Tag Archives: Hair

Dating in China [part 5]

Date says more attractive with clothes on. Does an open relationship translate to open dates? Getting an I.O.U. for accepting a drink. Women tell true stories of their dating experiences in China.

Naked couple sitting on couch, woman knitting, portraitCreativ
image from: metro

#11 

It took a couple of lonely months in Beijing, only knowing my colleagues, before I looked to Tinder as a remedy for my tiny social circle. It felt like a last resort. After a disastrously embarrassing first date, and a three-week fling that took me nowhere, I made up my mind to be pickier. I needed to be really into the guy to go out on a date. So I began my search.

On Christmas Eve I got chatting to a handsome man who claimed he’d arrived in Beijing that week. Encouraged by our lively conversation, my generosity warmed by his apparent loneliness in a new place, so I invited him to a Christmas party I was throwing. I figured it would be a safe place to scope him out. He accepted the offer; I got very excited.

He never showed, cancelling at the last minute. I was disappointed but forgave him. He was new here, and it was Christmas. That can be tough. Plus, he said he would make it up to me.

Six weeks later, I was still waiting for that first date. We’d chatted every day, bantering and joking, back and forth. Several times, we set up a date and then he cancelled last minute. I was getting irritated, not sure he was worth it, but I kept hanging on. Friends at parties asked me, “do you understand how Tinder works?” They were shocked anyone would wait six weeks for a Tinder date.

In some way, I was proud of the long courtship. I hoped that this would make “us” different. The waiting had certainly worked. He’d got me hooked. I’d made up my mind to like him before I had even met him.

In the winter holiday, just days before Valentine’s, he finally found time for little old me. On a cold, windy night we had dinner, drinks, and more drinks. He was taller and more handsome in person than I had imagined. He was funny and attentive. The reality was better than his online personality, which rarely happens. We were both super talkative. He complimented my appearance. I could hardly believe how well we were getting on. We moved on to a bar where he smoked and shared the odd cigarette with me. I wasn’t sure whether I was lightheaded because of the smoke or his smile.

Very, very late, after all the bars had closed, he invited me to his place. There was no way I was saying no after the time I’d waited. I’d already decided it would be worth it. To be honest, it was disappointing. He certainly enjoyed it. He was selfish both that night and the next morning, but I barely noticed, so awestruck was I by his body.

In the morning he made me breakfast, told me stories about an old friend he said he wanted me to meet, and walked me to the subway. I drifted home on a cloud and wrote down all the wonderful moments that had made our night special.

We continued to talk day after day. Throughout my short winter vacation I kept wishing myself back in Beijing, imagining spending every night of his lonely week-long break with him. I’d even offered to turn around and go back before my train left the station. I was hopelessly devoted.

Six weeks later, I was back at work and still hadn’t seen him again. We’d set up several more dates and he’d cancelled every time. I was angry and frustrated; worried I’d scared him off by being too keen. It gradually became clear he wasn’t interested in a relationship, or even casual sex. I asked him for an honest reason, and was astounded by his response. I finally felt the sting of that dreaded situation: he thought I was more attractive with my clothes on than nude! He found my body hair so repulsive that he didn’t enjoy sex:

“I found your leg hair distracting. I really had to concentrate to finish.”

My immediate impulse was to fight my corner, argue that women make choices about their appearance for themselves, not for men, and tell him that his opinion didn’t matter.

But I didn’t rant at him. Instead I left him alone in his small-mindedness and got on with my life. I’d blown my chance with him, which bothered me because it was over such a small thing. But what really stung was I’d been on the brink of falling for someone who allowed something so minor to affect our entire relationship. I will never make that mistake again.

– United Kingdom, 26

 

online-dating
image from: sheknows

#12

Dating is hard, especially if you aren’t really dating. Let me explain.

One fall, I met a guy the day after my birthday. He was my coworker, and younger than me by a couple of years. After spending a little time together we ended up making out one night.

