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Inside the Middle Kingdom

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Who was Pearl Buck? Finding the American author’s home and legacy in China

For almost 25 years I have been captivated by the work and life of Pearl Sydenstricker Buck. Pearl Buck was an American author who spent the first forty years of her life in China. Her experiences and insight into China came alive in her many novels and stories, the most famous being The Good Earth which was published in 1931. Her stories, novels and personal experiences have arguably played a huge role in the outside world’s understanding of China. Although it’s been nearly forty years since she passed away, her stories continue to move people and bridge positive relationships between China and the West.

Pearl S. Buck

The daughter of a Presbyterian missionary born in 1892, Pearl not only grew up and lived in China but knew the country intimately, inside and out. Because of her father’s missionary work, the Sydenstrickers were quite isolated and lived primarily only among local Chinese people rather than in a segregated world among other foreigners. Indeed, Chinese and English were both her first languages and she learned the ways of the people around her.  China was her home. 

China being her foster country, she had a unique perspective of it that only few other foreigners could intimately understand. To say the least, her relationship with China was always tumultuous because of the many changes and growing pains that China experienced within her lifetime. In 1900 at the age of eight, her family made a near escape from her hometown of Zhenjiang to Shanghai during the Boxer Rebellion when angry boxers and the Empress Dowager Cixi declared war and death to foreigners across the country to put an end to foreign and imperialist influences in China. Again in 1927, her family barely escaped out alive from Nanjing when Nationalist troops, Communist forces and warlords turned on foreigners residing there. Hiding with a poor Chinese family who risked their own life harboring the fugitives, the Buck’s home was looted and the family escaped at the last possible moment when an American warship came to rescue remaining trapped residents in the city under siege.  When Pearl Buck finally left China in 1934, perhaps she didn’t realize that she would never return to China ever again. Political unrest and strife between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist troops and Communist factions plagued the country along with Japan’s invasion of China and the Second World War, likely making a return to China near impossible. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 effectively closed off China to the outside world for more than twenty years. At the height of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that reigned in Marxist reform throughout China, Pearl Buck and her writing were denounced as imperialist by ideologues and school children across the country. Hoping to travel to China with American President Richard Nixon in 1972 when relations between China and the US began to warm, it is said that Pearl Buck’s request for a visa was personally denied by Madame Mao who hoped to succeed her husband politically. Said to be heartbroken, Pearl Buck never again returned to her home in China. She died the following year in 1973.

In the nearly forty years since the fateful decision that prevented Pearl Buck from returning to her home in China, her reputation as a friend and advocate of China has been restored. Her more famous works are available in both Chinese and English and American and Chinese organizations work together to honor her life in both her home and adopted countries. Recently I had the opportunity to witness this cross-cultural collaboration to memorialize her life and accomplishments both in the US and in China.

In search of Pearl
I first encountered Pearl Buck when I was in the 8th grade and read a copy of The Good Earth ( I will henceforth refer to Pearl Buck simply as Pearl as I feel as if I am writing about an old friend). Never a very avid reader, I remember being completely hooked from the beginning of the story of Wang Lung, a poor Chinese farmer who awakens with excitement on the day he’s going to meet and marry his bride Olan who is a servant slave girl at the estate of the wealthy family of the village. The ups and downs their family endures through famine, revolutions, family fortunes and misfortunes unexpectedly enchanted the 14 year old reader in me who never personally knew such tragedy or hardship. Pearl had so beautifully crafted the story so that I felt I personally was witnessing the trials and tribulations of the couple. Yet she wrote the story in simple enough language so that I never felt like the book was unattainable or for more educated and well-read minds than my own. After first reading The Good Earth, I slowly found a new appreciation of books and literature and people’s life experiences through the written word.  Time and time again and through the years, I would come back and reread The Good Earth- as a young adult and again when I moved to China two years ago. Each time I would pick it up, I knew what I was getting myself into and that I was reading the story to know my emotions were in check. I knew I was reading it so I could cry and feel the sadness at certain points in the saga. Yet still I would catch myself unexpectedly, uncontrollably and shamefully sobbing while reading it at certain parts. Each time I have read it, I have gained new and unique perspectives based on my own experiences in my life at that given time. 

