the beauty in differentiation

at age ten,
a weasel-faced blonde boy calls you fat
because you consistently get
better grades than him
& insists a brown girl doesn’t belong
at a school with (superior) white kids.
you quip that you live in
a nicer neighborhood than his,
but the real reason you’re better than him
is that he’ll always be a covetous jerk.

at age twelve,
a freckled ginger boy scrubs your arms
with a pool brush after swim practice
& claims that he thought the white splotches
(of sunburn) on your dark skin was dirt.
you shove him into the pool
& watch him sputter,
coughing water in surprise.
your coach’s punishment is that
you have to swim extra (victory) laps.

at age fourteen,
a thin brunette girl snidely snickers,
“you’re not pretty. you’re cute like hello kitty.”
you weren’t allowed to wear makeup
or dress like her eighteen-year-old sister.
after braces straighten your crooked teeth
& your only growth spurt sheds baby fat,
you decline her offer to be friends —
even then, you’d rather be alone than have
catty friends you didn’t like (& vice-versa).

at age sixteen,
(until almost a decade following)
a parade of basic white guys marvel
over the fact that you’re the first Asian girl
they’ve admired who defies stereotypes —
you’ve inherited your mother’s feistiness
& your father’s no bullshit attitude.
though your temperament mellows over the years,
you loudly continue to refuse to be fetishized
& mock white guys who should check their privilege.

at age twenty-three,
your handsome ivorian friend becomes more.
you’ll never look like models in magazines,
but you’ve learned to appreciate that
your black hair is unruly
& your skin’s base tone is deep tan.
the ways that you look different
no longer (solely) define you.
he knows all of you & loves you
because of (not in spite of) it.

(permanently) a work in progress

in two hours, you turn twenty-six
(four years from thirty, not that you’re counting).
when your mother points out the “flaws” in your figure,
(breasts that can’t be contained by button-up shirts
& hips that never widened during puberty)
laugh & remember that
her spitefulness is only rivaled by her jealousy.
when you trip in front of the crowd
on the train platform & feel twelve again
(the era of an almost mullet & headgear)
look in the mirror & remember that
you’re not an awkward tween.
when a former party friend suggests
that falling in love rendered you weak,
(being the instigator of wild times
was the mark of a badass)
roll your eyes & remember that
you found strength in accepting yourself.
you are (permanently) a work in progress.

when patience isn’t a virtue

“Sometimes, I pretend to be retarded while in public.”

my hands curled to fists
(deep breaths)
ready to fight

“My little sister is autistic and mentally handicapped.
It’s really offensive for you to do that.”

don’t yell at this ignorant bitch —
you just met her; she’s your friend’s best friend.
surely she has hidden redeeming qualities.

“But I don’t do it to make fun of retards!
I love them — they’re hilarious!”

equally disgusted & incredulous,
i glanced at our mutual friend.

“Just watch — she’s so funny!”

i rolled my eyes & exited the room.
even at fourteen, i had no patience
for antagonistic bullies disguised as “cool kids.”

I used to believe that my mother and I were like the Gilmore girls.

I used to believe that my mother and I were like the Gilmore girls.

As with most kids, puberty wasn’t particularly easy for me. Angst and self-loathing plagued my middle school existence. In order to combat this, my mother and I talked constantly. She gave me formative talks on how to have self-esteem as a chubby kidthe importance of family, why religion is essential to being a good person, and how sex ruins an unmarried girl. I absorbed every word.

At the time, my mother and I were each other’s sounding boards. She discussed fights with my dad; I psychoanalyzed his motivations. I told her about petty drama at school; she insisted that friends came and went, but family was always there. We watched TV shows and movies together. We were best friends. Like Lorelai and Rory, we consulted each other on every decision. We had inside jokes. I idolized her.

When I met Andrea, I found a kindred spirit in someone my age. During high school, I made more friends of my own. My mother lashed out. She couldn’t understand why I would want to spend time with people who weren’t family. She didn’t comprehend why she wasn’t the only friend I needed.

By the time I got to college, I recognized that I had to escape this unhealthy codependency. It wasn’t fair for her to confide in me as a friend (about her and my dad’s marital woes) one moment and in the next moment, snap into mother mode, trying to dictate my every move. She always claimed she was psychic — that she would know when I was being disobedient. College proved that when I didn’t tell her anything, she had nothing to zone in on. She couldn’t interrogate me so that I’d crack and “confess.”

