beauty standards

“pretense,” oil on canvas

On trips back to China, it was always amusing to hear relatives praise my height, considering my grand stature of five-two. (You can imagine how short the local girls were.) But quickly followed by that would be acclamations for my skin color, or the lack thereof. Bái. That’s the word for white. There’s even a Chinese proverb, Yī bái zhē sān chǒu, which translates as “A white complexion can hide all other faults.”

At the time, I did not yet understand the notion of racial hierarchy due to skin color. Growing up in the Bay Area as an Asian American, I’ve been exposed to cross-cultural interactions throughout my life: I’ve enjoyed Biryani at Indian parties or Rugelach at Jewish ones, sometimes being the only Chinese girl there. I’ve tried learning Hangul, binged anime with my brother, and I’ve taken my racially-diverse friend group to eat hotpot. I’ve blissfully nested myself among the motley inhabitants of Silicon Valley, a suburban bubble where I’ve been privileged enough to never have experienced overt discrimination for my skin color.

But eventually, the deeply embedded legacy of race structures made its way into the forefront of my consciousness, served to me on a silver platter called the beauty industry. Unknowingly, I had been sucked into its perpetuation of colorism and marked exactly where I wanted to fall on that color spectrum. As a child, I internalized East Asian beauty standards and glorified fairness. Fair skin somehow became synonymous with positive, lovely adjectives. Fair was beautiful, fair was attractive; subsequently, dark skin was unalluring—it was inferior. I wish I was kidding, but I remember on a trip back to China, my aunt told me watermelon rind would whiten skin thus I sat on the couch chomping pink watermelon flesh to rub the green rind all over my body.

Later on, in middle school and early high school, I began to hyper-fixate on my ethnic features. I wanted the big, doe eyes and tall, slim noses of Asian celebrities, and secretly wanted double eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty to physically realize those ideals. At the time, I hadn’t noticed how Eurocentric the Asian mainstream beauty ideals were, and looking back, I was actually hoping to mold myself into my Caucasian counterparts since Asian media subscribed to Western ideals.

Another facet of my quiet disdain for my racial makeup was my exaltation of biracial people. Specifically, half white and half Asian individuals. I saw features of myself in these Wasian or Eurasian people, but those features were, in my mind, enhanced. I was jealous of their natural Western features and how the racially hybrid space they occupied allowed them to be and look Asian, but a seemingly, more beautiful Asian.

Something more confusing cut into my chase for beauty standards. White skin became no longer desirable for me. I was deemed as a ghost and friends would make flippant jokes about how I blended into a white wall, thus I spent a summer oiling my pallor with self-tanner, wanting to look like those sun-kissed Western stars instead of those Asian porcelain dolls I had previously looked up to.

The overall landscape of American beauty ideals also began shifting and diversifying, but in a way that still centered around whiteness. I saw Caucasian women wearing the features of women of color. Box braids that held deep ancestral roots for Black women, became an Instagram photo for Kim Kardashian, nothing more than a disposable accessory that can be donned and then ditched. Fox eyes that Asian women have historically been mocked for were now sexy when adorned on white women, the slanted and almond-shaped look that was once a source of oppression now an aesthetic. 

When Black women wear box braids, they’re kicked out of school, or they’re seen as ghetto and unsophisticated. As for people tugging on their eyes to mimic the natural physical features of a particular race—well, maybe it’s just to show off how good their winged eyeliner looks. There may not have been malicious intent in sporting these racially coded looks, but I believe I and other women of color have the right to find specific actions offensive when we’re so personally implicated.

While everyone deserves the right to change their nose as they see fit, it’s worth noting that there exists a racial history that influences the current standards. I’ve spent my whole life conforming to Western ideals and after being aware of its damaging implications to my own ethnic background, I might spend the rest of my life navigating the complexity of internalized racial oppression. I hope American media continues to champion the representation of monolids, chocolate tones, and expand its definition of beauty, heroines, and protagonists. And as a minority female, I hope to continue making the conscious effort to relearn my definition of beauty and value the features that connect me to my cultural roots.

