My Chinese Husband’s Vanity

Close up photograph of makeup products
When my Chinese husband suggested I have my makeup done at a beauty salon -- just for a reunion with his classmates -- I knew the reason: vanity. (photo by Martin Walls)

While in Hangzhou last weekend for a Chinese friend’s wedding, my Chinese husband John took me to a beauty salon on the West side of the city.

I wanted my hair washed and blow dried, just like I had told John days before over the phone. “I can’t seem to wash the oil out of my scalp,” I sighed. Had I chosen the wrong shampoo? Or was it that darned trickle of water from the showerhead at my Chinese inlaws home, which never seemed strong enough for a woman cursed with an oily scalp? I couldn’t tell anymore, but I did know one thing: “I desperately need a good wash.”

When we walked in, I knew we would ask for a good wash, that one must-have service of every beauty salon in China.

Suddenly, as my husband scanned the service list behind the counter, he gave me this funny, admiring smile, a smile that I have come to know over the years. I’ve seen it every time I returned home from the beauty salon to unveil my latest haircut, or whenever I’ve modeled a new piece of clothing or jewelry that John just adored. When he flashed that smile this time, I had a feeling he wouldn’t let this visit go with just a wash and blow-dry. “Why don’t you get some makeup done while you’re here?”

I cocked my head at John. “Makeup?”

“Nothing too heavy. Just something light, to make you look pretty.”

Makeup? Sure, we were attending a friend’s wedding this evening. But Chinese weddings are notoriously casual jeans and T-shirt affairs that never demanded formality, or especially a professional makeup session.

Then it occurred to me. That night, John and his middle school classmates had planned a reunion night out after the wedding at a karaoke bar. More than a week ago, John had mentioned it in passing: “I think my classmates are coming to the wedding just to see you.” It reminded me of something Susan, a fellow yangxifu, once said about what Chinese men want in a wife:

“depending on his level of vanity, he’ll want a wife who ‘presents well’ outwardly: pretty, well-educated (though not above him), and with good career prospects.”

“Is this about vanity?” I asked John, the “vanity” being that he wanted his wife – who everyone longed to see – to look as gorgeous as possible.

John blushed a little as he grinned at my question. “Vanity,” he confessed.

It may have been his vanity that started it, but my own vanity went along with him. So what if I hardly wear makeup? This woman will never pass up an opportunity for extra pampering at the salon. 😉

Has your husband ever asked you to do something in the name of vanity? Or, husbands, have you ever had your wife look more beautiful because of your own vanity?

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13 thoughts on “My Chinese Husband’s Vanity

  • June 6, 2011 at 3:51 am

    I don’t think “vanity” quite captures it… there is a whole other dimension of how much more your self-worth is not how you yourself feel about yourself, but what others say and seem to think of you.

    Remember a time a teacher told you that you’ll never learn something, keeping you up worried for a night? Something like that would capture the way Chinese seem to approach their self-image…

  • June 6, 2011 at 7:58 am

    Oily hair was a huge problem I had in China, too! I found that the Herbaliost Shampoo and Conditioner for oily hair worked magic! It left my hair clean for 2 days even with the crappy shower we had. It is a bit expensive, but well worth it!

  • June 6, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Recently my boyfriend requested that I do not get any fatter and said that he wished I was thinner because he’s under social pressure. Even though my mom’s always been on my side, she made me feel that what he said was reasonable and I am just over reacting about it. I’m not sure what I feel…

  • June 6, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Haha, now I know what to do!
    I need to nurture vanity in Eugene 🙂

  • June 6, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Love this post. Now I know why my boyfriend was asking if I wanted my hair cutting and was suggesting how I could wear my hair when I last visited him…

    It makes me feel a bit sad whenever I read about how people dress so casually at Chinese weddings – I’m not sure if I would be able to go to a wedding and not dress up 🙁

  • June 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    I hate to actually admit to doing this…. but yes. I did that head cocking to the side and went ahhhh cute! But beyond my sudden girlieness… I do admire your relationship with John with his being able to admit to this many of the things you have told us about.

    Depending how how it has been brought up in the past I have either been extremly annoyed or happy about being asked to get dolled up.

  • June 6, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Oh, that sounds all too familiar. The make-up and the weight issue that Sarah brought up. I used to let it get to me and would often feel like I wasn’t pretty or thin enough. I’ve grown up and have become more confident, but it’s definitely a cultural difference and I love Jocelyn’s go with the flow attitude!

    By the way, it’s good to know Chinese weddings are still informal!

    • June 7, 2011 at 11:18 pm

      Thanks for the comments everyone!

      I wanted to respond especially to @Sarah — personally, I think it’s inexcusable and unreasonable for the people in your life, who you supposedly love and who supposedly love you, to suggest that you need to lose weight simply because of social pressure. Yes, that social pressure exists in China, but it doesn’t mean it is right or we should bend to it. Stay tuned because actually I am answering a question this Friday from a woman in a situation very similar to yours.

  • May 22, 2012 at 4:49 am

    “well-educated (but not above him)” – this attitude would be a dealbreaker for me, culture differences be damned. I wouldn’t care oif a guy was better-educated than me but absolutely could not stay with a man who thought I, just for being the woman in the relationship, could not be better educated than him (regardless of whether or not I am). Just ’cause he’s got man parts and an ego. That relationship would be OVER before you could say 再見 or “byebye 囉".

    I know at least one guy in Taiwan who doesnt think this way and so others must be out there (not that I am looking!)

  • May 22, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    it’s okay now that women are more educated than men. Even educated people are not street smart and fast in figuring out problems/things. I’m the fastest person to see things will go wrong before anything can happen but I’m not the most educated 🙂 . hahhahah heheheheh lol. Being a good hearted person is all I ask for regardless of education. Losing weight is all about being very active, diet and will power. Don’t do it for others. Do it for yourself and then you will lose weight. Trust me I am an exercise freak! I’m stronger than men in their 20’s hahahah heeheh 🙂

  • October 23, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    Vanity, haha. I still find it adorable how much my Chinese boyfriend cares about this details and how much time he is willing to spend on us looking good. Maybe is because in my country Men don’t give that much of importance of how they look. But he really cares. One second he is telling me that we are late and we have to leave as soon as he arrives. Then he gets home and see that I haven’t put any make up on and suddenly is “honey, don’t worry, I can wait for you, take as long as you need. We have time” and throws in “can you put on the red lipstick that I like?” That’s his subtle way of asking me to do my makeup. What amazes me the most is that then even if he was in such a hurry he doesn’t care if I spend an hour doing my makeup, suddenly he is calm and just wait. haha
    Also I can totally imagine the look on your husband face as the same on my boyfriend’s when he ask me if he can choose my outfit when we go out.


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