Waiting for Barbie

Written by
Anne Cheng, Los Angeles Review of Books; Department of English
Oct. 20, 2023

When I was a small child living in Taipei, my father went to Osaka University in Japan for nine months to undertake a medical fellowship. Airfare must have been expensive then, because there was never any discussion about the possibility of our visiting him. We relied on daily letters and weekly phone calls. The year was 1970. I know because it was the year of the World Expo in Osaka, the first world’s fair to be held in Japan. One day, an extra-thick envelope arrived: it contained a plane ticket for my mother. Since my maternal grandparents had come up from Tainan to stay with us while he was away, my father thought it would be the perfect opportunity for my mother to take a trip by herself to visit him. After all, the world’s fair doesn’t come to our corner of the world every day.

I remember the moment so well: my mother opening the letter at dinner to find the ticket; her hand going instinctively to her lips to hide her smile; my grandfather reaching across the table to take the envelope from her hands, look over the contents, and then promptly tear them up, saying, “How ridiculous—and what a waste of money. A grown woman abandoning her children to go gallivanting around the world! He’s there to work, not to play.” I was too scared to say: “But, Agon, you are the one wasting the tickets!” Years later, I asked my mom why she just sat there silently. She said, well, back then, we did what we were told by our fathers.

A couple of weeks after that incident — my mother still at home with us — a box arrived for me in the mail. It was filled with the most exquisite, luxurious collection of rainbow-colored miniature clothes. I was afraid my grandfather would not let me keep the gift, but he only frowned and said something about my father’s stubborn extravagance. And extravagant it was! I had never seen, much less owned, anything like this. It was a mini trunk show of glittery evening gowns, trim day dresses, tailored jackets and fur capes, ensembles for special outings from going to the beach to attending the recital. There were accompanying tiny purses, hats, scarves, and sunglasses. But the most wondrous were the teeny shoes. I am talking pumps, sandals, mini boots, each perfectly formed, perfectly arched. Their ultra-plasticness connoted to me everything new, inventive, and foreign.

I especially liked to squeeze the tiny shoes between my fingers. I loved their squishiness, their “Q-feel,” the way I could make the heel meet the toe and how they’d spring back to form upon release. I loved their bubblegum colors, their gallant one-pieceness, their happy self-containment. I played with the entire wardrobe for hours at a time. I laid out each item on the table or the floor. I hung them on pencils. I organized them by function or hue or mood. I mixed and matched, each ensemble calling for different scenes and scenarios, each embodying a story of its own. I had a whole universe.

Read the full article on the Los Angeles Review of Books: