See What You Want to See

Words :

Laney Chiu

Illustrations :

Jordi Ng

Photos :

Joey Wong

It is dark and the light from her phone is glaringly bright. But she couldn’t sleep before anyways. She had just awoken from a nasty nightmare. Too many sinister thoughts invaded her bed of intended serenity. Not to mention her unusual habit of sleeping with her eyes open; it took too much for her to fall asleep.

As she scroll down in an effort to distract herself, her eyes blinked rapidly to change filters.

Where is the filter to dim this brightness?

Finding it, she resumed her search of fluffy felines. With each cat she found, their features were quickly assessed and identified. Out of the corner of her eye, a flowing list littered out, filled with details of what kind of kittens they were, where she could go the next morning to adopt one, and how much their prices would be.

Pausing at one adorable photo of a black Bombay, she looked to the top right corner of her line of sight and widened her eyes. The information about that selected breed magnified in her vision, and her soft brown eyes rapidly moved up and down as she scrolled down the bulleted descriptions of the Bombay cat. She rolled her eyes and the words disappeared from her visual field.

I don’t want to be some lame cat lady.

The next morning, Sirina went about her way and headed to class, her contacts still in from the night before. Her eyes were a little dry, but she sprinkled in some drops and felt refreshed. In lecture, the professor droned on about preparation materials for the impending midterm.

“Remember, the new OptimaLenses are forbidden during the exam. The TAs and myself will each be wearing a pair to identify those who come into the room with them. You will automatically be thrown out of the hall should you attempt to do so.”

Sirina barely heard this as she’s too busy people-watching. Eyes scanning the overpacked, claustrophobic lecture hall, she blinked rapidly to sort through the 451 other students.

There are definitely fewer girls than guys in this class.

Immediately, the girls were highlighted, brightened, while everyone else in the class was dimmed. Squinting, Sirina zoomed in on one of them, the one with a wavy auburn balayage, relaxed, then opened her eyes wider to receive information about her.

Marina Lee. 21 years old. Been in a relationship for 2 years now. Into EDM, Disneyland, and moved here from the East Coast. Scored in the 99th percentile on the MCAT. Currently researching human cognitive deficits in a lab she’s been working in since freshman year. Oh, and she’s in Club Swim.

She’s so pretty, Sirina thinks.

As everyone left class, Sirina found herself walking out of the hall with Marina.

What the hell, she thinks, and goes for it.

“Hi! I was really bored in class and I started looking at people’s profiles and wow, aside from the pre-med track, we have so much in common!”

“Oh, really? Haha, thank you!” says Marina. “Ah, I see you’re wearing the new OptimaLenses then. What are they like?”

“Wait, you don’t wear them? But everyone does.”

“No, I don’t. I was tempted. Have you tried driving back from WeHo after clubbing? All the way back the billboards are lit up to advertise them.”

As Marina started describing her memory, Sirina pictured it in her mind and a little clip appears in front of her eyes. She too, remembered seeing the glowing, obnoxiously bright, neon signs change and shift colors. She loved how each one was an optical illusion matched with a clever slogan. She recalled how she almost crashed her car into the vehicle in front of her as she neglected to realize she was tailgating in traffic, staring hypnotically at one of the more mesmerizing billboards.

“What’s that one tagline they have again?” asks Marina.

“See what you want to see.”

“Right! I don’t know, I guess...I don’t like the idea that someone or something else could alter the way I perceive my world.”

“But the purpose of the OptimaLenses are exactly to fit you! That little chip they insert in you? That’s how the lenses have a powerful memory—they remember what things you tend to look at, what you stare at longer, what you glance over. It’s catered entirely to you. That’s why they’re so expensive, they’re custom-made.”

“Yeah, but one huge problem we study in my lab is how human cognition is prone to all sorts of biases—there’s the enhancement bias, confirmation bias, self-serving bias—I could go on.”

“I don’t get it. What do you mean?”

“I mean, we’re subjective beings, there’s no escaping that. I just want to perceive the world as accurately as I can. Sight is one of the most important ways we receive information.”

“I see. Well, I think it’s pretty harmless.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because I mostly use it to get information quickly or to put on funny filters on people. It’s pretty hilarious, I just think of what filter I want and the chip registers it. Next thing I know, I’m seeing people with silly mustaches or googly eyes, hah!”