Though I’m the most stable and happiest I’ve ever been, my mother is always angry at me. She belittles every choice I’ve made without her. I’m the biggest disappointment of her life. These days, I’m like Lorelai (the supposed rebel) and she’s like Emily (the bourgeoisie housewife who insists that her daughter should have the best, which is her life).

We used to be like Lorelai and Rory, but I’m thankful that we haven’t been for years. It’s impossible to be friends (much less best friends) with your mother when she refuses to acknowledge you’ve grown up. It’s unlikely to get better until she realizes that we can have a relationship as adults. One day, I hope she understands that trying to control your daughter’s life isn’t the same as wanting what’s best for her.

Knowing how stubborn my mother is, though, I’m not holding my breath.

“There are starving children in Manila. Finish your food.”

“There are starving children in Manila. Finish your food.”

This refrain was repeated throughout childhood. At an early age, my siblings and I learned that regardless of the amount or type of food that was on your plate, you ate it. No questions asked. Kids who wasted food were rude — repugnant, even. Our friends were judged for being picky eaters.

It’s no surprise that the three of us have had weight issues at different stages of our lives. After years of hearing “clean your plate,” learning moderation was (and still is, at times) difficult. Even now, my mother is a relentless food pusher.

“I’m trying to eat healthier.”

“So? You can have ice cream. Then you can just run later.”

“I would rather just skip dessert.”

“Just listen to me, I know what I’m talking about.”

Except, my mother doesn’t know (about this, or anything she hasn’t actually experienced).

In elementary school, I was the chubby kid on the country club swim team. To say that the kind of girls who lived in that neighborhood were cruel shallow bitches would be an understatement.

“What size do you wear?” Maddie asked as I wrapped a towel around myself after practice.

“Why do you want to know?” I quickly packed up my tote bag.

“So I never let myself go like that.” She followed me to the parking lot.

“I have a slower metabolism than you do.” Don’t let her see you cry.

“Maybe you should lay off the fatty foods, then.” She flipped her hair and sneered.

We were eleven years old. I waited until I bolted out of my mother’s car and into my room before crying and eating a stack of Chips Ahoy cookies. I found solace in food and books. Though my mother insisted I was beautiful as I was, she added that I’d outgrow my chubbiness. I did in middle school, but eating my feelings was a habit that persisted.

Now, I’m unlearning the association that only wasteful assholes don’t clean their plates. I’ll never be a waif, but I’m working on being healthier. I’m not perfect and I’m okay with that.

I used to write Harry Potter fanfiction.

I used to write Harry Potter fanfiction (also known as fics).

Even before that, I wrote hilariously bad Gilmore girls fics. In my defense, it was middle school. I knew nothing about keeping characters’ voices true to themselves or what high schoolers’ lives were actually like. Rory Gilmore’s world was as foreign to me as Harry Potter’s. Despite encouraging reviews, I took the Gilmore girls fics down from my fanfiction.net profile.

I’ve always been an enthusiastic fangirl. During my Gilmore girls phase, I had a wall in my bedroom with magazine pages featuring the cast and a giant collage I made. While I began reading the Harry Potter books in fourth grade, I didn’t start writing fics until high school.

Oftentimes, fans write fics in anticipation of the next installment of a series (to predict what’s going to happen next) or to rewrite moments they found to be unsatisfactory. Typically, I wrote fics for the former reason. I never wrote the plot-driven fics; instead, I always focused on the ships I supported. In fandom terms, a “ship” is a relationship that you support (thus making you a shipper).

I wrote my first Harry Potter fic during junior year of high school, before Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published. Like many fans, I was (and still am) a Ron and Hermione shipper. At lunch, I brainstormed ideas with my fellow Harry Potter fangirls (and fanboy) friends Gaby, Daniel, and Becca. I ended up writing sixteen chapters and over 65,000 words. Almost a decade later, people are still reviewing the fic and adding it to their favorites.

Any time I get discouraged about writing, I remind myself of two things:

  1. I wrote a silly Ron/Hermione fic in high school that got 854 reviews.
  2. If E.L. James could get published by rewriting a Twilight fic as Fifty Shades of Grey, I will get published by writing an awesome original book.

Three deadly sins

I. Wrath

When Brie was diagnosed with autism, I became her defender. I was an aggressive crusader against people who said “retarded” or “retard” in a derogatory way (or ever, really).

