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Expat's Eye
Expat's Eye
UPDATED: June 8, 2015 NO. 24 JUNE 11, 2015
Behold, Modern China
By Aaron Vessup

A photographer snaps shots of a model at an auto exhibition in Changchun, northeast China's Jilin Province (XINHUA)

With the stealth of a cat, I guiltily eased my way past the dancing shadowy figures in the dark, all gray-headed senior Chinese women. I know their hair color simply because usually this crowd slowly gathers when dusk begins to fall, and they chat until it is dark enough for no one to see their misshapen bodies exercising. They dance. My guilt does not owe to being a pervert or "peeping Tom" but because my conscience has been nagging at me for months to join the group to avoid being sedentary NBA "couch potato."

Day or night, the city of Beijing has plenty to attract attention, be you a camera buff or a people watcher. A word of caution, however: Make sure to avoid trying to capture situations when people are unwilling to be photographed. A polite request accompanied by a smile usually will go a long way. However, if you lack the courage, you may want to pack a good telephoto lens and be less intrusive. A long-range camera lens will allow you to overcome the "privacy" barrier so precious to most Westerners. As a rule, just because many locals may seek the opportunity to be photographed with a "foreigner" does not mean the same is true when the roles are reversed. Photographing a person eating, or chatting on mobile phone while squatting like a "countryman," may not be all that flattering from the subject's point of view.

It is difficult to remain on familiar terms with the beast of boredom, because areas such as shopping zones, parks, back streets, and art zones have strong, almost magnetic, pull. Besides observing the vendors, my eyes also take in the female pedestrians' shoes. Not that I have a foot fetish or anything: I am just amazed at the "pop art" that some people squeeze around their toes. However, given the plethora of shoe emporiums and mall venues in China, a viewer can accurately determine if a person is local, foreign, or fresh off the rural cabbage truck on the basis of footwear alone. One may denote his or her status or no as a "fashionista" through a set of barely fathomable criteria.

I have seen people wearing shoes that are either dull, ugly, clunky or loud or some combination of the aforementioned, many of them resembling armored tanks. I stare with utter amazement at the 5- to 7-inch heels supporting tottering frames that verge perilously on toppling over. The reaction of onlookers may vary from enjoyment to disgust. As one Chinese male told me, "I hate to see women wearing high-heel shoes. This very sight makes me feel small and intimidated!"

But it is not just female footwear that can attract attention. Male fashion choices can also turn heads or raise eyebrows. You might do a double take seeing grown men wearing pencil-thin trousers stopping slightly below the calf, or retro kicks. In fact, nowadays, the in-thing seems to be wearing a fresh pair of vintage "Air Jordans." People beware! There are avid shoe collectors among us hoarding limited-edition gym shoes! Think it not strange. I can still remember back in the day, when the in-look was to wear a crisp, white long-sleeve shirt and sharply creased black trousers, topped off with black Adidas running shoes brandishing their customary three white slanted stripes. Ah, the good old days! Such simplicity.

Times have certainly changed. I recall 12 years ago when virtually all Chinese females wore only black or dark brown hair coloring. Nowadays, various tints of red coloring are sported by all ages. You are likely to even see some males, most commonly hair salon personnel, wearing outlandish, puffy hairstyles.

Looks don't always tell the whole story however, and I'm not talking about Thailand-style gender ambiguity. Take this girl I once met. We exchanged letters, e-mails, and pictures and over time, our mutual attraction became stronger. The few times we met face to face, however, it has never dawned on me that she had always been sitting. The day came when we finally had time to go out on an actual "date." I was shocked to discover that her height was barely above my belt-line. This was not in China, but I really wished that she had at least been wearing high platforms or 9-inch heels! So, my advice is whether you are "window shopping" in malls, art zones, or museums, please bear in mind the old saying: "Appearances can be deceiving!"

The author is an American living in Beijing

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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