– julie

tangyuan, glutinous rice balls

drawn with procreate

tangyuan

Tangyuan are chewy, round rice balls made from glutinous rice flour. You can eat them plain, but fillings such as black sesame, red bean, or peanut paste make for a sweet surprise. Tangyuan is served in a simple bowl of hot water or sometimes, in a soup of sweet fermented rice, it’s sour taste balancing the sweetness of the rice balls. Sometimes the dessert is topped off with fragrant osmanthus flowers for even more flavor!

 In China, Lunar New Year is a grand festival that lasts for fifteen days. The last day is called the Lantern Festival, or yuanxiao jie. On this day, Chinese families eat Tangyuan together to celebrate the coming of a prosperous new year. 

The round shape of Tangyuan symbolizes unity and harmony. Doesn’t it also look like a full moon? The Lantern Festival is on the first full moon of the lunar calendar. The words Yuan xiao mean “first evening”, and it’s actually another moniker for this dessert. 

You may be wondering…what’s the difference between Lunar New Year and, well, regular New Year? Lunar New Year is based on the lunar calendar, which starts on the first new moon of the year rather than on January 1st like the Gregorian calendar. In this phase, the moon is a barely-noticeable sliver. Since many Asian holidays follow the cycle of the moon, they likely start on different days for each calendar year. Confusing, but pretty cool, right? 

cultural comparison

Lunar New Year is not just celebrated in China. In Vietnam it’s called Tet and families share traditional food like Banh Chung, or sticky rice cake. Korean Seollal is often accompanied with ddeokguk, or rice cake soup. Many Asian cultures have their own holiday customs but they seem to have one thing in common: delicious food! 

an odd choice of breakfast

My uncle digging into his breakfast

My uncle is a tall and lively man. He blurts out English phrases in a terrible accent, chain-smokes, and worships white wine. But since he remarried and now busies himself with changing diapers and patting a milky-skinned baby’s back until he burps, his rituals consists less of the latter two. But more than his ability to swig hard liquor, I’m fascinated by his daily choice of breakfast: a big bowl of beef noodles from a noodle shop about five minutes away from our apartment. 

Gud-eh Muhning was the greeting I woke up to at the early hour of six one morning. My uncle dragged me out of bed and the two of us made our way to the noodle shop, him with a light bounce in his steps, me still picking crust from my puffy eyes. We arrived to see other locals slurping dough strands loudly, stopping periodically to drink the broth and vocalize their content with a noisy, breathy Ahhh!

The waiter brought over the noodle dish with green, wilted water spinach and thin slices of salty beef bathed in a pool of red, spicy broth. I watched as my uncle expertly handled the chopsticks and weaved them through the strands like he was spinning gold. He ordered a bowl for me as well, and we spent the next ten minutes slurping and chewing and sighing. 

Although here in the states, my breakfast consists of yogurt, bread, eggs, or oatmeal, I find myself craving noodles and missing my uncle’s awful English skills from time to time.

– julie

hotpot: a communal experience

A giant, bubbling pot of stew sits in the middle of a table. Colorful plates of sliced marble meat, leafy greens, fish balls, enoki mushrooms, daikon, and vermicelli are laid out. Several chopsticks fish for food within the boiling broth as friendly conversations and laughter fill the room. The food goes on a three-stop journey: it’s first cooked in the pot, then dipped in sauce, before finally reaching the mouth of a happy camper. This is how you eat Chinese hotpot, or huo guo, which literally means “fire pot.”

Image via Anatola Howard on Twitter

But what exactly is hotpot? Since virtually anything can be boiled in the soup, it’s more of a cooking method than it is a dish with specific ingredients. However, it’s best to view hotpot as an experience. It’s a communal activity where friends and family can talk, laugh, and enjoy delicious food at the same time. Hotpot, in essence, is what you make of it!

Given how big China is, it’s not a surprise that hotpot varies from region to region. Sichuan hotpot is notoriously spicy with its numbing Sichuan peppercorns and chilli flakes sprinkled in a red soup base. Don’t be embarrassed if your face is flushed and you’re sweating buckets while eating. Pro tip: have some cold ice tea or milk on hand! If you’re a seafood lover, Cantonese hotpot may be more up your alley: ingredients like shrimp, fish, or clams are cooked in a mild but refreshing seafood broth. 

