By: Yolanda Abreu
People always ask me why I decided to study in China. The answer has always been complicated. I’m not an Asian studies major or a Chinese language major or a business major like most of the other students in this program. I’m an art major, and the only class that I’m getting useful credit for is calligraphy. I came to China because I wanted to try to understand the divide between what we call the East and the West. Why is there such a discernible difference between the cultures? In the West, we have “Eastern medicine” and “Eastern religious thought.” But what does that mean? I’m not sure I understand America’s perception of Eastern cultures and I’ve noticed the same idealizing misconceptions of the West here in China. I guess it’s the “we always want what we don’t have” phenomenon.
With that in mind, I did expect the Chinese to idolize the Western culture a little bit. I did not, however, anticipate so much emphasis on Western people being their main inspiration for what is considered beautiful. Because I am white and have blonde hair and green eyes, it’s almost like being a celebrity. At all of the big tourist sites, and even occasionally on the streets, I was asked to have my picture taken with many Chinese people. Here, I am told often that my hair color and my eyes are pretty and even my eyelashes. At first, I thought this was all because they don’t see Westerners that often, which, I guess, is sort of true. Now, I think it’s more than this. I’m not the first blonde girl they’ve seen. All of the advertisements for skin care, clothing, make-up, etc. contain Western-looking models and every shop window has white mannequins.
After I noticed this, I started also noticing the extreme measures that women here take to mimic these ads. I’ve never seen so many women so self-conscious about how they look. The other day, the woman in front of me in line at the TrustMart, was buying a skin-whitening facial mask. Ladies of all ages carry umbrellas everywhere, not to protect them from rain, but to protect them from the sun. Unlike America, where girls are always trying to be tan, women here cringe at the thought of their skin being any darker than it already is. Women are also very insecure about their height. No matter what activity they are doing, be it grocery shopping, going to school, or even trekking the Great Wall, women can be seen wearing high heels all day, every day.
I know women all over the world are constantly judged and held to unseemly standards of beauty, but I don’t think I have ever seen it manifested so consistently throughout a population as I have here in China. This is one of the things that has made me appreciate my own culture more. Even though we, as Americans, definitely have a pedestal of ideal beauty, I think most of us understand that it is unobtainable. I think we also understand that, more often than not, people like to do their own thing, live by their own rules, and have their own sense of style. Here in China, the idea of individualism doesn’t really exist, or so it seems.