Pearl Buck's headstone at her home in Pennsylvania. She transformed her garden and landscaped it with bamboo and other native Asian plants to remind her of her faraway home.
Pearl's grave with her name Sai Zhenzhu in traditional characters.
I feel I’ve had a personal connection with Pearl and that somehow she has eluded me throughout my life. How is it that I feel this deep sense of connection and awe for a person who died two years before I was even born? Initially it was only her novel and words that moved and captivated me. I gradually started to learn more about the life and who the person was who wrote the book I have always loved.  Having just finished her biography, it now makes sense to me why I unsuspectingly had admiration for her and felt a connection. Certain strange and unexpected coincidences in her life happen to cross paths with my own. Imagine my surprise two weeks before moving to China in 2010 when I accidentally drove by Pearl Buck’s home in Buck County, Pennsylvania near where my sister Rachel lives. The next day, I dragged Rachel there with me. We paid our respects to her at her grave and also learned in a talk that Pearl taught at a university in Nanjing, China which was where I too would soon be moving to teach at a university. Here in Nanjing, I have tried to discover a little of Pearl’s China. I know that I am living here an entire century later, but I believe the whirlwind changes taking place here now may be similar to the search for identity and its place in the world that China was seeking to find during Pearl’s time. During a transition point in my life, China has comforted me and provided me with a never ending source of eye-opening perspectives and discoveries. Here in China I have developed into a confident educator who reaps much satisfaction from sharing and exchanging experiences with my young Chinese adult students. I like to think these are parallel to experiences Pearl had. 

This past month, I finally crossed a big item on my must-see Pearl Buck homage list. With the company of a friend, I finally visited Zhenjiang, the hometown in China of Pearl Sydenstricker. The trip was two years in the making. Several times over the past two years, busy schedules got in the way of my pilgrimage to Zhenjiang. Only 20 minutes away by high speed train from Nanjing, I was running out of excuses not to visit Zhenjiang and knew I was just going to have to make the time.  

Exploring the network of alleys in Zhenjiang.
Pearl’s home in Zhenjiang is now one of the major tourist attractions of the city. It was renovated and opened by the local Zhenjiang government in 1992. I later learned that the home that I visited was not actually her childhood home but the home where her parents resided after Pearl had grown up, married and moved to Anhui Province with her husband Lossing Buck. Nevertheless, it seems that the local tourism board of Zhenjiang and the museum really took pains to preserve the home to its true, original state as well as to bring to life the world Pearl lived in as girl and adolescent.  As such, they have wonderfully memorialized and paid homage to their Sai Zhenzhu, Pearl’s name in Chinese. Only a five minute walk from the train station in Zhenjiang, a large road sign indicates to tourists and Pearl Buck enthusiasts the proximity of the residence. Tucked back on a hill, we had to poke around on little side streets and alleys before we located her home. This part I appreciated as we got to experience the everyday hubbub of local Zhenjiang citizens. Dogs were running around, motorbikes were skirting up the side streets, locals were playing cards and the strong aroma of vinegar wafted in the air (Zhenjiang is apparently famous across China for its vinegar).  This gave me a sense of how life may have been around the Sydenstricker’s home as Pearl herself experienced it back in the day.  

At last finding the Sydenstricker's home.
Pearl's childhood bedroom
Walking into the Sydenstricker’s home, I was transformed to another time. The home is just as much a tribute to Pearl’s parents and other people who shaped her formative years as it is to Pearl herself. On the lower level of the house, I entered the dining room where the dinner table was set with fake plastic dishes of cooked chicken fillets, cheese and other American dishes that Pearl’s mother Carrie favored. Also on the lower level of the house was Wang Amah’s room. Part of the family for many years, Wang Amah was the Sydenstricker’s housekeeper and the children’s ayi or nanny.  I found it fitting that Wang Amah’s room had a prominent part in the house so visitors could understand that she likely also had an influential role in Pearl’s upbringing, shaping of her identity and worldviews and her lifelong love and attachment to China as her home.  After viewing Wang Amah’s room, I wandered upstairs to Pearl’s parents’ modest room. Her father Absalom’s bible prominently sat in a corner of a night side table in their room and a separate adjacent room has been turned into his study. After pausing in her parents’ wing of the house, I finally wandered over to the wing of the house that had been dedicated to Pearl herself. Her writing desk where she likely penned many of her literary works was right there for me to touch and try to absorb her thoughts. Finding myself at the foot of her bed, it was a surreal moment as if I was looking down at a little girl from 115 years before who unknowingly would someday move and affect countless lives by eloquently sharing her unique experiences and world.

Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) played a major role economically during Pearl's lifetime.
Following a visit to Pearl’s home, we wandered around the city of Zhenjiang itself. Located on the south bank of the Yangtze River, I learned that Zhenjiang was not some backwater town where the Sydenstrickers took up post miles from any other foreigners. Because of its prominent position on the Yangtze River, its strategic location near Nanjing, and its easy access to Shanghai upstream, it garnered American and British interest as early as 1861. British and American consulates, the Asiatic Petroleum Company as well as Standard Oil all had vested interests in Zhenjiang. Today, tourists can wander through the cobbled streets of the old quarter peeking into the gate of the old British consulate which was rebuilt following its destruction by fire caused by an angry mob in 1889. Cafés and restaurants now checker this preserved part of the city. 

A reminder of Zhenjiang's and China's tense relationship with foreigners.
A coolie in Zhenjiang during the time of Pearl's childhood.
Sipping a coffee in an open-air café in the restored Jianyuan Gardens, I was bemused by the irony of countless tourists snapping a picture of the apparently rare sighting of a foreign tourist visiting the hometown of one of Zhenjiang’s most famous former residents. It is said as a little girl, Pearl herself was unaware of her difference from her Chinese brethren until she was about four and a half years old. Instructed to tuck in her blonde hair into a cap, she was told that only black hair and eyes were normal. Feeling slightly uncomfortable myself with being the subject of several random strangers’ photographs, I then imagined what a frightful and crazy scene it must have been for locals back in the 1890’s when a little blonde haired, blue eyed, pale skinned apparition effortlessly spoke flawless, local Zhenjiang dialect. I suppose the feeling of “otherness” and being a waiguoren, or a foreigner, was a feeling Pearl Buck must have struggled with throughout her formative years growing up in China. Or did she? Maybe she didn’t blame any of her Chinese brethren for seeing her differently. She understood that China was going through a transformation throughout her years there and also likely understood the mixed feelings and curiosity many Chinese felt towards foreigners. Intimately understanding the Chinese experience and mindset, Pearl Buck was in a unique position to help foreigners new to China understand Chinese perspectives. It was ultimately this gift that is forever memorialized in her writing. 

Sometimes my Chinese students ask me to recommend English language novels for them to improve their vocabulary and to help them learn about American culture. Perhaps they find it strange when I recommend a novel from someone who wrote so intimately about their own part of the world. I think younger Chinese readers will especially be touched by the careful, detailed and loving portrayal of different aspects of Chinese life from before their time.  What a wonderful gift Pearl Buck’s writing and legacy have left not only to readers from outside of China, but to China itself.

Some of today's locals from Zhenjiang. These boys followed us in the late afternoon until we reached the Peal Buck Museum. As they wandered into the museum, they curiously looked at the pictures, clothing and writings of a young Pearl Buck.

Pearl Buck places to visit:
In China:
Pearl S. Buck Former Residence and the Pearl S. Buck Museum
6 Runzhou Shan Lu, Zhenjiang
The museum is located right next to the residence. Both the residence and the museum are free of charge. Visiting hours of both attractions are 9 am- 11:30 and 1:30-5.

Pearl S Buck Memorial House
Nanjing University, Nanjing
Nanjing University recently turned Pearl Buck’s home during her years in Nanjing into a memorial. Pearl lived with her husband and two daughters in Nanjing from 1920 – 1933. She taught English literature at both Nanjing University and the National Central University (which is now Southeast University in Nanjing). I have yet to find and visit this location but shall update with any information I find!

Pearl S. Buck Summer Villa
Lu Shan or Mount Lu
Pearl, her siblings and her parents spent many summers on Mount Lu to escape the oppressive heat in Zhenjiang at the summer villa Pearl’s father built in northern Jianxi Province. It is apparently at this summer residence where Pearl penned The Good Earth.

In the US:
Pearl S. Buck Residence
520 Dublin Road, Perkasie, PA 18944
In Bucks County outside of Philadelphia, this is where Pearl Buck resided with her second husband Richard Walsh and with their growing family of adopted children from 1935 until her death in 1973. Here you can visit her grave, tour the home and also learn about her work in starting the first international, interracial adoption agency and in advocating for an end to discrimination and poverty of children from Asian countries.  

The Pearl S. Buck Birthplace
U.S. 219
Hillsboro, West Virginia 24946
Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia in the hills of Appalachian Mountain, Pearl moved to China at the age of three months in 1892. 

