Love in the Time of Post-reform and Opening China
When I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China, the three questions that my students most frequently asked me were: Can you speak Chinese? Can you use chopsticks? Do you like Chinese boys? My standard answers were these, respectively: Enough to get by. Does it look like I’m starving? What are you actually asking me when you ask me if I like Chinese boys? These answers evolved as my relationship with China evolved. And as I heard these questions more and more, I realized that they were more than silly questions; they were valuable insights into the mindset of my students. The first two questions are perhaps not so silly. The vast majority of foreigners that come to China are tourists or short-term visitors, so their Chinese is less than spectacular or even non-existent, and of course even the most skillful foreign chopstick user is going to seem amateurish to a Chinese. Considering that these are the foreigners most of my students have been exposed to, its not surprising that they would assume that I also cannot speak Chinese or use chopsticks well. But the third question took me some time to figure out.
Take these things away- personality, personal interest, individual background, upbringing, personal beliefs, and the only thing you have left is a person’s appearance. Which, in reality, is exactly what this question really is about: do I like the way Chinese boys look?
A twinge of annoyance always stirred in me when I was asked this and it took me some time to figure out why. Superficially, the source of the annoyance was the frequency with which I was asked this question. But when I dived down to the very floor of my annoyance, I found the root of it was the mentality behind the question. This question, “do I like Chinese boys?” leaves no room for individual variation; it suggests that there are two kinds of boys in the world: Chinese and not-Chinese. There was no room in this question to take personality, or personal interest, or any other traits essential to the determination of liking or not liking a person into account. Take these things away- personality, personal interest, individual background, upbringing, personal beliefs, and the only thing you have left is a person’s appearance. Which, in reality, is exactly what this question really is about: do I like the way Chinese boys look? And this was the source of my annoyed twinge every time I was asked this question, because not only do I think that a person’s appearance has almost nothing to do with whether or not they make a suitable partner, but it is obvious that at least some of my students don’t share this belief.
Appearance is an important thing in every culture that I have personally come in contact with, but in China the importance of appearance is much more apparent, not in the least because speaking about appearance isn’t as taboo as in America. The level of a person’s attractiveness is often a widely agreed-upon identifier for that person: “Our handsome foreign teacher,” “The fat woman in our office,” “His beautiful girlfriend,” etc. In Chinese, the polite terms used to address strangers isn’t the equivalent of “miss” or “sir,” but literally “beautiful girl” (美女, mei nu) and “handsome brother” (帅哥, shuai ge). Before you start thinking that all these “beautifuls” and “handsomes” being tossed around are just simple politenesses, let me put the brakes on that right now. Because some Chinese will just as readily call someone “fat” or “ugly” as “beautiful.” I’ve had several students describe their boyfriends in perfectly wonderful terms, only to have them throw a “... but he is ugly” brick through the poor boy’s otherwise spotless glass window. An especially head-spinning incident was when the head official at another Peace Corps Volunteer’s school said to this to the volunteer about his wife: “Even though your wife isn’t beautiful, she is a very good teacher.” I don’t think the frequent mention of appearance is accidental; I think the constant mention is evidence of how important appearance is in China in general.
I have no idea where this habit of blatantly (and, in my opinion, inappropriately) expressing opinions on others’ appearance comes from, but it is definitely noticeable, and often uncomfortable for any foreigner raised in a culture where it’s politically incorrect to notice appearance at all. However, I have made another observation, which may or may not be related, but I’ll mention in anyway:
One day in my literature class my students and I were comparing traditional Western ideals of beauty to traditional Chinese ideals of beauty. Despite the fact that I was the person who chose the topic, I struggled to fit a “Western beauty” into a few, simple adjectives. Hundreds of years ago, paleness and plumpness were considered the most beautiful traits. But today, thin and tan are usually considered more beautiful. Western models are usually rail thin, even to the point of looking unhealthy, but the actresses and singers considered to be the most beautiful are often more voluptuous. I also had trouble creating this theoretical beauty’s facial features: does she have big or small eyes? Certainly not a big nose, but what should the shape of her nose be? Big lips are probably more appealing, but how big is too big and how small is too small? While I was struggling to stereotype this “traditional Western beauty,” my students had my beauty’s Chinese equivalent easily and perfectly painted with stunning detail: face the shape of a sunflower seed, eyebrows like maple leaves, cherry lips, a high nose, long, straight, pitch black hair, small feet, long fingers, very thin, glides instead of walks, enters a room with no one noticing her (... I’ll save my rant about that for later), plays a musical instrument, soft spoken, modest, obedient... the list went on and on. I had this discussion with four different groups of students and they all said the exact same thing, even down to the comparisons with fruit and flora. When I asked what a modern Chinese beauty was like, they all agreed that she was more or less the same as a traditional one. Perhaps it is no coincidence that a culture with such strict standards (that apparently have remained unchanged for 3,000 years) for their mythical beauties would also be strict about the beauty standards of real people, too.
