I was normally pretty whatever about my looks but being likened to Jackie Chan twice over two years- an average of once per year – did not sit well with me. That evening, after badminton practice I tried unsuccessfully to pin my hair up in a more feminine manner. I gave up and grabbing my mother’s arm, uncharacteristically begged her to take me to an expensive salon.
“I have to fix this,” I said.
My mother, herself a very low-maintenance woman who had struggled with her weight before losing it all and turned into someone whom men stopped to ogle in the street, looked at me, tilting her head this way and that.
“I think it looks fine,” she said, shrugging.
I wondered if my own mother had given up on me in the femininity department. She had never stopped me from running around outside and preferred I stayed away from makeup and the like, despite most girls my age in high school already experimenting with eyeshadows and lipsticks, because she herself had been a late bloomer in that department. She preferred a woman embrace her natural beauty but more than a few times had to wrestle me into frilly dresses for recitals and family portraits. She also wasted much breath telling me told me not to “make strange faces.” I liked to contort my face into various unladylike expressions and she was constantly frowning at me while my dad guffawed behind her.
“Our daughter has more faces than that guy Jim Carrey,” he would state proudly, “How did that happen?”
But right then, I needed my mother to care about my looks.
“Mom, someone at school said I looked like Jackie Chan.”
My dad, walking past us in the kitchen, laughed and paused to assess my hair. He’s never been one of those doting dads who treats their daughter like a porcelain princess. He never encouraged me to play sports nor did he find occasion to say, “Act more like a lady!” until recently, when he noticed that I was twenty-seven and still single – but that’s another conversation. He, as his father did for him and his brothers, gave us a lot of space to develop however we pleased.
Growing up I liked to (and still do, sometimes) climb trees. Once, when I was nine, I climbed the tree outside my window for the millionth time. I grabbed a slender branch from higher than usual and right as I tugged, it snapped. I fell to the ground. My father had walked past the living room window right as he saw me reach for the upper branch. From my peripheral vision I saw him move closer to the window and when I fell, sensed him freeze. I lay on my back in the grass, dazed and staring up at the now dangling branch and wondered if I’d broken anything.
Nope. Just the branch. I got up and dusted myself off as my father came rushing out the front door.
“You fell out of the tree!”
I turned around and swung my arms, shook my legs. I wasn’t even scratched.
“I think I’m okay,” I said.
My father looked up at the tree, “You dropped like a stone. Don’t climb so high!”
“It’s okay, Bah,” I said, and dusting the dirt off my shorts, hoisted myself back up into the tree. From the ground below, my father marveled at me, his indestructible daughter.
From that point forward, my “sturdiness” became a point of pride for my father, who himself was a sturdily built man, and the falling from the tree story a favorite anecdote. That is, until I started to play badminton, gained weight and strength, adding both muscle mass and fat to my already dense bones. And gave myself that terrible haircut.
“Jackie Chan?” my father chortled, “From behind maybe.”
“Great. Thanks Bah.”
He slapped me on the back, “But I don’t think it’s the hair. You’re too strong.”
“Look, look Kui-Ching,” he said, motioning for my mother to look down. She, like me, knew what was coming, “Look at your daughter’s knees. Just as wide as mine! She’s built very sturdy, just like her dad.”
I looked at him. “You’re not helping Bah.”
“What! What?” my father did not get even the dregs of the sensitivity chromosome, so shallow was that gene pool in the Ho family. He looked at my unamused expression and thought of something helpful to say, “Well it’s a good thing hair grows!”
“Seriously, Bah. Not helping.”