On Invisibility

17 Jul

“For God’s sake, can you just TAKE compliments?”

On one fine evening out on Arab Street with my friend Yvette (the official “last” dinner in Singapore for her, before she went back to Rwanda), she told me she liked my outfit, and I probably said something like, “Oh, I just got it for really cheap.”

“You know what my aunt says when people tell her she looks good? She says, ‘Oh, you should have seen me yesterday!’ with her attitude.”

I didn’t particularly know what to say. So I just told her it was an Asian thing. We Asians are not supposed to show up, we are programmed to be “modest” in our actions and words. Then the whole conversation really made me think of the aspect of Asian womanhood, at least to my life so far.

I “became” Asian when I went to the US as a 15-year-old girl. That was the first label that was given to me. An Asian chick. The label came with many other tags, such as being quiet, a hard worker, genius in math and really, having not much of character at all. In one word, I was automatically considered an “invisible one,” just like all the other FOBs at my school.

The thing is that I didn’t choose to be invisible. My English was not great and I didn’t know how to socialize in the language and the particular social structure, so I couldn’t talk much and I didn’t have any other choice but working hard. I was good in math because that was about the only subject that didn’t require much English.

I was invisible by default.

It was a very painful period of my life, but I did well. I excelled in my high school career, graduated at the top of my class, and went to a decent university. But what many people don’t know is that I stayed up many nights in the bathroom after the light-out time in my boarding school dorm, I practiced English pronunciation that I couldn’t quite get during the day (and often was made fun of) hundreds of times so that I could speak it right the next time, and I woke up 6am every morning so that I could do more studying than others. Eventually I started to become more active. I was able to speak up.

I did all these so that I could become visible. But even then, I was still a hardworking Asian girl who is good at math (and maybe in other subjects, too, but only good in academic sense). I was still invisible.

Now, I feel very comfortable with English (which is my working and social language everyday these days), and people know that I have a sarcastic, biting sense of humor along with my “attitudes,” and maybe I can thank my American education for that. I tried really hard not to be “that Asian chick” who rarely speaks out her mind, who studies a conventional discipline (econ, biology, engineering, etc) really hard and dresses too well. I chose to speak out (often very nervously I admit), chose an unconventional major (although I did study hard), and ran around in my sweatpants with no makeup on purpose. I tried hard to prove myself different. I tried to be visible.

But the funny thing is that I still find myself “choosing” to be invisible often unconsciously. Maybe it got started after I came back to Asia a few years ago while I was struck with a sense of reverse culture shock. But then thinking about it, I’m not sure about that at all. Looking back, in the States, I deliberately “oppressed” the Asian side of me, because it was too painful to be one. In a way, I chose not to see a part of me that I associated with invisibility. And now, I come back to my “home” culture, I feel a sense of displacement, and I’m not sure how to position myself. Gradually, I became invisible again. I am afraid of how people may judge me, because I act “too American” and “too White.” My dad used to yell at me for being “too loud” and “too all over” when I was younger, and the same voice is ringing in my head again. The culture that brought me up for the first 15 years of my life is creeping back in and the confusion that I probably should have had as a teenager is hitting me hard.

From all the voices of the past and present, I hear clashing things: Be modest.  Don’t be afraid to express yourself. Be quiet. Talk out loud. You are not supposed to think that you are beautiful (and you are kinda ugly). You are beautiful in every way. And I become buried in all these voices, then again, I become invisible. I choose not to express, because I don’t wanna be judged in one way or another, and this time, such invisibility brings me a temporary comfort, but maybe a deeper cut.

I don’t think it’s simply about a confused individual’s confidence issue, although to a certain extent, it is. It is about certain social constructs and how they may affect an individual (or many individuals) of certain origin, let’s say an ethnic minority (in American context) woman whose cultural diversity should not only be celebrated but also be reconciliated. And even as an ethnic “majority” in Asia, the same individual still feels the cultural pressure and ambiguity, now faced with the “home” culture, because she would hear the society dictating how a good Korean woman should be while maintaining the invisibility at the same time.

When will I become visible by default? When will I be able to take those compliments without feeling the necessity of being modest? Will I be able to love myself truly without being able to truly see herself?

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