“先生、先生、いい？(sensei, sensei, ii: teacher, teacher, can I…?)” my older, more brazen students would ask, already running their fingers gingerly through my hair.
I’d chuckle. These girls always preferred to ask for permission only after they’d started.
“Go for it,” I’d tell them.
Their hands would grasp the air for my wrists, where they knew I kept a hairband handy. I never admitted it to them but I always found their giggling and the gentle tugging on my hair an amusing distraction while I corrected students’ writing and homework.
In some classes, when this happens, I see other girls sink further into their books. Or some will never participate, but only watch on from the sidelines as they chat with my amateur stylists.
But I’m not the only one who notices these girls. I’ve heard others – sometimes adults and sometimes their own peers – reassure them that they’ll become more interested in these things as they get older.
When I hear it, I’m suddenly back, an awkward preteen afflicted with eczema and, worse, a liking for my brother’s baggy hand-me-down jumpers. I’m showing my teachers my palms when they ask to check my hands, implying that they’re really checking for nail polish at school. All the aunties telling me the same thing I hear these girls being told now; that “beauty is pain,” and that one day, I’ll be spending all day in front of the mirror “putting my face on” and chasing after boys.
They were wrong. That day never came.
I never lost my liking for oversized jumpers.
Fast forward ten years or so to find me at last Saturday before a friend’s wedding, nodding to answer a question I didn’t understand. (To be fair, this is something I picked up from the locals here.)
I was at the hairdresser’s and had made their day by insisting they should make all the style decisions for me. “何でもいいよ (nandemo iiyo: anything’s ok),” I kept saying when they showed me example hairstyles and makeup.
They spent the next hour or so waving hot instruments very close to my scalp and ears. By the end, they had used so many pins that I sincerely prayed for a forecast clear of lightning that day.
All the while, the makeup guy was unrolling his brushes onto the counter and asking me this one question that I couldn’t understand.
Finally, he called a younger staff member over. The younger worker spoke a little English. After a few false starts, he translated, “What are you wearing?”
I looked down. “A dress?”
They snorted, trying to keep in their laughter. Apparently, they were talking about whether I was wearing any makeup.
Nothing’s changed from when I was that awkward teen. What makeup I do own has been given as a gift. But that hardly matters. I don’t know how to use them anyway.
“What a waste,” some people tell me. “Japan and Korea have great cosmetic products.”“But why don’t you learn?” others press.
There are so many reasons, but let’s condense the list for today.
People don’t notice when I’m not wearing any anyway.
Nod and look interested, I thought, kicking myself to stay alert.
In Sydney, at the interview for my last job, we spent about half an hour with the interviewer going through some office rules.
“And another thing,” she said. “In Japan, wearing too much makeup can be unprofessional. So please try to be moderate.”
I nodded and smiled. She looked up at me.
“Mm,” she nodded too, approvingly. “What you’re wearing now is good.”
I wasn’t wearing any makeup. But I nodded anyway and shrugged internally. I’ve followed that advice ever since.
You could argue that they just don’t know me well enough but I once went home, tossed my keys by the door, and said hi to my mum.
“Where did you go today?” she asked, watching me grab a towel and my glasses.
“The beach,” I thought I’d already told her that morning. I started pinching the contacts out of my eyes. “Why?”
“Why did you wear makeup to the beach?”
One contact out, one in, she looked half blurry. “Umm, I didn’t. I’m not wearing makeup. I just have contacts in so I could go swimming.”
She ran the pad of her thumb along my cheek.
If no one, not even my own mother, can tell if anything’s on my face, then no harm, no foul, surely.
I can’t put it on.
“大丈夫。大丈夫。大丈夫。(daijoubu. daijoubu. daijoubu: it’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok.)” Saturday’s makeup man crooned as he tried not to jab my violently twitching eyes with his various brushes and pencils and metal death clamps.
As he asked me to look around the room to find a good angle to …actually, I’m not sure… I noticed other customers and other workers smirking slightly at his mantra.
Last year, for my brother’s wedding, there was also a makeup lady for the bridesmaids. She told me to look over her shoulder, leaned in, and backed away a little at the first twitch. I smiled sheepishly.
“Sorry,” I said. “But I really am trying to stop that.”
She nodded and leaned in again. “This is where you can really tell who wears makeup often and who doesn’t.”
“You can’t fake this?” I murmured, hoping the movement of my mouth wouldn’t add to her difficulties.
“Why would you?” she replied.
If you think being in a wedding will keep me out of trackies, you are dead wrong, sir.
Makeup makes me uncomfortable.
When I was little, I always preferred my mum in soft pyjamas with no make up, always holding a mug of milk tea.
