By Karen K. Ho
I am five feet, eight inches. I am also Chinese. Surprising but true: not all Chinese women are short, skinny and small-footed. I suspect this perception and outdated stereotype comes from a period when nearly all Chinese people were very poor and had rice-heavy diets. Many Chinese women are still short and skinny, but my guess is that that’s less about genetics, and more due to a modern obsession with thin-ness and a lower prevalence of fast-food outside major city centres.
Growing up in north Scarborough, I always felt like my head was in-between two cultures, Chinese and Canadian. I only just realized my body reflects that in-between status too. There are parts of me that are completely (stereotypically) Chinese, and there are parts that are much more Canadian (or, maybe, north American).
In this top-down, completely unscientific survey, I’ve tried to figure out once and for all if my physical makeup is more reflective of my parents and ancestry, or whether I’m a product of Canada, the only land I’ve known my entire life.
It’s black, straight, thick. The kind seen on the heads of many Chinese, Filipinos and other East Asians and Pacific Islanders. To me, my hair lacks personality, and over the years I’ve attempted to perm it and/or dye it unnatural colours like blue, purple and red. This doesn’t exactly make me more Canadian, just an angsty 20-something. People all over the world chemically alter their hair. What grows out of my head is very Chinese.
I’ve been told I have the perfect mix of my parents’ features. In a recent family photo, I even grin the exact same way as my Dad. But just the other day, my Mom pointed out that because of my fair skin, I’ve been mistaken for mixed race ever since I was a kid. People often think I am Eurasian, a mix of Chinese and Japanese, or even Chinese and Filipino.
I also have wide eyes with double eyelids. While these are seen as more “Western” (and, sometimes, more desirable) than the typical taut single eyelid common among the majority of Asians, this is definitely a result of my parents’ genetics.
I often forget my skin colour is “medium” or “olive” until I’m next to someone white who’s really pale or dating someone white and holding their hand. Last October, while hiking the Inca Trail, I tried to explain my conflicts over my changing skin colour to my (white) friend Kat. “In North America, being tan is a sign you have money and can afford to go on vacation,” I told her. “In Chinese culture, everyone wants to be fair skinned so much they often use whitening creams. I don’t know if I should be tan or pale.” Her reply was, simply, “Karen, you should just do whatever you want.”
My height is literally the biggest thing about me. It’s especially apparent when I’m trying to date East Asian guys or standing next to other Chinese women. In the 2006 Hong Kong census, the average height for a woman over the age of 18 is five feet, two and a half inches. It means my sister, who considers herself short at 5’4″ is actually “above-average” for a Chinese woman.
My parents are both relatively tall Chinese people (my dad is six feet and my mom is 5’7″), but my mother attributes my height to my childhood love of milk. While genetics certainly plays a role in my broad-shouldered, high-bone-density frame, there is increasing evidence diet plays a huge part in how much taller and fatter North American Asians are to their overseas counterparts. Growing up, my family was just as likely to eat fish sticks for dinner as bok choy and rice.
Two years ago before I started rock climbing, my bra size was a 36C. This was dramatically different than many of my aunts on my Dad’s side, who had to buy A or AA size bras on their travels to China and Hong Kong. According to my mother, the size of my chest is also due to my diet.
Perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, a Chinese woman with my curvy figure would have been considered unusual, but honestly, the only comments I’ve had on my chest are from appreciative lovers. More often than not, people are perplexed by the fact that I have always lived in Toronto despite my ethnicity, not the fact that I have noticeable boobs and hips. Lately, the size of my waist is the result of my love of ice cream, not from some sort of notably hourglass female ancestor.
Until her death last year at the age of 81, my grandmother wore shoes so small she could shop in the children’s department. She regularly bought pairs that were too small, yet never complained of discomfort. My mother and I suspected my grandmother still desired the look of small feet, despite foot-binding being outlawed in China more than a decade before she was born.
My calcium-rich diet led to feet of such an enormous lengths that by my early teens I was wearing shoes up to size 11. I often left shoes stores empty-handed because they had already sold the one pair of each style that would fit me.
A little over two years ago, I picked up rock climbing, a sport that requires the use of snug up to two sizes smaller than my everyday work shoes. Wearing my 5.10s three times a week resulted in a few ballet-dancer-like calluses and shrank my feet about half an American size. In a weird way, I had come back to the practice of regularly foot binding, only I was doing it for short periods of time for the sake of sport, rather than for twisted former ideas of beauty. Still, I was a bit excited about my reduced footprint and how it would be more easy to shop for shoes.
It seems my body truly is a mish-mash of both Chinese and Western ideas about the ideal female. Genetics, environment, nature, nurture, it’s all inescapable. What is possible is to make a choice to be proud of my body, and to stop worrying about what it does or doesn’t represent.