Why Do Chinese People Have Slanted Eyes?

Amanda Lee Koe

Artwork by Hidetoshi Yamada

Two men at a sports bar, talking shit, waiting for the football game to start. Des Moines, Iowa, United States of America.

Why do Chinese people have slanted eyes?

The deserts, they are that harsh. All that sand and wind and sun. If their eyes are that way, it helps, see.

Bullshit—the Bedouins have beautiful big eyes.

But the Bedouins have beautiful long eyelashes too, yes? Like camels.

Okay, I'll give you that.

*


Girl in the common bathroom, looking in the mirror, in her hand a needle. Huaihai District, Shanghai, China.

After a week, there were whiteheads around the sutures, like the tiniest little pearls studding her eyes. She took a sewing needle to them, she'd always had a steady hand, honed by the embroidery her mother had taught her as a child. When she drew blood, she blotted it away impatiently, waiting for it to clear so that she could continue poking into her skin, flicking away each hard bead of concealed oil upended.

It'd been two weeks since she left the People's Liberation Army 455 Hospital. There had been a school-holiday special on double-eyelid surgery: from 3,000 renminbi to 1,999 renminbi, how could she pass on that?

When she moved her eyeballs from side to side, it hurt. She took to swiveling her whole head rather than just her eyes when she had to look at something. She was told that the scarring would take a few months to fade, she was prepared to wait it out. She wasn't told about the possibility of double vision, of the bright lights that would follow.

She was irritated—and hurt—that they ascribed it to vanity. For this wasn't vanity, this was getting ahead in life. Didn't they know that merely having a university degree wasn't the be-all and end-all anymore? The happiest day of my life, her mother said on the day of her convocation, and she was touched but also she had the undercurrent of an urge to take her mother by the shoulders and shake her, to say, Really? Really? Is your life that small, Mother?

Did they know that the chances of employment for a grad with double eyelids and wider eyes are 70 percent higher than those of a grad with single eyelids? That, ceteris paribus, with the same grades and portfolio, the prospective employer will unswervingly choose the one with the double eyelids? Eyes with double eyelids give the overall impression of a person being more energetic. A more energetic person will contribute more productively to the company. There was also the Wuhan study that showed that women could expect to earn 1.5 to 2 percent more for every centimetre of height added, but she would stick to high heels for now.

So when they say, Serves you right for being vain, she wants to say, What do you know. She didn't even ask them to pay for it—and even that wouldn't have been too untoward; she had friends for whom the double-eyelid surgery had been gifted by their parents as natural consequences of completing the gao kao. Weren't you fine before this, they say, with the pair of eyes that heaven above consigned you. When will you get it? she wants to ask them. Why would you ever think that "fine" is enough?

She blinks away the tears, tries to unsee the bright balls of light. The post-surgery ptosis is throbbing, like it sometimes does. She won't hold anything else against him, but it's not fair that she has to live with this droop that was never there before. If she has to, she can live with the rest, the tearing, the temporal scarring, the whiteheads, the bright lights, the double eyelids achieved at the expense of looking perpetually shocked. But the ptosis; can he just please fix the ptosis?

*


Professor of the Department of Biological Anthropology, speaking slowly at a Neo-Mongoloid Evolutionary Processes lecture. Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America.

A matter of periocular anatomy. It isn't just the eyes per se we are talking about—there's the flatter nose, the lower-based nasal bridge, the higher amount of preaponeurotic fat in the epicanthic fold. More precisely, the orbital septum fuses to the levator aponeurosis at variable distances below the superior tarsal border, and there is no extension of the capsulopalpebral fascia.

By the by, to term it "Chinese" eyes isn't quite accurate, for the condition isn't unique to the Chinese, but a definitive racial trait of the Mongoloids—though the word is pejorative now, it was utilised in early ethnology and we still use it in academic formality; we mean no harm, but things move so slowly here. We're talking Siberian, North Mongoloid, Central Mongoloid, South Mongoloid, Indonesian, Polynesian, Eskimo, and Amerindian.

The epicanthic fold was one of several adaptations to the cold, the bitter conditions of the Mammoth steppe during the Middle Pleistocene, some 600,000 to 370,000 years ago. The others: short limbs, flat faces, short noses, lower surface to mass ratio, cyclical vasodilation, and vasoconstriction of the peripheral capillaries.