For Further Reading:

If you can’t visit any of the Pearl Buck residences, enjoy these books.
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
First published in 1931, this book then went on to get Pearl Buck both a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although the Good Earth itself is probably Pearl Buck’s most famous novel, it is the first of a trilogy. The other two volumes in the trilogy include Sons and A House Divided. This is a good place to start with her literature. 

Published in 2010, this biography of Pearl Buck gives intimate details about Pearl Buck’s life in China as well as her complex relationship with the country following her return to the US and in the following decades.

Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese author Anchee Min was instructed to denounce Pearl Buck in school in the late 1960’s. Years later after having moved to the US and after being a published author herself, Min finally read a copy of The Good Earth. Moved by Pearl Buck’s intimate portrayal of the peasant experience in China, Min set out to visit Pearl’s hometown and get first-hand accounts of Pearl and her life in Zhenjiang. What came out from it was this novel which is a fictionalized account of Pearl Buck’s life from the perspective of her childhood and lifelong friend.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Coming to terms with height, size, curves and beauty ideals in China

Walking tall

A slight exaggeration of how I feel in China sometimes.
One thing I struggle with living in China is my size. Living in a country of 1.3 billion people, you would think there would be a diverse range in sizes and heights in China. I’m 1.78 meters or 5’11 and compared to most Chinese women, quite tall. There are some tall Chinese women but most of them don’t have the same physique or curves common among women from other corners of the world. This has led me to be very self-conscious at times of my size and physique. Sometimes people may meet me while we’re sitting down. Suddenly when we both stand and we’re walking, there’s a brief moment of confusion and then clarity as they take in the fact that I’m actually a tall person. This especially surprises Chinese men. Attending a conference in Beijing last October, I befriended a couple of nice male colleagues from China and Pakistan. Following the conference, the three of us decided to visit Tienanmen Square and suddenly for the first time as we were walking around, my new friend Mao saw me in a new light and said, “Oh, you’re quite tall.” Meanwhile, I’m reenacting the scene in my head from the classic Frankenstein movie when he realizes for the first time that he’s different and exclaims in agony, “I’m a monster!” 

At times I feel awkward as a tall woman and when I spot another tall woman, whether a foreigner or Chinese woman, I feel a sense of kinship and I want to reach out and cry, “Sister! We’re not alone!” I often wonder where my tall Chinese sisters find their clothes and on the odd occasion, I even spot the tall woman with a tall mate. This brings a smile to my face because I suspect a lot of the time, some of my tall Chinese sisters may be seen as more freakish and abnormal than myself, a foreign woman from a faraway land where it’s more common to be tall. The Chinese girlfriend of an American friend of mine is quite close to me in height. Tall, beautiful and elegant (and a yoga instructor to boot!), it was mentioned that Chinese men would barely give her notice or overlook her (or in her case, underlook her). In researching my last blog posting about dating and courtship in China, I stumbled upon a point rating system of various aspects single Chinese women should possess in terms of being attractive and datable and it helped make sense of why this lovely woman may have been previously overlooked (or in her case, underlooked). Here’s a look at the height factor in the rating system:

165-172 (10 pts); 158-164 (8 pts); 172-174 (6 pts); 155-158 (4 pts); 174-176 (1 pt); the rest 0 pts

With this rating system, women clearly should also not be too short either. The right height seems to guarantee that a woman will not overstep her boundaries nor be lacking in stature (my height isn’t even on the scale, so 0 points for me here. Booooo). 

Chinese beauty ideals of long ago: Bound feet. From Wikipedia.
I wonder whether the idealism of a middle or smaller size and stature is also deeply seated in Chinese history. After all, well into the 20th century, daughters of wealthy families as well as the first born daughters in poorer families had their feet bound so that they could be brought up as ladies. This ancient practice tightly wound and bound the feet of young girls so that they would not be able to grow further. The tight, small feet were always wrapped and resembled lotus buds when covered in ornate, pointy silk shoes. Such feet were even erotic since they would rarely be revealed. Additionally, it was very difficult for these women with bound-feet to move or be actively involved in any activity without the help of other family members, servants and especially men. Being practically immobilized, these women also could not partake in many social activities or politics, banking and other work where women should not have been heard during those times. True, perhaps there were taller women with bound feet but their stature couldn’t have been that great either if they were limited in their movements and mostly restricted to chairs (and perhaps the feet binding stunted the growth in the rest of their body as well).

