When I was very young, my mother made me wear a clothespin at night to encourage my nose to form a salient bridge, instead of disappearing into the front of my face and emerging like a mushroom at the end of it.
“Please God, give me a new nose, give me a new nose” was the nasal prayer I intoned, clothespin astride my face, feeling the futility and the force of my mother’s optimism at one and the same time.
As my mother recovered from Stephen’s death – the clothespin long since abandoned and my nose no less flat than before – she turned to new projects concerning my appearance. The chief objective was, of course, to render me beautiful.
My father made it clear what he thought of our efforts. Once, when I was thirteen, he came in as my mother and I were discussing training bras. My chest was still as flat as Kansas, but I wanted to be ready just in case.
“I can make a bra for you, Myung Hee,” my father said. “Two Dixie cups and a piece of string.”
My mother gave him a withering look, but he persisted.
“How about peanut shells?”
“Yeobo!” my mother scolded, chasing him out of the room, trying to hide the smile that was edging the corners of her mouth.
Shopping with my mother was a type of sorority scavenger hunt. She had a genius for honing in on a bargain. She’d rifle through the racks at Macy’s or Sears, pulling out garment after garment, which I would try on in the dressing room and trot out for her evaluation.
The clothes she chose for me were never things I would’ve picked for myself: black velveteen stretch pants with stirrups, a hot-pink-and-green-striped go-go dress with a pink vinyl belt, a gold paisley two-piece with bell-bottoms and a smocked baby-doll top. “Turn around,” she’d say, doing a clockwise twirl with her finger. “Perfect,” she’d pronounce, as I came back around to face her, nodding as though she’d achieved something monumental.
Though she seemed in most external ways to have recovered from my brother’s death, there was something breathless about my mother’s endeavors, a gleam in her eye that was close to a tear, a smile contorted into a look of agitation. She attached huge importance to insignificant things. Once when we were shopping, she pulled a skirt out of another woman’s hands and refused to give it back. “I saw it first,” she repeated, and bought it without even trying it on. Another time, when we lost one of our shopping bags, my mother insisted that we comb the mall for hours, retracing our steps and interrogating every salesclerk until, exhausted and embarrassed, I begged for mercy.
I began to pity my mother, and pity must mark an end to adulation. I saw her as smaller, reduced, no longer a goddess but a creature battered by tragedy. The story of her accident, the crucible of her destiny, took on new meaning. Instead of marking her for special fortune, it seemed a harbinger of a calamitous life.
On the second anniversary of Stephen’s death, my mother spent all morning in her room. I worried when she did this because it often meant she was grieving; she would come out of the darkened bedroom with puffy eyes and pink nostrils, and when she spoke it would be with a slight stuffiness.
That afternoon, though, she emerged cheerful, her wigless head tied in a fabulous red chiffon scarf. She looked like a gypsy, with thick gold clip-on earrings and painted lips. She beckoned for me to sit beside her at the dresser and watch as she rimmed her eyes in black and smeared brown across the lids.
Unlike most Asians, my mother had eyelids; when she applied shadow, part of it would fold prettily inward. The effect was subtle but beguiling, a peekaboo of color in a crescent accent following the arc of her eyeline. My Mongolian fold was the bane of this effect. It was a stubbornly flat expanse of skin that hooded the eye, evolved to keep flying sand from blinding the Mongol horsemen, my impestuous, nomadic ancestors, but no good at all for the more sedentary art of feminine beautification.
My mother finished her eyes, squinting into the mirror with a satisfied assessment, and turned to me. Poised with the black kohl eyeliner in her hand, she looked into my face and sighed.
“Aigo, Isa,” she said. “Eyes so small. You need operation like my friend Yeon Ja. Look much better. They make like this.” She pinched the bottom of my eyelid and dragged it upward to demonstrate. “Just small procedure. Not a problem.”
It was the first I’d heard her speak of this type of eye surgery, which many Asian women were getting to give their faces that Western look. I stared at myself in the mirror, took both my eyelids and cinched them upward, trying to imagine what I would look like, what I would be like, if I gained that tiny indentation across the eye-fold. I wondered if I would see more through these altered eyes, as though they were louvered blinds hoisted up to admit the view. I wondered if I would be beautiful.
That day my mother made up my eyes in extravagant Cleopatra black with long, sweeping curves at the outer edges, but when she painted across my hooded eyelids in “Fawn,” the color just sat there in indiscreet patches, with none of the seductive shimmer and mirage of her own eyes.
“Isa,” she said, and held up one index finger, as though I’d meant to leave. I watched as she reached across the dresser and unlocked the top of the red mother-of-pearl jewelry box she’d brought with her from Korea. Inside were little pouches of colorful striped satin that contained her most precious objects – brooches of green jade carved in fortuitous Chinese characters; an opal and sapphire ring set in eighteen-karat gold; a Mikimoto pearl necklace with a diamond clasp. She would take them out for me periodically, one by one, laying them lovingly across her wrist, or modeling them upon her hand, affording me an advance peek at my inheritance.
Now from deep inside this drawer, she took out a long envelope and counted out four crisp one-hundred-dollar bills. The multiple face of Benjamin Franklin, paunchy and good-humored, stared up at me from the fan they made among the bottles and jars on the tabletop.
“Don’t tell your father,” my mother said, pushing the money toward me. He was away in California, on the first of a series of collaborations with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley. “Save for operation now, Isa. This makes good start.”
She patted my hand and smiled. “You’ll be beautiful, Isa,” she said. “You’ll see.”
So, as some kids saved up for cars or college educations, I began to save for eye surgery. Whenever I got money for babysitting, for birthdays or Christmas, I’d add it to the four Ben Franklins in the heel of a navy kneesock at the bottom of my underwear drawer. I’d look at myself in the mirror at night and imagine my eyes bigger, the veil drawn back, framed by expert shadings of purple, brown, blue, or silver, the world suddenly revealed to me with greater clarity and focus – as though by peeling back my eyelids I would gain genius sight, an amplification of vision like some superhero’s power.
My mother would whisper to me about this transformation. It was a conversation behind my father’s back, dreamy and perpetual. I sometimes had nightmares about the scalpel slipping, my eye slit in two like a boiled egg, and I’d be on the verge of telling my mother that I’d changed my mind, I didn’t care that my eyes were small and creaseless, that I saw only the narrow view from beneath unadorned lids. But I never said anything. It seemed too important to her, some further dream of America she had fastened onto – an investment in the dream for the next generation – laying down roots to gain desperate purchase in pale, inhospitable soil.
This is an excerpt from mom’s novel Secondhand World published by Knopf in 2006. To read more you can find it on Amazon here.