I suppose I think a lot in terms of vanity. When I was a university student I would go for days without showering and I would dress myself in clothes plucked from the dishevelled pile at the end of my bed. I am not particularly proud of this, but neither am I proud of the preening and self-conscious way in which I have grown to treat my appearance.
Some part of that change in attitude can be attributed to my time spent living in and amongst Chinese people. I feel the eyes every time I step outside my door, so I try to look good, I am told very often that my blue eyes and white skin are very handsome, so I try to accentuate these perceived strengths.
I am, after all, only human.
Like a lot of things here, the Chinese attitude to appearance is entirely foreign to someone who, like myself, grew up in the Western world (especially to natives of a conservative and rural Western country, like Ireland.)
Perhaps you have noticed that some taxi drivers in China have a fondness for growing their finger nails out, like long, bird-like talons.
The other day, myself and my girlfriend were sitting in the apartment, bored and eager to go and do something constructive with our free time on the weekend. We decided we would order a taxi and go to play badminton. Our taxi arrived and we jumped in. Almost immediately I noticed that our driver had rather long fingernails, which seemed to wrap quite cumbersomely around the steering wheel.
I thought about how difficult it must be to get his hand in the right position to embrace the steering wheel the way he did. I thought about how painful it must be for his wife. I thought about how he must open a can of beer with such hands as these, like Edward Scissorhands – walking around every day making a shambles of bushes and loaves of bread and everything in between.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of his hands, my own agitated digits began to feel strange as I imagined the sensation of carrying claws like our taxi driver’s around every day.
Drawn by a fascination, I asked the driver what motivated him to grow his nails so long.
He looked bemused when he heard the question. He told me that his long fingernails were a sign that he did not have to work, that he was not obliged to undertake any hard labour, rather that he could sit comfortably in his taxi all day.
A point of pride, then. A small signification of a kind of vanity.
This, I understood immediately, was a cultural thing, an inherited idea of what is attractive and what is unattractive.
I’d been told that the same is true for the Chinese fondness for white skin.
I heard a story about how Chinese people who work in agriculture, or who work in construction, would be incapable of shielding their skin from the sun during the summer. Long hours toiling in the heat and the blazing sunshine will darken their skin, and will thus act as a signification of their working class background.
On the flip side, those who are educated enough to work inside, or who could afford to not work at all, are able to maintain a fair appearance.
I often hear my girlfriend say that the sun is turning her skin black. I usually laugh and tell her that her skin looks fine, looks better, even, when she has a bit of a tan.
It’s no use though. She maintains her idea of skin colour, the way I maintain my idea that knobbly knees are unattractive.
The first time I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of someone carrying an umbrella on a summer’s day I was very confused. “The humidity is not that bad, is it?” I thought.
Nothing could have prepared my brain for the idea that the person I had seen was carrying this umbrella as a means to shield themselves from the sun. All of my prior experience told me that umbrellas were primarily used to defend oneself from the rain. I never knew that these devices were so useful, in all types of weather.
In China there are popularly held beliefs about appearance, especially when it comes to the kind of physical appearance which is foreign or unattainable for Chinese people. Quite often reference is made to high noses, white skin, fair hair and blue eyes.
I have a work mate, also from Ireland, who has long blonde hair and pale skin. She has the type of appearance which prompts some parents to stop and take photos of her, to post these photos on wechat and to make reference to the beautiful teacher who works in their child’s school.
My girlfriend sometimes tells me that she would like to have surgery on her nose to change its shape. I have never been a huge proponent of plastic surgery, so whenever she mentions the idea I usually respond with a groan, or an outcry of exasperation.
The idea of a tall nose being beautiful always struck me as being a little strange. I quite like the asian nose; it is small, unobtrusive and cute like a button, whereas my own nose has been broken several times and tends to twist and turn like a lively little river, as it makes its way down to my mouth.
And that is not even mentioning my body hair. I often find the kids that I teach come to stand next to me and stare at my legs, or rub the hair on my arms, while some of the naughtier ones think that it is funny to tug painfully on these short, sensitive hairs. I hear them call this hair mao, that is to say feathers, perhaps referential to the absolute lack of body hair in evidence here in China.
Difference matters, difference stands out from the crowd. Isn’t it true that everyone wants to be different.
You do hear the occasional grumble from a local, about how everyone has the same hair colour, and eye colour. About how blue is so much more beautiful, because at least it is not brown or black. And I suppose it makes sense.
My first weeks in China, I walked around in a daze staring at every girl who passed me, whether on the street or in the office. I fell in love four or five times a day. The exoticism, in terms of skin tone, of body shape, of smile and eyes, was too much for my puny senses to handle.
With all that being said, there are some things I won’t ever understand, nor agree with. It’s fine, it’s something that I am learning to deal with more and more every day.