Do you remember Jessica from my previous blog post, the Chinese girl who promised to shake me out of last week’s monotony? Well, I am pleased to announce that Jessica did not disappoint. On Saturday afternoon, she called to invite me out to dinner. As she drove me to the restaurant (she has her own car!), I learned that she teaches environmental engineering at a military college. Definitely not boring.

When we arrived at the restaurant, I felt like I had wandered back in time. The wide, low-ceilinged room was filled with rustic wooden tables set with Cultural Revolution-era tin dishes. Portraits of Mao Zedong adorned every available wall space, and the entryway was festooned with a giant shrine to the Chairman. Since Mao was a Hunan native, I suppose it is only logical that a Hunan-style restaurant should devote itself to his name and image.

As for the food, it was quite unlike anything I had eaten before. Hunan cuisine is known for heat, but its spiciness is different from the mouth-numbing flavors of Sichuan. The restaurant’s signature dish was a fish served atop soup-drenched vermicelli noodles. The flavor was provided by a generous heap of green peppers, hotter than red, and their spiciness was shadowed by a rich, fermented-alcohol flavor. Chewy 馒头mántóu (steamed bread) and sticky-sweet lotus root slices rounded out the meal.

When we were finished eating, Jessica and her cousin Fiona decided it would be fun to go get our hair “washed.” We walked into a nearby salon, where a bemused girl in a plaid miniskirt rubbed products into my hair, marveled that I could speak Chinese, rinsed out the products, marveled again, and then proceeded to give me a wonderful scalp, neck, and arm massage. But it didn’t stop there—oh no; Jessica and Fiona wanted me to get my hair braided as well. Throughout the washing and massaging process, the hair stylist in the plaid miniskirt had stayed remarkable silent on the issue of my hair. But as soon as she let my hair out of its towel wrap and ran her fingers through, she began to notice that it was not quite like her own.

The first comment was expected: your hair is so soft! Yes, I know, my hair is much softer, thinner, and more fragile than that of most Chinese people. After the girl had dried and combed my hair, another comment caught me off guard: your hair is so 毛 máo! This character, 毛, can have a few different meanings in Chinese. It means fur, it means feathers, it means wool, and it means the wispy little hairs you grow on your arms and legs. It is also, incidentally, the same character as Mao Zedong’s surname. The first translation that ran through my mind when I heard毛 applied to my hair was “furry;” I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond. When the girl in the plaid miniskirt called my hair máo again, plucking at the little wisps around my hairline, I began to understand—she meant “frizzy.”


So, we could technically call him Chairman Frizzy.

Now okay, yes, my hair does get frizzy from time to time (especially when it has just been blow-dried, which is something I never do myself).  But did the girl in the plaid miniskirt really have to keep saying so again and again as she unbraided and re-braided my hair over and over, wiping her brow in baffled frustration? Hadn’t she, a professional hair stylist, ever seen hair before that wasn’t black, thick, and straight? I asked her, and the answer was no. She had never touched non-Chinese hair before in her life. Eventually she gave up trying to tame the frizz, and settled for giving me a pair of French braids, twisted and pinned in the back. I thought it looked great—but the hairstylist wasn’t satisfied. I still had some wisps left in the front, and to her that signified imperfection.

I can’t really blame the hair stylist for her confusion over the state of my hair; it isn’t her fault that almost every person in China has the same straight, shiny locks. I am bothered, however, by the judgment—the implicit assumption that because my hair is different, it is therefore problematic, imperfect, and undesirable. The fact remains that among China’s relatively homogenous population, the standards of beauty for women are extremely narrow. An average local clothing store will carry clothing in sizes small and medium, and shoes in sizes 36-39. Women are expected to have white skin, slim waists, large eyes, and shiny hair.

Even more insane is the fact that certain vocations, employers, and even universities in China have a minimum height requirement; according to an article in That’s Shanghai magazine by Hart Huguet Hagerty and Raemin Zhang, many jobs in sales, media, and security will not hire anyone under a certain height; Anhui University, meanwhile, has a minimum height requirement for students who want to major in Chinese language, history, philosophy or media studies. Other jobs, like flight attendants, have requirements for physical attractiveness that include straight legs and the absence of glasses or visible scars (see this article).

In recent years, China’s obsession with a particular type of beauty has reached a new extreme in the form of plastic surgery. According to another article in That’s Shanghai magazine by Stephen George, as many as seventy percent of models and actresses working in China have undergone some sort of plastic surgery. For my part, every time I turn on my computer, a Chinese ad pops up for freckle removal or double eyelid surgery. The other day on the street, I saw this advertisement for a plastic surgery hospital:


The title says something like “Micro-plastic to gorgeousness.” I think she looks like a demonic robot-child, myself. Just look at the glint in her cold, dead eyes!

If an intelligent and otherwise beautiful Chinese woman is cursed with single eyelids, big bones, dark skin, and short stature, she will not only be ostracized by society, but she may actually be barred from pursuing higher education or the career of her choice. This is insanity. This should be illegal.

Luckily, for my own sake, I am not Chinese. This means that while I may not conform to one single Chinese standard of beauty (except the eyelids, I guess), I am not expected to. I am a different category of human being altogether, walking unnoticed and untouched through Chinese society in my own little bubble of Foreignness.

This was why I decided, in the end, not to be jealous of Jessica and Fiona’s perfectly sculptured hair, flat and shiny and frizz-free. I loved my new braids—they looked good. And if the hair stylist couldn’t appreciate the texture of my hair, well, that does not concern me.