I confess: I love skulls.  Maybe it's too much heavy metal, maybe it's "The-Nightmare-Before-Christmas-ophilia" that has gripped countless millions.  Whatever the reason, nothing beats a skull for eye-catching appeal and creepiness.

As I mentioned on my previous blog, China doesn't do Death.  At all.  The morbid fascination that The West has with death does not exist here in China.  So naturally one would be confused to see skulls and crossbones everywhere on China's streets.

Now I'm not just talking about rebellious teenagers' punk-rock fashion.  I'm talking EVERYWHERE.  On fashionistas' scarves.  On old ladies' blouses.  On childrens' T-shirts.  On little doggie sweaters, for crying out loud.  Everywhere.
The variety is quite surprising as well.  Rarely will you see blatantly evil, fang-toothed, fiery demon skulls like the kind that we Westerners like to tattoo on ourselves and emblazon on our rock T-shirts and tricked-out lowriders.  The skulls one encounters in China (and the rest of East Asia, from what I've seen on TV) are rather benign and often cutesy skulls.

But they're still SKULLS, people.  Skulls come from dead people, and cutesy skulls come from dead CHILDREN.  Now I can understand if this was a culture enchanted by the gruesome and macabre, but this is China.  I just don't get it.

On a personal note, I think it's cool, actually.  I've got a hoodie with four separate skull designs, and my wife and I have matching skull T-shirts (now I know I've hated on this subject on other people's blogs but when skulls are involved, it's cool, so zip it).  I've always wanted to get a skull tattoo but that would go counter to the "nice guy with tattoos" image I try to maintain.  But a skull is just a skull, just a part of human anatomy. The fact is, death is not cool or fashionable, but it's a reality of life and shouldn't be ignored or feared.  The West is fascinated too much by it, and China is too petrified by it; the balance, like all things, is in the middle.

The last straw came yesterday when my wife and I were visiting a historic temple with one of my wife's friends.  She's a very typical Chinese girl who works in a local hospital, so I was a bit surprised when my wife told me that she has a tattoo.  I said, "Oh, really?" and my wife's friend said that she wanted to get it removed because Chinese men don't like girls with tattoos.  My wife lifted up her friend's shirt so I could see her lower back.  I was expecting a small rose or poorly-done angel, and my eyes nearly bugged out of my head when I saw a scowling skull glaring at me with flames the entire width of her back.  It was the last thing I expected to see on a girl like this, but it just reiterates the paradox I've been talking about.

Of course, I told my wife's friend that all guys like girls with tattoos, no matter what they say ;-P.
 
 
I’m not talking about economic soft power.  I’m talking about the power of grace and delicacy, something which is very well understood in Asia but is seemingly lost on most Westerners.  In the West, power is acquired by and equated with aggression, machismo, boldness, callousness, and often violence.  This kind of power could be termed “hard power,” and it’s very obvious and undeniable.

Yet the idea of “soft power” can be just as persuasive and even as devious as hard power, and as the name suggests, this is something that leans more to the female side of the spectrum.  You could call it “feminine wiles,” but that implies subversive intentions.  Soft power simply means to exert power and influence through softness rather than force.

Women in China are not hard, and women in China don’t want to be hard.  They don’t want to be weak, but they don’t want to influence others through outright aggression and force.  The combined elements of their small physical size, soft features and voice, social and cultural expectations, and China’s historical emphasis on grace and delicacy makes most Chinese women seek to be softer and more feminine in the traditional sense.

Now we Westerners hear the words “feminine,” “soft,” “delicate,” and we think “weak,” “submissive,” “easily manipulated.”  This is hardly the case.  Of course there are countless examples of Chinese girls who are manipulated and subservient to their men, but this is more often due to poor judgment, desperate circumstances and naïveté than innate weakness.  A woman who embodies softness and delicate beauty can wield tremendous power over men, but this is a power that men are more willing to submit to, because it compliments their manliness.  The fact of the matter is that most men don’t like a woman who is aggressive, loud, and coarse, because these are traditional male attributes, and as the Chinese say, a mountain cannot have two tigers.  A man does not prefer a manly woman, just as most women don’t want an effeminate man.  Yin doesn’t want another yin, it wants a yang.  Call it chauvinism, caveman gender politics, whatever; this is the way it is.

In China, and other Asian countries, women understand this.  They don’t want to compete with men to see who can be the most manly, and subsequently, the most powerful.  It is true that men are far more dominant in most Asian cultures, but I think this is due to economics and physical capabilities rather than inherent characteristics.  The reality is that Asian women actually do have a great deal of power in their homes and families, though this power is less overt and tangible, but no less real.  And as I said before, this is a kind of power that most men are willing to put up with, because it’s not in direct competition with them.  Let’s face it, men want to be powerful.  This is an essential male trait throughout the entire animal kingdom.  If there is a threat to that power, it must be confronted.  We men can’t help it, it’s in our DNA.

