April 1985, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia
The woman’s legs are cramped from being spread in front of the doctor for hours. He tells her to push and she does, but the baby still doesn’t come. I imagine her hair must be plastered to her red, sweaty face, her nostrils flaring, her lip bleeding from biting down too hard, fists clenched in pain.
After another eternity of huffing and puffing and straining, the Chinese baby finally slithers into the Indian doctor’s waiting hands, while Malay nurses anxiously peer over his shoulder. (It’s a poster scene for Malaysian multiracialism, I tell you.)
The baby starts screaming to prove she’s alive, and the doctor and nurses keep looking down at her, transfixed. “What’s wrong?” says the panicked new mother. Is it a birth defect? A missing limb? Too many limbs?
“Nothing’s wrong,” says the doctor. “It’s just that your daughter is rather long.”
October 1995, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
I’m ten going on eleven, in the fifth grade, and today is the day I dread most of all in the school year – class photo day.
We shuffle into the gym where the photo people ask us to line up according to height. This part is always easy peasy. I just stand still and let everyone else line up after me.
“Tallest kid, to the center!” shouts photo man, and I go to the same spot I’ve stood in since kindergarten. The other kids are placed around me. “You tall freak,” says some boy behind me, and others giggle. “Shorty standing on a bench,” I shoot back. No one laughs.
I’m really embarrassed over my height. I think it’s because I’m tall AND Asian AND a girl. Most of the Asian girls I know are really tiny. The only Asian girl I’ve ever seen on the cover of the Sweet Valley High books I secretly read is really short too. My mom says it’s just a bad stereotype, but then again, she’s barely my height and she’s old, almost thirty-seven.
Would I hate my height if I were a tall white boy? Probably not. Or a tall Asian boy? Probably not. Or a tall white girl? I’m not sure. My friend in another class is my height but Serbian and people just think she’s beautiful and going to be a model.
My parents are worried I hate being Asian, but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t remember anything about Malaysia but it sounds pretty nice, and I’d like to visit one day. I actually think I’m pretty good at being Asian — like most of my other Chinese friends, I’m mostly quiet in class, love reading and math, play the piano, am taking tests to skip a grade, voted for our school to allow homework, and have the mushroom haircut. I want to be like everyone else who looks like me. My height stands in the way, puts me in center of attention and gets me picked on when I just want to be left alone.
June 2002, back in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
Heads turn as I walk down the covered walkway in my all-female high school. Many of the younger students only reach my shoulder, and I stand straighter as I pass, enjoying how I’m taller than most girls here. We have to wear these boring, conservative school uniforms to erase the differences between us, but with my height, I will always stand out. In a good way.
I’ve been back in Malaysia for six years now, and although I cried for Canada in the beginning, I now realize how much moving here helped my self-esteem. I’m no longer the “freakish tall Asian girl” – here, I’m just tall.
How do I explain this? It’s like I left a society where I felt caged in by particular stereotypes of how Asian girls should look, and came to a place where everyone is some sort of Asian anyway so your height isn’t seen in relation to your race. When I was a kid, people would say, “Wow, you’re tall for an Asian girl,” which feels like what they’re really saying is, “Wow, you’re abnormal.” Here, they just say, “Wow, you’re tall!” and that’s pretty much, “You’re special!”
The Malaysians I meet seem to envy my height, nagging me for not taking advantage of it. “You should play basketball! Netball! Be a swimmer!” random aunties and uncles and teachers tell me. “You can be a model!” say my classmates, fanning my ego. I suck at sports and am a little too flabby and plain to model, but I love these suggestions anyway.
So I use my height in other ways. I love choral speaking and drama, when I’m standing in the center of our group on stage, reciting our poems, acting out our scenes, knowing that the audience’s eyes will naturally be drawn to me, the tall one in the crowd. Performing on stage is how I leave my natural shyness behind, and my height helps me be seen and heard. Attention? Bring it on.
August 2006, Singapore
I’m out at Ben & Jerry’s with a guy I really like, and we get on the topic of love and relationships. “What are you looking for in a girlfriend?” I ask, hoping he’ll list a bunch of qualities I have.
- “Pretty, of course.” (I’m pretty enough!)
- “Smart.” (I’m smart!)
- “Good sense of humor.” (Oh, I crack him up all the time.)
- “Adventurous.” (This whole year in Singapore is one long adventure.)
- “Good family.” (I have the best family, super stable.)
- “And not too tall.” (……)
We sit in silence for a while. He’s probably thinking of this dream girl, while I contemplate what he means by “not too tall.” He’s a pretty tall guy himself, about an inch or so taller than me, his bushy hair making him seem taller. “How tall is too tall?” I finally ask.
“Well, you know,” he says. “I’d prefer someone shorter than you, or else I’d feel awkward.”
“By ‘awkward,’ you mean emasculated?”
“I dunno. Just awkward. I can say that right? Since we’re just friends.”
My 21-year-old heart cracks a little because he means it, and pretty soon he’s dating a girl who comes up to his chest.
“Maybe you should date some white guys,” he says later on. “They’ll be much taller than you.”
November 2008, London, England
I’m 23 years old and feel like I own the world. I’ve just started a postgrad program in Communications at the London School of Economics, and I’m living in the Bloomsbury neighborhood in London, around the corner from the fabulous British Museum.
This is the city I belong in. I love how it’s crawling with people from every corner of the world; it feels like Londoners come from everywhere but England. Everyone is brown and black and white and yellow, young and old, short and tall and in between. Here, I’m not weird nor special; I’m just like any other person from anywhere on earth who’s decided to make London their home.
Tall Asian girl? Who bloody cares, love! Welcome to London!
April 2010, Shanghai, China
Remember how four years ago, a friend told me I should date white guys, for no reason other than they’d probably be taller than me?
Now I’ve fallen in love with a white guy, but guess what? He’s actually shorter than me, and he doesn’t care!
Unfortunately, lots of other people do.
Like my parents. It’s one thing to date a white guy, they say. But a white guy who’s shorter than an Asian girl? That’s ridiculous! Why do I have to be such an eccentric?
Like some of my friends, who make disparaging remarks about my boyfriend, tell me why they can only date guys taller than they are, then quickly say that it’s just their preference and they don’t care who I date.
Like the cab driver who says the smaller guy next to me must be rich, otherwise why would I be coming out of a bar with him?
“Who cares what other people think” is usually easier said than done.
October 2011, still in Shanghai
I’ve been with my boyfriend for over a year, and the longer I’m with him, the less what people say matter. Duh, of course, you think. Of course time fixes everything.
But that’s not necessarily true. Time could have separated us. There were many times when judgment, especially from loved ones, made things especially hard, times when all I wanted to do was fling myself into the arms of the next six-footer who came along, so I’d be in a picture-perfect relationship. There were times when I’m sure my boyfriend felt at the end of his tether and no longer wanted to deal with all this crap about height, when he never thought it was that big a deal before.
The genuine affection we have for each other and the support we’ve gotten from others has kept us together, and the older I get, I know the less emotional I’ll be over people’s perception of me, my height, my relationship. It’s somewhat ironic that for somebody who’s been self-conscious about height all her life, I’ve chosen to be in a relationship that draws attention to it. Until I become that wise, mature sixty-year-old unfazed by life, I’ll try to keep in mind that we’re all about the same height lying down.
This is my personal take on how my height mattered to me. For the rest of you tall Asian girls and tall Asian boys, short Asian girls and short Asian boys — has your height played much of a role in your life?
Christine is still “tall for an Asian woman” and blogs at Shanghai Shiok!