Foreign Images

Flat on my stomach on a pile of gravel at a construction site, I hid from my brother and his two friends. The earthy smell and warmth of the crushed rock caressed my body. My brother and his friends were two years older than me, but they let me, a five-year-old girl in a pink jumper and patent leather shoes, tag along on their adventures, probably because there wasn’t a tree I couldn’t climb. On that day, we were playing hide-and-seek on a deserted construction site that was supposed to be off-limits.

If you told my brother and me that something was off-limits, it was the first place we would go, the first thing we would touch, or the first thing we would taste. So there I was grinding gravel dust and dirt into the American-style dress that my mother carefully selected for me to wear that morning. The two braids with bows that my mother artfully prepared on my head already looked like Medusa’s snakes with wild hairs sticking out.

I was the best hider-and-seeker of the group because I had no fear of mud pits, spider-filled closets, or half-filled garbage cans. Winning the game was worth the yelling and spanking that I knew would happen later. Later happened whether I stayed clean or came home looking like a tornado. I learned that I could live through later. Fun now was what mattered.

Besides, why would I want to look like those pretty little American girls on TV? In 1963, we lived in Tokyo, Japan, and I watched America from 5,000 miles away through a box that told me that every little girl wants an Easy Bake Oven. At five, I knew that was a lie since I didn’t want one. My mommy told me that I was so lucky to have brown American hair just like my American dad. But I knew that something was different. My eyes did not look like those American girls’ eyes on TV. The TV was not a mirror for me; it was a house of mirrors.

A fifteen-inch, black and white TV sat on the kitchen counter while my Japanese mother in her black stretch pants did leg lifts with Jack LaLanne. After Jack, my mother would move onto to her Good Housekeeping illustrated book that showed how to set a table, how to fix your hair, how to trim your fanny, and how to make your husband happy. I often puzzled over the pictures with the deliriously happy mommies in their fancy dresses and high heels cooking dinner and vacuuming their carpets. Eventually, my mommy would take me to Japanese preschool where I would learn some English.

As a wife of an American soldier, my mother’s training was a full-on doctoral program with serious research in Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping magazines, a few hours every Saturday at the beauty salon to perfect her Elizabeth Taylor look-alike hairdo, and at least one weekday matinee at the movies with her friends to catch the latest Audrey Hepburn or Doris Day flick. Applying makeup and fixing her hair in the morning took at minimum an hour, if not two. Like the geishas of old, transforming an already pretty face into a work of art was part of the Japanese culture. However, none of it seems to be in my DNA, my hair still sticks out.

I watched my mom from her bedroom door as she powdered her face and applied thick eyeliner in an attempt to Americanize her Asian eyes. Once a month she sat under the giant head-sucking machine at the beauty salon to force curls into her straight hair in an attempt to become Elizabeth Taylor. At night, she slept with plastic curlers in her hair so that it would “turn out right” in the morning.

Perhaps because I realized very early that media distorts reality, or perhaps because I spent time rolling around in mud and gravel, I see popular media as foreign. Although I am now terribly afraid of big spiders and my mother has died, I still see young women, from around the world and America, changing their whole nature and dismissing their whole culture to embrace whatever the little box tells them is desirable. Nothing has changed in fifty years, and I am still a foreigner in a foreign land.

Jeannette Ronson teaches creative writing and memoir at a various colleges and adult education locations in New York and Connecticut. Her essay, “I Am Hawaii Five-O,” was published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and nominated for the Best of the Net anthology in 2013.