When I was a little girl, my late mother used to do this thing to my sisters and I where she would bite our noses, pinch them and squeeze them. At the time, in my childhood memories, it hurt quite a bit, but my mother made it a playful, cheeky, expression of her love for us and I thought no more of it, beyond the initial physical pain it would cause.
Fast forward to Chinese New Year 2010 and a conversation with one of my sisters revealed to me that perhaps our mother was trying to make our noses less ‘flat and wide’ and more ‘pointy and feminine’. That is to say, to make our noses more like a white woman’s nose and therefore more feminine and beautiful.
This revelation hit me like a bombshell. I had heard of many other women of colour having had this done to them, or doing it to their own children, but had always thought that my mother was not like those women – I had been spared the thoughts in my head that to be beautiful was to be white. We were raised as proud-of-our-beauty mixed race women; all brown skin, lovely hair, beautiful eyes and winning smiles.
My mother was one of those stunningly beautiful ethnic Chinese women from Malaysia. Always well put-together she made and wore her own clothes with grace and style and had a figure with statistics that she could recite immediately, if prompted (something like 34, 26, 36 – inches that indicated the perfect petite hourglass figure). I grew up desiring to look like her, or at least to have just a smidge of her grace and dignity of carriage.
So why did my mother, herself so gorgeous and having produced four cute daughters, seek to pinch and bite our cute button noses into something more socially acceptable?
I suppose, now that my mother is no longer around to answer my questions, the only thing I can think of is that she was purely and simply raised in an era where this was just the ‘done thing’ for a Chinese Malaysian (born around the year 1941, she migrated to Australia in the late 60s early 70s). A social norm, it became an impulse for her and that was just what she did as a Chinese Malaysian mother to four daughters. She was definitely not the racist type, who resented marrying someone from another race and seeing that reflected in the faces of her children, so I doubt racism against black folk is the answer here either.
Growing up mixed race, I often saw how Chinese people would desire to be white, or at the very least, accepted by white people. I often saw the related behaviour to this, which was an obvious racism and classist attitude toward Aboriginal people from the Chinese Australian community. Low on the social ladder and definitely low on the class (money) ladder, Aboriginal people were not a desirable candidate for socialising with and I think my parents felt this keenly.
Later on as her children grew older, I feel like my mother left a lot of attitudes and cares and worries behind. She still bit our noses and was playful and cheeky about it, but as I mentioned earlier, 27 years old and I did not even have an inkling that she cared whether we looked white or not. I thank Allah everyday that my mother was confident enough in her own beauty, and the beauty of her daughters, that this way of thinking in which she was raised, did not even remotely effect her daughters’ psyche.
Likewise, later on in life she found a good strong group of Chinese women who did not care about class or race. They accepted her and our family, my father, her daughters and loved us all dearly. So markedly different from the kind of Chinese folk I had been exposed to as a child (by the time I was born my family had left Darwin where all of their Chinese friends freely mixed with and grew up with Aboriginal people). I was able to see for the first time that perhaps there were Chinese people I could get along with and they did not all live in Darwin.
Still, I wonder about this concept of sucking up to Whitey – wanting to look like Whitey, desiring to be accepted by Whitey, to try to negate any colour and the aspiration to become White. I have seen my share of Brown Nosers in my time, but I am glad that despite how she was raised culturally, my mother never became the ultimate Brown Noser and that I survived her playful bites and pinches to be able to keep my very own brown nose – lovely and flat, brown and cute as a button.
I thank Allah every day that I can think to myself: “No Brown Noser here, but a very Brown Nose indeed…”