The other day, I googled images of women with short, blued-dyed hair as inspiration for a drawing. The search results showed a wide variety of beautiful people but I noticed that there wasn't any Asian among them. So I kept on googling and as it happens, I was still googling an hour later but by then absorbed by an entirely different topic: female K-pop stars. That in itself is not unusual - if you look at photographs of bands like 2BN1, Black Pink, Red Velvet, or Mamamoo, you will probably find yourself fascinated by the shrill-colored outfits, the artificial looking hair and the doll-like faces. But what really struck me was that I perceived them as these pretty, exotic, slightly peculiar beings whose bodies, faces, and features looked completely foreign to me, whereas looking at blue haired punk girls with huge black rimmed glasses and thick Indian style nose rings felt familiar and normal. I much more identified with the latter than the former.
Obviously, I see pretty white girls with blue (or red or green or purple or pink) hair, glasses and septum piercings every day, whereas I have never crossed paths with a Korean K-pop star. But to me, there is something more to it. I still expect to feel a certain familiarity when I look at Korean (and generally East-Asian) faces. Or, if not familiarity, then at least something, even though I am not able to specify what that something would be. An emotion, perhaps, a faint recognition of something I know, a yearning for someone I do not know, the memory of a story I have once been told.
But there is nothing, except for the surprise, discomfort, and disappointment about exactly that. To be honest, looking at different K-pop bands and their members, I even caught myself thinking “They all look the same to me”. For one, this is because they all are dressed according to an extremely homogeneous and strict style, which makes them look very similar at first glance. But more importantly, of course, not being used to look at a certain type of racial features, the eye does not see all the subtle differences that it is able to perceive in its accustomed environment; same as our ears are incapable of hearing the differences between sounds they have never listened to. (I have to emphasize though that the line to being really ignorant and annoying is very fine, so I have been “mixed up” with people from the entire Asian and American continent, just because the person would not care enough to see the difference between a 15-year old girl from Guatemala and 10-year old Anni from South Korea, to name just one instant.) Growing up surrounded by whiteness, both in my direct environment and the media, I hardly got to see Asian faces. Even the faces of my parents, the first faces a child learns to recognize, read, imitate, had European features. So it is not surprising that I do not have any sense of familiarity or recognition when I look at Korean persons.
But it still seems weird because this is what I myself look like. It feels like I am looking at myself but what I see is a total stranger. I have not been aware of that until quite recently and it never occurred to me that it could be a source of discomfort or self-consciousness. You probably would not guess but as a girl, I read a lot of glossy girly magazines, followed makeup tips to make the eyes look bigger (ever even heard of the word monolid?), tried to determine my skin type (light-medium-dark? Umm, neither!), and attempted to force my hair into the summery beach style wave (gone after 15 minutes), or the glamorous party up-style (lasted for less than two seconds). It just never really worked because none of the faces or hair resembled mine, not in the least. But because I never thought about it that way, I was simply unhappy that I never seemed to look quite right. (Needless to say that these magazines generally create highly problematic narratives on beauty that make many girls feel miserable, even those with blond curls and blue eyes.)
A makeup tutorial for Asian eyes - what a revelation!
Although I tend to be very critical of social media, I sometimes wish YouTube, Instagram & Co. had been around in the nineties. It would have made it so easy to find out that there are millions of girls and women struggling with small eyes and hooded eye lids, flat wide faces, and impossibly thick straight black hair. And that some of them have figured out excellent ways to deal with that. And how good it feels to whine about these things together.
When I watch makeup tutorials for Asians now, it primarily makes my skin itch seeing how they paste one hundred layers of stuff onto their faces. It also makes me mad at the world because so many of them try to “Westernize” their looks as much as possible and cover up every Asian feature. Both of these reactions say a lot about who I am now. At the same time, I am completely fascinated by seeing people with eyes and hair that look like mine giving me instructions on how to look better, how to look like them. I imagine what it would have been like to grow up in Korea and have access to these videos. I picture myself with my girlfriends, discussing our favourite band member of our favourite K-pop group, which one we resemble most and how we could do our hair the way they do, and then try to copy their makeup and style and look really awkward and odd like teenagers do. How would it have been, had I compared my physique and hair and eyes and skin tone with Korean instead of German girls and women? If I had grown up seeing myself mirrored in the faces around me? Would I feel less out-of-place, less self-conscious, less inadequate, would I be able to accept myself more, stop caring so much about how I look, never being satisfied with the way I do?
Instead, I still compare myself with women who look pretty much like my negative image, try desperately to tie up my hair into a messy bun, and wonder why I feel anxiety when I enter a room where I am the only woman who is not light skinned and blonde haired (chronically high chance for that to happen in Sweden). At the same time, I also feel alienated in contexts where I am surrounded by other Asians. Because I travel often and usually work in contexts where I meet a lot of tourists and foreigners, there is pictures of me with people from all over the world, including Korea. I get lost in looking at these images, the moments they captured, the memories they invoke, and the never-ending question: Do I look like them? Do I look like them? Do I look like them? And no, mostly I don't. But despite of that, I do enjoy that for once, if you don't look too closely, it is my non-Asian friends who are the ones standing out, whereas I get to melt into a sea of dark hair, round faces, and narrow eyes.
Happy pilgrims in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela