It was a bathroom staple at my house: a traditional Japanese body powder that came in a small blue cardboard box. I wish I could remember what it was called or the brand name; all I recall is how I’d watch my mother get ready in the mornings, patting the bag of powder against her neck, sending a cloud of white dust into the air like a chalkboard eraser. She’d then move on to her breasts, rubbing the pouch on the area beneath the underwire of her bra, then her armpits, then her inner thighs. The powder, she explained, absorbs sweat and thus, keeps you dry and comfortable even in the brutal Tokyo summers. Even clothed, some white would peek out from under her collar, and if she was wearing a sleeveless top, also from her underarms. I thought she looked, at least for an hour after she applied the powder, like a unfinished geisha.
My mother was very fair, which is unusual for a Southeast Asian woman. It was her one saving grace in Japan, a country where Southeast Asian women were often seen as people who worked in mizu-shōbai, or water business, a.k.a. nighttime entertainment. She’d be treated like a Japanese person, right until she opened her mouth. She was very proud of her paleness, which she diligently maintained with various SPF-infused creams and serums. After her skincare routine, she’d take out a small, white rectangular compact that housed a cake of beige and an off-white sponge. She’d rub the foundation into her nose, her cheeks, her forehead, her chin—to smooth out imperfections, she’d tell me, though I thought she had none—to “finish” her face, the face she wore to confront the world. I once asked my mother if I could try wearing her face cream, she’d laughed. You’re too young, she said. Your skin is still flawless. Enjoy it while you can. Body powders were acceptable for children; foundation was only for adults.
At seven, I was dressing myself unsupervised. Before donning the clothes that my mother laid out for me in the bathroom, I followed my mother’s body powder routine. It did bring some cool relief early in the day, but by the afternoon, after I’d run around in the park with my friends, I’d be drenched in sweat, all remanent of the white gone. Still, I powdered my body every morning.
One day, after I had clothed myself, I was about to stow the little blue box in the cabinet under the sink when I was struck with an idea. I placed a bath stool in front of the sink and climbed onto it. I was, then, almost my mother’s height. I began patting my face with the body powder, just like I’d seen my mother do with her foundation compact every morning. But unlike my mother’s controlled application, the body powder sprayed everywhere, and soon, I looked like I had been frosted with ash.
It was at this moment my father walked into the bathroom. He took one look at my freakish reflection in the mirror and shook his head. “I knew we shouldn’t have sent you to an American school,” he said. “Now you want to look white.”
He doused my face with scalding hot water and asked me if I was stupid. I wondered if he was right: that I wanted to look white. Be white.
My mother was obsessed with Audrey Hepburn, as was most of Japan. There was something irresistible about her strong brows, feline eyes, petite frame. What most people don’t know is that, at the time, Audrey was not the epitome of beauty. Full-breasted, peroxide blondes like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield were the ideals. Yet, Audrey is thought by many as one of the most beautiful women of the twentieth century. My mother, though she was Asian, looked like Audrey Hepburn.
A decade after the powder incident, I was living in New York City, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in literature at a mid-tier college, the only kind of college my American-school-in-Tokyo education had prepared me for: expensive and with dubious ROI. During orientation week, I was approached by many an Asian-American Pacific Islander student organization. Their marketing involved galbi and sake bombs, neither of which I consumed: I was vegan and a teetotaler. I declined their invitations, reasoning that I had not come to the States to befriend more Asians; the real reason was that I didn’t want to be seen as an identitarian.
During my second semester, I started dating a poet from a creative writing class I was taking. R was an Egyptian Jew, and his work was mostly about his experience of exile. There was a tensile precision about his words. His poems were muscular and lyrical, yet approachable. For me, the class was a “fun” elective; for him, it was why he was at school. And, that difference in attitude showed in the disparity in the quality of our work. For class, I mostly submitted sonnets, in which I discussed things I didn’t know anything about (addiction—though in a way I was addicted to R, or to the idea of dating someone like him) and some things I felt (e.g. collegiate ennui). The feedback I got was never outright negative but even I could tell I had no future in poetry, at least, not in the way R did. But R, for some reason, saw potential in me. Just tell your story, he’d say to me. I am, I’d respond, and he’d shake his head but not say anything more. Why do you love me? I’d ask. For the same reason you love me, he’d say. I doubted it, of course. At the end of the semester, we broke up for one reason or another. The truth: there was no bond to begin with.
Years later, I heard R got married. To an Asian girl, I was told. A coincidence, I thought to myself, as I dabbed foundation on my face to hide my imperfections.