"Acceptance" by Kelly Kim
First Place for College Prose
I turned to face the woman beaming at me, and by her heavily contoured face, fluttering
false eyelashes, and her black-and-red uniform, I could tell she worked at Sephora. “Would you like to receive a makeover?” she asked.
She caught me by surprise; I was not expecting to be recruited to be her project as soon as I walked into the store. I managed a slight smile, to which she assumed my answer was a positive “yes.”
“Walk over there with me,” she ordered as she approached a brightly lit mirror and a table messily covered with an oblong of jet black mascara, a plate of flamboyant eye shadows—baby blue, tropical orange, neon pink, each in a basin just big enough for fingertips—and three lipsticks in “Redemption,” “Besame Mucho,” and “No Shame.”
I could not decipher what the true chromatic colors of these lipsticks were from their silly names, but I eased my nerves by thinking, Be open to new colors. You’re in a new city, new school, so why not a new self?
I watched as the woman, whose name I noticed from her metallic nametag was “Paula,” rubbed her finger in eye shadow. When she lifted her finger, the dense blue covering made my heart skip a beat of hesitancy.
I’ve never worn blue on my face. I thought. New me, right?
Paula dabbed her finger on my eyelid, first starting with gentle, miniscule motions, gradually turning into swift, elongated motions across my entire eyelid. I kept my eyes closed during this, and was suddenly yet intensely preoccupied with my insecurity over my Asian features—my low nose bridge, shallow eyelid crease, short lashes, and full cheeks. Paula then whipped out a waterproof liquid eyeliner, drawing thick black strokes on my eyelid, attempting to make my eyes as big as her European ones. Unsatisfied with her result, she glued on a pair of false eyelashes that were more dramatic than her pair. I sat uncomfortably and impatiently while the cheap glue stiffly dried on my eyes. Turning to a row of bottles of foundation and unable to decode the exact color of my skin, Paula brought over two shades in Porcelain 00 and Alabaster 0. I wondered if I was her first Asian customer; I would’ve never picked those colors up for myself—or any Asian person, really. Rather, the shades perfectly matched Paula’s own pale skin. As she swiped the foundation and blended the light colors onto my face, a sudden memory of my nine-year-old self staring into a mirror at the ugly yellowness of my skin with resentment flashed at me. When the memory dissipated, Paula had moved onto contouring my face, shading my cheeks and nose with brown powder to create an illusion of “high cheekbones” and a “tall and narrow nose.”
When Paula finally left my face alone, I was left with an unfamiliar, nonplussed teenage girl staring into my eyes—her face so white, her eyes almond-shaped, and bone structure so European. I did not know who she was or why I had for 18 years dreamt of looking like her. I thought about how, as a little girl who played with Barbie dolls and watched Disney Princess movies, I would pray to my European God every night hoping to one day wake up with white skin; how I used to pinch my nose until I couldn’t stand the pain in false belief that I could somehow “push” my nose bridge higher together; how for months I wore color contacts to feel white. Now with this person staring back at me—our souls similar yet our physiques so divergent—I felt disgusted and excused myself from Paula. I walked to the back of the store and aggressively rubbed my face with cotton balls drenched in makeup remover until the balls were turned a heinous color of porcelain, brown, and blue, and my face was finally back to familiarity. I found a strange comfort in the unglamorous girl with the small nose, chubby cheeks, and round eyes looking back at me in the mirror.
After leaving Sephora and walking for six laborious blocks, I reached a quieter side of Pittsburgh, where only a few people were visible and no open shops were in sight. A block away from where I was standing, there was a group of blonde, blue-eyed girls chuckling together wearing their Kappa Delta hoodies. As I passed them, a few turned to look at me. They know I don’t belong here. I thought. They think I’m foreign.
As I walked further, my stomach grumbled uncontrollably at what it seemed like the smell of fresh bread. I followed the scent, and in my eyes appeared a diner. I walked in, rejoicing at the sight of food.
“Table for one, please,” I said to the waitress, named Amy.
Amy, a large, brunette woman, gave me a welcoming smile and grabbed a menu from the counter. As she was leading me to a table, I could sense awkward stares from other guests at the restaurant. Amy set the menu down on an empty four-person table near the back of the restaurant and left me alone to pick an entrée.
Chocolate Chip Pancakes, Potato Pancakes, Buttermilk Pancakes. I soon got bored of reading the many types of pancakes available, and lay the menu down. I noticed a stack of the most recent Sunday issue of the New York Times that was being sold for $2.50 each. I walked over and took one to the table. Skimming through the pages, I chose to read a book review on Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child.
