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National Day Banquet:
“Oh look at her, in that evening dress, Kimberly’s in her element tonight, she’s real eye candy!” Or so declared Paul Fitzgerald, the wealthy California construction magnate and financial underwriter of the Tentmakers missionary group, as he saw his wife Kimberly exit the front entrance of Peter Hall. Paul stood beside me as I, along with several other teachers and two non-faculty representatives, waited for Kimberly to join us and board the mini-van for a special evening trip into Zhengzhou. The university had been invited to send a small group to a special National Day Banquet at the Zhengzhou Four Seasons Sofitel Hotel.
Kimberly wore a long black sleeveless gown. It had the requisite plunging V-shaped neckline and inverted V-shaped hemline on each side exposing her legs. Despite being out of the modeling business for several years, leaving it after marrying Paul and coming to China to set up the “California Love” photography studio, Kimberly had kept up her figure. In fact, she was thin to the point of being anorexic. But she certainly looked great that evening; it was just a little odd, if not bracing, to hear Paul refer to his wife as “eye candy.” Indeed, when I passed on that comment to Abby Reedy, she exclaimed, “That’s creepy!”
In addition to Kimberly, three other females, all of whom were teachers, went to the National Day banquet. Katie Mack also got invited; like Kimberly, she had long dishwater blonde hair. Another young lady from the UC Davis Mafia, Brie Charne, came along as well. In addition to having golden blonde hair, Brie had been a high school cheerleader and UC Davis sorority sister and was quite attractive in a natural sort of way. An avid jogger, she spent much of her spare time running to get into shape for the Beijing Great Wall Marathon in the spring. Both Brie and Lyndi Milton participated in that race. Lori Enfield was one the one non-blonde member of this quartet.
I think my getting invited was mainly due to having the Ph.D., which finally proved to be good for something. The other male teacher in our group, Roarke Congdon, also had an advanced degree, an MA in art or art history. Two other fellows represented SIAS. One was its Chinese head, President Li, while the other, Frank Wang, organized outings for the foreign teachers.
The National Day Holiday commemorates the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China and start of what the Chinese call “New China.” On October 1, 1949, Mao addressed the masses gathered in Tian’anmen Square from the upper balcony of the Forbidden City’s outer citadel—his large picture continues to hang from that spot, which is also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace (天安门城楼 [tian1’an1men2cheng2lou2]). There he famously proclaimed, “中国人民从此站起来了 (zhong1guo2 ren2min2 cong2ci3 zhan4qi3lai2le5),” or “The Chinese people have risen up!”
Thus China marks the anniversary of this event with a long holiday at the beginning of October. Chinese people receive one of their two so-called “Golden Week” vacations—the other falls on the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year—at this time of the year. In reality, the official holiday lasts just three days. However, depending on the day on which October 1st falls, people will work one or both days on the weekend prior to or after the holiday, in order to have five weekdays off. The Chinese Government has done this in an effort to get people to travel more and boost the domestic tourism industry.
Since this particular National Day Banquet was being put on by the Henan Provincial Government, its top leaders were there, including the Party Secretary and Provincial Premier. A lot of top People’s Liberation Army (PLA) brass had also been invited to the event. And a special table was set aside for foreign VIP “Yellow River” friendship medal recipients. This group consisted entirely of industrialists, including several Japanese and one German, who had provided Henan with badly needed direct foreign investment in manufacturing. The German fellow came with his much younger Chinese wife.
The lower level government officials attending the banquet sat with the ordinary foreign guests. Lori and I shared a table with one such official, as well as the director of Zhengzhou University’s foreign office, and four other foreigners (the rest of the SIAS delegation sat at different tables). These foreigners consisted of three American students, two of which were young Chinese-American ladies, studying at Zhengzhou University, and a Thai cosmetics magnate. The latter lived in New York and was visiting Henan on a business trip.
A bit of music played on traditional Chinese stringed instruments kicked off banquet. The Provincial Premier then gave a speech. Our table was not only close to the ones set aside for the provincial leadership and foreign VIPs, but the speaker’s podium as well, so I got a good look at this fellow. He appeared to be in his 50s and was a big, beefy man with a butch haircut. However, the Premier also had very bushy eyebrows—he clearly needed to borrow his wife’s eyebrow clippers. All of this made him look a cross between an aged Marine Corps drill sergeant who had let his body really go to seed and a character from the Muppets.
Chinese governmental leaders have been known to give long-winded and boring addresses. However, to my pleasant surprise, the Premier spoke for just 20 minutes. He spent most of his time reeling off statistics about rising living standards and overall economic development in the province. All of this, the Premier added, stemmed from the provincial government’s faithful implementation of the ideology of “Deng Xiaopingism.” Since a large number of foreign guests had been invited to the banquet, this boilerplate address was translated into English. It was followed by a short recognition of the Yellow River Friendship Medal winners and a bit more instrumental music.
