t interpret any numerical data in an intelligent fashion. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that tracks attacks targeting AAPI community members, more than 10,000 incidents were reported from March 2020 through September 2021. San Francisco alone saw a 567% increase in hate crimes against AAPI people last year, according to data from the city’s police department, while the NYPD reported a 361% increase in anti-Asian bias incidents in 2021. Does three murders of Asian-Americans in New York City over the past two months mean true vigilance, e.g., should we learn self-defense/carry pepper spray, take buses instead of subways or learn other subway platform strategies other than the one utilized by myself and many friend already (standing behind a boulder on the platform, never surfing alone on the yellow line). Is the surge in violence against us only a surge because there was so little before? If the numbers are statistically insignificant, should I shift my worries elsewhere?

As my legal services office opens up in March and requires some in-person work, I nurse my new found phobia: subway platforms. Employers should be cognizant of this new anxiety that many of us Asian-Americans have and consider this when you tell us to come to the office during rush hour. Some of us may need some hand-holding/some accommodation. See the recent New Yorker cover by artist R. Kikuo Johnson https://www.vice.com/en/article/akd538/new-yorker-cover-asian-americans-attacks that deeply resonates with me. A masked Asian-American mom clutches her young daughter’s hand while she holds out her wrist with a watch. She’s not staring at the watch though. She’s distracted and clearly anxious for the train to come and take her away from the dreaded train platform.

As Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation noted, “if research shows that microaggressions — a term referring to everyday verbal or behavioral slights against people from marginalized backgrounds — alone can lead to long-term physical health repercussions, then it would not be far-fetched to understand repeated attacks against AAPI people as having the ability to inflict adverse physical and mental effects too.” (https://www.insider.com/nyc-chinatown-stabbing-leaves-asian-american-women-fearing-for-lives-2022-2)

That drasted video footage of the man pushing an Asian woman onto the NYC tracks is haunting material. The offender, a man in a baseball cap in the background looked so inconspicuous and calm before his quick steps forward and his violent shove. With his chill demeanor and tidy clothing, I would probably not have profiled him as someone mentally ill. (I’m sorry that I make these base assessments sometimes). These anti-Asian attacks are so upsetting on so many levels. Not only do they make us feel unsafe, they increase our bias about the mentally ill, the homeless and minorities. After an Asian-American woman Christina Yuna Lee was followed home and savagely stabbed and killed in Chinatown, NYC by a man who was was mentally ill and homeless, some Chinatown residents protested a new homeless shelter set to open in Chinatown. A homeless advocate spoke up and said more eloquently than I, that without evidence that a new shelter would increase anti Asian attacks, the residents’ opposition was just bias. As more than one journalist has noted, these anti-Asian attacks make one thing clear: we need to make meaningful changes to alleviate the problems of the mentally ill and of the homeless in New York City. I certainly hope brilliant advocates who champion the rights of the homeless like my friend Deb will be listened to by our new mayor and his administration.

To any Asian-American readers out there and our allies, Fighting!!

(*According to The Cut (a source I read but mock with some joy) this word is “an entry from a Substack called 8Ball, a weekly newsletter of a trend-forecasting consultancy founded by Sean Monahan…A vibe shift is the catchy but sort of too-cool term Monahan uses for a relatively simple idea: In the culture, sometimes things change, and a once-dominant social wavelength starts to feel dated.”)