All American Doll
BY VANESSA CHAN
It was a seven-year-old girl’s paradise: the American Girl Doll Store. I stood underneath the auspicious fluorescent lights with my fingers wrapped tightly around my mother’s hand. The day had finally come. I faced my mom with a smile stretching from ear to ear, and she squeezed my hand.
“Aren’t you excited?”
“Yes!” I squealed.
Unable to wait another second, I broke free from my mother’s grasp and dove headfirst into shelves upon shelves of sparkling, plastic-boxed dolls.
A girl bounced up to the front of the class for show and tell. I sat criss-cross applesauce on the rainbow carpet, admiring the glossy doll in her hand.
“It’s my American Girl Doll and it looks exactly like me!” She held up her hair to the doll’s, showing the perfect match. “You can’t even tell our hair apart.”
I came to a stop at the section of black-haired dolls. I moved slowly across the line, taking my time to meticulously examine every doll. My mom had caught up to me, and I turned to face her, pointing at the one I wanted. A curtain of shiny black hair cascaded down her shoulders and her deep brown eyes gleamed under the lights. She was me: flesh and bones replaced with plastic and fabric. I reached up on my tippy toes to pick her out, but my mom got there before me. She took one look at it and shook her head before placing it back on the shelf.
“But Mom, I wanted that doll!” I protested.
In response, she picked up my hand and led me to the blonde dolls. I stood in front of them, with my head tilted and dark eyebrows furrowed as my mom browsed the section. Their hair gleamed like fields of gold and their eyes glinted like ocean water. Sure, they were pretty, but they looked nothing like me. My mother chose a doll and presented her to me with a flourish, gesturing at the wavy blonde hair and blue eyes. She placed her in my hands with a wide grin.
“These dolls are prettier, don’t you think?”
Ms. Nolan just announced that we were going to be writing our own stories! I wanted mine to be about a pretty princess. Her name is Ashley, I wrote. She has wavy blonde hair and the prettiest blue eyes. She is the most beautiful girl in the world.
I shook my head and tugged at my mom’s sleeve.
“Why can’t I get the one that looks like me?” I questioned.
“I’m not going to spend 80 dollars on that one when you could get a much prettier one,” she countered.
I pushed the doll back into her hands and turned away to hide the glistening tears collecting in my eyes. What would the girls back at school think if the doll didn’t look like me?
A girl at school scrolls through the Brandy Melville Instagram account. The light of her phone reflects in her blue irises. Her eyes were focused on the trendy clothes, but looking with my own brown eyes, I only saw the glaring presence of blonde hair and spray-tanned skin. Even the clothes I wore looked better on white girls.
I gazed up at my mom’s dark chocolate eyes, contemplating her naturally black hair that had been curled and lightened to a caramel colour. Maybe she’ll let me get a doll with brown hair, and I can dye my hair that colour too!
The days of quarantine had blended together into a concoction of hour-long walks and monotone online classes, and every inch of me ached for change. Unbeknownst to my mother, I ordered two packets of bleach powder and a bottle of developer. That night, I spent three hours in the tungsten light of my bathroom, watching my reflection paint bleach on black hair. During breakfast the next day, my mom noticed the brassy, copper-toned hair draping my shoulders.
“Why are you trying to be white?” she accused. “You know that no matter how light your hair colour is, you will never look like a white girl.”
She was right. My black hair, despite undergoing two rounds of bleach, still could not reach that golden blonde, and my monolid eyes and rounded nose clearly depicted a Chinese girl.
I scurried off to the section of brunette dolls, and my mom followed behind. I grabbed an unboxed doll by her arm and held up her hair to match my mother’s. She shook her head once again and marched me straight to the cashier. My mother held the blonde doll with her left hand and reached for mine with her right, but my arms stayed glued to my sides the rest of the day.
“Do you ever wish you were white?” my voice quivered as I asked my Asian friend, hoping to find solace in shared sentiment.
“Yeah, all the time.”
The next day, I brought my American Girl Doll to school.
“Why didn’t you get one that looks like you?” asked the girl whose hair matched her doll’s.
“This one is prettier.” I parroted my mother.
It was the opening day of Crazy Rich Asians. My mom, with her hair dyed back to black, and I went to the movie theatre to see it together.
“How whitewashed! She can’t even speak Mandarin properly,” my mother whispered to me about the lead actress, whose Mandarin was coated with a thick English accent.
It felt so foreign to see myself represented on screen.