Today, the smaller more petite women in China (and of course in other parts of the world too!) may still be symbols of allure, vulnerability as well as be seen as “fragile” beings who know their place. Taller women, however, will be at eye level or taller than their male colleagues, friends and mates and may look down on him figuratively and literally. Even if the man with the taller woman is comfortable in his own skin and with his manliness in spite of his taller companion, there is still the societal views and hurtful comments of others to contend with.  Can you imagine the “spectacle” of a taller woman walking with a shorter man, whether the two are friends, colleagues or in a relationship? In a country where saving face is so important, you can only imagine the talk.

On the other hand, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Tall woman are not seen as monsters as much as unattainable. Chinese-American author Ha Jin helped me realize recently in one of his short stories that we tall women don’t need to feel like we’re oddities but that perhaps secretly we’re envied and revered for our height. Marjin, a male character in Jin’s story Broken pined for the attention and even the recognition of the tall female basketball players at his work camp. Ha Jin describes the idealized tall woman as seen through the eyes of Marjin.

                “She looked healthy and sturdy, with a thin, white neck, her hair coiled like a pair of earphones. If he were to marry, he would have a tall wife, so that his children would be taller than himself and would have no difficulty in finding a spouse when they grew up.” (Ha Jin, 2000).  

                “He admired her long fingers, large feet, shapely bust, and strong legs. Whenever her team played on the company’s sports ground, he would go and watch. He liked seeing the girls in blue shorts and red T-shirts. He felt attracted to almost every one of them. If only he were four inches taller.” (Ha Jin, 2000).

Thanks to this different and fresh perspective, I feel I can now walk taller and more proudly when I’m in China and other parts of the world where I tower over others. It has also made me grateful to my Chinese friends, especially my Chinese male friends who walk unfazed next to me and help me feel more accepted in my host country in spite of my uncommon proportions.

Curves ahead

In addition to my height, I am also self-conscious of my curves while I’m in China. Occasionally I may see taller Chinese women but I rarely encounter curvy Chinese women. Am I imagining things when I write on the blackboard with my back to my students and suddenly hear snickering in a quiet classroom? Is it in my head or are they laughing at my larger than normal behind? Should I let it get to me in a group yoga class when I tower over everyone else and the mirrors on all walls magnify my hips and 3D rump? Is it crazy that I am comforted by Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby got Back” to remind me that curves and larger butts are embraced and loved at least in other corners of the world?  

I do realize that even though I am quiet self-conscious of my body proportions, most women and men probably struggle with some aspect of their body. I applaud fashion magazines in the US and elsewhere that now use curvy, plus models and women of all different proportions to represent the full spectrum of sizes. Some magazines are even refusing to air-brush and photo shop models’ and celebrities’ blemishes and flaws. However, I think China and probably other East Asian countries have a long way to go before they take such steps in their fashion magazines and on TV. Images of waifish, emaciated models are splashed all over the magazines on newsstands, on TV and just in day-to-day life. Airlines, the high-speed train company and shops recruit women who are under a certain age, attractive and very trim (what a throw-back to the 1950’s!!). Surely many of my students and friends must also feel overwhelmed and it is no wonder if we feel self-conscious about some parts of our bodies.

Modesty and beauty ideals

Too busty and indecent for modern China? From MSN Auto.
When it comes to modesty and what parts of the body are revealed and concealed, it’s quite strange and contradictory in China. Recently while visiting me in China, my sister confessed to feeling a little insecure with wearing a modest t-shirt by US standards but low-cut in comparison to what she had observed Chinese women wearing. “None of the Chinese women are showing any skin above their chest. All of their shirts cover them all the way to their neck. I feel so immodest here.” Before my sister had mentioned it, I had never noticed it. Then Vivian, my Chinese tutor, had pointed out that a lot of foreign, Western women wear tank-tops, and strappy, low cut shirts. I have wondered, if we’re not at a bar or a nightclub, how are we women perceived if we show a little cleavage and bust? The denouncement of some loosely clad models at the 2012 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition by the Capital Ethics Development Office would indicate that a lot of the local Chinese folk don’t look too kindly to such attire and dressing. Dubbed the “breast show” by many, the auto show featured models who stirred up a lot of positive and negative attention by wearing very low cut and revealing dresses. Critics of the show and the models’ indiscretion said that “China’s traditional values as well as society’s tolerance of such behavior” were not being considered (Thaindian News, 2012). 

