Archives for category: Beauty

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Look at that beautiful, empty boardwalk. Stretching past the river and enticing you around the corner and into the unknown—don’t you want to follow it?

Unfortunately, my travel companions at Jiuzhaigou National Park did not. They were anxious to take their selfie-stick selfies and get back to the crowded main road where buses whisked tourists from one poetically named Scenic Spot to the next.

I had sky-high expectations about Jiuzhaigou before I set out. I had heard of its reputation as one of the most beautiful natural places in China. I’d seen photographs of its stunning turquoise lakes and majestic waterfalls, set against a background of brilliant red foliage. The park has been heralded as a model of sustainable nature-based tourism in China. It’s been celebrated for the rich culture of the local Tibetan inhabitants, who still practice a form of the pre-Buddhist Bön religion.

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Naturally, I was not the only one aware of Jiuzhaigou’s mythical beauty. Since it first opened to visitors in 1984, the park has received thousands of tourists from across China and the world (but mostly China), and their numbers continue to increase. In 2001, measures were taken to limit tourists to 12,000 per day.

To their credit, the park authorities have done everything they can to preserve the delicate ecosystems within the park, while still allowing visitors to enjoy the sights. Tourists are kept on elevated boardwalks away from the vegetation, and they are not allowed to stray from the trails or touch the water. They are shuttled to and fro on “green buses,” (powered by low-polluting liquefied petroleum gas), and ordinary vehicles are prohibited. Visitors are required to leave the park every night. The local Tibetan villagers are allowed to live inside the park in their ancestral homes, but they cannot farm or hunt; instead, they earn money through tourism-related activities and receive portions of the park’s ticket revenue. Studies have suggested that several wildlife species, such as Amur hedgehogs, wild boars, and the endangered takin, have increased in population since the area was protected.

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Nevertheless, an influx of millions of tourists per year will inevitably create rippling impacts across the region. Just outside the park gates lies an epic sprawl of hotels, restaurants, and other tourist facilities. Driving towards our hotel (a very nice Holiday Inn) we passed by blocks of newly constructed apartment buildings, a colorful “Bar Street” à la Lijiang, and a resplendent 5-star Sheraton. One could argue that any conservation happening inside Jiuzhaigou National Park is being negated by the rampant development just outside.

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The very concept of nature-based tourism is a paradox. The truth is that Jiuzhaigou is absolutely beautiful. It’s the kind of striking natural beauty that of course every person wants to see. I am an environmentalist for very selfish reasons, if I’m honest: I love nature, and I want to be able to enjoy nature in a so-called pristine state. I also want other people to be able to enjoy nature, and I believe that people are much more willing to care about and protect nature when they have experienced it themselves. But I am a human, and my very presence in a rural setting will have an influence on that place. To visit a place like Jiuzhaigou, I need a road to get there. I need a vehicle and a place to refuel. I need somewhere to spend the night, and somewhere to buy food.

That said, I think there are measures that can be taken to limit tourism development to a reasonable and sustainable level. They didn’t have to build quite so many luxury hotels. They didn’t have to build an airport for god’s sake, allowing urban tour groups to whisk into Jiuzhaigou without ever stepping off a man-made surface. Sometimes a little inaccessibility can be a good thing—I loved my trip last September to Yubeng, a Tibetan village accessible only by foot or horseback, in part because the other tourists were limited to the type who do not mind getting their shoes dirty. I didn’t see a single selfie stick during that trip.

Even as I write this though, I realize how pretentious I sound. I deserve access to these places because I can actually appreciate nature, unlike all those other shallow, uneducated, selfie-taking tourists.

Maybe I’m just a little bitter because I feel like I missed out on what might have been a nicer Jiuzhaigou experience. I’ve heard, via English-language tourism websites, that there are ways to avoid the crowds. You can take the buses all the way to the top and then hike down, in the opposite direction from everyone else. You can eschew the buses altogether and just hike around at your own pace. You can follow those little boardwalks that lead you away from the Scenic Spots with poetic names, and also away from the crowds.

All of these options require you to be willing to miss out on seeing some of the famous, but farther-away lakes and waterfalls. I was willing to skip these, but my travel companions were not, and I can’t really blame them. Jiuzhaigou is extremely famous in China, to the extent that they read about the Five Color Pond (五彩池) in their grade-school textbooks. It would be like an American visiting Washington D.C. for the first time, and deciding to spend all day in the National Postal Museum instead of visiting the Lincoln Memorial, just because it was quieter.

In the end, my trip to Jiuzhaigou was still absolutely worth it. We made the most of our one day in the park, and the landscapes we saw were truly spectacular, unlike anything I had ever seen before.

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I’m even glad we had a selfie stick with us, because you know what? Some of those pictures turned out pretty darn good.

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(I’m the second creepy panda from the right)

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.”

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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:

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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.