• Lijing Cobb


I’m taking a nap. Someone keeps poking on my eyeballs. I shake it off gently, but the tapping continues. One of my kids wants me to wake up, but I’m sleepy, so I continue to turn my head to avoid the tapping.

“Stop moving your head! Let me finish.” Someone not my kids gently chides my mischievous behavior. I wake up, back to the facial I’m receiving at my Chinese sister’s spa. She is doing something to my eyelids. “I’m almost finished,” she says cheerfully, “sit up, stay still, we just need to curl your eyelashes and your makeup will be done.”

“Ok.” I sit up, trying to blink my eyes open from my nap. She had warned me that she was going to do my makeup following my facial, and I had fallen asleep just before the momentous occasion. Dear readers, prior to yesterday, I’d never had any makeup done before, not even on my wedding day. My 10yo once took part in a play and they requested makeup to be done at home, and I had to run to CVS to find foundation and something else I can’t remember.

My contact lenses are dry so I blink more to moisten my eyeballs.

“Don’t blink!” She holds a curler to my face, and starts to brush my eyelashes. I blink some more, I can’t help it.

“Stop blinking! Wait till it dries, then you can blink.”

Not blinking being cruel and impossible at the moment, I blink furtively a few more times, hoping she wouldn’t notice. My eyes are always so dry after sleep. She notices, and says, “well, you got smudges now. Go ahead and blink, you’ll just get smudges.”

I love my Chinese sister. Always so matter of fact. I now have permission to blink, knowing the consequences.

When she finishes she hands me a mirror. I look into the mirror and see a shiny face with sparkly eyeshadow, curly eyelashes, rosy cheeks, smooth powdered complexion, glossy lips. I’m somewhere in there, but it takes a couple of seconds for me to register the new face. I smile at the new face, the new face smiles back.

“Isn’t this beautiful?” She says, and continues to expound on her thesis that a woman needs to light up and pamper herself once in a while, especially for celebratory purposes, when everybody else is made up. “You have finished culturing your insides. Now you need to start culturing your outside. I know you believe in natural beauty, but as women this is really necessary.” She concludes.

“But I’ve barely begun to discover my insides…”

“You are done with your insides,” She does not let me finish, “you know all you need to know. Now you need to get back your youthful allure.”

“Are you saying that I’m old and ugly?” I joke with her. She has her back to me, cleaning up all the paraphernalia she took out to get me the new face. She does not laugh.

“No, I’m just saying you look beautiful with makeup. Who doesn’t like a made-up face on a woman?”

“Uh, my husband.” I volunteer an answer.

“Your husband likes it. Men all like it.” I can feel her conviction hard as a rock.

“Well, he keeps telling me that he doesn’t want me to bother with any of this. He thinks it’s a waste of money and time.”

“That’s impossible.” She concludes. We are done.

Back in the car I take a selfie and send it to my husband with no comments. 8 minutes later he texts back:

“Beautiful! That is the girl I remember from way back when, and the woman I love today….” Well, I never had make up on before, so I don’t know what he’s talking about.

“You don’t see any difference?” I ask.

No answer. He must not have been using his old-age glasses. When he comes back later and sees me in person, no comments either.

I pick up my 9yo boy and 7yo girl from their bus stop. My 7yo says, “what’s that sparkly stuff on your eyes mommy?”

“Oh, just some stuff my friend put on there.”

“You look beautiful mommy!” She compliments me enthusiastically.

“Do you mean to say that I normally don’t look beautiful?” I tease her.

“You look bootiful.” She coos in a baby voice and avoids the question. “Can you bring me to the nail place to get my nails done?” She asks.

We get home and my 10yo daughter sees me. “What happened to your face mommy?” She notices right away. I am in a rush to go back out, so I mumble something back and leave. I also don’t want to tell her outright that I had my makeup done because she’s been wanting to try it, and neither my husband nor I support that idea.

My makeup artist and I go to our dinner date, a fancy hotpot place I’ve never been to before. After we order from the all you can eat menu, our table gets loaded up with all the things we are about to consume for the night. Flabbergasted by the sheer amount of stuff, I ask my companion to take a photo of me with all the food on our table. When I see the picture, again it takes me a second to accept my face. I shoot the picture to my husband, telling him that we need to go there. “Wow!” Is all the answer I get back, no comments about my face.

We finish all the food, end up getting more. My lovely sister tells me that what we ate is nothing compared to how much some of the girls she employs at her spa can eat. “They can do at least double!” Then she tells me the simple life of two of her workers. These two girls work, play video games, eat, visit their tiny rental room in Brooklyn on break and stock up their supplies, and return and repeat. “One of them,” she nods her head at me, “was thin like you when she first came, and now look at her. They don't exercise at all! Who doesn’t exercise these days!”