*


Model at a party in a fancy apartment, with a view of the Eiffel Tower, in winter. Rue de Chabon, Paris, France.

She is the first Chinese model to be on the cover of Jalouse. She's lying in Pierre's bed, smoking. He doesn't care that she gets ash on his pillows. She prefers it here—she prefers it at anyone else's—to the models' apartment. She has a sign on her door that says Fuck off I'm sleeping in a childish hand. Someone stole her Commes des Garçons jacket last month. An emerald-eyed Latvian blonde threw away the preserved egg slices she'd gotten her mother to mail her from Sichuan. Why did you do that, she'd asked the Latvian girl. Because it smells, the Latvian girl said, and so do you.

Pierre comes out the shower and mouths I love you; points at her, as if there were anyone else in the room. She just smiles at him, presses down on the lighter with her right thumb and toys with the flame, lights a new cigarette. These photographer types, their love is aggregated via the camera, developed in film. Nothing remotely real about it, even when he is pumping his hips madly into her, coming on the concave of her belly, or teaching her how to pronounce the words off the menu in a café, some degree of affection in the back of his throat. Relationships last as long as seasonal fashion, then you pack your bags and you're spreading your legs for someone else in a shoot, someone else is pointing his camera at you and telling you your single eyelids and cheekbones are so precise they can cut diamonds. She looks over at Pierre, the fold of loose tummy fat, wiping his pubic hair and white arse dry before stepping into his Calvin Klein briefs.

She's helped Pierre to lay the table. The caviar on the table costs more than her parents ever made in a decade of backbreaking manual labour. The caviar is served up on custom-made mother-of-pearl spatulas, to avoid tainting its taste. She watches the people coming through the door. There's Emmanuel Alt and Franck Durand. There's Mert and Marcus. There's Filippa Hamilton and Pierre has his arm around her, they are laughing, Pierre in his element, with his little in-jokes and finespun compliments. She hides an elegant wad of caviar under her tongue the way you would acid strips and she remembers the first time she got high, in that club in NYC when she was nineteen and didn't know a word of English, she couldn't stop singing patriotic Chinese songs in the clear alto she'd been trained in, she was so embarrassed even as her world was exploding into slow stars with comet tails and everything was moving imperceptibly yet inevitably, like a revolving restaurant. Everyone thought she was being hilarious even though they didn't know what any of the Mandarin words meant: A lifetime in a foreign clime will never change/ My Chinese heart. They parted her hair and braided it down into two plaits and made her stand on a table, got her to strike a revolutionary pose.

She looks out the window. It is snowing out and she can see the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower is lit up. It is beautiful. Someone is passing around a copy of Jalouse and she can't recognise the girl on it. Her head is bent back such that she regards the camera down the line of her nose, her eyes are slit-like, her skin is pale, her mouth is painted a deep plum, her tits are showing under a thin luxury knit. Everyone at the party is dressed in black, très très chic. They are air-kissing her, to the left, to the right, to the left again, pointing at the cover, telling her how beautiful she is. She smiles at them, bisous, she's learned to stop pronouncing the "S" in most French words she comes across, bisous, she rolls the tiny black spheres of caviar in her mouth, bisous, she's doing well.

*


Class action suit filed by plaintiff, on behalf of Asian and Pacific Islanders of Los Angeles County, against Miley Cyrus. Superior Court, Los Angeles, California, United States of America.

Class Action Suit

Asian and Pacific Islanders of Los Angeles County v. Miley Cyrus

IN THE SUPERIOR COURT OF THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES

The Complaint of the Plaintiff, Lucie J. Kim, respectfully shows and alleges, on behalf

of Asian and Pacific Islanders of Los Angeles County, as follows:

1. The Plaintiff herein, Lucie J. Kim, is an Asian-American resident of Los Angeles County. The Plaintiff brings this claim as a class-action suit on behalf of the Asian and Pacific Islanders of Los Angeles County.

2. The Defendant herein, Miley Cyrus, is a popular American actress and recording artist.

3. On the 10th day of February 2009, the Defendant posed for a photograph wherein she pulled back her eyelids in a slant to look like a derogatory Asian caricature. As a result of the Defendant's global fame as a teen idol, the photograph went "viral" on the internet, catching the attention of millions around the world.

