I need a dress and I’m in China for another three months. I only brought functional wear, thinking that no one cares about fashion here. Silly me. I missed China’s fast forward into consumerism in the four years since my last visit. I also surprise myself. I discover I want to look more feminine while I am in China. My good friend, Shirley, takes me to downtown Shanghai, to dressmaker row, to a cheongsam dressmaker she knows. The dresses stun the senses in copper, iridescent blue, bright green, searing red, sumptuous eggplant—all luxuriant silk fabrics shot with gold threads and Asian patterns. I try to squeeze into a ready-made dress. Nope. Here in China, I’m a lush and voluptuous woman.
The dressmaker, a small fireball of a woman, charges over from the other side of the shop and takes over my dress selection, clucking and emitting a slew of Shanghainese and Mandarin phrases. She doesn’t quite believe that I can’t fit into any of the off-the-rack dresses. I look smaller than I am and taller than I am. My body is an optical illusion. People constantly misjudge my shape, size, weight, and age. She tries to stuff and zip me into a custom dress they are making for an Italian woman half my size. I think that Italian women and Chinese women must come from the same genetic stock judging from this dress—tiny people stock.
My Mandarin comprehension suffers a total breakdown when the excited shop staff surrounds me buzzing in two dialects, a deafening cacophony of sounds. The dressmaker summoned the entire staff out onto the shop floor to look at me. Two other girls from the back room, the dressmaker, the cashier, and now, a gathering horde of customers who just came in, gather to gawk at me, the human burrito. This is a society of people who stare. I am a sideshow. Passers-by linger, looking in from the floor-to-ceiling picture windows behind me, no doubt wondering what is going on inside.
Hands touch me, prod me, poke me, as the dressmaker and her staff try to figure out why I can’t fit into any of the dresses she has hanging on the dress racks. My body is a Tickle-Me Elmo toy to them. They confer. Finally, the dressmaker calms down enough to say in choppy English, “You have body of Eastern European woman. You need custom dress.” They have never seen anything like this in a Chinese woman before. I don’t think that this is a compliment but they look in awe. I have visions of Soviet Bloc Olympians pumped full of steroids. That’s me?
The dressmaker further states in a loud voice, “Your bra is no good…flimsy.” I internally cringe. So now both my body and my underwear are under scrutiny. She measures me but tells me I will need to get re-measured after I come back wearing the correct bra. O.K. I can buy a new bra. No big deal. Lingerie has arrived in China. The dressmaker asserts that women are like flowers that need to be artfully arranged. I need structure, stiffne,ss and uplift to show off my lush Eastern European figure and their workmanship. I marvel at the sacrifices women make to look good, including myself, even in China.
As I walk from the dressmaker’s shop, down a couple blocks to where the big department stores are, I notice that a full-scale war is in progress to persuade women that dressing pretty inside will make them feel great on the outside. Billboards lining the streets, on the sides of sleek new buildings, and all along the subway line, show beautiful glossy-haired Chinese women in skimpy lacy bra and underwear. Quite a change from the standard-issue shapeless silk or cotton waist-high briefs and undershirts of the past.
Against the backdrop of colorful advertisements for shampoos, contact lenses, lotions, and toothpaste, stylishly dressed and made-up young professional women walk purposefully past me, clutching knock-off Prada and Chanel purses. Amazing. They look no different than young, optimistic, and ambitious young women in other major cities around the world. I, on the other hand, look decidedly rumpled and not sleek in my faded jean shorts, 1986 5K fun run t-shirt, denim floppy hat, white athletic socks, and jogging shoes.
Given my “special” build, I skip the regular Chinese department stores and go to one that looks more Westernized to seek out that perfect bra. It possesses a simple interior décor, cleaner lines, dramatic colors, better merchandising, and a wide selection of imported Western goods that probably were made in China. On the third floor, I see a small selection of lacy bras, neatly arranged on tastefully spaced islands of metal racks. Three ladies dressed in matching powder-blue suits, neatly combed black hair, and carefully applied makeup approach me and ask if I need assistance.
