Mirrors have always been a source of fascination for me beyond their practical use. They’re everywhere and perfect for making sure your clothes are on straight or that no hairs are out of place. I do all of that but often stop to stare at my own face.
To anyone else, the time I spend in front of the mirror would seem like a sure sign of narcissism. *laughing I’ve lived most of my life at odds with my face. My nose was too broad, too flat. My eyes were too small, too slanted, eyelashes too sparse. I swore I’d fix it all when I grew up. Perms had provided temporary relief from my board-straight, charcoal hair but even then, nothing seemed quite right.
As a little girl, my eyes would work their way from forehead to chin as I tried to erase the question mark that lay like an invisible tattoo under my skin. Why did I have to be so different, so ugly. My little girl heart knew there was something to it beyond my appearance but exactly what and why was beyond my grasp.
When I looked in the mirror, there was only this stranger looking back at me. It was out of context, the wrong colors, wrong angles, wrong curves, wrong, wrong, wrong. I just wanted to peel off my face and glue on another one, any one as long as it wasn’t the one I had.
By the time I’d entered middle school, things had begun to change. Boys followed me home minus the rocks they’d hurled at me just a few years before. My phone started ringing with invites to school dances and birthday parties. There were still those who felt I’d always be the little gook, but I was too busy enjoying the change to notice much. For the first time, my image in the mirror giggled and didn’t feel so ugly though it couldn’t tell me what had changed.
Age thirteen brought with it, the interest of boys much older than myself. During an outing with a cousin who was several years my senior, one of her friends commented on how dainty and fragile I looked. He said he loved my tiny feet and hands and said I reminded him of the girls in kung fu movies. I’d loved those movies, too. In ignorance, my image in the mirror smiled and whispered “china doll”.
As I grew older, cosmetics became the source of a new dilemma. Pink and blue eyeshadow was all the rage with my friends, but made me look clownish and unreal. The electric blue eyeliner they wore made my eyes look that much smaller and enhanced their slant. Pink lipstick? “Not for you!” my reflection screamed. I settled for the more neutral tones of peach and beige.
Eventually, a more natural look came into fashion but by then, I’d abandoned my makeup case, donned a hijab and started attending business classes. My parents called me “stranger”. Friends called me “foreigner”. I quietly faded away. The shape-shifting chameleon in the mirror melted into the background and slept.
A slow awakening began with the birth of my daughter. She became my looking glass as l searched for traces of my face in hers. With the birth of each of my three sons that followed, that invisible question mark became more pronounced until it was all I could see.
I turned my face away from the mirror and looked back in the direction from which I’d come. Further and further back, I went past the beginning of my memories to a city called Saigon. It had changed its name, too and now called itself Ho Chi Minh City. It was full of so many people who looked so foreign but still so strangely familiar. Then something clicked.
Looking again into the mirror, my eyes grew wide as for the first time, my face made itself known to me. “Vietnamese,” mouthed its lips as they curved into a smile, “Took you long enough.” I had wasted so much time, trying to change everything when I should have been getting to know what was already there.
“No matter,” my reflection whispered and beckoned me to come closer, “We’ll just have to make up for lost time.” We moved toward each other. I stepped into the mirror going backwards as my reflection stepped out and continued forward. The movement of time folded in on itself until I could no longer tell the difference.