My face is peeling. I bring the back of my hand to meet my cheek and when I rub, white flakes of skin peel up and slough off in little rolls. I used to try to mitigate this with moisturizer, spackling thick creams and pastes onto my dry skin like impasto on canvas. I’d smear on oils, viscous and shiny and aromatic, sucked out of apothecary bottles with little glass droppers. But now I know once the skin starts to peel there is nothing to be done except help it along.
Sometimes I want to take the industrial strength green Korean loofah, my sandpapery mitten, and just scrub at my face until huge chunks of flesh tear away and roll into brown fleshy noodles and fall to the floor. Afterwards, I won’t be bloody and flayed, all raw nerve endings and hamburger meat, I’ll be smooth as a peeled egg, soft and firm and pliant to the touch.
When I was a girl I went through a ghost story phase. Not white people ghost stories, which I felt immune to somehow--another thing, like being grounded and getting C’s, that didn’t apply to me--but Korean ghost stories, starring young female specters in white robes with long, bedraggled black hair. One of them involved a ghost who was often glimpsed from behind on dark mountain paths, her limbs luminescent in the moonlight. When a traveler would catch up to her, wondering why a beautiful young woman was wandering the mountains alone, she would spin around and her face would be totally blank, no features. She’s the 달걀귀신, the egg ghost, terrifying because you have no idea how she feels, and isn’t that the most dangerous kind of woman?
My mom and I talk on the phone and the last thing she tells me is to wear sunscreen and a hat. Always, she says. Lest my face go wrinkly, lest my visage be marred by a spray of sunspots, lest my features sink into the vast plain of my face, eyes like gleaming stones in a dried up stream bed.
Lately I find myself falling silent in professional settings, in classrooms, casual conversations. A self-inflicted erasure, a scrubbing away of words and thoughts and ideas. I wish I could locate this muteness, prod it the way I once dissected fibrous grey owl pellets in science class as a kid, metal probes gently teasing apart the clot of tissue until I could see tiny mouse bones, delicate and pearly white, amidst the fluff. What part of my silence is who I am, and what part is how I was brought up? What part is external, structural, the part that tells me I am other, and therefore undeserving of a voice? What part of it is about a desire for control, a fear of being misunderstood?
Nobly born Korean children in the Koryo dynasty used to wash their faces with an essence made from peach blossoms. This was said to make their complexions as clear and light as white jade. Koreans’ obsession with flawless skin, that is to say, pale skin, that is to say, white skin, predated the country’s growing post-war obsession with western beauty ideals by millennia.
I think about Korean farmers in agrarian times wearing full faces of makeup--thick layers of foundation and eyeshadow--to protect them from the sun as they bent in rice paddies, submerged to the knees.
I ask my Korean friends about this story, believing it to be common if apocryphal, and to my surprise, they don’t know it, nor can I locate any trace of it on the internet. I always assumed it was my mom who told it to me when I was a child, but when I ask, she has no idea what I’m talking about. Was it something I read in a book? Was it something I made up, the natural outpocketing of a desire to connect to the people who looked like me, who seemed so far away? The agglomeration of a life lived in skin, the accumulated debris of two societies to which whiteness equals beauty, purity, power? I touch my face and it’s like I’m standing in the rice paddy, too. I can almost feel the perfectly winged eyeliner and pale, flawless cheeks turned to the sun, unmarred by the sweat of hard labor. I feel the swish of cool water around my calves, the warm cloth stretched across my back as I work and I’m protected and strong, and beautiful I suppose.
To me, female Korean beauty is really about silence. About demureness, about winnowing oneself down not through exercise, which would yield unsightly musculature, but through self-denial. Or through surgery, the skin of the face peeled up and the bones underneath broken and ground down and fused and then blanketed again with the skin, always the skin. A certain slimness of the limbs, a sexless and pure kind of silence. It’s about being unthreatening, about emotional blankness conveyed through blurred eyeshadow, or blush buffed out just so. A beauty of a certain kind of body, a certain kind of whiteness--not Whiteness exactly, but whiteness nonetheless.
But who am I to say? I’m not Korean, not really. Not quite American either, of course. Can you hate something and still, shamefully, desire it?
Someday I’ll be beautiful, with panna cotta skin, poreless like a puddle of milk. Someday my face will gleam, luminous, and that light will get brighter and brighter until you can’t see my dark eyes, my smudge of a mouth, until all that is visible is the contour of my face, an oval of resplendent light, and I’ll turn and all will regard my beauty and my terrible, terrible silence.