The next day as he asked, “what exactly are you looking for?” I was honest, I didn’t see him as a long term thing. Both of us were planning on leaving Beijing that summer. I just wanted fun, with stipulations on privacy. “Ah ok,” he said. “I just wanted to let you know, before we went any further, that I have a girlfriend. Not all girls are cool with that.”

That knocked the breath out of me. At first I was too stunned to reply, curse words forming in my head. But I reacted calmly: “does your girlfriend know?”

“Oh yeah, it was actually her idea. Do you want to talk to her?”

So I took the risk of being in an open relationship. It was weird. Having a guy over two to three times a week cooking, watching movies, having sex, all while knowing I couldn’t f**k it up. My plan was impenetrable. Or so I thought.

Six months in, we went on our first outside date. While out at a fun bar party a cute British girl approached him. After flirting with him, and letting him know she was interested, she asked if we were together. “No” we both responded. She continued to flirt, and I found a way to extract myself. I had a drink by myself at a table in other room but could see them talking at the bar. I played with my phone for a bit.

“Hey,” he was standing next to me, looking down, a little concerned. “Do you want to come hang out with us?”

“Nah,” I told him. “I think she’s pretty interested in you though.”

He brightens. “Yeah! I think she is. You don’t mind, do you?”

OF COURSE I MIND! WE CAME HERE ON A— I caught myself before I yelled.

What were we on? Was it a date? Does it count as a date if you obviously aren’t planning a future together? Did him agreeing to accompany me out contractually bind him to me for the night? I wanted to be cool. Chill. He didn’t owe me anything.

“Nah. Go for it. I’m going to go meet up with some other friends. Have fun, be safe,” I said as lightheartedly as possible. Then, without meeting his eyes, I left.

A long walk on a chilly night is terribly symbolic when you feel alone. I wish I could say I went home and composed this balanced rational story. That would be a lie. I got drunk. I cried. Not because I was in love. But because I just wanted a real date, at which I was the center of a guy’s attention. Through much contemplation (and water) for the next two days, I decided to stop my destructive behavior. Maybe it works for others, but while I could handle and open relationship, I couldn’t handle an open date.

– United States of America, 20s

 

online-dating
image from: independent

#13

Thanks to the ever-popular Tinder app, I met a number of guys online. With some, we moved discussions over to WeChat – a platform not stymied by VPN restrictions. We would chat, occasionally meet up, and often that was it. My schedule left a lot to be desired, and made meeting for dates a large commitment on my part. Unless I was particularly interested in our conversation, it was rare I put in the effort.

But I was starting to realize how little I was actually getting out there, with dating or even just engagements with friends. So I started to say, “yes,” to a few dates. To drinks or a quick bite to eat – something to get a better feel for these fellas.

One such man had been quick with the wit and as engaging as anyone can be over WeChat. I was enjoying myself, and figured odds were high that that would translate to an in-person meeting. We picked a subway station, and I took off after work looking forward to a night out.

As it were, it actually took me a moment to find him. Unsurprisingly, it’s common for folks to use vague photos on dating app profiles, leaving the one you’re meeting unaware of what you *actually* look like.

In this case, there was little to no resemblance.

Already off to a poor start, we walked around, making our way through the typical chit-chat. He presented me with a kitschy gift – something he thought I’d like – in the form of a children’s toy. Unsure what to think, I smiled and accepted it, sliding it into my purse. Thrilled, he launched into a story about himself – one of many that evening. Though we didn’t have any plan, it soon became clear he had an idea what we’d be doing. Soon we were inside a bookstore. “You like books, right?”

“Well, yes, of course, but …”

“Yes, I thought so! See how much I already know about you?”

And off he went, directing me to section after section of all those topics he was oh-so-knowledgable about. Art, art history, architecture, Chinese culture – was there anything he didn’t know? Was there any book that his great and glorious mind hadn’t absorbed?

