“I’ll have a fish sandwich please.”
On a hot day in July 1985, I was met with a blast of cool air as I passed through the door out of the blazing streets of Harlem into a world of fish and ice. Tables were piled high with an array of snapper, eel, shrimp, crab and other fresh sea food I found hard to name. The concrete floors were wet with melting run-off as workers in long aprons and boots called to one another in Korean. I craved a whiting sandwich, white fish rolled in cornmeal, deep fried, doused with ketchup and slapped between two slices of white bread. Heaven. You could wait for it to be served up sizzling from the fry basket at the front counter.
As a twenty-something Italian-American in a Korean fish market in Harlem, I was a bit out of place. But I had found Jesus in a Black Church on 7th Avenue, and this community was now my home and had come to accept my presence. I watched the man behind the counter as young women do, taking note of his smooth skin, dark eyes and straight, black hair. He was my age and spoke with a heavy accent. Periodically, he cast his gaze my way and I realized, he was watching me. What did he see? I, of course, was not the epitome of Asian beauty. What did he like? My long, dark blond locks? My big, brown eyes? Small waist? Full hips? I certainly didn’t mind the attention. He bagged my sandwich and as he handed it to me, our eyes met.
“You…..hab mustache,” he said in the best steamy English he could muster.
I raised an eyebrow. I did indeed, have a mustache. As many Mediterranean women do. I was a bit put out by his comment. What was this? An accurate observation but to what point? Where could this possibly go?
“I do,” I said. “And?” I refrained from sucking my teeth.
“Oh. Um……thank you?”
I was stunned. Speechless. This was not what I expected. Not knowing how to react I paid my bill, flashed my best bewhiskered smile, and left, skipping all the way home. My facial hair? Of all things, he liked my facial hair? How bizarre. But, how nice.
Weeks later, I wandered into a different fish market, with different Korean men, and waited at a different counter for another fish sandwich. I chuckled, thinking about that comical previous encounter as I watched the cook. Waiting for the fryer to finish, this man decided to make small talk as he wiped the counter directly in front of me.
Quietly, so only I could hear, he said, “You…..hab mustache.”
I raised an eyebrow, again.
“Yes. I do. And?”
For real? Again? Again I’m hearing this! Of all things he could find sexy, it’s my mustache? I was hearing it from yet another Korean man. Asian men are so smooth skinned with little body hair. Italian women are often known for theirs. Why was facial hair considered alluring? Perhaps because people could be attracted to standards of beauty that are different from their own? I would never look at Korean men again without a smile crossing my lips. Through their eyes, I was learning to see myself as beautiful.
As I lived and moved along the streets of upper Manhattan, my understanding of beauty continued to be shaped by the people around me. It was common at the time for Black women in the neighborhood and my church to not shave their legs. How freeing for me! One less thing to have to do. I gladly followed suit, and left my legs bare and bushy, or in panty hose and heels in my Sunday best. I fit right in, albeit perhaps a bit furrier than my Black sisters.
One day, walking down the street with my legs flashing in sun dress and sandals, I passed two young Black men going the opposite direction. They had not gotten far behind me when one said to the other,
“Did you see that? A big-legged hairy Caucasian.”
I had to hold back from belly-laughing out loud. Ha-ho, that would never be considered a compliment in the community where I used to live. Yet here in Harlem, it was flattery. A standard I was heretofore unaware of, was deemed desirable. I began to look with new eyes at the men and women in the circles in which I moved. With greater and greater appreciation, I embraced the distinctions, including the loveliness of body shape, hair style, facial feature, and skin tone, which also included an increasing acceptance of my own body image. (Though I have since discovered the wonders of electrolysis and now happily live life sans mustache.)
In Revelation 7:9-10, the Apostle John says:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
I have no desire to be colorblind, to go backwards and minimize the artistry in how God made each of us unique. Revelation shows us a diverse multitude with distinctive people groups that will stand before God and worship Him in unison. If God saw fit to include His notice of our differences in His Word, then let us not fail to delight in His handiwork and treasure the variety in our fellow humans. There is no need to be blind to color. There is a need to see with new eyes, and love one another, exactly as God created us.
Susan Parlato Revels
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