“That is pretty funny. Just be careful what you imagine,

I guess! Our minds are powerfully creative after all. Don’t want to be seeing creepy monster-looking faces, haha!”

That night, Marina messaged Sirina and asks if she wants to go out. And over the next few months, they went out almost every weekend. They explored the city together, went to bars, clubs, raves, concerts; they ate ramen, tacos from trucks, acai bowls, vegan burgers, Korean BBQ, boba; they went to bookstores, music stores, thrift stores, and impulsively bought anything that caught their eyes. It was uncanny how they liked all the same things. Over time, Sirina began to notice that Marina looked prettier and prettier each time they saw each other.

Marina the model. She’s so perfect. She has exactly the type of face so many celebrities have. She fits so well into the standard ideal of beauty portrayed in movies, television, and advertisements.

Marina’s eyes started looking bigger, wider, becoming a warmer caramel. Her eyelashes were longer; her eyebrows perfectly arched. Her nose was sharper, her cheekbones more pronounced, her lips fuller, and her skin tanner. Sirina wondered why Marina wasn’t on the billboards they passed by. Then, Sirina looked in the mirror.

Aghhhh. Why can’t I be like that? I’m so ugly. My eyes are small, I’m mono-lidded. Wearing eyeliner never works on me. I barely have eyebrows and my nose is flat, my face is round. I’m so pale. Why are you like this? You’re so pathetic. You’re the wrong kind of Asian. America doesn’t like your look. Why can’t you have the whiter Asian features Marina has?

Sirina started blinking rapidly to cake on the filters. Before she knew it, she couldn’t recognize herself in the mirror anymore. In fact, she almost looked more Marina than Marina.

You’re a lie.

In an instant, the image of her face warped in the mirror. Her skin transformed to a white shade; ghost-like. Her eyelids droop, almost melting down like candle wax. Her nose sunk deep into the palette she called her face, the small mound disappearing until she was barely able to glimpse at two black holes that relentlessly stretched and sucked in all of her features. Her smile crooked into a sinister, jagged sneer. Her entire face was grotesque and unrecognizable.

Sirina screamed. She leaned in and looked closer into the mirror but her appearance only magnified. She tried to look at her reflection in the black screen of her phone, but it looked only more distorted.

Is this what I really look like?

Her reflection started cackling at her.

You’re ugly, inside and out. You’re never going to be loved, you’re never going to be successful, you’re completely and utterly worthless.


Sirina picked up the closest heavy object nearby and threw it at the mirror. The mirror cracked, and the shards went flying. A sharp, piercing pain cut across Sirina’s face, and she felt her eyes burning, hurting. Everything went black.

What? Where am I?

It was dark and the light from her phone was glaringly bright. But she couldn’t sleep before anyways. She had just awoken from a nasty nightmare. Too many sinister thoughts invaded her bed of intended serenity. Not to mention her unusual habit of sleeping with her eyes open; it took too much for her to fall asleep.

Sirina felt something wet trickling down her cheeks. She dashed to the mirror, and barely seeing herself through her tears, noticed that her eyes were bloodshot and red all over. She couldn’t see the white in her eyes. Her brown irises had completely clouded over into a white, milky film. Her eyes itched and hurt. Her vision began to fade. Everything went black. When Sirina awoke, there was a blindfold over her eyes. Someone entered.


“I’m sorry, Sirina. I am your doctor, Doctor Zeng.”

“Oh. Doctor Zeng, why am I wearing a blindfold?”

“Sirina...I’m really sorry to tell you this,’ve lost your sight.”

“Sirina, you’re blind.”


“When we were examining your eyes, we found that there was an infection in both of them. We had to take out the OptimaLenses because they were infested with bacteria, parasites, and other microorganisms that had accumulated in the space between your eyes and the lenses. These parasites began eating your cornea because, well, because you never took them out and wore them every night.”

Sirina begins to cry underneath her blindfolds.

“Oh, Sirina, don’t cry. The lenses aren’t meant to be your whole world. You don’t need something or even someone to tell you what to look for in life. You know what, you don’t even need eyes to see that something’s real. You just need you. You’re real. You’re what matters.”

Doctor Zeng left, leaving Sirina to her thoughts. She cautiously reached up and gently touched the blindfolds wrapped around her head.

None of what I saw before actually happened.

“See what you want to see.”

I want to see Marina.

“Marina?” called Sirina.

There was no reply.

Marina...? M—