Tenth grade was the height of my belligerence. On a bus ride after a marching band competition, an obnoxious drummer was impersonating a boy with Downs Syndrome from a rival band.

“I’m a reeetaaaard.” He kept repeating as he intentionally tripped down the bus aisle.

I tapped him on the shoulder and slapped him across the face as he turned around.

“What gives you the right to make fun of that boy?! You’re pathetic — making fun of a kid who can’t defend himself.”

“Damn — I was just joking, Sam.”

“Did it ever occur to you that he’s someone’s brother? Or maybe, that I’ve got a sister who’s in special ed? Or that other people do, too?”

“No it didn’t. Shit. I’m sorry.”

II. Envy

When you’re a former chubby girl, it’s hard to overcome body image issues even after you’ve lost weight. Most days, I believed what I saw in the mirror and in photos. Every once in awhile, old insecurities crept into the back of my mind.

Andrea is lovely. She has long eyelashes and brown hair. Her favorite food groups are cheese and bacon, but she’s naturally slim. She’s also one of the smartest and quirkiest people I know. We’ve been The Ridiculous for over a decade, so it’s uncertain whether we react to things similarly because we’ve been best friends so long, or if that’s why we became friends in the first place.

In college, there were times when guys (acquaintances, not friends or romantic prospects) would say,

“Your friend’s hot. Hook me up?”

I would laugh. “You wouldn’t stand a chance.”

Yet self-loathing mantras of days past persisted.

Your best friend is hot. You’re the funny, sassy one. Why would someone ever think you’re pretty?

III. Pride

When I was in middle school, there was no one more insufferable to have as a classmate than me. I went to a small Catholic school in Birmingham with less than fifty kids per grade (from preschool to eighth grade). I was the Filipino Hermione Granger from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and due to the size of the school, most people knew it.

In eighth grade, my group of friends was constantly getting dragged into the guidance counselor’s office because of another group of girls. Our group was comprised of overachievers. We won the spelling and geography bees. We had the highest test scores. We genuinely liked and got along with our teachers.

The other group was comprised of the girls who were wearing full makeup in sixth grade. By eighth grade, they either were or knew people who were partying with their older siblings who went to the Catholic high school. The situation was a Taylor Swift song personified.

The other group’s queen bee and I would get into emailing wars. We accused each other of talking shit. Finally, our homeroom teachers staged an intervention, Mean Girls style. We gathered in a circle and each girl aired her grievances. Tears were shed. Everyone got along (for the moment).

Still, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself because the queen bee claimed that our group was put on a podium, not a pedestal.

Fatherly advice

“Never trust a boy’s words. Words are bullshit.”

There were only a few times throughout my adolescence that my dad discussed boys or dating. Prior to the handful of instances, he joked that as soon as I hit puberty, he would inject me with fat cells so no boys would think I was pretty. When I was twelve, he warned me of a (supposedly) universal truth.

“Boys lie.”

People lie, Dad.”

“That’s not what I mean, anak.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“All I’m saying is, you should never trust boys. Especially at this age. In fact, you can’t trust them until you’re in your late twenties. Even then, I’m skeptical.”

“Why?”

“Because boys will lie to take advantage of you.”

“Like, take my money or…?”

“Maybe in some cases. But mostly, they lie to take advantage of your virtue.”

“Oh. But what if –”

“No what if’s. It’s a fact.”

That sentiment resonated for years, resulting in my inability to take any guy (liars and genuine ones alike) seriously.

“The only lasting trend is good taste. Dress accordingly.”

My dad has worked in corporate retail since I was in elementary school. He’s disdainful of all things trendy and favors classic pieces and designers. In high school, I had a collection of pink shoes — flip-flops, ballet flats, hightop Chucks, and regular Chucks. My dad was appalled.

“How old are you, anak?”

“Sixteen.”

“Don’t you think it’s time to stop wearing pink shoes?”

“It’s one of my favorite colors, Dad.”

“But those in particular –”

“What about them? They’re ballet flats.”

“Where did you get them?”

“Target.”

“Looks like it.”

A few months later, I returned from going to the movies with friends to find that a certain pair of shoes were missing.

“Dad, have you seen my pink ballet flats?”

“Which ones, anak?”

“The ones you hate so much.”

“I don’t know which ones you’re referring to — ask your mom.”

