A fellow classmate recently came to me very upset after being called “too chubby” by a Chinese native. Long story short, the value of physical appearance is very much rooted into the Chinese culture. While the younger generations in China are trying to overcome the existing biases permeating throughout the society, others may still hold appearance in high regards.
Aside from weight, Chinese will sometimes judge a person based on the clothing that he or she might wear. Some Chinese may look down upon those wearing clothes that are ripped or have holes (the torn jean look is not very popular in China!) and favor those who wear scholarly or business attire (a suit and a pair of glasses wouldn’t hurt!).
Appearance expectations for women is particularly strict. Some Chinese women feel that they must maintain white colored skin (an outlook that likely diffused into China from western culture). Thus, women often wear layers or long pants and shirts even in scorching summer weather. Some women also tote umbrellas and parasols to block out the harsh rays of the sun, a personal choice which they believe will keep their skin young and free from blemishes. The desire to appear ‘pale’ has also spawned a fad of using a myriad of beauty products such as skin whitening creams.
Generally speaking, Chinese in larger cities are usually more tolerant of ‘foreign’ dress styles, while those who live in villages outside the city may have more conservative expectations. That said, one will not have to change their sense of style to survive in China. However, if blending in better is a goal, utilize the wisdom of the ancients: “when in Rome do as the Romans do” or as the Chinese expression goes “rùxiāngsuísú”. Something that tends to work for me is to first research what the policies and customs are for the places that I will visit to ensure smooth sailing. Also, it should go without saying that one should try to respect and understand the social environment.
As for the rare rude remark you get from the occasional native speaker, one should also pay note to the tone of the comment. Sometimes, comments about appearance are used to tease and poke fun, or may be an unfortunate communication gaffe.
Anyway, I hope this sheds light on the issue of appearance. See you next time! 再見!