Perhaps Western women showing skin and some bust while walking around Nanjing or elsewhere in China may be slightly frowned upon. But perhaps some locals may expect it of us and may believe that we inherently have loose ways. Chinese women, however, who show some bust and skin on the upper part of the body are probably more likely to be abhorred as it is seen as an affront to Chinese culture and values. 

On the other hand, how can one explain the ads in taxi cabs for breast enlargement? If showing some cleavage and breast is considered indecent, why would Chinese women want to increase their bust size? At the same time, how can one explain the contradiction of so many beautiful, leggy Chinese women walking around in short skirts, shorts and in tall heels? Living on a college campus, I’m surprised by how many young women I see donning such short attire above their legs while still covering up most of their upper part of their body (and if any of my male colleagues are reading this, I know you are smiling and nodding your head right now). I’m not the least bit offended by the leggy ladies- just surprised.

How influential are Western beauty ideals?
For an entire generation now, China has been open to the outside world. The generation born post 1980 has grown up exposed to movies, TV and fashion from outside of China as well as foreigners who bring ideals of beauty and fashion from abroad into China. On the one hand, this has slowly helped create a younger population that may be open to different ideals of beauty and even more tolerant of and liberal with the parameters of modesty. On the other hand, I believe this has created entirely new parameters of beauty ideals which have now set the bar even higher than the preexisting traditional Chinese ideals of beauty. This generation of younger people must be even more self-conscious of their flaws than previous generations. Now there are young women and men complaining about their weight and their shape thanks not only to the onslaught of global fashion magazines but also with the arrival of American- styled gyms and fitness centers as well as weight loss programs (which probably came shortly after the arrival of foreign fast-food chains). In the subway stations of larger cities, life size posters of famous Western models and actresses promote expensive European cosmetics that make you look younger, more refined and whiter. Foreign supermarkets and drugstores are well stocked with Oil of Olay and Nivea moisturizers with skin-whitening agents in them to keep skin white (heaven forbid people think you ever spent time in the sun working outdoors). Opticians are well stocked with inexpensive blue and purple tinted contact lenses. Hair salons and stylists are ready to dye customers’ hair blonde and other lighter colors and are up to date with the latest styles, many of which seem like outrageous dos inspired by 1980’s British pop-music bands. When I look around me and see young men and women squeezing into tight clothing, talking about skipping lunch since they’re on a diet, longing for breast implants, donning crystal blue tinted contacts and press-on eyelids and blonde-dyed hair and skin-whitened faces, I question whether I as a foreign woman am contributing to the problem of self-consciousness rather than being a victim myself.
Skin whitening moisturizer for men. Whiter skin is a status and wealth symbol. Photo from J. Calderon

Size matters: Finding clothes

In addition to being painfully aware and conscious of my height and curves while in China, I am also frustrated with the ironic challenge of finding clothes or shoes in my size. The obvious irony is that so many of my clothes that I stock up in the US are actually made in China. I sometimes think it would be great to cut out the middle man and just go directly to the factory where my clothes are made, thank the women and men who have left their faraway village in Central China at age 17 to take on this crappy job of toiling to make my clothes, take them out to dinner and then strike a bargain where I buy directly from them and pay them a suitable salary for their time and handiwork. But alas, most of those clothes are boxed up and put on the next shipment to Seattle to help fit the masses of women my size in the US.

A typical saunter into a clothing or shoe shop goes something like this (I’m going to call it a saunter because I don’t actively go on shopping sprees since it’s pretty pointless). I eye a cute top or pair of pants or shoes in a window and then have a little glimmer of hope that just maybe, on the odd chance they’ll have that XXXL waiting just for me- because obviously the shop too hasn’t found the large woman of their dreams to offload the XXXL item onto yet. On seeing desired item, I gingerly approach the shop attendant and ask in broken Chinese, “Hi, do you have big sizes?” which is typically followed by the loud, screeching response of “Meiyou!!!” which means “Don’t have!” Sometimes all I have to do it walk into a shop and before the words can even get out of my own mouth, comes the ubiquitous “Meiyou!”. However, I do have to give credit to some shop attendants. Many of them are very well meaning and want to help. Shopping for a bra one day, I think they were in the depths of the back store room with mining hats for about 15 minutes wading through cobwebs to try to retrieve a rare size. Another time, I happened upon a sidewalk sale of outdoor clothing (the new trend among the growing wealthy class of Chinese). I had an entire coterie of sale attendants running around picking out possible shirts that would fit me. Yes, an entire team serving my needs going through racks trying to find the odd XXL shirts just for moi. I have to say- I felt pretty special- like I had my own personal style team working for me. One of the members of the team was even delegated to the men’s section where she found a nice pair of XXXL men’s cargo pants for me. I’m happy to say I walked away with a nice purchase that day with two new tops and those men’s pants (that I even got complements on in Seattle- so good job team!). Another day recently, I successfully found a shoe store that had overstock of some shoes for the US market. Women’s shoe sizes 9, 10 and 11. When I spotted “the one”- yes, the pair of shoes waiting just for me- the exact style I was looking for and in my size and the only pair, a little tear rolled down my cheek and Etta James’ song “At last” rang in my head (On an interesting note, I saw yesterday the same pair of shoes at an outlet store in Virginia being sold for about twice the price I paid for them in China).

