Before I went to China, I couldn’t even remember the last time I wore a pastel. I’d exorcised everything pale pink and peach from my closet, instead preferring the deep, scruffy olives and maroons and blacks of my thrift-store wardrobe. No one would mistake me for some prep princess, ever.
But over the years, pastels started creeping into my wardrobe. It started with a T-shirt here, a tank top there. And before you know it, I’m wearing an outfit — just as I did yesterday — that would leave the old me screaming in horror: a cheerful pastel striped knit tank with blinding white cargo shorts (ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!).
China changed me.
I’ll never forget my first full day in the Middle Kingdom. I dressed in my usual, defiant clothes — a military green knit top, and don’t-mess-with-me khaki shorts, baggy (just to make me look even more dominant) — as I flitted from one famous Beijing site to another: the Forbidden City, Beihai Park, Tian’anmen Square.
But as I wandered around town, I couldn’t help but notice the young Chinese women — and what they wore. It was as if they were all in some strange, off-season Easter parade: pretty pastels, sweet, soft-colored shorts and skirts, and the kind of cute little hairclips I threw out before entering junior high. When did Chinese women start looking so…well…adorable? I wondered.
By the time I arrived in Zhengzhou, I knew it wasn’t some feeling Beijing craze.
I remember strolling down Huayuan Road, days after I set foot in this loess-swept Central China city, and peering into Baleno, this hip clothing retailer from Hong Kong that blasted a wave of techopop into the streets. I peered in, curious, and the colors and styles looked like a Disney cartoon had exploded everywhere.
So did my classroom — or, at least, the half with my female students, who dressed like never-been-kissed ingenues.
And my first Chinese boyfriend, a dark James Dean type from Zhengzhou, wanted me to join them. “I’d love to see you wear some bright clothing,” he once whispered to me flirtatiously. Months later, he bought me a sweater in asparagus green with a raspberry stripes — it was my first step in the light direction.
As long as I stayed in China, brighter colors kept sneaking into my outfits. A sweater splashed with a bubble-gum pink and banana yellow pattern. A white tunic with an aqua-blue and magenta neckline. A baby blue knit top with pink and brown stripes. A turquoise polo with pink stripes. A cozy turtleneck sweater in salmon and coffee stripes. Pretty soon, my wardrobe looked dangerously darling.
But while I flirted with danger by dress, the public somehow approved. My husband, then boyfriend, would eye me up and down deliciously, remarking how feminine I looked. Chinese coworkers, especially women, showered me with praise for moving my clothing closer to their side of the color spectrum.
Still, old color connections die hard. That’s why I bought that fire-engine red plaid shirt from Giordano, and that navy-blue fleece jacket from the outdoor clothing section (secretly, my favorite) at Parkson’s. Ah, that navy jacket — it seemed to counteract any excessive cuteness in my tops.
But the navy jacket also did something else, especially after I cut my hair as short as a boy’s — people started to mistake me for a guy.
“Is there something wrong with me?” I asked my Chinese friends. “Can’t they tell I’m a woman?”
“Boys usually wear this color,” one told me, tugging at my navy jacket. And as I looked around, none of the men passing us by wore anything beyond the gray-brown-Russian blue spectrum. Mortified, I shoved my darkest tops into the back of my closest, and even donated away a few hideously unfeminine ones.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated an odd intermingling of adorable outfits from China and more edgy apparel from the US. And, while my pre-China self might cringe over the pastels, my post-China self knows better. After all, as the American wife of a Chinese, I straddle two countries and two sensibilities — why shouldn’t my wardrobe do the same?
Has China (or life in another country) changed how you dress?