Wow! Service. Customer service in China? Things have changed. Ah, that’s right. This is a Japanese department store where service reigns supreme. In Chinglish, a mixture of English and street Mandarin, I tell the ladies what I am looking for.
I suffer a moment of indecision as I wait for the ladies to find some bras for me. I’m not going that far in my pursuit of beauty, am I? After all, I’m not disfiguring myself. Have I embarked on that slippery slope of beauty where one thing leads to another until my body is a jigsaw puzzle of tummy tucks, face-lifts, and liposuction marks? Is this how an addiction starts—first it’s a made-to-order dress, then a bra to lift, a tube of lipstick to enhance, a blush and eyeliner to brighten, and then a shot of Botox to smooth? It’s ironic that I feel insecure about my looks in China, in my ancestral home, and feel the need for the trappings of the fashion industry.
I’m just getting a dress and a bra. That’s it. Don’t stress. Thankfully, the ladies quickly choose a few bras and pull me out of my panicked reverie. The young woman with her hair neatly pulled back in a ponytail shows me to a very small space to the right of the bra racks. Before I can close the door, the saleswoman pushes in after me and closes the door behind us. What is she doing? In my surprise, I can’t say a word. This must be standard practice. I guess I’ll let her stay. Perhaps she thinks I’ll steal the bra and she needs to watch me. Who knows? I take off my shirt and bra and lay it down to the right of me, on a chair. As I look back towards the mirror after taking my own bra off, I feel a hand on my breast. Her hand is on my breast!
I feel the coolness of her palm cup the curve at the bottom of my left breast. Heat seers my cheeks in embarrassment. I am absolutely dumbfounded and weirdly turned on at the same time. She pulls upward and stuffs me into the cup of the bra, holds me there while deftly doing the same with my right breast. She instructs me to hold myself up as she closes the clasp on the back.
A bra has never fit me so well. She compliments me on my figure. After an ego-bruising time at the dressmaker shop, my confidence is restored by her praise. Perhaps having an Eastern European build has its advantages in this country of slim people and new imported lingerie modeled on Western women. I don’t even need any adjustments to my bra. I try one other one on. This time, I politely decline her assistance as she reaches for my breast again. Hard to do when there’s barely enough space to reach my arms in back of me.
I end up buying four bras, two of each. It’s the most I have ever spent on bras. She assures me that this French label is of the highest quality. I believe her. I quickly make my purchase, thank her and the rest of the sales ladies. They must see the redness of my cheeks as I walk quickly away. I don’t pause. I go down the escalator, down to the first floor, and out the door before I allow myself to think too deeply about what just happened. I laugh hysterically, dispelling the nervous energy and embarrassment built up inside me, causing a few people who passed me to whip back their heads to see what they missed.
How funny is it that I have to travel more than twelve thousand miles to find out certain truths about myself? I actually care that I’m huge in this country of smaller people (basketball star Yao Ming, notwithstanding). I feel dowdy in my functional shorts, loose-fitting shirts, and cotton bras in fashionable Shanghai. And I want to look good. The hard part is admitting to myself that I feel that way and that’s ok. I shake my head slightly and mull over this revelation about myself. Then I smile as I walk back to the dressmaker to begin the prodding all over again, this time with the right bra.
Jacqueline C. Yau ate her first bowl of noodles on the road when she was three years old, road tripping with her parents from California to Vancouver in the winter. Thus began a lifelong love of pasta and travel. When Jacqueline is not curled up in a chair reading travel, romance, and adventure stories, she’s sampling new cuisines, ricocheting down some hiking trail, indulging her insatiable curiosity about all things, or laughing uproariously over some joke with family and friends. Her alter ego brings home the bacon as a strategic marketing consultant drawing on her experiences as an Internet Keyword evangelist, brand manager, social entrepreneur, access cable TV host, and news reporter.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.