When I turned 16, my mom asked me if I wanted to get a double eyelid surgery. Double eyelid surgery — known in medical circles as Asian blepharoplasty — creates an eyelid crease, transforming Asian monolids into Western “double eyelids.” My mom, who was blessed with double eyelids from birth, was convinced that it would make me look prettier. “Your eyes will be so much bigger,” she told me.
As a teenage girl growing up with Photoshopped images and social media, I dealt with my fair share of body image issues. Yet I refused the surgery. I didn’t make the decision lightly. I used double-sided Scotch tape to flimsily create my own double eyelid. I gazed at myself in the mirror with one monolid and one double eyelid. Covering one side of my face with my hand, I analyzed my reflection as if it were a spot-the-difference game.
Would the surgery make me look more pretty, or just more Western?
My personal experience is no doubt reflective of a larger trend towards more physical forms of assimilation. Especially with the rise in anti-Asian racism as a result of racist dog-whistling during the COVID-19 pandemic, more Asian Americans have been looking towards assimilation as a solution. Andrew Yang, one of the rare examples of Asian American representation in public and political spheres, advises Asian Americans to assimilate more to combat the rise of anti-Asian racism. “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before,” he writes. “We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis.”
Just as anti-Asian racism has existed for centuries in American history, so has the belief that assimilation means protection. In the Western Historical Quarterly, Wendy Rouse Jorae describes how, following the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, American-born Chinese youths abandoned traditional Chinese dress in favor of Western fashion, in an attempt to separate themselves from their Asian roots and, as Yang says, to show their Americanness. Assimilation via dress was a method of survival; some Chinese Americans believed that dressing in Western styles would defend them from discrimination and underscore their efforts to assimilate. However, they learned that their assimilation and adoption of American norms did not warrant their acceptance in American society. Chinese American youths could have seamlessly blended into American society with their Western style, save for one fatal flaw. They could not rid themselves of their physical differences.
During the Exclusion Era, there was an influx of Italian immigrants whose arrival overlapped with that of Chinese immigrants. As Erika Lee writes in the Journal of American Ethnic History, they faced similar treatment as Chinese Americans, even being called the “Chinese of Europe” at times. However, there were clear delineations drawn between European and non-European immigrants. Chinese Americans were seen as unassimilable, while Italian Americans more easily integrated due to their lack of distinctive physical differences when compared to white Americans.
Understanding the history of assimilation in America makes Yang’s psychology much clearer. As an Asian American politician in a field largely dominated by white Americans, Yang’s fervent support of assimilation is an act of assimilation itself.
But what Yang fails to account for is that Americanness is dependent on whiteness, which is impossible for any person of color to achieve. There is a reason why discrimination against Irish and Italian Americans is a thing of the past, while anti-Asian racism remains in the present. Successful assimilation, as it pertains to people of color, does not exist.
With advances in the medical field, Asian Americans seem more willing to physically alter their bodies. Some surgeons even make their living by capitalizing on this eagerness to physically assimilate. Dr. Edward Kwak, a plastic surgeon based in NYC, dedicates himself to “Korean plastic surgery.” His website lists the main types of Asian procedures: Asian ptosis surgery (another eyelid procedure), Asian double eyelid surgery and Asian rhinoplasty.
Initially, I didn’t understand why there was a difference between Asian rhinoplasty and a normal rhinoplasty. White people don’t normally get double eyelid surgeries, but plenty of them get nose jobs. Dr. Kwak lays out the differences: white people want their noses to be smaller while Asian people want their noses to be bigger. East Asian noses are typically flatter and closer to the face, as opposed to larger, defined Caucasian noses. Asian rhinoplasty augments the bridge of the nose to make it bigger — in other words, to assimilate, which means “to make similar.”
At what point does “to make similar” mean “to make identical” instead?