Here are some traditional Indonesian dishes served for my dad's birthday. I was lucky enough to bring left overs for lunch. (Photo: Lian Bie Hong)
Looking back, I would have to say I had a pretty positive experience growing up in the suburbs. Like my parents, I was born in Indonesia. Shortly after my first birthday, my family moved to Canada and settled down in Ajax, Ontario. My family is of Chinese Indonesian descent. Which means that somewhere along the line my Chinese ancestors immigrated to Indonesia.
I remember we were the only Asian family on our street and that I could count the number of Asian students in my class on one hand. Sure, there were some incidents of racism, but my friends quickly taught me that my differences should be celebrated rather than shamed.
When I was ten years old, my babysitter offered to give my friend Jimmy a ride home. As I sat in the back beside my friend, he turned to me and said, "Michelle, can you close your eyes for a second? They're different! You don't have a crease in your eye. I've never noticed this before. They are so cool!"
This was my first introduction to the concept of having double eyelids. I always knew my eyes were different, but I never realized until that moment that I had single eyelids. My friend framed my difference in such a positive light that I was never embarrassed of my eyes; I was proud of them.
Six years later, I went on a trip to Indonesia to visit my extended family and friends. I remember meeting up with one of my childhood friends at a restaurant. While we were catching up, she shared how she recently celebrated her sixteenth birthday. She told me that the only thing she wanted was double eyelid surgery, and she convinced her mom to let her have this procedure. She pointed to her new double eyelids and told me about how they happy they made her feel.
At the time, I was really confused because I remembered the conversation I had with Jimmy. Single eyelids were cool, why would anyone ever want to permanently change that? This was the first time I realized that in Asia having double eyelids was a desirable feature.
The idea of having double eyelids as a standard of beauty has come up multiple times in my life. In university, my friend asked if I wanted to try her plastic sticker inserts to create a double eyelid. I have never tried this, but I would imagine they would feel slightly uncomfortable.
"Not only were my colleagues interested in learning about my food; they were also interested in learning about my culture."
Several people have also asked me if I would ever get eyelid surgery. Nevertheless, whenever I get asked if I want to create a double eyelid, surgically or temporarily, I confidently say no. I guess growing up with someone who thinks single eyelids are cool has influenced my perception of beauty.
This wasn't my only positive experience. I would usually bring lunches to school that were different than my classmates. Partially, this has to do with my Chinese Indonesian heritage, and partially it has to do with my parents love for cooking Asian meals. I would bring in dishes like nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), galbi (Korean short ribs), and even sushi.
Instead of being teased, my friends envied the fact that my parents made me gourmet meals. They appreciated that my parents took time to prepare them for me. My friend, Mary, even asked if she could pay my mom to make her lunch. She was always curious to see what I had packed for the day. She and my other friends made me feel so comfortable that I was never afraid or ashamed to show others what I was eating. Sure, my meals were different, but more importantly, I knew they were delicious.
This is a photo of nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) with krupuk (shrimp crackers), acar (pickled vegetables), and sate (satays). (Photo: Cindy Arman)
Even when I moved away to start a new job, where there were not many Asian people working in the building, my new colleagues welcomed my differences with open arms. Just like my friends in Ajax, my colleagues were interested to see what I would bring in for food. They even encouraged me to bring in traditional dishes to share, and they wanted to learn more about how they were prepared.
Not only were my colleagues interested in learning about my food; they were also interested in learning about my culture. I remember how fascinated they were when I told them about Chinese New Year and the tradition of receiving red pockets filled with money. To this day, they are happy for me every time this holiday rolls around.
One of my favourite things to do is travel, and whenever I have a chance, I try to visit Asia to reconnect with my roots. It amazes me every single time how different North America is from Asia. Not only are beauty standards and food different, but also customs and norms.
Every journey makes me even more appreciative of my opportunity to grow up in a nation where I can experience different cultures and foods, and be surrounded by friends who thought my eyelids and meals were cool.
Overall, I have to say, I'm pretty thankful to have a group of friends who celebrated my differences positively. Without their kindness and openness, I know I would be probably be sharing a much different narrative.
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