“One of the defining features between an individual of Asian descent and someone of Western descent is the presence of an upper eyelid crease. Approximately 50% of Asians do not have an upper eyelid crease. The double eyelid operation, or creation of a supratarsal crease, is the most common cosmetic procedure requested in Asia and the third most common procedure requested by Asian Americans.” Marilyn Q. Nguyen, Patrick W. Hsu, and Tue A. Dinh. “Asian Blepharoplasty.” Seminars in Plastic Surgery (August 2009). Cosmetic Surgery in the Ethnic Population: Special Considerations and Procedures.
As you may have already heard, talk and reality TV show host Julie Chen recently admitted to having surgery to create a supratarsal crease and remove the Asianness from her eyes, namely, her epicanthic fold.
Many news sites and bloggers have already picked up on the story, expanding on the racist surgery that so many Asian Americans elect. Few people, however, know the surgery’s relationship to U.S. imperialism and colonialism in Asia. Specifically, I want to alert you to the story of Dr. J.R. Millard, a U.S. military doctor who was stationed in Korea at the end of the Korean War.
The above quoted article describes “Millard[‘s] comments that to get a true “round” or Western eye, the epicanthus must be eliminated.” This was his benevolent gesture to Koreans, particularly those among the war brides whose assimilation would be smoother were they to transform their bodies and faces for their new White families and communities (Note: Over 172,000 war brides came from Asia between WWII and the Vietnam War, with the help of the U.S. War Brides Act*). Specifically, Millard wrote the “Asian eyelid produces a passive expression which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the Oriental.”
Sound familiar? Maybe you heard Chen recount how her news director in Dayton, Ohio told her “that because of [her] Asian eyes…[she] look[s] disinterested and bored.'”
The creation of the Asian “other”, underscoring the phenotypical differences, the assigning of character traits to those differences between Whites and Asians, the value placed on–and the normalization of–racial brands of beauty, i.e. Millard’s “Western” eye, are all products of racism and cultural hegemony. The same racism that allow G.I.’s in Asia to dehumanize sex workers on and around U.S. military bases, that allowed for hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Vietnam to count any dead Vietnamese as an enemy casualty through the “Mere Gook Rule”, and for the U.S. to kill up to four million people through aerial bombs during the Korean War, and for the U.S. to exterminate one-sixth of the population of Luzon in one of the shortest, most forgotten and most invisible wars in U.S. history in the Philippines.**
The invisibility of Asia and Asian Americans from American history and the literal scars that non-White bodies bear. If that isn’t a direct experience of oppression, or any of the other sh*t that is breaking our backs as Asian, black, indigenous, Latina, or otherwise “otherized” bodies, I’m not quite sure what is for Ms. Chen or Chen’s co-anchor Sheryl Underwood.
*Sheridan Prasso. The Asian Mystique
**Elaine Kim. Preface to Charlie Chan is Dead 2