Of course I’m not suggesting that women should intentionally suppress any aggressive urges or assertive personality traits.  The world needs strong women.All I’m saying is that from what I’ve seen in China, men are men, women are women, and this relieves a lot of gender stress in daily life.  Of course this creates a whole new set of problems, but these are issues for each family to resolve on their own.  A man will resist a bitchy woman who disrespects him, but will gladly cater to a woman who expresses gratitude and appreciation for her manly man.  In my own experience, my wife is glad to be a delicate flower because she knows that I will cherish her gently and attentively.  She’s certainly not a pushover and she sets me straight when I need it, but I never feel that I have to tiptoe around the idea of her feminine identity because she sees her softness as something to be embraced and nurture rather than suppressed, and that makes me feel relaxed as a man and as a husband.

Now to all you guys out there using your hard power to manipulate and subjugate, and to all you ladies using your soft power to seduce and subvert, as the Chinese say, 去死.

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Xena- a bit on the butch side, but she handled her business. 
 
 
The “student” look has always been easy to spot in America: T-shirt or hoodie emblazoned with student’s university, baseball cap, jeans with frayed cuffs, flip-flops, sneakers or Birkenstocks, and a well-worn backpack.  Of course not every student follows this dress code but American students are rarely fashion-conscious as they shuffle sleepily across campus.

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For Chinese students, it’s the opposite situation.  All throughout their primary school, middle school, and high school education, students are required to wear identical androgynous uniforms and are forbidden to have unnatural hair colors and styles.  In college and university, this dress code is lifted and students can look and dress as they please.  For many students, particularly the girls, this is when they realize, “Hey, I’m pretty hot, time to let the world know.”

 It was quite a surprise when I began my Chinese teaching career in 2005.  Of course there were numerous students wearing the ubiquitous T-shirt and jeans and sneakers, though nothing was ever frumpy or frayed.  Chinese people as a general rule prefer tighter clothing than Westerners, so T-shirts and jeans were never loose or baggy.  But I was very surprised to see what looked like a fashion parade streaming in and out of classrooms.

Chinese campuses are filled with guys with explosive anime-influenced hairstyles, dangling earrings, and emo/punk/metrosexual clothes.  You rarely see someone full-out punk or goth, but there are subdued versions everywhere one looks.

I must admit that as a young single guy in 2005, the female students were quite a sight to behold.  On any given day, at least 25% of female students in China will be wearing heels, and when the weather warms up, there are miniskirts, hot pants, and super-high-cut shorts in abundance, and these aren’t just the open, Westernized students.  Everyone’s dressed like this.  Translucent dresses, mesh shirts, bizarre stockings, go go boots are also spotted from time to time.  Girls’ hairstyles are very well-maintained and well-suited for their faces or fashions.  You will rarely see girls carrying backpacks as well.  They almost always carry purses or handbags.  About a third of the students look like they’re going out for a night on the town, but in reality they’re just going to math class.

This is a long-standing tradition in Chinese culture: appearance is very important.  Food should not only taste good, it should look good.  Characters should be written with grace and precision.  People, especially girls, should try to look as beautiful as they can.  Unlike the West, if a girl shows up to class looking all made up, people will look at her scornfully: “Who are you trying to impress?”  Likewise if a guy subscribes to a particular fashion style, he will be labeled and judged.  Of course, jealousy and gossip exists in China, but if a pretty girl walks around campus looking pretty, people will simply say, “There goes a pretty girl,” and think nothing else of it.  I suppose fashionable students escape condescension because there are so many fashionable students, that it’s actually the norm rather than the exception.  In China, it’s hard to distinguish oneself because the society is so damn crowded, so people are looking to stand out in any way that they can.  And for the girls, there’s the added pressure to find Mr. Right while their hotness is at its peak, though fortunately Chinese girls’ hotness lasts a long time ;-).  The student fashion industry is massive in China, as it is in most Asian countries, and it all boils down to cultural perceptions and attitudes.

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It’s interesting to note that Chinese students in America are usually less fashionable than their counterparts in their home country.  Maybe this is because these students studying abroad are the high-achievers who don’t spend so much time and money on their appearance :-P.