This paralyzing, historically endorsed and hopelessly unattainable ideal of attractiveness inhibits many young Chinese love-seekers today. On several occasions, after enquiring after the well-being of a certain student’s boyfriend, I would be readily informed that the aforementioned boy had recently been dumped, the reason cited being “he was just too ugly.” I had seen pictures of a few of these poor souls before, and certainly none of them could be called “ugly,” which leads me to believe that the real English translation of my students’ “ugly” is actually “not astoundingly, breath-takingly, unbelievably attractive.” I’m not naive about some American’s equally unrealistic physical requirements for their partners, but what I am marveling at is how many Chinese have absolutely no reservations about publicly expressing these superficial requirements. In America, I feel most people recognize that superficiality is something you should hide.
Besides physical appearance, there is another superficial element at work in some modern Chinese love-stories: material wealth.
China is in a very strange stage in its development. Most Chinese in their 20s have grown up with things their parents, and certainly their grandparents, would have considered unbelievable luxuries, if not impossibilities. While China’s economy was opened in the late 80’s (a policy called “gai ge kai feng,” Reform and Opening), Guizhou Province, where I spent my Peace Corps service, is probably one of the last places for the benefits of this economic opening to take root. My students had more than the generations before them had, but they were close enough to great hardship to know very much that they don’t want to return to the way things were. The result is that a great deal of importance is placed on material objects. And really, who can blame someone for wanting indoor heat and a reliable roof over their head? Especially when many of the people demanding this comfort actually experienced life without it. However, many in China are bemoaning the rampant materialism that is pandemic in the wealthier areas. While material requirements seem to be a standard for many Chinese women, some women have unrealistically high expectations.
The stereotypical modern Chinese woman won’t marry a man unless he owns an apartment and a car, both of which are extremely difficult not only to afford, but to find, in China. One of these women appeared on a Chinese dating show and infamously said “I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW then laugh on the back of a bicycle.” A huge controversy was sparked with these words, but this woman is certainly not the only modern Chinese woman that holds this philosophy.
Any woman who falls victim to these superficial expectations will most definitely have difficulty finding someone she considers worthy, but if she doesn’t find someone by a certain age she has yet another obstacle to hurtle: a monolithic cultural stigma against unmarried women over 30. So the same materialistic culture that led this woman to have unattainable expectations in the first place, will also abandon her in an instant if she takes too long to match up, despite the fact that her ideal husband basically doesn’t exist. Women who can’t find a “suitable” partner because of unrealistic materialistic expectations will eventually just settle for the next best thing and live an unsatisfied life in a luke-warm marriage, but if a woman decides not to marry because she wants to focus on her career, or because she really can’t find a good man, or because (impossibilities of impossibilities) she simply just doesn’t want to get married, she will face constant discrimination. A woman who doesn’t marry before 30 has “something wrong with her.” She is not married because a man didn’t want her. Not the other way around. One of my best friends and colleagues when I was living there was in that exact predicament. She was independent, liberal minded, curious, incredibly smart, hard working but her defining characteristic among the students in the English Department is “the unmarried one.” She pretended that it didn’t bother her, but I knew that sometimes it must. Even her work benefits were affected by her “single” status; teachers with children got a special annual bonus. She did not. I know that she has always gravitated towards the Peace Corps Volunteers at my school, and I think one reason is that she knows her unmarried status wasn’t an issue for us.
Moral of this story: for Chinese women, the chances of finding a truly happy marriage is as difficult as surviving a tap dance recital in a minefield. I went to China not only to learn about a different culture, but to learn about my own as well. While American society has a long way to go in it’s treatment of women, living in China for two years made me appreciate what I do have as an American woman.
*The cover photo is a picture of Claire and a friend on the friend's wedding day.