“Hi, Elise! Oooh, you look much prettier in person. Do people tell you that? I saw a picture on Kakao and I thought, oh. But you look much better in person! Some people aren’t photogenic.”
Thanks, Regina*. Nice to meet you, too.
Regina is an acquaintance of my Dad’s. Dad connected us in hopes that Regina will find me a job at the Cook County Circuit Court where she works as an interpreter. We meet at Twin Dragon, a Korean-owned Chinese restaurant in Glenview. They have the best Jjamppong and Gahn-Jjajangmyeon in Chicagoland, but they only have three-and-a-half stars on Yelp. They deserve at least 4.5 stars, but non-Asians aren’t the best judge of Korean-Chinese food. You’ll notice the one-star reviews are from non-Asians and the four-star reviews are from Asians. That’s why when I vet an Asian restaurant, I only look at the Asian people’s reviews. But I digress.
I sit down at the round table next to Regina. Given only two facts about Regina: Korean-American woman; early to mid-40s, I expected her to look like all the Korean school teachers I had growing up: short hair, glasses, light brown eyeshadow, a little bit of natural lip-colored lipstick, and an earth-tone suit jacket and a long skirt that does not complement her short stature. But in front of me sits the opposite: Regina, tall and thin, dressed in a tight black top and black skirt, has straight blonde hair down to her waist and tan skin most Koreans can only achieve from regular visits to L.A.TAN. Her eyes, twice the size of my eyes, dressed up with a thick layer of eyeliner and dark eye shadow, stare at me with intense interest. Her red lips part to tell me, “Elise, you are a pretty girl. You have nothing to worry about! Really, you are pretty!”
I don’t know why you think I’m worried about my appearance, but thanks for the reassurance, I guess. I fidget in my seat with my arms crossed, trying to keep my left hand hidden.
“Maybe just… put your hair down. Grow it out and put it down and get it styled like mine: straight and styled. And maybe a little eyeliner. Yeah.”
I thought we were meeting about potential jobs; instead, she wants to know what kind of boys I like and if I ever dated before. Do I want to be set up? She reassures me again that I’m pretty enough. Boys could like you!
Then she brings up the Big One. She tells me my parents told her about my disability: my hand. She tells me it’s not a big deal because I’m very functional. I have nothing to worry about. She suggests I get a prosthetic. I tell her I don’t want one. She tries again. Just get one for the look of a real hand, she says. Before I respond, she announces, “I would date a guy with a hand like that. Maybe like no arm, too, is okay. But no wheelchair.” For fuck’s sake.
She continues, “Yours is the most mild disability I have ever seen on a person. Really! It’s not even noticeable. Right? A lot of people don’t notice it right? Yeah, you cover it really well. Good.” I just sit there, taking in all her insensitivity, numb to this kind of thinking because I’ve hated my hand for so long anyway.
Regina goes on, “If I were your sister, I’d tell you to cover it. You don’t have to show it unnecessarily.” I laugh and say, “Ok, thank you.” I don’t know how else to respond. My real sister has never and would never tell me to cover my hand. Regina reminds me of all the adults who decided I needed to know I was disabled (eye roll) and had some exciting advice for me (bigger eye roll).
A couple of weeks before meeting Regina, one of my uncles said to me, “I’m going to be honest with you: you’re handicapped. It’s going to be hard for you to attract a man. You need to make a lot of money so men will be attracted to you.”
When I was a college student, one of my campus pastors advised me, “Warn people before you show them your hand. You don’t want to shock them.” It’s most important to think about others. Let’s protect the sensitive people who have all their limbs. Fuck your feelings and desire to be treated like a normal human, Elise. Who cares if you’re lonely and in agony?
The day after my lovely lunch rendezvous with Regina, I go to the movies with Eliot. We’re just friends now, but in December 2015, he’ll tell me he likes me and on September 22, 2019, we’ll get married. What do you know? I didn’t need a lot of money to attract a man after all.
After my hangout with Eliot, I come home and write in my journal:
I hung out with Eliot today and it was such a struggle for me to enjoy it because I was so suffocated by my need to hide my hand. I hate it. Not my hand.
I hate this… hiding. It’s so heavy. It hurts.
As I write this post, I’m in my home office, and Eliot is working next to me. I’m reminded of the ache to be free of hiding before I came out about my hand to him and my community. I remember the fear of rejection. I’m sorry for how little credit I used to give people.
I still struggle with hiding my hand – particularly around Koreans and Korean-Americans. My fear of rejection from my community shaped by comments from people like Regina, my uncle, and my pastor – all of whom are Korean or Korean-American. I understand that these comments don’t come from a place of malice; it’s ignorance. It’s from living in an Ableist society. But God, I am so tired of it. I reject it all. Can we do better? Please.
*Name has been changed.