Meet Luxiaohe Zhang, a senior at the University of Iowa and my long-time roommate and friend. She goes by “Lu” in kindness to those who would twist their tongues into knots in the attempt, and she spends most of these days hunched over graduate school applications. Those who meet her may at first find her introverted and soft-spoken, but will quickly discover her perchance for absurd humor. I knew that though it may need coaxing, she had something to say.
Together we sat down to discuss her ambitious graduate focus: communication as a means to solve cultural misunderstandings.
Her passion for the topic was obvious; while she was sheepishly hesitant to have her words recorded, she opened up like a blooming flower of conversation. We explored cultural differences between our two countries of origin.
Lu grew up in Xi’an, China, which is the capital city of the Shaanxi province.
Around 5 million other people call the city their home, too. In comparison, New York City is the only U.S. metropolis to boast more.
Lu underwent rigorous testing to attend higher education in the United States. Her ambitions paid off, and she was accepted into the University of Iowa’s undergraduate program, with her sights ever on further study. To use her experiences within both cultures to cultivate more productive and informed China-U.S. relations has been her goal and remains so to this day.
A topic we were drawn to was the differences in body standards for women. Of course, perceptions of feminine beauty vary vastly between cultures; while tanning is a common practice in the United States, skin-bleaching creams for porcelain-white color are standard in China. But one that both nations share, one which wreaked havoc on Lu’s self-esteem, is the expectation that women be thin and lithe.
“It’s worse there than it is in the U.S.,” Lu assured me, thinking back upon her four years in the states. “What you would consider chubby, we consider very fat. And someone skinny here is probably average there. And people would care. They would make fun of you for it. They don’t even try to hide it, or be subtle, they’ll say it to your face.”
She explained to me that she’d struggled with body shaming issues for much of her life. Though her BMI was within a healthy range, she emphasized the different expectations upon her. She’d grown up with enough insults to her size that she began to associate her own body with shame and negativity.
Lu is not alone. Carly Staley and Ginny Zhan conducted a body confidence study of Chinese students studying in the United States. They found that “mainstream [Chinese] perceptions of desirable weights are frequently unhealthy and exceptional.”1 The epidemic of body shaming was further examined by a study of eating disorder trends in non-Western countries which revealed that “the prevalence of eating disorders has been rising…”2 While Lu was luckier than many of her peers to escape bulimia and anorexia, the pressures took their toll on her.
More than once, Lu considered covering up her face with powder and creams in hopes that others would appreciate her. She pondering if the discomfort to forcing herself into something she wasn’t would be worth the peace. But there were compromises she simply could not make. Her height, over a half a foot taller than China’s statistical average of 5’, was considered to be unfitting for a woman.3
The pervasive feeling of being ostracized by her own culture led Lu to struggle with identity-shaming, deliberately distancing herself from other Chinese. She was embarrassed to associate with her peers. The emotional toll weighed heavily on her confidence and sense of worth. Feeling a compulsion due to the social anxiety, Lu strove to transform her body in the hopes that she could earn the acceptance of her friends if only she were beautiful.
“I really did consider myself fat,” Lu told me, lying back and peeking down at herself. She has maintained a healthy, average weight since I’d met her. Yet when viewing herself, she remarked “I really should work out more, now, too…” and pinched at her thigh. I could feel that she was still sensitive to it, sore from all those years of constant battery.
I pressed her further, asking if she could remember any significant moments she’d experienced that exemplify the pressure to conform to strict body standards.
“You know, sometimes the kids at school would say things. It happened all the time.” It was a reality of the culture she was born into, and thus she couldn’t recall any particularly exceptional moments.
But her expression then changed and she scoffed. “Well, I guess there was this one time…” I knew I’d found her story.
After dismissing the example as stupid multiple times, Lu succumbed to my coaxing and told me of an incident when she was about eight years old.
“You know those embarrassing moments you try so hard to forget that you end up remembering them for years?”
Lu was out and about in her neighborhood, pounding the pavement on her way home from playing at a friend’s place. As she walked along the sidewalk she stumbled upon two women strolling back home from grocery shopping, women whom she vaguely recognized from her father’s workplace. Lu kept in pace behind them.
They glanced back at her and then huddled closer. Though the women were unaware, Lu overheard every word of their conversation as they began to whisper to one another. “I wonder who this kid is.”
“I know her. Haven’t you seen her around? She’s Mr. Zhang’s daughter.”
“Oh. Well that’s unfortunate.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Look again. She’s so fat. It’s hard to imagine that someone like Mr. Zhang would have a daughter like her.” The woman clicked her tongue and shot a pitiful look over her shoulder.
“Yes, I understand. He’s so successful at work, and so nice, he deserves to have a beautiful daughter at home!”
“It’s too bad.”
Lu stopped on the sidewalk. She let her arms go limp at her sides. A familiar sting grew across her cheeks. She merely watched the two women go on without her, their shadows shrinking away.
Then with a sudden burst of determination, Lu charged ahead of them, blocking their path so they had to pause, startled, before Lu delivered onto them her dirtiest, nastiest face and made absolutely sure they both got a great big look at it. She stared right into their eyeballs and gave a haughty “humph!” before she stomped off in a huff.
I could only imagine the expressions they made. Once my belly-laughs subsided, I asked Lu if she regretting doing it. She thought for a moment before informing me that no, her only regret, to this day, is that she didn’t do even more.
After the interview, I found myself in bemused, respectful awe of Lu’s perseverance through some tough social pressures, her ability to find the humor in even the most embarrassing of situations, and yes, even her petty victory over two judgmental women who tried to put her down.
This story will end with a message to those who belittled Lu’s worth for frivolous reasons, failing to appreciate the person they couldn’t see her for. Lu’s humor is a testament to her ability to move on from you and your words. She isn’t one to let herself dwell in self-pity. Rather, she has grown enough now to look back and laugh, and to look forward and blossom. She doesn’t do what she does to prove herself to those of you who undervalued her, but rather accomplishes her life goals for herself. And the person who had the pleasure of interviewing her would like to leave you with one last bit of Lu. It’s a small bit of pettiness, one which Lu, for her forgiveness, would not give you now, but what I am not yet above: an artist’s impression of what those ladies so wholly deserved.
1Staley, Carly, and Ginny Zhan. “Perceptions of Beauty Among Female Chinese Students in the United States and China.” Kennesaw Journal of Undergraduate Research 31 Aug. 2011. Web.
2Makino, Maria, Koji Tsuboi, and Lorraine Dennerstein. “Prevalence of Eating Disorders: A Comparison of Western and Non-Western Countries.” Medscape General Medicine. US National Library of Medicine, 27 Sept. 2004. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
3Langtree, Ian. “Height Chart of Men and Women in Different Countries.” Disabled World. 1 Nov. 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. <http://www.disabled-world.com/artman/publish/height-chart.shtml>.
Christine Ewert is a recent high-distinction graduate from the University of Iowa with bachelors degrees in English and Cinema. A writer, editor, artist, and all-around dabbler in the arts, Christine currently resides in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where she spends her time job hunting, gaming, and geeking about the web.