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Beauty through the eyes of an Asian adoptee

Beauty through the eyes of an Asian adopteeOne of the most popular plastic surgeries for Asians in this country is a procedure that alters their eyelids to create creases. The creases make the eyes appear fuller, less slanted, more Western. But what Laura Gannarelli, who’s Korean American, learned when she visited South Korea is that the surgery is extremely popular over there, as well as throughout Asia. While watching the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics last week, she said she noticed how so many of the Chinese spotlighted had the highly prized wider eyes. But Laura’s essay isn’t about the Olympics. Laura is an adoptee and the founder of the Chicago-based Paper Lantern: Resource Center for Korean Adoptees. She worries that too many young Asian adoptees may not have enough access to role models here or abroad who help them clearly see and appreciate their unique eyes and overall natural beauty. This is Laura Gannarelli’s essay:
As a Korean-American woman, I’ve spent many years trying to debunk myths about Asian beauty. The seductress with the long black locks. The almond-shaped eyes. The  perfectly petite body. Blah, blah, blah.

But I’m also an adoptee, whose parents are white. So before I could become a myth buster I had to arrive at my own definition of beauty. It’s one that exists outside of the blond, blue-eyed model, as well as that of the exotically beautiful Asian woman.

Right now, one of the most popular plastic surgeries for Asian women (and men) is getting their eyes “done” to look more Western. For an Asian adoptee growing up in a predominately white environment that only makes it tougher to figure out one’s identity. 

I grew up in a small town in Minnesota. I came to this country when I was 9 years old. I remember feeling out of place in many ways. It didn’t help that I didn’t look like any of the girls in my high school or in the teen magazines.

For years, I didn’t even know how to apply makeup. The glamour magazines always instructed that girls should “play up their best features.” Which were my best? Because I was enculturated as a white person, when I looked in the mirror, I expected to see a white person. It was almost shocking that what I felt on the inside didn’t match what I saw on the outside.  Just like any other young person, I simply wanted to blend in the way I thought everybody else did.

I tried make-overs at department store make-up counters. But I can’t tell you how many times a well-meaning white woman adorned me in bright red lipstick because “it looks great on Asians.” 
The make-up counter women were accustomed to Asian women requesting smoky eye shadow to add depth to their eyelids to disguise the fact that they didn’t have the “much-beloved” crease in their eyelids. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I learned how to use make-up to play up my best features.
In 2003, I traveled to Korea, on my first trip back since arriving in Minnesota nearly 25 years before.  I thought that in Korea, I would find a standard of beauty more becoming to and of me. But that wasn’t the case.

In Korea, creased eyelids are so highly prized that many parents even take their teens to get the procedure done. Plastic surgery is booming throughout Asia, but South Korea has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world.

Some obsess so much over their eyes that they even are reluctant to smile. They fear that smiling will make their eyes crinkle further. (There are even ways to pose to make the face appear slimmer.)
I later learned that many of the Korean celebrities have had some kind of surgery---from getting their eyelids refashioned to getting bridges placed into their nose to having their jaw-line shaved down to make it slimmer. Basically, Korea’s standard for beauty is this: the more Western you look, the better. They are erasing their uniqueness. I find it curious that in Korea, there’s now a special word for the surgery, but I can’t find one in the Korean language for “adoptee.” This is true even though the country has placed more than 200,000 children in homes oversees.

At events for adoptees, I often hear foreign dignitaries say we should embrace our Korean heritage and be proud to be Korean. I find this hypocritical, especially since it’s vogue over there to destroy your face. 
I can’t help but think that if I were an Asian child growing up today in a white home and if I were getting my cues from either American or Korean popular culture (via magazines and television) I would be even more confused. I’d be torn because I definitely wouldn’t look white, but I also wouldn’t resemble the Korean stars who change their face.

I hope that parents who adopt Asian children will discuss honestly how, similar to Western magazines, the women in Asian glamour magazines are air-brushed. Many also were chosen because they represent the ideal of Asian beauty. They don’t represent regular, everyday people.

For a better perspective, adopted children should spend time with “real” Asians who are beautiful in their own way. And not just the ones they meet at the Korean grocery store or Chinese restaurants. But they should spend time with Asians who have professional careers as well as those who aren’t math whizzes or musical prodigies. It will help them understand and see that we are individuals and not stereotypes.
So what is my perception now about Asian beauty? It sounds simple but Asian women come in all shapes and sizes. We aren’t all a size zero. Our eyes come in many different shapes and sizes, too, (and without surgery) and, yes, even different shades of brown. Asian hair also comes in shades of dark brown and not just “black.” Some of it even has a natural wave.

We are like every other ethnic group. If you take the time to really “look” and not “see” what the media feeds you, you will see the depth and breadth of those differences.

As I become older and my friends (who are not adopted) and I talk about aging, they say things like “We turn gray early in my family,” or “The women tend to gain weight in their butts once they hit 40.” As an adoptee, I have no such familial road map. What I will look like years from now is yet another big “unknown” in my life.

Still, after years of struggling, I have learned to accept and not hate myself. I am who I am. I am no longer surprised when I look in the mirror and see my Asian face. I can’t (well, I won’t) change my eyelids or my nose or anything else.

I turned 40 this year and I’m happy to say that I’ve achieved greater clarity in the way I see myself. I do hope that one stereotype is true: And that is, Asians don’t age, or at least we age slowly! 
Laura Gannarelli is the founder of Paper Lantern: Resource Center for Korean Adoptees. You can learn more about the center at www.paperlantern.org.
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