The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
My sister visited me the other day and I presented her with a garbage-sized bag of shoes I’d purchased throughout the decades, but never got around to wearing.
After meticulously going through the bag for about half an hour, Annie only came away with one pair of scrunched up ballet-slipper type shoes, which she later changed her mind about and put back into the bag.
“Are you sure you don’t want them? I’m gonna take them to the Goodwill, you know…some of these shoes were pretty expensive and most have never been worn!”
Annie looked at me, “You’re giving these shoes to the Goodwill?!” in a tone of voice that was similar to, Susan, haven’t the underprivileged already suffered enough?!
I’d like to say that my appalling fashion sense occurred as the result of a traumatic head injury I had suffered in the first grade, when a classmate kicked a ball in my direction and I tried to flee…into the direction of the oncoming ball. But that experience only strengthened my belief that pants with elastic waistbands and clothing items, such as pinafores and smocks were staples of any young girl’s wardrobe.
In my early years, I wore what my Mother made for me on a sewing machine. I don’t think she purposefully set out to make me clothing, but whenever she’d buy fabric at the store to make some cushion or sofa covers, curtains, or a bedspread, she’d buy a few extra yards, so that she could make me something special.
It was pretty special for a third grader to blend in with her living room drapes, or to be sat on when lounging on the sofa, being so well camouflaged. But thanks to my Mother, I learned the terms damask and broadcloth way before my peers did. I also learned that most clothing can be spruced up with a little embellishment, like fussy, lacy cuffs around the sleeves and necks, or some cute animal character applique that had no business being on the back pocket of shorts so wide you just knew they had started out as sofa cushion covers.
In the fifth and sixth grades, I started developing my own sense of – for the lack of a better word – “style”. I had saved up enough to buy a pair of rainbow jeans – the biggest rage at the time – except being Chinese without a butt, the end of my rainbow didn’t lead to the pot of gold. While my Caucasian classmates filled out their jeans nicely, looking at my ass in those jeans was like looking at birthday balloons a week after the party: sad and deflated.
So I decided to deflect attention from my ass by playing up my broad shoulders and naturally-wavy hair. When shoulder pads became popular in the 80s, I bought an industrial strength set with the Velcro attachments, so I could look like a Transformer robot in anything I wore. But after repeated washings, the Velcro of one of the shoulder pads didn’t stick as well and often ended up at my elbow, or in the vicinity of my upper arm. I could tell that strangers wanted to come up and ask me how much longer I had to live, on account of my tremendous elbow tumor.
Right around the ninth or tenth grade, my Velcro shoulder pads spoke to me; they convinced me that permed hair would make me way more attractive than what I already had – coarse, angry, and unmanageable wavy hair. My Mother took me to her beautician – a silver-haired lady from an Eastern European country. All of the pictures in her salon revealed the same, basic hairstyle: the old lady perm. After several hours, I was also blessed with the same style, except my hair looked furious, instead of being “nicely coiffed”. My hair had increased my head to twice its actual size and was also competing with my shoulder pads for superiority. But the worst part was the constant feeling of being followed. My hair girth had obstructed part of my peripheral vision, so that it appeared someone was always standing on either side of me.
“You know, zis Dolly Par-ton…she wear ze…wig, you know? But she haz ze lovely hair!” the Eastern European lady kept repeating, as she was putting the finishing touches on my hair – by placing a plastic bag over my head and tying it up with a chain and padlock.
Now, I realize she was hinting at me to get a wig to hide my monstrosity. But at that point, the only thing that might have made me look more normal was a big tumbleweed, or a 20-gallon foam cowboy hat on my head.
After high school, I enrolled in the local University and became a Liberal Arts major, which meant that I finally had a reason to dress like a blind crazy person. In fact, we were encouraged to go all out with our attire, because we were enlightened Liberal Arts majors, who defied convention and embraced anarchy, especially in our choice of clothing.
It was liberating to finally throw off the confining chains of mainstream fashion and wear whatever, in the name of the arts. Anything that was not fashionable at the time we embraced: I had six different kinds of suspenders, several ties (one of them a bowtie), a suede fringe vest from Value Village that my Mother hated, as she thought it harbored fleas. A weekend night out meant purple tights with cut-off jean shorts, happy-face suspenders, a man’s shirt that fell far below my knees, which I tucked into the empty area of my shorts where my ass should’ve been.
And now, going through that garbage bag full of shoes, I realize that the clothes and accessories I buy are a reflection of who I want to be and not who I am and how much physical pain I can endure. The too-small white ballet-type shoes that Annie took then dumped were supposed to tell the world that I was a respectable business woman with fashion sense, even if the rest of my outfit screamed otherwise. The Doc Marten combat boots which weigh 50lbs (each) – I was going through my G.I. Jane phase. Those four-inch spike heels and black leather strap gladiator sandals were purchased when I thought I was a prostitute named Pokemymons in Tokyo’s red light district.
As these shoes beckoned me to try them on one more time, my fallen arches and irate bunions screamed at me otherwise. So, I put the shoes back into the bag, fired up my computer and wrote this post. I wonder if Clarks is having a sale this weekend?