Saturday, December 27, 2008

Who's the palest of them all?

by Ruth

China does strange things to your self-esteem. On one hand, you are viewed as a superstar. On the other hand, you have to continually embarrass yourself in public. And that's not all.

China has definitely made me think differently about my looks. It's kind of reassuring to have people (not just Kevin) tell me I'm beautiful every other day: my students, other people's students, random strangers. I always say, "No-no-no," but who doesn't like to hear they're pretty sometimes? There is only partial satisfaction in their analysis of me, though, because they have some different standards. One of the reasons they think I'm so beautiful is because of my pale skin. Pale skin is very attractive, and the fairer the better. Instead of tanning lotion stores sell whitening creams. When my sister Anna came to visit (Anna, who was often described as a "porcelain doll" growing up, much to her distaste), they just couldn't get over her skin.

They also like my "yellow" hair (all foreigner's hair is yellow) and my big eyes. Some Chinese people don't have an eyelid crease and will actually pay to get a crease put in. They also tend to have shorter, thinner eyelashes. And this year several students have told me they want noses that are tall like mine.

So they don't believe me when I tell them that in America, I'm quite average. And that my pale skin is not exactly considered an asset. I tell them how Americans like to be tanned but I don't think they believe me. I tell them they think I'm beautiful just cause I look different, but they have a hard time grasping there are whole countries full of people who look just like me (in general, in their eyes).

When I walk into class wearing a skirt or a scarf or with a different hairstyle, my students often sigh and exclaim. I can almost predict which outfits/scarves/earring will make them sigh, and I try to dole them out accordingly. For example, if I wear a scarf in my hair and long earrings and a skirt, it's just too much. They won't pay attention to anything I say. It kind of reminds me of the third graders I taught who would be equally distracted by long earrings or a baby who just has to take a grab at the necklace.

Sometimes it's a little spooky/intimidating, a student I just met remembers the exact outfit I wore two years ago. Sometimes it's annoyingly distracting when a student interrupts a deep, profound conversation to say, "Your eyes are so pretty." Sometimes it's funny/flattering when several students come up to me after class wanting me to show them how to fix their hair. In general, it's a welcome counterbalance to "the other hand."

Especially the first year or two in China, I became extra self conscious about my body. Partly because suddenly hundreds of people were staring at me everywhere I went. Partly because I was surrounded by hundreds of girls (and, let's be honest, boys too) who were so thin they were almost two dimensional. I've usually felt okay about my weight, but really, who needs that? I had never seen so many tiny people in my life. I started feeling huge. Students sometimes make "tactful" comments, like looking at pictures they will say, "I think you are less fat than then." Thanks? And yet they still ask me for weigh loss advice. Truly baffling.

Many women think that shopping for bathing suits is bad, but they should just try shopping in China. For starters, I can automatically eliminate about 3/4 of the clothes as "I would never be able to get into that." When I bought shirts, I had to find an extra large, and pants were out of the question. My arms seem to be a full inch or two longer than any Chinese shirts. And then there's the fact that 98% of Chinese girls are pretty much, well, flat up front. They have the bodies of pre-adolescent models. I don't know why I still tried going clothes shopping. I've completely given it up this year in China, and I think I feel a lot better about myself.

My height and big feet don't help things. I don't mind being tall, but sometimes when I realize just how short some of my students are (about the height of those third graders), I started feeling like a giant. Whenever I try to buy shoes, I automatically look for the largest size available (which is around a 7.5-8) and then it's still a bit too small. When the shop keepers give me that "of course we don't have a bigger size" look I start feeling like a kangaroo.

All in all though, I am once again coming to terms with my looks. I generally ignore a lot of the stares, don't think much about the "you're so beautiful" comments, and try to avoid shopping. But I have realized that the staring sometimes still gets to me.

When everyone I walk past looks at me, my natural response is, "Something must be wrong! Is my hair sticking up? Do I have a stain on my shirt?" No matter how many times I remind myself that they are staring at me because of my skin and my hair and my shirt and my height and the fact that everything about me is different, I find it hard to quell the impulse to smooth my hair and check that everything's in order. I wonder if real superstars feel the same way...

1 comment:

Will said...

We have had pretty much the same experience. I compare it more to being a circus freak than a superstar. Both here, in Honduras, and in Belize whiteness or lightness are prized. When we first arrived in Honduras we would literally stop traffic when the whole family went for a walk. What I especially love is the delicacy with which people point and stare. My poor son, Ridley was blond (to the people here), tall and a boy. Girls would follow him around talking about his hair, eyes etc. By the time he left he was about 6'4" so he stood out like a giant everywhere he went. The other odd attraction is fat. Some people just love my fat. There is even one pastor who cannot resist grabbing a roll of my all too present fat every time he sees me. That is a little hard to take. I wonder why paleness is so sought after in so many places. It used to be the desired look for ladies in our and european society also.