“I look like I have a loud, pink exclamation mark on my face,” I think as I tear my eyes away from the mirror, take off the glasses, and examine them closely. I wonder if, with a thin metal rim connecting two cat-eye lenses, the glasses would make me look like I have a pink unibrow. The lens feel light, yet sturdy, in my hands. They seem to have been designed to be sunglasses, worn to evoke the sense of being in a 1960s swimsuit commercial.
I first spotted the glasses in the cramped basement of a century-old glasses store in Beijing. After much goading and bargaining, I stepped out of the store triumphant with a brand new pair of pink rims on my face.
These were the first pair of spunky glasses I ever owned. Before that, I had never minded the black, boringly squarish glasses my parents put on my face. I vividly remember the first time my nearsightedness was brought to my attention. With the optometrist’s fitting spectacles sitting on my nose, I looked out of the window and was struck that trees were filled with so many individual, overlapping leaves and that I could count the number of red bricks on the neighboring building. I could hardly contain myself. I was discovering a new world full of delicious possibility.
For a few days after, I would take my new accessory on and off, marveling at how my glasses could warp straight lines and magnify objects. Once, I put both my hands far from my face and stared at them, wondering what I was looking at. Was I looking at something, or was I simply being? If I couldn’t trace the knuckles and creases of my fingers with razor sharp clarity, would I be the same person? Certainly my perception was different. Had I been a different person before? Here was a magical instrument that could muddle the distinction between what was inside of my body and what was outside of it. But soon, my curiosity faded, and my glasses grew invisible to me. Designed not to be seen but to be seen through, I gradually forgot about my dependency on my glasses as they blended into the background of my vision.
A few years later, a fad of sporting glasses without lenses swept over Beijing. I was baffled. “How does this help you see?” I asked as I poked my fingers through the empty frames of my friend’s flashy new glasses. “It’s not about seeing. It’s about the way you look,” my friend scoffed. “But we use our glasses to express the impossible interstice between us and the world!” I thought reflexively. I wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her. Nonetheless, I swallowed my protests and watched as fashionistas all over China began flaunting outsized and exaggerated frames as a bold fashion statement—even my mother donned a chunky, green wooden pair of frames for a few weeks.
But I was still uneasy. In our language, “seeing” something is a substitute for understanding it. Glasses hold the impossible task of framing our certain experience in a dizzying world. What, then, does it mean to wear fake glasses? And yet, my friend had reminded me that the word ‘spectacles’ comes from the Latin root spectatum, meaning a public show or a place from which shows are seen. Just as my glasses are an instrument through which I perceive the world, they are also part of the spectacle of me. They’re burdened with the dual task of projecting and co-creating the experience of being an individual in a shared universe.
Now I own a few more pairs of colorful, strangely shaped glasses. Each evening I take a moment to clear away all the smudges and fingerprints and dust that have found their way onto my glasses during the day. And when I take my glasses off for the night, I welcome the familiar sense of blurriness and disorientation. I make an effort to carry around a soft piece of microfiber cloth and a delicate screwdriver, so even in the breakneck bustle of everyday life I can take the time to wipe away some stain or tighten a screw and refocus the lens through which I see everything. After all, clear vision does not come naturally to most human beings, and I am no exception.