4. The Defendant's conduct contravenes a statutory provision contained in the California Business and Professions Code [BPC] which prohibits businesses from discriminating against people based on, inter alia, race, gender, and ethnicity.

5. The Defendant knew or should have known that the photograph would be in the public eye. The photograph was taken by an employee of celebrity news website TMZ, which is well known for publicizing such candid photos as part of their coverage of the lives of celebrities such as the Defendant. In addition, the Defendant knew or should have known that the photograph would be further promulgated via mass media channels such as the internet and local tabloid publications, which the Defendant knew took great interest in her personal life.

6. The Defendant must, therefore, have recognized the risk that her conduct at that point in time would be seen by a large group of people and, in reckless disregard of that risk, struck a pose which amounted to a racial slur.

7. The image of slanted eyelids imitated by the Defendant has its lineage in a long and unfortunate history of people mocking and denigrating individuals of Asian descent. Not only have the Defendant and the other individuals in the photograph encouraged and legitimized the taunting and mocking of people of Asian descent, she has also insulted her many Asian-Pacific American fans. The inclusion of an Asian-Pacific American individual in the photograph does not in any way make it acceptable.

8. It is highly undesirable as a matter of social policy for blatant acts of racial discrimination, especially those committed by people who are in the public eye, to go unpunished. This will only serve to destabilize the delicate balance of our multi-racial community.

9. By reason of the facts and circumstances stated above, the Defendant has violated a provision under the BPC. This entitles the Plaintiff and all members of the class (estimated by census data to number in the region of 1,000,000) on whose behalf this suit is being brought, to pecuniary compensation of $4,000 (being the minimum damages for a civil rights violation).

WHEREFORE, Plaintiff demands judgment against Defendant in the sum of $4,000,000.00, costs and disbursements, together with any other relief the Court finds to be just and proper.

*


Curator-in-residence at the Guggenheim, giving her curatorial walkthrough of the exhibition No Country: Contemporary Art from South and Southeast Asia, Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States of America.

After New York, the exhibition will move to Hong Kong later this year, and then on to Singapore, where I'm from. Given the centrality of looking to this exhibition, it's also interesting to think about how the dynamics of the presentation will change with each city, and how it relates to the borderlessness alluded to in its title, No Country.

But to answer your earlier question. I think there are numerous contemporary Asian artists whose work interrogates the "modern" Asian experience. But the unyielding insistence on viewing the East as an unchanging repository of "tradition," vis-à-vis the West as the legitimate home of "modernity," has led the art world at large to overlook the practices of such Asian contemporary artists. When Der Blaue Reiter riff off of African objets d'art or Chinese paintings, we say, how original; we consign them to the avant-garde. But when an Asian artist references Fauvism or uses a motif of Kandinsky's, we say, how derivative.

I believe that intelligent curatorial practice can contribute to how we look at cultures, how we interact with various cultures. At the same time, of course, curating is not a neutral exercise. Curating is my point of view, my interpretation of what is going on.

When I started producing exhibitions for institutions that were not from my own country, I had to take on a different position. I had to try and see what the region, these artists, and these works looked like through someone else's eyes. At the same time, what was imperative to me was to challenge romanticized perceptions of the region.

It is not to deny that you see the Southeast Asian region as exotic.

But—I could very well think you are quite exotic as well.

See, it's a matter of relativity, an impulse to return the gaze.

But I get ahead of myself.

Look at this work. Counter Acts, by the Filipino artist Poklong Anading. It is a black-and-white lightbox showing a group of people holding up circular mirrors to cover their faces, which in turn reflect the bright sunlight in which they have been photographed. And I chose to open the exhibition with it.

Of course, because the subjects are holding up mirrors, neither viewer nor subject can see one another—in place of their faces are light flares. This thing about objectification: the artist restores autonomy. This thing about perspective: the artist reminds us that we can never really look at anyone from the viewpoint at which they see us. This thing about clarity: the artist blinds us, and in so doing, he all but annihilates gaze.



Amanda Lee Koe is the fiction editor of Esquire (Singapore), editor of creative non-fiction magazine POSKOD.SG, and co-editor of literary journal Ceriph. She was the 2013 Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She spearheaded and edited Eastern Heathens (Ethos Books) with Ng Yi-Sheng, an anthology subverting Asian folklore, and first collection of short stories, Ministry of Moral Panic (Epigram), was launched at the Singapore Writers Festival.