After nearly two hours of this, it was off to a bar nearby, where his friend was hosting her farewell party. I was soon sidled next to a few of his friends, and he was absorbed in a conversation with the other end of the table. I did my best to keep up, but their in-depth discussions on Japanese art and complex photography techniques weren’t easy topics to engage in. So I sipped my drink and listened politely.

“Want to split some food?” my date asked, remembering I was there. “Uh, no I’m OK. I’ll just stick with this drink.” “Well OK. Don’t worry, by the way. Drink’s on me.”

None of my protests and insistence that I pick up my own drink worked, so I finally accepted and thanked him profusely. Another hour passed, and I made my way to the subway. He hugged me goodbye. I told him it was nice to meet him. For me, well, it wasn’t a great evening, but he was nice and had been kind in treating me to a drink. I appreciated it, and went home happy to have given it a go.

Days passed and we didn’t say much. Then suddenly, there was his name. “Long time no chat, pretty lady!” We exchanged the pleasantries, and there it was. The inquiry for a second date, but in a way I’d never been asked before.

“So since I picked up your drink the other night, it looks like you owe me!”

“Uh, yea… lol Thanks again for that.”

“No. Really. You owe me a drink. I’ll be free this weekend, we can meet up and you can get that for me.”

As it turns out, he wasn’t playing a bit. I owed him 35 kuai, and he was calling to collect. A few more messages later – “So, about that drink …” – and my subsequent silence, he abandoned the chase. Seems he didn’t think the money was well spent. Needless to say, it took me a few dates before I’d accept a drink again.

– United States of America, 27

 

Previous instalments:

Learning that an ex is married. Walking away from a Tinder date. Getting set up by your boyfriend. [part 1]

Humiliation by comedy in a Beijing bar. Parents say, “break up with him” because boyfriend is not Chinese. [part 2]

A Chinese first boyfriend who ruined dating for years. Suffering through sleep apnea on a first date. Offered money for sex with a stranger. [part 3]

Guy uses Chinese whispers to ask for a date. Remedies for dating in inauspicious circumstances. [part 4]

These stories are shared by the women who experienced them in their own words. All stories took place in Beijing, China, unless otherwise stated. Identities are kept secret out of respect for the individuals in the stories.

The value of pronouns; or, ‘Excuse me, Sir?’

Recently, on a flight home to China after a week away, I was mistaken for a man.

Moments before we landed in the southern city Guangzhou, a flight attendant reached over to my chair and pushed the button that made my chair spring upright. It was an awkward moment, in which he assumed that invading my personal space would be easier than communicating, perhaps because I was obviously desperate to finish the movie.

Assuming his English was not strong, I forgave him his trespasses – it’s often hardest to remember necessary phrases in a second language at the moment they require use. Then my brain caught up: what had I heard him say, despite the movie climax? I turned to my boyfriend for reassurance. He was grinning: “Did you hear what he called you?”

I rewound the exchange and my brain processed it; he’d said, “Excuse me, Sir.”

I’d never been addressed as ‘Sir’ before.

It dawned on me that my outward appearance was not decidedly feminine. I was wearing jeans and an oversized hoody belonging to my boyfriend, I didn’t have any makeup on, and my short hair was plastered down on my head.

I’ve never had hair this length before. Until recently, it had always been long – an obvious indication of femininity, even when everything else I wore looked neutral or masculine. Now, apparently, I’d switched sides in one swift haircut.

Admittedly, it had been a pretty drastic haircut – one that I’ve both been praised and criticized for, particularly by unsuspecting students and my very shocked boss. I’d gone from Rapunzel to G.I. Jane in a single June afternoon.

In many cultures, long hair is considered one of the primary things that renders a woman recognisably female. As both a biological by-product and cultural construction, the tie between hair and identity is strong, despite – and perhaps because of – the fact that hair is one of the few impermanent physical features. The social norms surrounding long hair and femininity go fundamentally unchallenged, despite the increasing commonality of women choosing to cut their hair short. (Especially in China, where most middle-aged women seem to have short hair, many young students choose to don a more androgynous hairstyle, and yet the extensive history of long hair being sexualised continues.) Therefore I view the outdated social expectation linking ‘woman’ with ‘long hair’ as a gender stereotype.