We then got down to the main business of the evening, namely eating and drinking. As befits a National Day Banquet put on by the Provincial Government, its venue, the Zhengzhou Sofitel, was not only the finest hotel in the city, but also had one of its best restaurants. The multi-course feast included roast chicken, a kind of mini-steak topped with some green concoction streaked across the top of meat, like frosting on a cake, and plenty of seafood, including clams, scallops, shrimp, and sea sponges. Save for the latter, all of it was delicious; even the Sofitel’s crack chefs could not make the sea sponge palatable. While we all had small tumblers filled with Baijiu for toasting, we could “干杯 (gan1 bei1),” Chinese for “bottoms up,” with glasses of Great Wall Red Wine.
At formal Chinese dinner parties, it is bad form to drink individually. One instead drinks with everyone else, after he/she or someone else has proposed a toast. I had not boned up beforehand on this bit of Chinese banquet etiquette, but had done my homework on toasting mechanics. I thus took care to ensure that when my wineglass met that of the Henan Government official, its rim was lower than his, so as to signify deference and respect.
The Provincial Government official spoke little English, so he did not have much to say to me, Lori or the other three Americans. But the fellow from Zhengzhou University’s Foreign Office, who appeared to be in his early 30s, had excellent English, even though he had never been outside of China (in fact, he had hardly ventured beyond Henan). This made him quite exceptional, as nearly every Chinese person I subsequently met with good to excellent English had spent some time in America, Australia, Canada, or Britain.
He came with the three other Americans who shared the table with us, and I had a nice time chatting with them. The same was true for the Thai cosmetics magnate, who spoke excellent English and was a pleasant and interesting fellow to boot. I had also done my homework regarding the exchange of business cards and brought plenty of homemade ones—SIAS had yet to issue us official ones—and swapped cards with the Chinese and Thai dinner guests. By contrast, Lori, who was naturally rather shy, seemed more than a little uncomfortable at the banquet.
Brie and Katie, on the other hand, had a ball. With their fair skin and blonde hair, they were seen by the Chinese banquet guests as a pair of golden girls and got plenty of attention. The Chinese have a saying, “一白遮百丑 (yi1bai2 zhe1 bai2 chou3),” which basically means, “Whiteness hides a hundred flaws.” Hence fair-skinned blondes, who are also tall (165-170cm) and thin and have an oval face with a pronounced nose bridge, big eyes and willow leaf-shaped eyebrows, are considered to be especially beautiful in Chinese eyes.
Thanks to these criteria, even Chinese women seen as being quite lovely in the West fail to be viewed in that way in their own country. For example, Luo Yan, a mainland Chinese supermodel who achieved great success in the Paris fashion world, was described in an infamous 2005 blog post as being just “so-so.” The post went on to highlight her “big round face with small eyes, [and] big thick lips.”
A similar verdict exists on the movie star Zhang Ziyi. Despite being voted in 2001 as one of PEOPLE magazine’s 50 most beautiful people in the world, she is also considered so-so or even a “little ugly” in China. Many of my Chinese friends, especially women, felt that way about Zhang and also found her to be “too arrogant.” Thus, when pressed in a 2005 CHINA DAILY story on beauty standards in China, Peng Bo, President of the Shanghai Time Cosmetic Surgery Hospital, refused to give a direct answer. He instead hemmed and hawed: “I would only say her face measures up to the standard of beauty. Zhang’s job requires her to be assertive.” No wonder the starlet eventually found herself a foreign boyfriend, the multimillionaire Vivi Nevo.
The problem for Chinese women is that the physical attributes defining beauty in China are not at all characteristically Chinese. Since most Chinese women naturally have yellow, rather than fair skin, large numbers spend a small fortune on skin whiteners. They also go out of their way to avoid exposure to the sun, donning umbrellas on clear summer days and avoiding the poolside or beach until 5 pm, when the sun has started to set. One big reason for the obsession about whiteness is that darker skin gets one tagged as a peasant or migrant worker. Having skin fair indicates that a woman has a good white-collar job that does not involve getting exposed to the elements, especially harsh sunlight. Like so many other things in China, conceptions of female beauty are bound with social class.
At the same time, cosmetic surgery has become a $3 billion a year industry in China. While nose jobs, eyelid surgery, and cheek implants, all aimed at “fixing” typical Chinese female facial characteristics, are the most common procedures, breast enlargement is also popular. The Chinese character combination for the last procedure pairs “隆 (long1),” or “bosom/breast,” with “胸 (xiong1),” or “prosperous, flourishing, booming.” So “boob job” in Mandarin can literally be translated into English as “booming/bountiful boobs.” And in 2004, China initiated a beauty contest for women who had undergone plastic surgery, the “Miss Artificial Beauty Pageant.”
Thus while leaders all over the world love to be seen being flanked by one or more cute blondes, those in China especially crave such photo opportunities. Well, that at least could be said about one top Henan Provincial Government leader on one 2005 National Day Banquet. As the eating and drinking were winding down, the Provincial Premier made a quick beeline toward Brie and Katie to have his picture taken with this pair.
Katie naturally found all of that to be thrilling and recounted this story numerous times in the Peter Hall faculty canteen, especially to visitors. And who could blame her? She was, after all, a young 20-something valley girl from Shafter, California. For its part, the university certainly created some “关系 (guan1xi1)” that evening. And “关系”is “关系,” regardless of how it is generated.