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THH: Character Inspiration
I used to stare at myself in the mirror, wondering if I looked long enough, my eyes would look bigger.
They didn’t. But if I widened them, tilted my face, slanted my cheeks and pulled down my chin, they looked a little more proportional to the rest of my face. Sooner or later, though, I would have to stop making faces at myself and start showering.
It was right before a music lesson one afternoon that my mom and I were discussing a story. My story. Grandiose, filled with underwater sirens, fire-wielding aliens, and other elemental wonders, it had consumed the last year and a half of my existence. During that time, I was either plotting or writing about this secret fantastical world, convinced that one day, it would rule the world of fiction.
We were discussing the plot, and my mom noted, with some amusement, that all of my main characters were all white. I took her words lightly at first, finding it hard to believe. After all, those characters--two boys and two girls--were each born from one of the four elements. It only made sense that I gave blue eyes to her, and golden hair to him. Blindingly white hair and white skin; chocolate brown hair.
When I finally realized she was right, I was stunned. By then, though, I was already in the midst of another memory. At the grand age of double digits, 10 years old in fact, I was obsessed with what would become the predecessor of my elemental story. It was the story, my secret story, about two sisters who could wield fire. Their mission? Save the world.
I remember having a dilemma on my hands. The height of their characterization, at the time, rested within the particularly delightful choice over hair and eye color. Would the older sister be a brunette, with emerald green eyes? Or would she be red haired, with strikingly grey pupils? Would both sisters have the same hair color, but different color eyes?
It eventually boiled down to a single choice--since this sister pair so strongly resembled my own, I considered giving the older sister jet black hair, like me, and dark brown eyes; like me.
Though a far more appealing choice was full of color. She could be on fire, with burning blue eyes, and shining hair like a river of gold. Neither of which I had, of course. Even now, I don’t remember what I chose. I think I gave my features to the main character, while the golden combination fell to a far prettier, more graceful girl who could wield water.
I’ve always hated looking Chinese. At first, I didn’t know why. But the voice in my head didn’t seem to match the face I saw in the mirror. As time passed, I grew increasingly disappointed; in fact, I looked as Chinese as ever. I was stuck with my ashy, yellowish complexion, and bags under my eyes so large they seemed to dwarf the actual eyes above them.
Growing up, I don’t recall many, if any at all, displays of diverse racial beauty. Certainly not any Asian ones. Instead, I grew up on the romantic ideals of huge swans’ eyes, so big and clear you could swim in them. And by the time I saw Cho Chang in the fifth Harry Potter movie, it was too late. I couldn't stand her.
It didn’t help that I never felt any strong connection to China, the “motherland.” Several visits to the pollution-infested hub I came to know as Beijing became tainted by multiple deaths in the family; other stressful parts of the trip, such as the nauseous 13 hour flight, added to a list of bad memories. Only I didn’t identify with the Asian-American community back home, either; the only Chinese I knew were the bits and pieces I had picked up from visits to China, where weeks of staying with Chinese-speaking relatives forced me to pick the up the language. I was practically illiterate in the language as well. I didn’t know any Chinese cartoons or artists that my Chinese-American friends had grown up with, and I didn’t know what it was like to spend sleepy Saturdays at Chinese school.
As time went by, I became increasingly miserable and confused about my racial identity; I felt out of place in both Asian communities on different sides of the globe. And whenever the subject of race arose, I began to feel anger towards an issue that was causing me so much confusion and shame.
Still, as I grew older, my view of the world widened, and I found myself in conflict with a newfound sense of racial equality. As I discovered the prejudice that exists in the world towards various cultures and ethnicities, I felt the urge to speak up. But how could I promote those values when I was still so conflicted about my own role in the world, as an ethnically Chinese American? If I couldn’t feel at peace with myself, how could I encourage peace among others?
I still have a while to go on this path of self-discovery, and have yet to see where it will take me. However, one thing has changed. The stories I write are no longer filled with characters of the same race; now, they pull from every part of the globe.
In fact, the renovated version of my elemental story doesn’t even mention race. (They’re aliens, after all.) Because it doesn’t take a certain type of person to rise above--to save the world.