Sundays are free days to spend with our host families, and yesterday was my last full day in town before heading off to site visit in Chongqing (see previous entry). LYY suggested we visit the city center—the shopper’s paradise, Chunxi Ru, and the big central square, Tianfu Square.
I packed carefully when coming to China—I had been told that many products, like good-quality face cleansers or moisturizers, might be hard to find because all the Chinese ones contain whitening agents. I had also been told that finding shoes or clothes that fit me would be problematic, since women, and therefore sizes, are too small for American girls like, uh, me. But in a metropolis like Chengdu, or likely Chongqing, this isn’t quite true.
LYY and I started our visit to Chunxi Road with a stop at Dairy Queen for Oreo Blizzards. Yep, that’s right. We browsed through several huge department stores, where I was especially intrigued by the cosmetics counters. Clinique! MAC! Dior! Even some more obscure brands that I only expect to see at American Sephoras, like Make Up Forever and Benefit, got counters. Prices were a little higher than I expect to see at home (eg, a MUFE eyeliner that costs $17 in the US (I would know—I have about six of them) cost 190 RMB, or the equivalent of $28). But it’s good to know such things are available for when I run out of my own supply, since although they’re expensive, it’s still easier to buy things here than have them shipped.
LYY and I also browsed the clothes racks in a few places, and I even tried on a couple of dresses. I considered buying a lightweight cotton dress that was subtly sparkly and featured an elaborate underwater scene along the bottom before realizing—what am I doing? Because Chinese fashion and American fashion are rather…different…
My training group friends and I spend a lot of time dissecting Chinese fashion. “It’s always like, oh that dress could be so cute, but then there’s that one element that makes it all…off,” says Amy. Examples: a cute dress that features a giant sparkly bow at the waist. Or fake flowers on the collar. Or is just a liiitle too short, or dressy, or flouncy. Or suspenders. There are a surprising number of outfits that feature suspenders as a design element (suspenders attached to shirts, romper-like suspender outfits, overall-suspenders…) It’s positively Newsies-esque—or would be, were there not so much sparkle accompanying said suspenders.
The main aesthetic values seem to be that women’s clothing should make women look like little girls and/or should be as overdone as possible. So many things, to our eyes, would be cute if they were just simpler. Or more grown up—there are far too many adult women wearing outfits we might expect to see on little girls (the aforementioned ruffles, bows, flowers, suspenders, etc). In turn, they likely see our clothes as too boring, conservative, or simple.
Americans also have more clothes, on average, than most Chinese women (even LYY, who seems to be very comfortably middle class, has fewer outfits total than I have just in China, I think). There also is not the same sense of dressing for different registers. For example, at home I would never wear the same kind of outfit for going to work, hanging out at home, going to a wedding, and going out to a bar. But here it seems much more likely that the same outfit can be worn for any and all of those occasions. We always comment on Chinese women who seem to be overdressed for just an average, hot day in heels and elaborate chiffon dresses. But then, wearing shorts to work, or jeans to a wedding, or whatever else you feel like, is perfectly acceptable. Just pick the outfit you want, and it will work for almost any situation.
Back on Chunxi Ru, LYY tried on a long tiered skirt (readers, you may know how I feel about long skirts) with an elaborate, voluminious white tee. We agreed the outfit didn’t work well together. She moved on to a top I actually liked—a short-sleeved, fitted knit top with nautical black horizontal stripes, a small number of gold accents, and puffed sleeves. Something I might wear with jeans. She wrinkled her nose, examining her reflection: “too simple.” Yes… She picked up flowy pink and silver top with a diagonal hemline, vinyl pink pelt, and off the shoulder cut. “You should try this,” she extended it to me. “Uh…not my style.” I think she was disappointed. Just like when I bought functional Chaco-like waterproof sandals and showed them to her and she said, with a hint of sadness, “They look…comfortable.”
Yes, Americans like to look cute sometimes, or even most of the time, but they also like to be comfortable. And look their age. And look occasion-appropriate. My, what a different approach….
After we finished shopping (neither of us bought anything, in the end), we checked out Tianfu Square, with it’s huge statue of Mao pointing towards some of Chengdu’s shiny new skyscrapers. “So, uh, how do you feel about Mao?” I asked in a neutral tone. “Oh, he is great hero for China, we are so lucky we have had him,” LYY replied. “And Deng Xiaoping.” And wouldn’t Mao be proud to see what has happened to China at places like Chunxi Ru in the last several years….