Asian American Experiences of Beauty Standards: Personal Narrative (1/3)

December 10, 2019 at 12:46 am 2 comments

By Emma Li

I stared out the car window at the various signs populating the Shanghai streets. Outside was a Chinese chain store that sold pajamas, primarily to middle-aged-or-older Chinese locals. I squinted at its large advertisements and soon realized something off-putting. All six models were white. I had passed by this store near my house so many times, yet I had never given much thought to these ads. After all, they hardly stood out among the countless visuals I saw in China every day that featured white models, advertising anything from nightclubs to hospitals, from obscure online shops to multinational corporations.

(Image Source: Joy Buy and Ali Express)
The peculiarity of these ads suddenly dawned on me once again. What is the logic behind using all white models to sell pajamas to Chinese people? The models are clearly not representative of the store’s target audience.
I knew why this was the case. The answer became even clearer when I read about the “rent-a-foreigner” industry. White people living in China are paid to pose as accomplished executives, doctors, musicians, and so on, having accomplished nothing of the sort. “Western” elements, from Caucasian imposters to English-sounding product names, are associated with success and superiority. This idea is further reinforced every time an established organization employs these elements. While the government’s Great Firewall blocks almost all major US media companies, from Google to The New York Times, for fear of “western influence,” Western faces continue to influence Chinese consumers.

Screen Shot 2019-12-09 at 4.40.53 PM.png

(Image Source: Vice)

Growing up in China as a Chinese American, I thought that I barely faced any racial discrimination compared to those who were raised in the US. I later realized that was not entirely true. In some ways, racial representation in China feels even more ridiculous than it does in the US. White people make up less than 0.0005% of the people living in China, yet somehow, they are still widely featured across media forms.


(Pictured above, from left to right: my sister, my cousin, and me)

In elementary school, a substitute teacher once asked the class where we’re all from. I hesitantly said China and the US. Some classmates (who were also American-born Chinese) burst out laughing at me. They proclaimed themselves to be only American, not at all Chinese. I felt angry and humiliated, but now I remember that I also daydreamed about having beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes. How can anyone blame children like us for not wanting to be Chinese when goodness and whiteness are so often marketed together as a packaged deal?


(Image Source: Gold Star Teachers)
As I got older, I grew increasingly aware of the logic embedded behind various ads, from posters outside a pajama store to ads on my Instagram feed. While fair representation remains an issue, I’m starting to see companies adapt to peoples’ growing demands for greater equality. For better or worse, marketing and media messages begin shaping people’s worldview from a young age, but young people also have the ability to reshape these messages. I want to see more stories that subvert social injustices rather than reinforce them. I believe in the power of authentic storytelling. Despite living in an era when fact-checking can hardly catch up to the pace of lies, I still believe stories that come from a genuine place will ultimately triumph over fabricated stories and imposters.

Click here to view the next post in this series.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Third Blog Post: AA Representation in Animation and TV Shows – Maddie Kwun Broken Blossoms: Film Analysis, Ellen Schoenfeld

2 Comments Add your own

  • […] Click here to view the first post in this series. […]

  • 2. asianamericansinmedia  |  December 24, 2019 at 12:28 am

    You are starting in an autobiographical voice in this series, which is an interesting approach, and echoes the first generation of Asian American independent media that we studied in class. I would like to see you utilize the web-based context of the blog in a more dynamic way: think about links, embedded content, and other forms of media or discourse on the web that could be use to enrich and support your discussion here. At the same time, I would like to see you engage with the scholarship that we studied in class, or additional research you have done in the areas of Asian American feminism as well as transnational media flows and cross-cultural media environments.

    Prof Ma


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