In response to actual YouTube “make-up tutorial” videos: Being hafu is NOT a make-up look which you can wipe off at the end of the day. It is your skin.
It’s hard to be a woman. Everyone has their own story. I’ve been socialised not to complain, but actually, I’d like to take some time and space to acknowledge that sometimes it can be hard to be hafu (half-Japanese, half-“other”). In a global context, we’re a relatively small ethnic category with fairly specific cultural issues and barriers. But so many people have identity crises and doubts about “belonging”, so perhaps others will be able to relate in some way as well. I feel that it’s important for other hafu or biracial women out there to know that it’s ok to feel that it can be hard sometimes. It’s ok to feel. I’m in no way pretending that my life is one of terrible struggles or that my life is awful, but I do have a story. It’s called:
Just Because I’m Biracial, Why Do I Have to Balance Two Patriarchal Ideals of Beauty?
You are shopping in Tokyo and you pick a beautiful skirt which makes you feel amazing. You’re excited because it’s exactly the right length for your Japanese height, just like how the sleeves on Japanese jumpers fit you exactly. But the skirt is small, so you ask the lady working in the shop for a bigger size and she smiles in response. She doesn’t stop smiling, even though – no, especially because she’s giving bad news to a customer. You know that she does not talk in that affected pitch and with that affected smile at home, to her family or friends. Her waxy grin remains solidly attached to her face as she explains that they only stock two sizes, S and M. This is M. But it can’t be more than a size 6 in the UK. You don’t want to cause a fuss and complain to the shop or your grandmother because she looks so happy that the skirt looks pretty. She wanted to buy you a present which you can wear and remember her by when you’re at University far away from home. She only sees you once or twice a year now and she looks so joyful. What is there to say? “It’s too small, they don’t stock my size. Sorry, Obaachan, we have to go home.” You’re an average size in the UK but the shop makes you feel like it’s embarrassing to say (L size, according to this place) aloud in Japan. So you let her buy you the present and you put it away in your wardrobe.
You return a year later and find that you can fit into the dresses and high-waisted trousers. You feel faint and happy, but then you remember that that’s because you haven’t eaten properly for two weeks. You’ve been going through a rough time (a break-up) and you’ve only been eating soup and yoghurt which has been making you anaemic and that’s why you feel faint in the sticky air, 90% humidity. The same thing happens six months later after you’ve had the flu, and again, you feel happy that you can fit into the pretty clothes there. But you stop. You recognise that you shouldn’t only be able to buy clothes when you’ve been ill. You hope that other women shopping there realise that too and are happy with their bodies. But it’s a huge shopping mall, all the shops have the same problematic size ranges, and you go home feeling sad for all the pressurised women who don’t realise that these standards are unrealistic.
It’s hard that although the patriarchy taught you to wear make-up to make yourself attractive to men, the patriarchy never explained which men, in the case of being biracial. Do you appeal to the European patriarchy or the Asian patriarchy?? Their definitions of attractiveness are so different. Should you go for contouring, bronzer, dark lipstick, and smokey-eyes, or a rigorous skincare routine, extra moisturiser, light foundation, pink blusher, and orangey, ombre lipstick?? Help. You know that it’s really important to remember that you’re meant to enjoy make-up for yourself and self-indulge in it, but choosing a make-up look turns into a full-blown identity crisis for you. Plus, mascara feels scratchy and you don’t like it, you really don’t. You choose British make-up looks for several years even though you think that they don’t suit your face as much, but it’s just how your friends do it. This is challenged, however, at University when your male Japanese friend drunkenly “calls you out” for wearing foundation which is “too thick”. He says this in front of a group of your friends and embarrasses you – no, enrages you. He is probably talking about your highlighter and bit of bronzer and doesn’t even understand what foundation is. You’re mad. You message him on Facebook later, explaining all of this. He apologises, says he realises that he has a lot to learn, and you think he understands now, so you forgive him. From then on you mix your make-up looks, choose bits that you like from each continent, and stop wearing mascara all the time. But every now and then you still have an identity crisis when choosing an eyeshadow.
It’s irritating when people fetishise Japanese or hafu looks.“There’s the sexy, Western part of your looks, and the cute, Asian side of you, too.” You were too young and naïve to understand at the time, you didn’t really understand the nuances of subtle racism and you didn’t see how incredibly reductive that was to you, Asian women, non-Asian women, all women! You were worried when he (white and male) said, “I just find Asian women more attractive”, but you didn’t really understand why you should be worried. You didn’t quite understand that in one sweeping sentence that puts you in the same box as billions of other women, as if he just randomly picked you out of a filing cabinet labelled “Asian: female.” It sends chills down your spine when you see people whom you’ve dated going on to date two, three, four, five… they are only dating Asian women. What does that mean? Is that just why they wanted to date you, because of your skin colour? Because of your ethnic label? You’re not sure how to label the emotion that you feel. You feel uncomfortable as you leave that thought undigested, stuck in your throat, and try not to think about it again.