Returning to work after the summer months, during which my hair had grown pretty quickly, my boss told me: “Oh, you look like a ten-year-old boy.” This was apparently preferable to the “thug” look I’d been sporting when I left in June, but still lacking in comparison to his notions of “appropriate”, which could describe my appearance when I was hired. I shrugged it off while inwardly floundering, because how could I possibly respond to that?

What a thing to say to your much younger female employee, to whom you should be offering respect as a teacher and coworker. To be clear, there was no cultural misunderstanding: he’s American and I am British. We speak (almost) the same language.

We all know that gender stereotypes pervade society, but it can still be a shock to find this sexist tendency just sitting in the annals of your boss’s psyche when suddenly ‘bam!’ it hits you in the face.

I don’t care whether others think I look pretty. I don’t care whether I look the way people expect. I do, however, have a problem with people projecting their archaic image of what woman means onto me and other strong, independent women. I am offended by the implication that an impermanent change to my appearance makes me any less capable of doing my job.

Many of my female students felt the need to reassure me, “You still look beautiful.” These are young adults reading a BA in English, who with years of study under their belts could not possibly be oversimplifying their comments. Knowing several identify as feminists after an 8-week class unit on women and gender, I was disappointed by their implications of hair as the source of beauty, as this shows a reluctance or inability to question the social norms that surround women and long hair in Chinese culture. Every last one intended that to be a compliment; none of them landed.

What continues to overwhelm me is the extent to which ideas about gender are rooted in language. Now looking back – back past those overzealous students, past the outdated opinions of my boss, to the gendered mistake of the flight attendant – what’s the theme here?

It is all about language.

Despite the similarity of comments across several languages, I couldn’t help but look to the differences between Chinese and English for some answers. Of course, I don’t mean to target any language over the next. Germanic and Latinate languages have two or three genders built into everyday grammar. Both French and Spanish, for example, have speakers around the world referring to feminine tables and masculine cups of coffee.

In English, our most basic pronouns are gendered. But in spoken Chinese, ‘he’ sounds identical to ‘she’: tā. I wondered whether the flight attendant had simply misspoken… so I went further.

English Chinese
he / she
man nánrén
woman nǚrén
boy nánhái(zi) / nánshēng
girl nǚhái(zi) / nǚshēng
sir / mr. xiānshēng
mrs. (madam) tàitài / fūrén
miss xiǎojiě
sir (US) shīfu
lady nǚshì
dude (brethren) gēmen
honey (US) / love (UK) měinǚ
uncle shūshu
aunt āyí
leftover woman shèngnǚ
mankind rénlèi

In Chinese, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are about as different as the words in English but imply more equality: ‘nánrén and ‘nǚrén translate into ‘male person’ and ‘female person’.

Major differences abound in polite forms of address, however, and all are gendered, starting with ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. The formal way to address a man is ‘xiānshēng’, which means ‘Mr.’ or translates as ‘first born’ – a nod to China’s preference for boys. ‘Xiānshēng’ often follows a name, as Mr. would precede a name in English, but can also stand alone.

Some say that a level of flattery is always necessary to get what you want from Chinese women, but they’re probably just tired of being referred to as ‘prostitute’ simply for being unmarried.

‘Xiǎojiě’ is sometimes used to address a woman in Chinese. Xiǎojiě directly translates as ‘little sister’ (or ‘small elder sister’) but means ‘miss’ or ‘young (unmarried) woman’. It is also now slang for prostitute, so is a dangerous term to use because it is very easy to cause offence. Another is the word for a married woman, ‘tàitài, which can be used as ‘madam’, ‘mrs’, ‘married woman’, and ‘wife’ – but tàitài isn’t usually used for strangers as it normally follows a name, as Mrs. would precede a name in English. Similarly, fūren is rarely used outside the context of referring to a woman as someone’s wife, as it literally means ‘husband’s person’.