*Disclaimer: I teach at an expensive private university, so the students I teach have a bit more family money than students from other schools, but I’ve also taught in rural-area schools and the fashionable instances are less numerous but still quite abundant.  And honestly, I appreciate this mentality.  It’s shallow to think that appearance is everything but being in China keeps me motivated to keep myself well-groomed.  I was a bit of a hippie/punk back in the States, and while I still sport the goatee and tattoos, I keep my clothes and shoes in good shape.  Looking good helps people maintain a positive image about themselves and about the world around them, as long as it doesn’t morph into contempt for the “ugly people.”  Chinese people are masters of makeup and fashion and even the plainest Jane can look pretty nice with a few minutes of work, and I’ve come to realize how non-exclusive beauty really is.  Western people are so obsessed with looking good because it’s harder for them to achieve this.  In China, everyone can and often does look good, and while this shouldn’t be one’s purpose in life, it doesn’t hurt either.

 
 
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Pop music is pretty lame across the world.  Now I confess to shaking my moneymaker from time to time but I know that pop music is fluffy music for happy times and nothing more.  For meaty chords, searing lyrics, and jaw-dropping vocals, I'll turn to other genres.

Chinese pop music is lamer than lame.  Ask anybody.  There are a few bright spots (Jay Chou, early Jolin, etc.) but that's like saying this is the healthiest hamburger at McDonald's.  It's still gonna kill ya.  Now this wouldn't be so bad if all this audio cancer was only bombarding your senses for a couple hours a day.  But no.  You take the bus, walk past a clothing shop, get a fruit smoothie at those trendy drink stands,  you've got some girly-boy striking gangster poses with a posse of hotties squeaking out the most infantile lyrics imaginable, or some Barbie doll  pop tart crooning about her broken heart while mugging for the camera, hoping to get invited for a photo shoot in a fashion magazine, 'cause that's where the real money is anyway. 

Now even this constant assault on one's very soul would still be tolerable if there were other alternatives to this auditory trauma.  But no.  That's all everyone everywhere is listening to.  You no likey?  Tough beans, McSam.

Now there would conceivably be the slightest sliver of light in this maelstrom of misery if the girly-boys were becoming ever-so-slightly more macho, or at least maintaining a constant state of ball-less-ness.  But no.   Back in the day, China had Hong Kong rockers Beyond, and more recently hip-hop found a few fresh faces, such as Wang Lee Hom and Jay Chou.  The girl's music has always been cutesy and bouncy but that's forgivable.

What's not forgivable is where the music is at today.  As a university teacher, and with the majority of my students being girls, I get the 411 on what's popular in the pop music scene, and the television stations are also up on the latest musical trends.  In the 4 1/2 years that I've been in China, I've noticed a serious decline in testosterone levels in popular music.  Boy bands like Super Junior put the likes of the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync to shame with their commitment to girlishness.  The only bright spot in this black hole is that they're Korean, not Chinese (though one of their members is in fact Chinese).

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Every day I hope and pray for a macho revolution in China's music world.  Or at least some diversity.  I mean DAMN, how many times must we watch Michael Jackson wannabes until the novelty wears off?  China's underground is brimming with talent in electronic and rock genres but they'll never get serious publicity until someone plucks these pop-and-locking feather dusters.
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Tang Dynasty, now there was some Chinese music with balls.
 
 
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Last post I talked about various Chinese perceptions regarding tattoos, and one of the most irritating stereotypes is that the girl with a tattoo must be a bad girl.  Well Danwei.org has a story about a tattooed Chinese beauty queen who quit her competition to protest people's narrowmindedness.  She had advanced quite far in the competition but her sizeable shoulder tattoo had been covered up.  When her arm was bared and the tattoo revealed, people began questioning her appropriateness as a contestant.  She angrily responded, "Lots of top Canadian models have tattoos. So if a foreigner has a tattoo, it's art, but if a Chinese person has a tattoo, they're a bad person? I can't accept that idea."  Amen, sister.

 
 
We've always been taught to never judge a book by its cover.  But in fact its often very easy to judge a book by its cover in China.  There is little subtlety in Chinese culture, especially when it comes to people.  In China, one usually looks the part they are playing.  If you look like a bad boy, you are a bad boy.  If you look like a shy, conservative girl, that's most likely what you are.  Of course there are always people who break the mold, but more often than not, people's outward appearance is indicative of their job, their personality, and their behavior.

The same holds true with tattoos.  Around the world, tattoos are usually equated with gangsters, convicts, and rock stars, but in the West it is becoming increasingly common to see people with tattoos, and even numerous tattoos, in places and positions you wouldn't expect.  A meek librarian might have a large backpiece, a CPA might have an intricate tribal shoulder design.  In films, someone with heavy tattoos is usually a thug or prison inmate, and someone with one or two is usually a tough guy or girl, though they could be either good or bad depending on the film.  Yet in every day life, tattoos are trickling into all corners of Western society.