What has also saved me was my friend Lucy’s discovery of British department store Mark’s and Spencer’s in Shanghai where there seems to be an abundance of “normal” size clothing and lots of other tall, curvy laowai women stocking up on underwear and bras before returning to their remote cities in China. Recently a friend Ellie also recommended a tailor in Nanjing who has since made a couple of clothing items for me. I will be bringing back catalogs of clothing from the US and will have him design my outfits for the fall. Oh, what’s that LL Bean? You’re out of the denim Western skirt size 12 until October? No problem. My tailor Mr. Chen down the street will whip one up for me when I get back to the neighborhood.

Being comfortable in my own skin

Coming to terms with my unique size and proportions.
With an added ego boost of being surrounded by fellow tall and curvaceous women back in the US this summer, I feel ready to face another year as the tall American lady in Nanjing. I’ve also come to terms with my height and curves. Even though I strive to eat well, exercise and live a healthy life, my body is inevitably going to take the shape and form that is its destiny.  I’ve got my age as well as my genes to thank for that. With family this summer, I realized that the tall and curvy proportioned body I inhabit is a gift from my mother as well as my father. I see pictures of fellow Merkens’ women- my grandmother, aunts and female cousins (and now nieces!) and get emotional thinking about our distinct form and our connected kinship. I’m comforted by this and it makes me feel close to these incredible women in my family- even if I’m on a distant continent and experiencing my unique body and its imperfections alone there. I’m going to try and embrace my figure now and flaunt it rather than hide it. 

One last silver lining to all of this is that I am in the position to be a positive role model to some of my students when it comes to promoting self-awareness and body image. One day one of my students reminded me that I had previously told her not to worry about her body image and weight when she had contemplated skipping lunch and dieting. I suppose I had told her that as a woman, it’s inevitable that the body will begin to change and take on womanly features such as childbearing hips. I must have told her that she can look at her mother and know that will likely be her destined form. “Isn’t your mother a lovely woman?” I must have asked her.  Realizing these things, she became more comfortable in her own skin. She said, “I thought before I was too fat. Now, I am ok. I changed my mind because of what you told me.”

Amen to that. 

Further Reading and Perusal:

About steps US teen fashion magazine Seventeen has taken to not photo edit models' pictures:

About young women from across China who come to the city in search of work in factories:
Chang, L. (2008). Factory Girls- From Village to City in a Changing China. New York: Spiegel and Grau.

Images and commentary about recruitment of flight attendants in China:
China Daily. (2012, June 08). Beautiful flight attendants of Chinese airlines.

Rating system for the ideal Chinese men and women:
Fauna. (2009, April 21). Leftover Men &Leftover Women Rating Surveys. From China Smack. 

Short stories about segments of Chinese society by Chinese-American author Ha Jin:
Jin, H. (2000). The Bridegroom- Stories. New York: Pantheon Books.

For more insight into Chinese people's obsession with skin whitening creams and ligh skin:
Levin, D. (2012, August 3). Beach Essentials in China: Flip-Flops, a Towel and a Ski Mask. From New York Times.

Interviews with some of China's last bound-foot women:
Montlake, S. (2009, November 13). Bound by History: The Last of China's 'Lotus-Feet' Ladies. From Wall Street Journal.

Chinese cultural ethics clashing with the images of busty Chinese models at the Beijing car show:
MSN Autos. (2012, April 30). Beijing auto show models denounced over attires.

Thaindian News. (2012, April 26). Sexy models at China auto show spark debate. Retrieved August 22, 2012, from Thaindian News:

More on foot binding:
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Footbinding.