I didn’t bother asking my mom. The ballet flats were buried under potato peels and egg shells in the bottom of the trashcan. I bought more sensibly colored shoes after that.

“A boy’s actions are a reflection of how he feels about you.”

During college, my dad realized that I would (at some point) meet a guy that I would date (for real). Resigned, he offered an amendment to our last conversation about boys.

“Anak, remember when I told you that boys’ words are bullshit?”

“It was a long time ago, but yeah.”

“Well, it’s still true, for the most part. But what I also meant was that you can gauge how a boy feels about you by evaluating how he treats you.”

“Actions speak louder than words.”

“Exactly.”

Years later, I told my boyfriend three words. Before he said the same back, I had fleeting moments of insecurity. Every day then, (and every day since) he made me feel cherished. That was just as important as (possibly more important than) three words.

The antithesis of a basic bitch

Who would wear a t-shirt and overalls on her first day of third grade?

I did.

The girls at Greystone Elementary didn’t dress like the girls in West Des Moines. In Iowa, kids dressed comfortably. Girls wore clothes they could play in without having to worry (about boys looking up their skirts, or dirtying church clothes).

The Greystone girls wore sheer blouses with camisoles underneath. Low-rise jeans. Tiny denim shorts. Halter top dresses.

These girls were groomed to be miniature copies of their mothers (the ladies who played tennis and downed cocktails at the club for lunch). The pretty girls who were enrolled in cheernastics and dance once they could walk. The popular waifs who were dieting at age eight, so they could wear string bikinis to the pool during the summer without sucking in their bellies.

There was no way I could ingratiate myself into their crowd by being a chubby Filipino girl with crooked teeth. So I retreated into my schoolwork, reading books for fun, and filling composition notebooks with angsty scribbles. Resigned, I knew my fate was to be known as a smart girl, not a pretty girl.

Braces and a growth spurt weren’t the answer to my ugly duckling phase. Years later, I no longer yearned to look like those girls. They were society’s default version of pretty. Basic bitches. Instead, I got tattoos on my shoulder blades and a pixie cut.

Finally, I felt beautiful — which, as it turns out, is synonymous with free.

How to be a good girl

Thirteen

The first (and most important) rule in the good girls’ code was simple.

“Don’t have sex.”

Not because of health risks, the possibility of pregnancy, or emotional ineptitude.

“Because good girls wait until marriage.”

“Correct, anak. If you don’t have respect for yourself, a man certainly won’t.”

“What if you’re engaged? You and your future husband love and are committed to each other, so why can’t you do it then?”

“If you’re waited all that time, it’s sayang to have sex then.”

“But if you’re going to be together forever anyway, then how is it a waste?”

“Just listen to me, I know from experience.”

Eighteen

Being your mother’s best friend meant being privy to things a daughter should never have to know. Compartmentalizing had become second nature. While Mom would confide in me constantly, I knew better than to tell her everything.

“Anak, last time I was here, the salespeople kept bothering me.”

“It’s Victoria’s Secret, Mom. I’m pretty sure they get paid on commission.”

“They kept following me around the store, asking to help me find what I was looking for.”

“That’s their job.”

“Why are they so nosy, anyway?”

“Why do you care if they know what you’re buying? What did you need, a new bra?”

“Well, I was looking for crotch-less panties.”

Silently, I cursed scientists for pursuing worthwhile research instead of creating brain bleach.

“They don’t sell those anymore. You’ll have to buy them online at from a different company.”

Twenty-five

Setting boundaries with my mother became increasingly difficult from college onward. She claimed she wanted to know about my life, yet overreacted whenever I was upfront.

“I just wish you could be happy for me.”

“I’m supposed to be happy you lost your virginity to your boyfriend?”

“I didn’t.”

“God! All those years I talked to you, you never heard me.”

“No, Mom. I listened, I just don’t agree with you.”

“It’s because of your friends, isn’t it? They’re all having premarital sex, so you wanted to be like them!”

“I think it’s sad that you think I’m worthless because of the status of my hymen. I’m still me.”

“You always said you would wait until you were married, like I did.”

“Yet you still harass Dad about his ex-girlfriends from thirty years ago.”

“So you’re mocking me and my choices?”

“Maybe it would’ve been good for you to date and sleep with other people.”

“Insolent child.”

“I’m not a child anymore. I haven’t been for a long time.”