“Beauty” could barely describe the two girls hovering over me for a makeup session two weekends ago. Both had smooth black hair reminiscent of a calligraphy brush dipped in black ink, eyes the color of pu-er tea and lips more brilliant than the fiery red pomegranate blossoms. Their smiles illuminated the entire room.
But in their minds, they weren’t the real beauty. I was.
“Look at her eyes! So big!” one of the women squealed, after powdering my face.
“Her nose is so straight,” the other sighed. She then squeezed it gently a couple of times, giggling like a schoolgirl.
But when they moved to my eyes – and specifically, my mascara – the excitement waved over the room in sudden tsunami fashion. “Her eyelashes are curved. Can you believe that?” Several women from outside rushed in to take a peek. A makeup artist next to me and even her client pulled the curtains back and lunged their heads to admire my lashes. “She doesn’t even need an eyelash curler!”
Laying there on the table, I felt like some sort of model woman from another world on display – and given my sweltering palms and the way I kept crossing my feet, it wasn’t an easy job. If anything, I didn’t understand them at all, or the way they told me “you’re so beautiful” the moment I sat down next to them, before going over to the makeup room.
“But you’re so beautiful!” I pleaded to them in Chinese, hoping somehow my words could powder over their mistaken interest in me. “In the US, people love women like you.”
One of the women winked. “An Eastern beauty, right?” She said it so casually, as if she didn’t really believe in it.
Could I blame her? Growing up, people knew me more for brains than beauty. I swatted away words like “lovely” and “gorgeous” as something that I just couldn’t wear, as something that never fit me. Which is why I thought these compliments didn’t even fit me now. When the women finished, and I looked in the mirror, I almost didn’t even trust that what I saw really was, well, me.
I couldn’t help thinking about that makeup session for days, long after I had rinsed away all of the powder, mascara and lipstick. If beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, when will we – whether this American or a Chinese woman doing makeup in a salon – finally behold the beauty that is our own?
P.S.: To understand why those Chinese women admired my Western features, read the section “Do You Think I’m Pretty” in this article on Understanding Chinese Women.
Western women, have you ever been told — to your surprise — by Chinese that you were beautiful? Chinese women, have you ever been surprised by Westerners who praised your beauty?