I made my way through the article, paragraphs shortening to sentences, sentences soon breaking down into singular words: Lost. Child. Italian. Rises. Beginnings. Successful. Anonymity. I felt an unexpected connection with each word and began to see myself in the third person: an adult, about to start college, reading a newspaper, and ready to order food. Then I saw my younger self: five years old, about to start elementary school, unable to speak English, having never read an English book, and terrified of speaking a word. I reminisced over how much I had grown over the span of thirteen years and searched my brain for more memories.
I thought about my beginnings in New Zealand, how, when I first moved to New Zealand, I lived in silence. Unfamiliar with the culture and language, I spent long afternoons tracing letters, watching Hi-5 or Sesame Street, and training my tongue to perform the lingual gymnastics required to speak fluently. Even at five years old, I knew that self-imposed reticence was akin to submission. I was determined to prove to my New Zealand peers that I could do what they could do—converse in their language.
While I was eventually able to speak and read English, a part of me still feared the language. When I relocated to the United States to start middle school, I didn’t believe I was as good at English as my American peers, because I was not born into the language, and I entered my boarding school with the same impression.
During my first day of high school, I was constantly asked, “Where are you from?” and greeted with a confused look when I replied, “New Jersey.” To which, they followed with, “Oh, but where are you really from,” or “you’re an still international student though, right?” as if my skin would not allow me to be anything other than Korean.
“Well, I am American,” I would say with a noticeable defensiveness in my tone.
I was unaware that I would accompany this statement with a speech on how my political views are Republican but I’m a Feminist, how my favorite director is Wes Anderson, how I love reading Virginia Woolf, and how I had lived in New Jersey for many years. But that wasn’t enough. Whatever I said was never enough. My peers would respond, “Wow, you’re different,” trying to compliment me on how I wasn’t like a stereotypical Asian student.
Recalling my past experiences and viewing them in retrospect, I realized that my entire life as an Asian living in non-Asian countries was about proving myself to other people: when my peers didn’t think I would be good at English, I vowed to prove them wrong by participating constantly in class discussions, writing for the school newspaper and magazine, and taking the AP English tests. When they told me that the reason why many Asians don’t join sports is because they spend all their time in the library studying, I signed myself up for both rowing and squash.
But, what were my efforts for? As the Editor-in-Chief for the school newspaper and the school magazine, a fourth-year member of Varsity crew and equipped with 5s on both of the AP English tests, I still didn’t feel like I conquered English or was “good enough” for my white peers. Even after I received both the school’s Journalism and Literary awards in front of the whole school, I was disappointed to find out that many classmates and teachers assumed I was going to major in STEM.
While I was proving my American-ness, I was struggling to prove my Asian-ness. I spent many weekends in my dorm room, hovering over SAT books because the Korean ajummas (“aunts”) told me “Asians need higher test scores than most college applicants.” I nibbled raw carrots and ate tofu when I really wanted to be popping French fries into my mouth and biting burgers, because the Asian culture lionized skinny 90-pound girls who had thigh gaps and 24-inch waists. I wasn’t sleeping because I was studying until 4 or 5 am to receive all As, only to beat my tired self down when I didn’t.
I realized how lonely living a life like this was. Feeling like an outsider to both American and Asian cultures, living a life that didn’t feel like my own, pretending to be a multitalented, organized girl who was perfect by both American and Asian standards, when really inside I was breaking down. I began to conceal true myself from others in an effort to shield myself from vulnerability and imperfection.
The decisions I had made many years ago had now led me to a restaurant in Pittsburgh, with a newspaper in one hand and a menu on the other, unsure if my attempts to hide my nervous feelings about starting college were working. I overheard a group of University of Pittsburgh students sitting at a table next to mine. And as any teenager can attest, nearby chatter always seems a little bit louder and a little bit clearer when one is thinking about something grudgingly. They were chattering about their latest boyfriends, complaining about their parents, laughing over embarrassing stories from the summer. It was then, as I was observing them converse excitedly among themselves, that I realized that my table was empty.
I didn’t feel anything at first, but something began to stir within me. I realized that I never understood why I was always constantly prove myself, why I never thought about the possibility of being an unique blend of American and Korean, why I was never content with my physical features, my grades, or my social skills. Why was I so afraid of being myself ?
Right there, I vowed to myself that I would neither “reinvent” myself nor stress over my insecurities. I would enter college, study whatever I want, do the activities that I feel most passionate about, and embrace both my talents and flaws. There was no guarantee that I would make friends, be praised for being who I was or be successful, but I was for the first time willing to take a risk and be open to vulnerability, to others, to myself.
“Hi honey,” I heard a woman’s soothing voice say.
I looked up and the voices inside my head quieted and past memories faded. Amy, with a pen and notepad in her hands, looked back at me.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
I faced her with a genuine smile and a swiftly beating heart. “Yes,” I responded, excitedly.