Sichuan hotpot (Image by VCG Photo)

Another important element of hotpot is the dipping sauce. The options are wide-ranging and customizable to your palate. There’s sesame oil, peanut sauce, Shacha sauce (Chinese barbeque sauce), soy sauce… Additionally, you can toss in cilantro, garlic, scallions, crushed peanuts—you get the point. There are no rules in the game of hotpot!

Okay, I know I just said there aren’t any rules. But there are some guidelines you can follow to ensure the best hotpot experience.

  • Here are some classic ingredients if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the options: sliced lamb and beef, tofu skin, fish balls, luncheon meat, napa cabbage, spinach, vermicelli noodles, enoki mushrooms, and daikon radish (Still a lot of options…but variety is key!) 
  • Can’t seem to pick up the food with your chopsticks? Use a strainer scoop!
  • Cook the food gradually. Don’t try to put everything in the pot at once because meats, vegetables, and noodles have different cooking times.
  • Don’t eat it alone— Hotpot tastes better when eaten with friends and family.

Cultural Comparison: Many Asian countries have their own version of hotpot. In Japan, it’s called Shabu Shabu while Vietnamese hotpot is called lẩu. Have you tried any of these? Which one’s your favorite? 

– julie

noodles

a culinary sensation

Sometimes the simplest things in life provide the most versatility. A combination of flour and water brings us noodles, a popular multicultural dish enjoyed all over the globe. The origin of noodles is a contentious debate. Some say Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy after his voyage back from China. Others say that Roman poets have written verses about noodles dated back to twenty centuries ago.

In 2005, archeologists unearthed a 4000-year-old bowl of noodles buried ten feet underground in China, making this the oldest known evidence of noodles.

Picture from the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Regardless of which country invented noodles, it’s safe to say that anyone can enjoy this culinary sensation. 

noodles and chinese culture

Food has always been an important facet of Chinese culture. Noodles are an everyday staple in China but they’re also eaten during special occasions and festivals. I’m sure we’ve all celebrated our birthday with a huge slice of cake. In China, it’s just as common for the birthday girl or boy to eat a bowl of “longevity noodles.” Called chang shou mian (长寿面), its long strands bless the celebrant with a long life. The noodles must be carefully eaten though— it’s believed that cutting the strands with your teeth will cut your lifespan short as well! 

hand-pulled longevity noodles (image via China Daily)

Noodles reflect how wonderfully diverse our world is. Different cultures have their own variation of noodle dishes, whether that be Italian cacio e pepe, Vietnamese pho, Indian kheer, Japanese ramen, Egyptian koshari, Korean japchae, Peruvian tallarines verde—the list goes on! China alone has hundreds of regional noodle dishes. Sichuan Dan dan mian is coated with spicy chilli oil and topped with minced meat. The refreshing Shanxi liang pi or cold skin noodles are dressed with peanut sauce and garnished with sliced cucumbers. Hand-stretched Lanzhou beef noodles are served in a steaming bowl of tasty broth.

Sichuan dan dan mian (Image via Seonkyoung Longest)

If you get the chance to visit China, may I suggest noodles as your next meal?

– julie

zongzi and the dragon boat festival

Chinese tamale

You can think of Zongzi as the Chinese version of a Mexican tamale. Also called a sticky rice dumpling, Zongzi is glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. After being molded into a triangle or pyramid shape, the dumpling is boiled in water and the ingredients cook into a soft, sticky texture. In the north, the dumplings are often stuffed with sweet fillings like red beans and jujubes (Chinese dates) while Southern variations include savory fillings such as pork belly and shiitake mushrooms. You can enjoy it hot or cold, drizzled with honey or soy sauce, but remember—unwrap the leaves before digging in!

The Dragon Boat Festival

Zongzi is a classic food enjoyed during the Dragon Boat Festival, or duan wu jie (端午节). It’s celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month to commemorate famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan (476-221 BC). Qu Yuan served as the king’s minister in the State of Chu during the Warring States Period. He was beloved for his intelligence and loyalty, and these traits persisted even after the king banished him from his country. But without Qu Yuan’s advice, the State of Chu soon fell to the State of Qin. Overcome with grief in watching the demise of his country, the poet drowned himself in a river.

