I asked my mom one day how she chose my Chinese name, Aì Lì, or “love jasmine flower.” We were in the car driving back from New Haven for winter break. She told me it was just a phonetic transcription of my English name, Alice, which she had decided on before my Chinese name. “Your name means beauty,” she said. “Don’t you want to be beautiful?”
I thought about all the times that I’d been called beautiful.
The time I was in China, and a stranger approached me on the street and complimented me on my “big eyes.” She said she’d always wanted double-folded eyelids like mine. I smiled a polite smile, trying to mask my discomfort, and mumbled a quick “thank you.” I didn’t know how she wanted me to react. I couldn’t think of a more meaningless thing to say to someone.
The time I was walking in front of Payne Whitney on my way back from class and a man came running toward me, waving his hands. He stopped in front of me and said that he’d just driven past me and made his friend stop the car so that he could get out and ask for my phone number. “Why don’t you put your number in my phone?” I said, but he was adamant and wouldn’t leave. He was already walking back to his car when he remembered to ask my name. He sent me a six-second voice memo later that night. “Is this the beautiful girl in the black dress?”
The time I stood across from Patagonia on York Street and listened to a boy tell me that, no, he wasn’t interested in hanging out with me if I wasn’t going to sleep with him. I wasn’t worth more than what my body could offer him. All I wanted was for someone to want to spend time with me regardless of what I looked like, but that seemed more and more unattainable.
I thought about my grandmother, my lǎolao. She changed her name from “elegant and charming” to “always striving” when she was my age, because she thought her original name didn’t represent her ambition. She went to university when it wasn’t common for women in China and dedicated her career to teaching mining engineering to college students.
I thought about my mother. She came to the United States with nothing but a small, red suitcase and two hundred dollars to start a new life here as a PhD candidate in Wyoming. My mom raised my sister and me by herself while working long hours at a pharmaceutical company. She would come back home everyday, exhausted but nevertheless yelling, “Lì lì, I’m home!”
I want to be beautiful like leaving your friends and family for an unfamiliar place so that you could give your future children a better life. I want to be beautiful like persisting as the only woman in a department of men who thought they knew more than you. I want to be beautiful like staying up until two a.m. on FaceTime with your friend, doing nothing but savoring their company because you told them you were feeling lonely. I want to be beautiful like finding out someone remembered a small detail about you that you don’t even remember telling them. I want to be beautiful like slowly learning that your worth is not tied to what one imbecilic boy said to you sophomore year. That’s the kind of beautiful I want to be.