A respectful form of address for any male worker is ‘shīfu’, which is a polite way to say ‘master’ or call someone a ‘qualified worker’, but is used as the way many Americans say ‘sir’. I most regularly hear shīfu used when talking to cab drivers or in reference to the ‘worker’ who comes to fix things around the house – a nod to the gendered nature of manual labour (and creating awkwardness when you don’t know what pronoun to use for a female cab driver). Chinese men will often use the term ‘gēmen’ when talking to other men. Gēmen (‘dude’ or ‘brother/brethren’) reinforces a sense of male solidarity, which pervades Chinese culture.

One that continues to surprise me is ‘měinǚ’, which is used as a synonym for ‘madam’ or ‘miss’, means something close to ‘honey’, ‘darling’, or ‘love’ and is far more common than xiǎojiě, tàitài, or fūrén. Měinǚ (which translates as ‘beautiful woman’) is the go-to pronoun for a woman you don’t know, particularly if you want to avoid offense regarding age. The term can be used genuinely, and innocently, between strangers, but it also connotes a level of sleaziness in certain situations. The average women can think of a moment when she’s been addressed as ‘honey’, ‘darling’, or ‘love’ in an overly familiar tone by someone she doesn’t know. Usually this false intimacy is trying to get her to buy something, and it grates. Měinǚ is similarly used by salespeople, housing agents, and customers who want better service.

Nǚshì is also used as ‘lady’ or ‘madam’, and is more neutral than měinǚ but less commonly used because there is possibly a class element at work here. Some might say that a level of flattery is always necessary to get what you want from Chinese women, but I think they’re probably just tired of being referred to as ‘prostitute’ simply for being unmarried.

Finally, there are the familial terms of address that commonly get used outside the family setting. For men, there is shūshu, which means uncle and implies that the individual being addressed is older than the speaker. This is what a parent or grandparent would instruct a child to call an adult male who holds the door for the family: “Say ‘thank you, shushu.’”

ayishushu
Taking a ride on the āyí mobile © Cas Sutherland

The equivalent for women is ‘āyí’. As it means auntie, āyí implies familiarity, but is also used for any woman older than the speaker. Children to young adults, young adults to older women. However, it is also used to describe female workers, like cleaners, cooks, babysitters, live-in child-minders, and often implies the woman is middle-aged or older. Yet it still retains its original meaning and is used without thought about a hired worker one moment and a family member the next.

How are we to believe Mao’s statement that “women hold up half the sky”, if China’s women are being downtrodden by the very language they speak?

On the opposite end of the age spectrum, come nánhái for boys, and nǚhái for girls. These pronouns are commonly used from infancy through teens and into the twenties. Similarly, nǚshēng and nánshēng refer to a young person’s student status, whether at school or university. Around twenty, young men begin to reject such infantilising terms, preferring something akin to ‘big boy’ or ‘man’. But many women continue to use nǚhái throughout their twenties and even into their late thirties, if unmarried. The reason, perhaps, being the lack of an alternative with positive connotations; unmarried women would rather be infantilised than referred to as an old woman, as a prostitute, or as ‘leftover’.

One of the most stigmatised and problematic terms in Chinese is ‘shèngnǚ’, or ‘leftover woman’. Unlike all the other pronouns listed above, shèngnǚ is rarely used in direct address or to refer to individuals. However, it is commonly used to refer to a major social issue in China, in news reports, advertisements, and other media. Women who have chosen to focus on their career instead of getting married at a young age, or have simply not found the right person to settle down with by the age of 27, are referred to as ‘leftover’. While a woman in this situation may not hear herself referred to as a shèngnǚ, she might instead be told by relatives and friends: “no-one will want to marry you.”

One of the most problematic gendered terms in English is mankind’, which rests on the outdated principle that using ‘man’ to mean the human species, is gender neutral. Here, apparently, the Chinese have got it right: ‘rénlèi’ means ‘human’, ‘humanity’ or literally, ‘people kind’.

