Wide Eyes

In the summer of 1994, I returned to Korea for the first time since immigrating at the age of three. My aunt and uncle met my parents and me at the airport and drove us back to their apartment. During the ride, my aunt told me to get my eyes fixed while I was visiting. She knew the best doctor. It’s cheap here. Everyone does it. It’ll look so natural. I didn’t quite know how to take this urgent recommendation for plastic surgery from my kindhearted and enthusiastic aunt, who hadn’t seen me in over twenty years. Get my eyes fixed? For what? I had enough trouble breathing the air here, did she really think I would allow someone to slit the lids of my eyes? Get my eyes fixed? My vision was just fine, thank you, fine enough to see that the Pusan hillsides heavily accessorized with glow-in-the-night neon red crucifixes had little to do with heaven. The crosses reminded me of the signs back home that showed the way to the nearest emergency exits.

The decision to get your eyes “fixed” has everything to do with how you see, how you see yourself, how you see others seeing you.

When Ellie was 5 years old, she wanted to change her eyes, declaring that they were too wide, too round, too big. According to her, wide eyes were ugly. She would stand in front of the mirror, slant down her eyes, and say, “This looks better.” She believed this because her sister, mother, aunt and idol-of-a-cousin all had slanted eyes. Wishing to be like everyone else, she couldn’t see her own beauty.

In AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD, Annie Dilliard distinguished the beauty earned with age as superior to the automatic beauty of youth. “Our beauty was a mere absence of decrepitude; their beauty, when they had it, was not passive but earned; it was grandeur; it was a party to power, and to artifice, even, and to knowledge. Our beauty was, in the long run, merely elfin. We could not, finally, discount the fact that in some sense they owned us, and they owned the world.”

Why not claim the grandeur of owning the world, rather than wishing to be elves again?

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Published in: on April 5, 2011 at 5:44 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I remember hearing this story from you. So strange. For me, the combined plastic surgery to “westernize” your eyes and the neon Christian-Western crosses are the same: a culture let go.

  2. I’ve have photos from my youth of me with my eyes open very wide. Ah, if only it was from the digital camera age I would have had an immediate indication of how stupid that looked. I think I was thinking that if I opened my eyes really wide I’d look like a white person.


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