“I’d prefer to call it ‘creamy,’” I’d said one day on the elementary school bus. “Like a marshmallow.”
“Well, maybe you needed to be toasted longer,” the junior-high kid replied.
It’s no secret that I’m pale. Every time my friends hold out their arms to compare skin tones, I get the shocked “I can see your veins” commentary. “You’re so pale!” they say with the hint of a laugh. They say I need to get out more. But when I do, I go from marshmallow-pale to lobster-red and the comments shift to a different kind of pity.
A “healthy tan,” it’s called. In the United States, it’s what almost everyone I know wants on some level. A person might not go to a tanning salon regularly, but deep down, I think there’s a certain shame for paleness. At least, I’ve felt it every time summer rolls around and I’m debating whether or not I’ve earned the right to wear shorts.
In China, that’s not the case.
“You’re so pale,” my students say, always with deep admiration. They tell me my skin is very beautiful, and when we hold out our arms, they sigh and say that they’re not quite white enough. Cosmetic concerns are different here. Skin products have whitening solutions in them. Many of the girls here walk around with umbrellas to keep from getting too much sun. When I ask them about it, they just furrow their eyebrows and say “Well, I don’t want to get skin cancer!” though I know there’s more to it than that.
I like telling them about the strange Americans, and the tanning machines that make their skin darker, or how some people go tanning before a vacation, just to be sure that they get properly darkened from the sun. My students shake their heads and say “What a pity!”
I recently had them journal about beauty, using the Scandinavian saying “That which is loved is always beautiful.” I wanted to know what they thought about this, and what, to them, was beautiful.
Most responded with the usual “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” saying that if someone loves you enough, for what is inside, they will not care what you look like on the outside. One of my students, Li Fei, summed it up: “I love something. Perhaps I like one of the sides of it. So, I will feel very happy when I hold it. And I think that it is always beautiful in my heart.”
Many talked about family, and how they could always see past the bad and find the good. Lynn, a student in my first Optional English Class, said “If you really love a person, you will tolerate everything about who you love, whether advantages or shortcomings. What’s more, if you love a person, you will love his or her shortcoming.”
Others had more critical ways of looking at it. Owen, a quiet student in my class, said that “In our daily life, everything can be beautiful if we have beautiful eyes and become good at finding beauty.”
No matter what my students said, there was an undercurrent of faith in the power of inner beauty, in the platitudes of appearances not measuring one’s worth. They said that they felt beautiful, because they all felt loved. They told me with enthusiasm that if someone had a kind heart, they would surely be beautiful.
But I knew better.
I’ve seen fashion ads where the models wear blonde wigs. Girls wear high-heels or platform shoes as they balance groceries. Men wear well-tailored suits as they crouch by the side of the road to talk on their phones. On the train to Zhenjiang, I saw a passenger use her ipad as a mirror before she got off for her stop. If outer beauty doesn’t matter, then there are a lot of people in China just acting out of habit.
Beauty is a warped concept that has everything to do with context. One of my more analytical students, Carl, said “It means that some things is completely worthless if nobody knew it. In other words, the value of everything is depended on if we knew it. It just like Van Gogh painting. So we can say that we love it, so it is beautiful.”
It all comes down to that word: beautiful.
I brought my violin into class and played a little for my students, asking them all to come up with a word to describe it other than beautiful. I explained to them that it was so overused, it had lost its meaning. A person can be beautiful, a painting can be beautiful, as can a rug, a lamp, and a concerto. We don’t know what we’re saying anymore when we say something’s beautiful. All we know is that it matters. As Carl said, we know it, therefore it has worth to us.
It is worth exactly one word, one collection of three syllables that has somehow had the power to devastate as well as create.
It’s a concept that soaks into our skins and causes us to see beauty as everything we lack. As my Creative Writing teacher said “You look into the mirror and see what you’re not.” In America, beauty is not being pale. In China, beauty is not being tan, having black hair, or being short. In other words, beauty is not being one’s self.
When I gave my students a chance to think of other words, I asked them to share. Some were the same flavor of words: lovely, wonderful, great. But then, there were others: faraway, elegant, homesick, ethereal, dulcet. I told them that these words said so much more than “beautiful,” and that it was their task as English Majors to think of other ways to describe around a concept, to make it more vivid. I wanted them to get closer to the objects they were trying to describe, rather than paint over them with a word that morphs with whoever uses it.
They all nodded dutifully, and we went on with class.
I’m not naïve enough to think that I’ve solved the problem with the word. It goes deeper than finding a new word, a new lens through which to see the world. But I do know this: one word can be enough to devastate or create. It all depends on who is using it and how. And maybe one day, someone will use it to describe the look of one who actually believes they are beautiful.
So I will go on being pale here, they will continue to praise me for it, and we will circle and shift around this concept of beauty until it all blurs and we become the mirror to ourselves and see what we really are.
And it will be beautiful.