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“Ugly,” my grandfather blatantly declared.
The eight-year-old me looked down in confusion and shame, having just committed the greatest crime of the century: breaking and entering a makeup bag.
“You must get rid of that,” he continued.
Following his command, I submissively raised one hand to my lips and smeared away the red lipstick. My other hand tugged on the mascara, smudging blotches onto my childish fingertips. Finally, with the backs of my hands, I swiped away the artificial blush.
I knew girls who rummaged through their mothers’ cosmetics bags and transformed into circus clowns. Having seen the initial shock of the mothers and then heard the relieving laughter that quickly followed, I had expected an equal reaction from my grandfather.
My own explanation for his peculiar response was that I am Chinese; this single attribute distinguished me from my fellow circus clowns. I had only tried to use my face as a canvas for my creativity. I later learned that it is culturally unacceptable to cake my youthful face in makeup, as youth is highly valued in my culture. Only older women wear makeup to conceal signs of aging. Nevertheless, I accused my grandfather of a crime far worse than mine: “cultural reinforcement.”
This instance pushed me over the edge. Instead of understanding, I began to rebel. I stopped liking the Chinese lessons that my mother had optimistically enrolled me in. I stopped attempting to speak my broken Chinese and instead began to incorporate more English into daily conversations. I favored burgers and fries over dumplings and noodles. Cans of Coca-cola replaced mugs of Oolong tea. I went by Maxine and not Niuniu, my Chinese nickname. With these adjustments, I began to back away from my Chinese background while engaging my American-ness.
Years later, I visited my relatives in Beijing. My aunt took the opportunity to sign me up for a Chinese class. At first I was reluctant, but I agreed to go, considering the fact that it was a Chinese art class, not one of those Chinese language classes. When the instructor handed out blank masks and paint pots, I became interested. My task was to make a traditional Chinese opera mask, a lianpu, to be used later by a professional Chinese opera performer.
I brushed pink circles onto the cheeks, subconsciously transforming my long-held anger from the makeup incident into inspiration for my lianpu. I proceeded to outline the eyes, as I had done my own eyes. I saved the best for last: the bright, red lipstick, the infamous weapon with which I had first committed the crime. Time flew by, and soon enough we were seated, awaiting the show.
I was captivated by the face-mask changing act. The performer had worn all of the colorful masks and managed to remove them stealthily, one by one. His final mask flew off, revealing his face as he took a bow.
Later, I realized that I myself was a mask-changer. My two cultures were two distinct masks, and I removed them, one disguised by heavy makeup, the other natural. What lies below is none other than my own face, my own identity, my Chinese-Americanness. That instance transformed my perception of the aspects of my background that I had once identified as unyielding chains, which I now see as inherent components of myself. I was focused on finding the perfect balance, and – by a stroke of chance – I believe I’ve found it. Since that day, I have continued to take Chinese classes nearly every Sunday. Today, I am able to balance both English and Chinese, something I never would have imagined as that naively rebellious eight-year-old. Today, I occasionally brush mascara onto my lashes and even less frequently swipe blush onto my cheeks. I do, however, skimp on the red lipstick, because my performance has ended.
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