Legend says that when news of Qu Yuan’s death spread, mourning civilians rowed their boats to the river and dropped rice balls in the water, hoping the fish would feed on those instead to preserve Qu Yuan’s body. Since then, boat racing and eating Zongzi have become celebratory customs during the Dragon Boat Festival to honor the tragic, patriotic passing of Qu Yuan.

– julie 

tanghulu, candied hawthorn

Chinese “candied apples”

On the chilly, winter streets of Beijing, you spot an odd sight: Street vendors selling bright-red spheres stacked on long, wooden sticks. The smooth and glossy spectacle looks like a glass figurine! You find out it’s edible and as you bite into them, you’re alarmed to hear a loud crunch.

That’s the sound of eating Tanghulu, or candied fruit skewers. This Chinese snack is similar to candied apples in which fruits are coated with a sweet sugar syrup that harden into a shiny shell. Traditionally, hawthorn berries are used but other fruits like strawberries, kiwis, grapes, or mandarin oranges can be made into Tanghulu as well. The combination of tart fruit and sweet candy makes for a lovely treat to enjoy. 

The Story of Zao Jun

In ancient Chinese religion, people prayed to many gods and goddesses for good fortune. One of the most famous gods is Zao Jun ( 灶君), the Kitchen God. His job was to report to the Jade Emperor ruling over Heaven on the family’s behavior throughout the year. It’s like when your teacher handed out report cards to your parents back in middle school—a nerve-wracking experience if you happened to be failing geometry. (What? I would never.)

by Granger on Fine Art America

That’s why around Chinese New Year, families would offer Tanghulu to Zao Jun and hope the sugary snack will “sweeten” his words. Perhaps the Kitchen God can be bought off with candy but don’t try to bribe your teachers in this way.

– julie

tao zi, peaches

Peaches in Ancient China

Originating from China, Peaches or Tao zi were first cultivated by farmers around 4000 years ago. Emperors loved to feast on Taozi, so if peaches happen to be your favorite fruit, you have noble taste. In Chinese literature and art, peaches symbolize longevity and are portrayed as magical, divine fruits. One of poet Tao Qian’s most famous works is titled Peach Blossom Spring

All at once he came upon a grove of blossoming peach trees which lined either bank for hundreds of paces. No tree of any other kind stood amongst them, but there were fragrant flowers, delicate and lovely to the eye, and the air was filled with drifting peachbloom.

Tao Qian (translation via Columbia University)

Tao Qian wrote this poem during a period of instability and warfare. This essay describes the fateful discovery of an ethereal utopia where people lived in simplicity and harmony with each other as well as nature. Through this poem, peaches embody the yearning for a peaceful world, a consonance we haven’t fully achieved yet thousands of years later, it seems.

Peaches in Journey to the West

One figure in Chinese mythology that all Chinese children are bound to know is The Monkey King, or Sun Wukong from the 16th century novel “Journey to the West.” The story follows Wukong, a pig-faced demon, a fish spirit, and a Buddhist monk who journeys to India to retrieve sacred scrolls and attain enlightenment.

So, what fateful event led the Monkey King to embark on this journey? Peaches. Magical, divine peaches. The Queen Mother of the West throws an annual Peach Banquet in Heaven where prestigious guests are invited to feast on the Peaches of Immortality. Whoever eats these divine fruits are blessed with youth, wisdom, or the ability to fly. The rarest peachest can even give someone eternal life.

However, the mischievous Monkey King secretly eats all of the most powerful peaches and wreaks havoc in the heavenly courts with his new-found strength. It was Buddha himself who saves the party by banishing Wukong below a mountain for 500 years. Eventually, Wukong redeems himself through the long and difficult journey to India.

Sadly, peaches won’t give us superpowers like the Monkey King so we’ll have to confront the challenges of life as regular human beings. It’s alright, the fruit of hardwork is the sweetest!

– julie

mooncake and the chinese lunar goddess

medium: watercolor

Mooncakes, 月饼

One of the most beloved Chinese desserts is mooncake, or yuebing (月饼). Mooncakes are traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival on the lunar calendar’s eighth month.