What does all of this say about Chinese society? Well, it seems clear that all terms of address, whether formal or familiar, are gendered in some way. Every pronoun seems to carry some kind of connotation, but those for women tend to have more serious, offensive or damaging implications than those for men.

xiaonuhairandmama
Xiǎo nǚháizi and māma © Cas Sutherland

Chinese women constantly hear references to their age, marital status, appearance, and sexual availability, simply when being addressed by the people around them. Girls and young women grow up into this culture, knowing that their language is lacking something essentially positive and uplifting for women. Not to mention the use of gendered pronouns for those people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, how does any woman find her own sense of identity and self worth within this restrictive, dogmatic system?

How are we to believe Mao Zedong’s statement that “women hold up half the sky”, if China’s women are being downtrodden by the very language they speak?

With conversations about gender becoming ever more prevalent worldwide, and contemporary social movements problematizing traditional notions of sexuality and gender, it is increasingly more important that our use of language reflect the reality of life in China. My ultimate remedy? Find new pronouns.

Where did my hair go? The aftermath of a drastic hair cut

Four months ago, I made the courageous decision to cut my 12 inch hair off entirely. Here’s a video of the day, the event, and the aftermath:

A huge thank you to my good friends Maxi Battaglia and Ponita Reasmy for making this video possible. It is a wonderful record of a major moment in my life.

If you’re curious about why on earth I would make that choice, here’s a little summary:

1. Short hair on women looks badass.
2. Binary gender stereotypes are best challenged on the body.
3. My sister lost a significant portion of her hair to cancer treatment.
4. The charity receiving my donations makes wigs for children dealing with hair loss from cancer treatment.

I wrote about my reasoning in an article named Four Reasons I’m Shaving My Head For Charity published by Aliljoy just days before the big shave.

While these four things are all great reasons, I think the biggest by far (for me) is challenging binary gender stereotypes. I’ve always taken an interest in challenging the authority of patriarchal social values that dictate and categorise the value of a woman’s behaviour and appearance.

Gender stereotypes are very clearly played out on the body. I’ve long imagined the female body as the ideal space for these to be challenged. To reference the ever-relevant Judith Butler, gender itself is performed: the gendered body is “the legacy of sedimented acts” (523).

When the body is both my private, personal space and my public, political sphere, I believe it the one place I can instigate my personal challenges to the world around me. Long hair is one of the primary things that makes me recognisably female, and one of the few that is distinctly impermanent. Cutting off all my hair – pushing my appearance to the extreme – is the ultimate act of rebellion against binary gender norms that surround us all.

Not only was this a personal challenge, but through the change to my appearance I challenged the people around me. I challenged my parents, my boyfriend, my friends, my boss, my students, passersby, and anyone who saw me in the three months my hair was unusually short for a woman. I challenged them to react and, in reacting, to show me their true views of what was appropriate for a woman my age to do with her hair.

The worst reactions?

The shock on my boss’s face when I told him my weekend plans. Six young students screaming their lungs out at my altered appearance. My boss telling me (with relief) that I looked like a ten-year-old boy, once my hair had grown a few inches. Being addressed as “sir” on a plane.

The best?

Being told: “you look super hot / badass / edgy.” Getting praised for my bravery. Having a friend copy my new hairstyle within the week. The look of admiration on my teenage students’ faces when I went back to work.

Probably the most common among my Chinese students, though, was an impulse to tell me I still looked beautiful. It was as though, like Samson’s strength, a woman’s beauty fades with a snip of her locks. This is precisely the stereotype that I wanted to challenge. I can’t assume it worked on everyone, but once they got used to my short hair many students – new and old – have praised me for my chic new look.

More on this soon.

If you liked this post, why not check out: Does Having Leg Hair Make Me Less Of A Woman?

References:

Butler, Judith. ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.’ Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-531.