I Received An Anonymous Text. With Just 8 Words, It Brought Back The Shame I Thought I'd Buried.

The author as an adult
The author as an adult Photo Courtesy Of Sharon Kwon

It’s break time during my weeklong psychodrama retreat, where 11 (mostly) strangers from all over the country are gathered in a mansion underneath the northern lights of Fairbanks, Alaska, reenacting and healing our complex traumas. 

I feel seen, understood and accepted in this container we created to keep us resourced, regulated, connected and safe as we confront some of our deepest, darkest memories. In between sessions, I sneak a peek at my work phone and immediately wish I hadn’t because reading an anonymous eight-word text message immediately undoes all of that.

“You look very Asian with your single eyelids.”

I don’t recognize the number. My heart sinks all the way down to my feet. Instantly, I feel the same survival responses as if my life were in danger: freeze, fight, flee or fawn. I am a target. I’m othered. I don’t belong. They don’t want me here. I am unwelcome. I’m not safe. Immediately, I remember the embarrassment I felt every time a kid at school made jokes about my eyes. 

“Can you even see?” 

“Do Asians see in wide-screen?”

I think of all the times people have made the slanty eye gesture to me. I think of all the times I’ve had to laugh it off or sit there frozen and silent.

The words alone may seem innocuous, but they trigger years of traumatic memories buried deep within my nervous system. I block them and put my phone away, but all it took was this one random text message from a complete stranger to send me back in time to when I felt ugly and defective. 

Why are my eyes like this? It’s not fair. 

I take a breath, stand back up, regain my composure, and walk back down the stairs and rejoin this group that, minutes ago, represented safety and connection. Now, my body is full of fear and anger because of a message from someone who isn’t here, as I take my seat again and pretend like nothing happened — just like I always do.

I wish the message at home had been different, but unfortunately it wasn’t, at least not in my Korean American family. 

One of the most defining differences between those of Asian and those of Western descent is the presence of the upper-eyelid crease, or double eyelid. About 50% of Asiansdo not have this double eyelid. Blepharoplasty, the surgery to create this extra crease, is the most common cosmetic procedure requested in Asia and the third most common procedure requested by Asian Americans

I grew up bracing myself for this surgery. It was a rite of passage. My mom got it, her sisters got it, and my Korean girlfriends got it. Before I was old enough for surgery, I would wear double eyelid tape. Nowadays you can buy mass-produced double eyelid tape at Walmart and Amazon, but back in the day, I had to cut them up myself. When I got tired of putting tape on my eyes every day, I did what a lot of Korean girls do over the summer. At 14 years old, I went under the knife and got plastic surgery to try to look more Western and less Asian.

I lay on the operating table — anxious, alone and very awake. The Korean surgeon spoke with a calming voice, explaining the process to me in Korean as I struggled to understand surgical jargon. He jabbed me with local anesthetic and made the first incision in my eyelid. He cut a line above my eye and then sewed it closed, creating a crease that didn’t exist before. I was awake, eyes wide open, for the entire hour. 

I felt a mix of feelings: fear, shame, sadness, and also hope. I got braces around the same time and I rationalized that the double eyelid surgery was similar. It’s painful and unpleasant but you’ll get a prettier smile, or, in this case, prettier eyes. Afterward, while I recovered, my eyes were bruised, swollen and tender for the rest of the summer. I rarely left my house and if I did, I wore sunglasses everywhere. I told my friends I was out of town. 

My parents encouraged it. They had been wanting me to do this since I was born. They would have been relieved if I had been part of the 50% that was born with a double eyelid because that would have saved them thousands of dollars they barely had at the time. 

I come from an entire country that has adopted the belief that an extra line above your eyes adds value to your life. But the sad truth is that, in my case, the rest of the world can’t even tell the difference post-surgery. This crease is so subtle, it’s almost invisible. My non-Asian friends don’t even notice until I point it out. I’m still bullied by anonymous trolls who can’t even tell that I cut my eyelids to conform to their beauty standards. 

And now, as I am confronted by these childhood memories in my adult body, I can’t help but question — who decided this is beautiful?

This pressure to assimilate to Western beauty ideals hits home extra hard for Korean women because the surgery was first developed in the Korean War by an American military plastic surgeon for Korean war brides to look more appealing to American soldiers. Whenever I watch Korean dramas or listen to K-pop, I quickly notice that every Korean on the screen has double eyelids. 

For most of my life, I’d been so conditioned to believe my Asian eyes were ugly that I couldn’t even accept compliments about them. When I heard, “Your eyes are beautiful,” I immediately assumed that I was being fetishized or made fun of. They can’t possibly actually think that. 

The author at 7 years old, before she had eye surgery.
The author at 7 years old, before she had eye surgery. Photo Courtesy Of Sharon Kwon

I thought I would feel that way forever, but 11 years ago, when I was a senior in college, I was run over by a taxi while waiting to cross the street in Chicago. I was in the ICU for weeks, couldn’t walk, and had gashes and stitches all over my body, including on my face. I broke the bone under my eye and had to have surgery to replace it. The doctor said I should be grateful because, if it wasn’t for this bone, I would likely have lost my eyeball. I almost lost the very eyes that I was conditioned to feel were “broken.” I almost lost my ability to see.  

This time, when I lay on an operating table, I felt scared and resentful yet also grateful as the anesthesia slipped me into unconsciousness. I left the hospital after a few weeks and my mother flew in from Los Angeles and lived with my roommates and me for a month to take care of me — bathing me, cooking for me, and coming with me to many follow-up appointments. After a couple of months, I was walking again, back at school, and back to life as usual — except now I have a scar across my forehead, one that I’ve grown to love and appreciate as one of my many battle wounds. 

And I can still see.

I can still see the sky, sun, mountains and trees. I can see what’s in front of me and behind me. I can see the world in all its beauty and grief.

The day after I read the text message, I chose connection over isolation and shared what was bothering me at my psychodrama retreat. They held me close in a group hug as we let out collective screams of anger and frustration at the world and the systems designed to keep us separated. I felt seen, understood, and supported by this group of both Asian and white bodies. I noticed a shift within me. I didn’t want to give this stranger the satisfaction of making me feel inferior. 

When I look in the mirror these days, I can see my grandparents, born in Japan-occupied Korea, who got their first taste of freedom and globalization after World War II. I can see my parents, born just after the Korean war in a time when our little country became trapped in an endless battle between communism and capitalism. I see my ancestors, family, friends and a country full of people like me. I see our shared humanity and longing to belong and to feel valued and worthy. I see our stories and I’m inspired to give them life.

I can see myself — a Korean American immigrant — and I feel gratitude and pride. This is what these eyes are made for: to see the world, ourselves and each other. 

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