Beauty is in the Eye of the Asian Beholder

Posted on December 21, 2011


When checking out of our hotel in Seoul, the manager bade my wife a farewell that guaranteed his hotel would top her list if we ever returned, “All the staff thinks you are so beautiful. Your husband is so tall and handsome. Together you make beautiful children. The most handsome family. And I am in the hotel industry for forty years.”

I think he meant to say we were the most handsome family he’d encountered in forty years. My ten-year-old, Optimus Prime, interpreted this comment to mean he had once seen a family equally attractive forty years earlier, and OP speculated, “And the family he saw forty years ago was us traveling back in time.”

We didn’t take the compliment too seriously because we’ve been spoiled after seven years of living in China and receiving constant compliments on our breath-taking level of attractiveness. It’s part of Chinese culture to feel no embarrassment in commenting on other people’s attractiveness or unattractiveness, fitness or fatness, and it’s fairly common for a stranger to approach us on the street and rave about our good looks. We could take this enthusiasm for our looks at face value but we’ve lived here long enough to be able to translate these compliments:

“You are so very beautiful.”
“You are the first white person I’ve ever met and I’m really excited.”

Friends and family are surprised we’ve stayed in China so long but they’d understand our reasons if they visited for a few months and realized how much fun it is to be constantly complimented on being good-looking.

My wife was excited to come to China but I had no idea how she would feel after six months or a year or two years of living in a foreign country. My worries about her enthusiasm were quickly assuaged when an old man approached her as she waited with our kids at a busstop. He spoke very slowly and emphasized each word, “You. Are. The. Most. Beautiful.” She nodded politely and answered, “Thanks. That’s very nice.” He added, “No. You. Are. The. Most. Beautiful.” She nodded again, uncertain how to top ‘thanks’ as a response the second time you’re told you are the most beautiful.

She says she was silent because she wasn’t sure what to say, but I assume she remained silent as the wheels spun and she thought, “I could get used to being told I’m the most beautiful.”
And she has gotten used to it because every day somebody gives her a new compliment on her beauty.
And not just little compliments, but really, really big compliments. Just last week her new library assistant’s boyfriend came to visit his girlfriend at work and when he was introduced to my wife he said, “You are the most beautiful person I have ever seen in real life.”

Other Chinese members of the staff rave about her fashion sense and one girl has taken to just calling her ‘Beautiful’ in place of her regular name. My sons and I are also doing okay in the compliments department but my wife seems to be outpacing us. Or maybe she just mentions her compliments more.

I’d like to say we’re the only foreigners complimented but it seems to be pretty common among all of our expatriate friends that if you score anywhere above a 5 on the beauty scale, you’ll be complimented once a day as though you were a 10. We don’t plan on going back to America until we’re treated like 10s at least once a week.

Posted in: Columns