A face like mine in this city
Some early drafts on language, belonging, & diaspora. To be revised heavily over the next several weeks (or months, or years).
She works at a small shop in Squirrel Hill.
Walking home, a truck zooms past her and a man whose face she doesn't see yells, “You don’t need a mask outside!”
(Maybe, along an empty street that borders a cemetery, he’s not wrong.)
Absurd, that a woman would rather hide her face than be seen behind the air she breathes.
A face tells a story.
In a city like Pittsburgh, her face tells the story, "This woman is not from here." The shape of her eyes, texture of her eyebrows, curves of her nose and mouth — they pronounce this more clearly than her accentless English.
To her, they tell two stories. First, how her parents left different parts of the Philippines and met in California. Second, how she left California after deciding her dreams lived in Pittsburgh.
When the space above someone's mask tells a similar story, the similarity awakens joy. "A face like mine in this city." As a little girl, she grew up with faces like hers, ate every meal and went to school with stories like hers.
When she decides to stop wearing makeup, her eyebrows disappear. Well, almost. They go from black and expressive to thin and gray, dusty gray.
“Asian girls’ eyebrows are something else,” she jokes while feigning exasperation to (other Asian girl) friends.
As the days blur into weeks, the mirror confronts her with the sight of those pale eyebrows.
As weeks blur into months, she unravels the equivalence of beauty with dark, expressive eyebrows. She erases the gap between beauty — a case for taking up space — and this mark of her Asian-ness, softer and less striking.
A little girl, brushing aside strands of black hair, flips eagerly through a dusty dictionary. Fifteen years later, she has shaved away her black hair, but starts to wonder again about the roots of words.
Shell, sheltered. Quest, questioning.
Words are sounds that have traveled across millenia, landforms, cultures. Sounds that have gained and lost meaning.
Dictionaries shelter them in black ink as if to promise, “Language won’t change anymore.” Within the roots of words, dictionaries hide the shadows of origins, the residue of worlds and histories.
She used to wonder,
“Where are my roots, if I have never breathed the air breathed by every generation of my family before me?
“Where are my roots, if I am homeless among the sounds of words that sheltered their realities? If my body wouldn't exist without the crossing of oceans — the rupture of my world from theirs?"
These questions lived in the front of her mind, led there by four years in this city. But with the fifth year came a pandemic and the wearing of masks. With the wearing of masks, a way to hide her face.
To hide her face is to hide the story of not belonging (or at least, to muffle it). The question of belonging, then, feels less urgent.
For people like her — familiar with news of violence against bodies like theirs — to hide a face is to wear a shell, a wish and a fragile promise of safety from the growing possibility of violence against their bodies.
At a small shop in Squirrel Hill, regulars become familiar with the sight of dusty-gray eyebrows and Asian eyes over a mask, accentless English streaming from behind that mask.
The mask hides one version of a story, gestures towards another: the timbre of her voice is a seashell, the residue of generations rooted in languages born across the ocean, Ilocano and Tagalog.
As months blur into years, she learns it is possible to relish the story of where you came from, and crave shelter from the dissonance this creates between you and the loud, white voices of the city around you.
(Some days, to be a brown woman in Pittsburgh is to be a walking invitation for strangers to yell their opinion on your appearance.)
It is possible to seek shelter from the question of your roots, the answer yet to be washed ashore.