There is something different about my face.
Upon meeting me, most people look just a little too long or flick furtive glances when they think I’m not looking.
I was born in China and the water in most rural areas has to be boiled to sterilize it before it’s clean to use. At 4 months old, a bottle of baby formula and scalding water with a loose cap resulted in a burn scar about the size of a gold dollar coin on the left corner of my mouth.
In preschool, the other children would reach out with clammy fingers to touch my face, knowing it wasn’t the same as theirs. They’d pull back, equally fascinated and repulsed at the rough texture.
When I was 4 years old, I went through surgery because the positioning of the scar was inhibiting my mouth from opening all the way. In a matter of a few hours, the surgeons had made some small adjustments, ensuring that my mouth would be fully functional and shifting the scar in such a way that it would fold into the lines around my mouth as I got older. By the time I’m 65, the small patch of skin will melt into the edges of my smile.
The stitches and redness healed in only a few weeks, but I spent the time hiding behind my hair, hoping no one would notice.
Growing up, I quickly became very used to questions and unsolicited comments from my peers and adults alike. “What’s that on your face? What happened? Do you remember it? Does it hurt? What does it feel like?” I was asked over and over and over again. By the time I was five, I’d memorized my responses: it’s a scar, I was burned as a baby, I don’t remember it, it doesn’t hurt because it’s dead skin, it feels like my face. I was able to answer automatically and nearly (but not quite) suppress my shame and embarrassment.
“She always has something on her face,” a neighbor commented to my mother, seemingly uncaring that I was within earshot. My mother grimaced but answered with the grace and patience only my mother has. She coldly informed the neighbor it was a scar and added that comments about her daughter were unnecessary.
My parents taught me how to deal with the endless questions and staring as well as they could, and assured me the scar would continue to fade with time. But every time I caught someone staring, I wished they would just leave me alone.
Preteen years are awkward enough without standing out for any reason, let alone a reason I couldn’t change. I’d stand in front of the mirror, alternately covering and uncovering the little patch of skin with my hand, wondering what I’d look like without it. I ran my fingers over it, feeling the contrast between smooth and wrinkled. I imagined peeling it off like a sticker, finding “normal” skin underneath.
As I grew older, however, I also grew up. People, for the most part, stopped asking rude questions and I stopped caring whether they noticed or not. My friends and family have all said they forget I even have a scar at all.
My parents have offered me the option of additional surgery to reduce the scar and make it less noticeable, but I’ve never wanted to. I’ve considered it, but even at the height of my discomfort with myself, it didn’t feel right to change something that was so fundamentally a part of me.
It still stings if someone mentions my scar or when I see people looking, but the problem is with them, not with me. I have never covered it up with makeup and never attempt to hide behind my hair out in public.
My scar, as embarrassing and inconvenient as it had been growing up, was also “character building,” as my dad would say. I refuse to be ashamed of what makes me who I am. After all, it doesn’t inhibit my ability to eat, speak or breathe.
And most importantly, it’s never inhibited my ability to smile.
Lian Parsons can be reached at email@example.com.