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The Grass Is Always Whiter

A welcome escape from the intensity of Chengdu is the People’s Park in the west of the city. We had been strolling in the sun while taking in the Chinese ‘dance-offs’ which take place most days; wonderful events which owe less to Michael Jackson and more to Ricky Gervais. We found our way to a secluded pond area and were soon approached by an English-speaking Chinese man named Mr Lee. This is by no means uncommon in China, (the unprovoked approach, not the name, you racist) but suspicious tourists that we are, we wondered what he was going to try to sell us. Nonetheless, we got chatting and he informed us that he is a ‘Cultural Interpreter’ and has worked with Westerners for 20 years. He was particularly pleased that he could determine we were from the UK and not the US, and so was I. This was only one of his many skills, and a large part of his job was to help western couples with the cultural element of adopting a Chinese child. The business card he gave me boldly proclaimed, ‘Mr Lee – A Man Who Understands You In China’. ‘Well’, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t understand me when I’m at home in England, so if he can shed some light on the situation I’m game.’

He was clearly interested in exchanging thoughts and he expressed his concerns about the current Chinese position. Like many other Chinese natives, he was raised on a strict diet of Confucian principles, largely based upon respecting your elders and obeying direct commands. To me he perfectly illustrated the current cultural difficulties within China. He is a man with fairly progressive, liberal views who would like to see more democratic discussion and individual freedom within his country; however, these beliefs are in an ideological struggle with his classical upbringing and are difficult to reconcile.

Such juxtapositions and apparent contradictions are rife within China as it attempts to reinvent itself. I asked Mr Lee why in a country that is renowned for it’s holistic approach to health, is smoking still so popular. To me it undermines all the positive practices such as tai chi, acupuncture and herbal remedies. He explained that smoking in China is a social lubricant and if, like himself, you don’t smoke, you are often perceived as rude for not offering or accepting a cigarette. Smoking bans have been proposed by the government but the opposition is so strong that they were immediately dropped; people genuinely feel they won’t be able to interact socially without smoking.

Mr Lee’s main concern however, was that the younger generation have little or no interest in traditional Chinese culture and are obsessed with the new ‘fast’ culture, as he called it. At the centre of this movement is the concept of individualism and personal identity, and it is fascinating to speak to the younger members of Chinese society as they struggle to gain a sense of autonomy within a communist society. One by-product of this however is the cultivation of dissatisfaction; a damaging form of mental positioning exploited and nurtured by advertising and in particular, women’s cosmetics.

Hazell and I had noticed that many adverts in Asia use either white Caucasian models, or Asian models with very fair complexions. In tandem, many cosmetic products place ‘skin whitening’ as a key selling point. Mr Lee claimed a pale complexion is traditionally associated with health and long life in China and is therefore a desirable characteristic. Sadly, I believe the main drive to look ghostly pale is because women in particular associate this with Western success. Mr Lee agreed that women in China see stars on TV and in films and they aspire to look like them. To me this concept perfectly demonstrates the human trait of destructive desire. People with pale complexions want to look darker, and people with darker complexions want to look paler.

I found myself imagining Chinese people having been on holiday and then protesting that, ‘the weather was terrible; it was so sunny I nearly got a tan. That’s the last time I go to London. Maybe I’ll spend two weeks in a cave next year.’ This insightful rumination alerted me to the fact that far from ‘understanding me in China’, Mr Lee had increased my confusion, as I am no longer sure if I should be spray tanned or simply white washed in order to increase my sexual allure. Therefore, I have decided to impress Hazell with my trademark ‘Neopolitan Ice Cream’ – pink arms, brown face and a white belly. Tasty.
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