The boy on the playground pulled the corners of his eyes in opposite directions, one up and one down, contorting his face into a Picasso painting. “My mom is Chinese, and my dad is Japanese, so I look like this!” The little comedian’s audience, a few of my classmates lining up in single file at the end of recess, started mimicking him, as 9-year-olds do. The joke circulated around the playground for a week. I wanted the white kids to like me, so I laughed with them. I was one of them. At least half of me was. But I spent that week wondering if my eyes looked funny.
In middle school, I got my answer. A boy told me I look like a demon when I smile because my eyes get squinty and only my dark irises are visible. My friend decided she could achieve a more accurate imitation of my eyes by pulling down the inner corners of her eyes, not the outer corners. It was more accurate, to be fair — until she decided that she looked like Stitch and started impersonating the blue alien’s voice while pretending to be me.
I don’t even have stereotypical Asian eyes. I have double eyelids. Most of the Japanese side of my family was blessed with the coveted crease, something that some East Asians with monolids get plastic surgery to obtain. My mom said I had kira kira eyes, glittering eyes. She didn’t see how funny they looked.
Where my eyes failed me, my name gave me comfort. It’s as white as the rice we ate with every meal (excluding my second middle name, Azama, which I only heard when my mom yelled for me from the kitchen, standing over a single dirty plate in the sink). Morgaine McIlhargey did not like Hello Kitty, even though she kept the Sanrio blanket, VCR set and bento box at home. Mulan was not her favorite Disney princess, even though that’s what she told her mom. Her favorite food was mac and cheese, even though she requested somen noodles on her birthday every year.
My grandparents fed my cousins and me cold somen at their house every summer. We slurped up the refreshing umami noodles under an umbrella in the backyard. When I was 7, my whole family went to Japan. My grandpa gave us a tour of the small farm town where he grew up, and we met 50 new relatives. He took us to the ancestral tomb where he hid when American bombs dropped from the sky, while my grandma attended elementary school in an internment camp in Wyoming. We slept on tatami mats and ate on the floor. As soon as we touched down in LAX, I bought “My Japanese Coach” for my Nintendo DS and asked my grandpa to teach me the hiragana characters for tea, rice and chopsticks. I told my mom I’d go back to Japan and be able to translate all the signs for her.
In high school, I judged my half-Chinese friend for taking Chinese instead of Spanish. I started saying teriyaki with an American accent around my friends. I curled my eyelashes so my eyes would look bigger, and I never wore eyeliner because that made them look squintier.
Then I went to college on the East Coast, where the nearest Little Tokyo is a restaurant in a Poughkeepsie mall’s food court. I didn’t get homesick, like most college kids. I got culturesick. So, I decided to take Japanese in the fall my sophomore year. My grandpa had just turned 89, and though he sometimes struggled to speak, he liked it when my aunt spoke to him in Japanese. I would go home for Thanksgiving and say, “Remember when you taught me how to say and write tea in Japanese? Look, I can say and write a lot more now.” And he would remember, even though he couldn’t remember much anymore, and he would smile, even though he’d stopped smiling two years ago. I would ask him to tell me about Okinawa and the war and all the other stories I’d forgotten since the little boy made fun of my eyes.
He died that October. I didn’t take another semester of Japanese. But when a boy at a bar said, “I don’t really f— with Asians, but you’re kinda cute,” I didn’t say, “Well, actually, I’m half white.” I started saying teriyaki correctly — most of the time — even if that meant I had to repeat it in an American accent for my friends to understand. And, a couple months ago, I started wearing glittery eyeliner. It makes my squinty eyes kira kira.