Not so in China.  Chinese people often get a tattoo for the purpose of displaying it to the world, not as a personal memento or commemoration.  In fact, you will rarely see a Chinese tattoo that has been exclusively designed for that person.  Nearly all tattoos are chosen from flash books, and this illustrates a key difference between Chinese and Western thinking about tattoos: in the West, a tattoo is meant to express rebellion, individuality, or strength, and the more unique and personal the tattoo is, the better.  In China, there is usually little or no meaning behind the actual design; what is important is the size, placement, and the fact that this person actually has a tattoo.  Tattoos are usually viewed negatively, so the wearer will receive some form of judgement and/or condemnation, regardless of the design.

Chinese people often get tattooed for a handful of reasons, which I will try and explain.  Of course I know that these labels don't apply to everyone, and I'm not trying to condescend or anything, but anyone who knows China knows that when it comes to people's appearance, what you see is usually what you get.

First, let's start with the dudes.  If a Chinese guy has:

-A large amount of intricate, traditional Chinese designs, such as dragons, tigers, or warriors- he's probably got a lot of money, and he's probably involved in criminal enterprise.  If he has a crew cut or shaved head, and is going out of his way to display his tattoos in public, such as rolling up his shirt or wearing black wifebeaters even if it's a little chilly, these tattoos are a statement that this guy is not to be messed with, because he has unfriendly friends.
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-a small tattoo on the upper arm or shoulder- he's trying to look like a player.  His tattoo says "I'm not a thug, but I'm hardcore enough to dip my foot in the bad boy pool, and I know that girls like bad boys."  His tattoo will usually be very generic flash, such as a dragon, wolf, or tribal, and he will often wear sleeveless shirts and aviator glasses.
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-a small tattoo on the hand- he's probably involved in fashion somehow, such as a photographer or hairstylist.  He will usually have Japanese anime-inspired hair and fashion sense, and will only be seen in the company of other such divas.
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-a faded, unintelligible hand-poked tattoo- it means he and his buddies were feeling rebellious in high school and decided to give the world the finger and express their teenage angst.  Guaranteed he regrets it now.
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Now for the ladies.  If a Chinese girl has:

-a small feminine design on her ankle or upper arm- it means she's confident in her beauty and style, and wants people to know that she is liberated and independent, and she knows she's hotter than you so screw what you think.
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-a small tattoo on her hand- she's involved in the fashion or beauty industry, such as hairstyling, mani/pedi, or modeling.
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-lower back, aka. "tramp stamp"- she's a modern, open-minded girl who isn't bound by traditional feminine restraints, and since she's modern and open-minded, so is her fashion sense, which means she isn't afraid to show a lot of skin. 
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-arm sleeves, backpiece, or other heavy tattooing- her boyfriend is a tattoo artist.
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Most Chinese people would never consider getting a tattoo, because of the pain, the expense, the social perceptions, and the belief that one's body is a gift from one's parents, and shouldn't be altered or abused.  If a Chinese person chooses to get a tattoo, it's usually to express that they are open-minded and progressive.  This is a big committment, especially for girls, because China traditionally prefers chaste, conservative sunshine girls (though dreams and reality are rarely aligned) and a tattoo makes a girl edgy and independent, changing a girl into a grrrl, and that doesn't fly with most parents.  For a boy, he will unequivocally be perceived as a bad boy or playboy if he chooses to go under the needle, but China is more accepting of bad boys than bad girls.  There is hope though...my wife didn't have any tattoos before we met, and now she has two. Just yesterday, my school's foreign teacher liason, a single woman in her twenties, asked me about a good place to get a tattoo.  She was inspired by my ring tattoo and also wants to get a tattoo on her finger.  She's not super traditional but she's definitely not a bad girl.  The tide is turning one convert at a time....

People are often surprised when they find out that I've been a teacher for five years, and that I'm not a playboy, and that I don't play in a rock band.  Of course I would also get labeled in America, but the shock is much greater in China.  I'm a bit of a curiosity at the university where I teach but I take my job seriously and I think this helps people around me rethink their perceptions of tattooed people.  After all, it's just pictures on skin.

And for the record, a Chinese girl with a tattoo--magnifique!
 

New Digs

04/08/2010

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I've relocated this blog from my previous Blogspot blog, which was becoming a pain in the ass to try and find a suitable proxy for, so I've switched allegiances.  Hopefully Weebly will stay under the Great Firewall's radar.  This blog is pretty sparse so far but I'll be adding new features and decorations as time passes.  Like my previous blog, I'll be writing about China life in general and tattoos in particular, as well as updates about our upcoming little tike.  I'll also occasionally post music reviews of the latest metal and hardcore albums that I come across.