Upon hearing that these girls have college degrees from China, I ask my storyteller why they came to the US to work in a spa.

“They were sent by their parents to earn money here and send it back home so that their younger brothers can have a good wedding and marriage. The people from their town all do that.”

“Are people still this partial to boys over girls these days?” I ask, half of me incredulous, the other half says, what a silly question.

“Of course!” She exclaims. Accept the fact of life: two girls, around 30 years of age, sharing a bunk bed in a tiny Brooklyn room, with college education, working at a spa, sending money home so their brothers can spend it, playing video games at night, eating, eating, eating. What else? “They have become so dependent on each other! They never do anything without the other. I suspect they have turned into lesbians!” My sister adds emphatically.

“They look so young! The way they carry themselves: I would have never guessed that they are 30!” I’m shocked to find out their age. Last Halloween when I took my kids to trick-or-treating, these girls tagged along, arm in arm, shuffling their little steps, giggling giddily. My husband had asked me, the Chinese authority, how old these girls were, a bit surprised to see two grown women participating in a child’s activity.

“Oh, they can’t be more than 19 or 20. They are still kids!” That was my definitive answer. I believed my guess matched their appearances.

“Yes, they like to pretend they are spring chickens.” My sister opines.

As we open the restaurant door to walk out, a young couple walk in. The girl walks in the front, her not made up face stern, forbidding, misanthropic. “Get out of my face,” her body language screams, so we step aside to make room for her. Her boyfriend follows meekly behind, his head hanging.

“Wow, that girl looks angry.” I say to my companion, so she tells me this Chinese saying that I have never heard of:

“Avoid women who hold their heads high, and men who hang their heads low.”

“What? What kind of saying is that?” I ask. That couple we passed just got condemned to a very unpleasant and lonely place.

As we drive past other restaurants that look super inviting to my now awakened and alert Chinese roots, my Chinese sister keeps asking me if I’ve dined in any of these places before.

“No. I haven’t really been back here since I finished graduate school 15 years ago. How things have changed!” Then I add longingly, “if we lived closer, I’d be coming here all the time!”

On our way back home, I ask her how long I napped during my facial/makeup session. “40 minutes?” She says, and then adds, “I don’t know how you stayed asleep when I was doing all of that to your face! You must have such a big heart to be able to relax so deeply. Next time when you are awake, we will do it again so you can learn how to do it on your own!”

“I can’t do that. My husband will kill me. We don’t want our girls to use makeup and they are really interested.” I confess my fear and worry.

“No problem. Bring them to me and I’ll do it for them!” She laughs her hearty laugh that I love to hear. I need to borrow her confidence and conviction.

I ask her how to take my makeup off my face, because I’ve seen special products being sold for such purposes, but have no wherewithal to facilitate that process at home. Earlier in the day I had noticed black smearing under my eyes, and dirty fingernails that must have accidentally touched the powders on my face, so going to sleep without washing it off is out of the question. She tells me a complicated process involving cotton pads, face wash, dabbing, repeating. By now I’m super sleepy so I register all info half-heartedly, dreading the lengthy prospect of having to spend more time getting rid of my new face instead of sleeping.

“You see, this is exactly why I don’t use makeup! I need to go to sleep!” I whine helplessly.

By the time I get home, I turn the shower on, and let the warm water soak my face. I use my face wash and rub my face, rinse, repeat 3 times. When I step out of the shower and look into my mirror, I see my own face. I’m all good. I tell myself to remember to tell my Chinese sister this trick, and I’ll call it the lazy woman’s trick.

This morning the two men in my house wake up and walk in to say hello at my desk. I ask them about my face from yesterday. “You look beautiful!” They both say.

“But I like you more this way. You are more beautiful without makeup.” My dear boy pats my face before he walks away.

Inevitably you think I’m talking about gender equality. I am, and I am not. I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but the word change keeps popping up. The makeup changes my appearance. I see it, my girls see it and highlight it, but my men see it and ignore it. The culture of boy over girl I thought I left back in China all those years ago is still here in the persons of those two 30yo women/girls: nothing has changed for them. The angry girl with her meek boyfriend, everything has changed for them. How do we make sense in this world where things change so fast, yet some things never change?

Does makeup change who I am? Do I let my girls play with makeup and “waste time?” Does that change my relationship with them as a parent who tries to be responsible? I need to borrow my Chinese sister’s confidence and conviction. I’m just not sure. Like I told her, I’m just beginning to discover my insides, and I know that the changes taking place there are necessary and important. But I’ve always just presented my same, apparently aging outside to the world for all these years, and I never thought there was anything wrong with that. Do I really need to change my outside to call back some such “youthful allure” that my dear husband evidently still thinks is in my possession?

Who’s asking me to change?

Who do I answer to?

My new face

My new face at a hotpot buffet. We did the impossible and some more!

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