It’s not easy when people say, “Oh but people love hafu, you have it so easy, everyone loves hafu looks.” You see many hafu on TV playing up to the kawaii female stereotype – punctuated by a high-pitched voice, and a hand-covering-mouth giggle – trying to conform even more to Japan’s stereotypical societal roles to compensate for their “otherness”. Male hafu looks are coveted – many become models, or are often told that they could become one. A certain type of female hafu is definitely accepted – the consciously cute type. Affected kawaii. It’s sad when hafu are famous on TV for being hafu. It’s sad that you nevertheless feel excited for seeing hafu on TV because you feel that perhaps they can relate to your world-view. But would they still hire hafu women on these chat shows if their voices were lower-pitched? If their dresses were a little less frilly and if they weren’t size 6? If their role wasn’t being in charge of making sure that the (men’s) jokes are innocent and clean, chastising them when they say something inappropriate? If their image were a little less kawaii, and a little more serious and assertive? You wonder.
It’s exhausting when you arrive at the airport in the UK and an airport security person says sharply, “Only over 12s can use the automated gates” at immigration. Later on it becomes a good story to tell friends but at the time you’ve already done twenty hours of travelling, and you’re tired. You’re mad. You’re twenty years old, and yet again you’re being mistaken for a child. You say to the person, “I’m twenty”, and they howl with laughter at their mistake, or your face. It’s happened countless times before, and continues to happen for years after this. Maybe it’s because you’re short. Maybe it’s because they’re not familiar with what Asian teenagers look like. Maybe it’s because you’re not wearing foundation and bronzer that day. You realise that you never, ever get mistaken for being younger than your age when in Asia.
It’s trying when you’re hanging out with other hafu and people assume that you’re siblings. You do not look alike. They don’t keep this to themselves, they want to know, “Are you sisters?” Sometimes it’s funny (in a club, dancing with your best friends), but after a while it’s tiring (after the club, walking home with your best friends). Sometimes it’s annoying, like if you’ve had a History teacher for three years and he still calls you by the name of a half-Filipino, half-British classmate, and she gets called by yours. The worst, the most cringe-worthy instance is if you’re dating, and it’s especially embarrassing if it’s in front of your boyfriend’s grandfather! As soon as the waiter asks if you are your boyfriend’s younger sister, you feel yourself turn as red as the umeboshi and look at your hands whilst your boyfriend patiently corrects him. As the waiter gives a big belly-laugh, you think that he probably assumed that you were the younger one because that day you chose to conform to the Japanese, fresh-faced, kawaii image (trying to make a good impression to ojiisan, his grandfather).
It’s difficult when people are desperate to tell you about whether or not they think you look Japanese. Like this is some great wisdom which will really help you shape your identity. Like you don’t have enough of an identity crisis already! “You don’t look Japanese.” “You look way more Western.” “Oh yeah, I can tell you’re Asian because of your eyes.” “Hm, but you don’t have Asian eyes.” Your whole life. Whether it’s drunkards in Paris pulling their skin apart at either side of their eyeballs, saying in slurred French, “You’re Asian, yes? You have the eyes!”, Belgians calling out on the street, “Nihao!” as you walk past – strangers commenting on this kind of thing follows you and your Asian friends everywhere. Not all Asians have the same kind of eyelids. Asia is a vast, vast place – it includes the expansive countries of India, Russia, and China. Asian homogeneity is a racial construct. Not everyone has the same eyes. That would be absurd.
Other fun information people like to share with you: “Your skin does actually have a yellow tint.” Good to know. “Wow, your English is really good.” Thanks, studying English Language & Literature at University really helped. Your face. Your skin. Why do they make people say such strange things?
And lastly, it’s upsetting finding out that people create make-up looks based on the skin which, on some days of your life, you have found so hard to wear. Hafu looks are exoticised on YouTube, and it just doesn’t make sense. One day you were searching for hafu YouTubers because you wanted to find some people who “looked like you,” but instead you found these videos. Watching a few of them, you found that they were bizarre – but it’s a popular beauty trend. Whilst hafu are treated in many ways as outcasts, there’s also a hypocritical fetishisation of hafu looks. The Miss Japan title was won by hafu ladies for two years in a row (2015-16), but it’s sad because you don’t know whether honestly progressive reasons were behind this – or whether it was because of exoticism, and to cause controversy for publicity.
All of this aside, having half-white privilege, you know that hafu who have darker skin tones must have an even harder time with being accepted in Japan and when dealing with racism around the world.
Being hafu is not a make-up look which you can wipe off at the end of the day. It is your skin. Even if you are not comfortable with it, even if you feel insecure, even if you know you are different and “other”, you cannot wipe it off.
It’s hard over the course of growing up, when you absorb the view that One must not complain, and One must not feel pity for oneself – One must remain stoic because of one’s gender, because of one’s culture, or because of one’s nationality. One must suppress feelings and emotional responses – fearing labels of “emotional”, “sensitive”, “outbursts”, “hysteria” (literally the Greek word for “womb”). But actually it is sometimes hard to be a hafu woman. And it is ok to voice that. It is totally fine to take up a little bit of space somewhere to write your story about being a woman.
I’m grateful that I can do that. And every day I am grateful for life. Every day I am growing into my own skin.
Naomi | 直美