Different regions have their own variations of this soft, decadent pastry with them boast a plethora of shapes, sizes, flavors, and fillings. The popular Cantonese-style mooncake dons a patterned, golden crust and envelopes a dense, lotus seed paste filling. A salted egg yolk often sits in the middle of the filling, reminiscent of a full moon in the sky. Hong Kong snow skin mooncake has a chewy, mochi skin filled with creamy custard. Five nuts mooncake pays tribute to its name by being stuffed with walnuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds, sesame seeds, and olive kernels. Savory Suzhou meat mooncake has a flaky crust filled with minced pork. The variations are truly endless, covering all spectrums of flavor notes and textural sensations.

The Legend of Chang’e (嫦娥)

One Mid-Autumn festival legend tells the story of Chang’e (嫦娥) and how she became the goddess of the moon. In ancient times, it is said that there were ten suns hanging in the sky, scorching the humans on earth, forcing their crops to wither away and wells to run dry. The husband of Chang’e, Hou Yi, was a skilled archer who shot down nine of the ten suns and returned harmony on Earth. For his good deed, the gods gave him an elixir of immortality that served as his gateway to heaven. But unwilling to separate from his beloved wife, Hou Yi stored the elixir away.

Hou Yi’s apprentice, Peng Meng, caught wind of this magic elixir. He yearned for eternal life and decided to steal this blessing for himself. Chang’e caught the greedy apprentice in his act and in frantic desperation to stop him, swallowed the pill. She floated up towards the sky and watched the world shrink beneath her dangling feet. 

In order to stay close to her husband, Chang’e chose to reside on the moon. Now, people pay tribute to the moon goddess by eating mooncakes and admiring the full moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Who knows, maybe you’ll spot Chang’e drifting around the gray planetary mass, looking longingly at the place she once called home. 

the grandmother i never met

Embroidered binding shoes, Image via eyeofsam

Four bowls of steaming white rice and colorful plates of Chinese home dishes crowded the kitchen table. As per usual, my dad’s sonorous voice expressed his opinions on trifling matters, addressing no one in particular while our chopsticks clinked as the bass beat. I like to joke that you could sit my dad in a room alone and he’ll strike up a jolly conversation with the wall. 

My parents like to reminisce about their childhood over dinner, the famous “back in the days” stories. They would lament over the harsh lifestyle in rural China, how rations of meat were so tiny and fresh fruit was akin to candy. I would listen as I helped myself to the gleaming plate of Kung Pao chicken or twice-cooked pork belly in front of me, trying my best to sympathize. 

When two hard-working immigrant parents built a comfortable living for me, I grapple with how to approach my privilege. What if my formative struggles were one of weight and acne, and not of having enough food on the table?

Over dinner, I typically absorb myself with musings of my own while the background noise of sentence segments played like a broken record: S&P 500…you should major in accounting…America gives free money to lazy people… in Dream of the Red Chamber…Elon Musk…

On this particular meal, my dad settled on the topic of his birth mother. She passed away in her forties, so I never called her grandma in person. He told us how my grandmother refused to undergo the age-old tradition of foot-binding. The process sounded absurd and inhumane. They would crush your bones to mold you into a symbol of status and beauty. A young girl’s dainty steps proved she didn’t labor in the fields and had servants to tend to her needs. 

Maybe like me, my grandma’s formative struggles did include beauty standards, the difference being that she fiercely opposed them while I, though not wanting to maim my toes, furiously chased after my perfect ideal of Eurocentric features.

“They wouldn’t let her go to school but she forced her way in anyways,” continued my dad.

I asked him if girls in that period weren’t allowed an education.

“Families were too poor to send the girls. She insisted, though,” my dad said with a mouthful of rice. He had a habit of talking too much and too loud with food in his mouth and I’ve contemplated whether to learn the Heimlich Maneuver. 

Just a day earlier, I complained about despising school and AP exams. I felt a slight twinge of guilt as I mulled over the stories of my grandmother. 

Academic stress is surely unfavorable but I realized it’s a struggle I’m privileged to have. I don’t have to fight for an education because my family cannot afford to send the daughters to school after they’ve already sent the sons. As for my quiet but ongoing pursuit of feminine beauty ideals, maybe I should see it for what it is— a trend that will go out of style. Foot-binding is surely a relic of the past.

– julie