“She’s beautiful,” people (herself included) often told me. And I could see that she felt confident whenever she dressed up, although it was quite rare. Still, the powdered mask sharpened her features, changed her smell and shifted the way she carried herself.
I prefer her as my mum, comfortable at home, over her as a beautiful woman any day. (I know, what childish thing to say.)
Growing up has only strengthened this conviction, not just for her but for myself as well.
I sometimes wear makeup. I wear it for fancy parties and weddings and for any event that calls for it.
But when I do, people pay more attention to me. I know that probably has something to do with the fact that they never see me like that. They make it a point to look at me carefully and talk about my outfit. This is very sweet. I feel like other girls would love that attention.
But to me, it just feels …like a hot day would in winter – it should come as a nice surprise but it ends up being a little uncomfortable and unexpected despite having seen the forecast.
I also don’t know how to walk in heels without a handhold. I want to touch my face or my hair, simply because I can’t. Red smudges the lip of every cup I drink from. Contact lenses are not as comfortable as glasses.
If all these things helped me feel happier or more confident, then it’d be worth it. But it’s not. Because I just don’t really feel like myself.
In the morning from the minute that I wake up / What if I don’t want to put on all that makeup / Who says I must conceal what I’m made of
“When a Girl Can’t Be Herself,” Alicia Keys
I don’t even look like myself.
On Saturday, I went home after the wedding and headed into the lounge to share the edible wedding take home gifts with my housemates.
“こんばんは (konbanwa: good evening),” they said, conversations stopping as I pushed open the door, digging to the bottom of the bag to pull the chocolates out.
“こんばんは,” I replied as usual.
“誰？ (dare: who is it?)” I heard one of them whisper.
I smiled awkwardly, spilling chocolates onto the table. “プリスです (purisu desu: I’m Pris),” I said, as they leaned in slightly to look at me. To be fair, the floral dress was a far cry from the trackies I wear around the house.
“びっくりした！(bikkurishita: I’m surprised!)” they gasped, raising their volume, before giggling together. I had no idea how to reply.
“I’ll be back,” I said instead as I scurried off, eager to avoid their glances and get back into my trackies.
I went back within minutes, in pyjamas, with my big mug and a new iBook.
As I waited for the water to boil and started a new chapter, I pulled the pins from my hair and ran my fingers through the curls. In the background, I heard the girls asking anyone who walked through the door if they recognised who I was.
This kind of anonymity isn’t always so bad, especially in this kind of society, which treats foreignness as a slight gimmick. Whenever I wear contacts or a face mask, I say I’m in Clark Kent mode: hidden in plain sight. I can walk through my local coffee shops where they know my usual order without getting recognised.
But if looking pretty means looking like a completely different person, I’ll pass.I can’t take it off.
Ok, this one’s a real problem.
“おやすみ (oyasumi: g’night),” I bade my housemates.
Twenty minutes later, I was downstairs again.
“お帰り (okaeri: welcome back),” the girls smiled, bemused.
“Ummm,” I stuttered, realising that I didn’t have any vocabulary for what I wanted to say next. “メイクを。。。(meiku wo: makeup…)” – I pretended that my hands were sucking it off my face – “できない (dekinai: I can’t.)”
They peered at my face.
“Well,” I began to explain again. “これは (kore wa: this)” – I said, tapping my cheeks, realising as I did so that I know the word for face: 顔 (kao). Oh well, too late. Next time. – “これは大丈夫 (kore wa daijoubu: this is ok). …Eyelashes だけ (dake: only)…できない (dekinai: I can’t).”
One of the girls took me upstairs, squirted clear gel into my hands and instructed me on rubbing it into my eyes and face.
“どう？ (dou: how is it?),” she asked as I rubbed.
Some of the solution went into my eyes.
“痛い (itai: ouch/it hurts),” I murmured, without stopping my fingers. I felt, rather than heard, her smile.
I have never, to this day, been able to remove makeup by myself, no matter how hard I try.
Seeing as I only ever wear makeup for bigger events, I’m always tired by the end, making the process just a little more overwhelming and frustrating.
“…I began to think there was some skill involved in being a girl.”
Scout Finch, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Harper Lee
I’m sure many tomboys do grow to appreciate the fashion and all the different subcategories that come with it. Even within the last few years of teaching, I’ve had glimpses of that happening.
But I hear these girls being told, “Don’t worry, it’ll happen soon.” I have a crazy impulse to jump in and counter with, “Or, you know, just don’t worry, whatever the outcome.”
Instead, I catch their eye and shrug, sometimes with a stage whisper, “I don’t get it either. What are you reading?“