Coffee Break: Korean vs. Chinese Girls

In a desperate attempt to get some studying done yesterday and keep up my masquerade as a semi-productive member of society, I brought my GRE study books to a Starbucks which is stupid because I don’t drink any of the drinks on offer except for black coffee with a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg mixed in (cinnamon actually does help stabilize blood sugar). It is clearly, a drink I can make at home, which makes my presence at the Starbucks a complete waste of money. 

So I ordered a tall French Roast and sat down at a large square reserved-for-handicapped-customers table because all the small, regular tables were occupied (as though only handicapped people had large textbooks), spread my GRE books open before me, took out a notebook, pen and started checking Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on my phone. If you’re a college or grad student, you know this routine well.

It was nearing 2PM and the Starbucks was full with a steady flow of to-go patrons of various ages and ethnicities: Persian women and their wide-eyed, long-lashed baby daughters coming in for cake pops and an afternoon pick me up; high school seniors getting a head start on their expensive college coffee addictions, and the odd career man or woman who was likely on the way to meet a client/close a deal/make some money.

The tables showed a different crowd entirely, the crowd I now belong to because I don’t have to work at 2PM in the afternoon. There was a table in the corner where an older man with crazy Christopher Lloyd style hair and spectacles sat with a younger man wearing a gingham shirt and a baseball cap, working on a laptop. Christopher Lloyd had a newspaper open in front of him, except he wasn’t reading, just looking wanly in my general direction, though the glare from his spectacles made it hard to tell. He wore a denim jacket and work boots and if a group of impeccably dressed Korean women weren’t sitting so closely to him to be in the same field of vision, I could have just stared at the older man and felt myself at a mom and pop coffee shop somewhere in the mid-West.

Discussing important things like the Korean women at the other table.

But these Korean women really stole the show at this particular Starbucks. There were oddly, two separately groups that, had they sat closer to each other could easily have been mistaken for one giant gaggle of some Korean young, affluent wives club, so similar they were in appearance and bearing. Each had a variation of a long layered cut or a short, stylish bob; perfect skin resulting from a careful regime of facials and expensive placenta, pearl and vitamin C based skin care products and glossy, black eyes, the lids of which had no doubt been operated on. Near the bottom of each perfect canvas sat pouty, ideal feminine lips (I, being thin-lipped, have an obsession with lips), glossified by some nude lip gloss or made vampy by a darker, berry lipstain.

I’m not joking. I did a quick scan of their faces and this was the prevailing palette. Their clothes were carefully selected so that each stuck to a single palette with mild variations: white, oxblood (this season’s “it” color, according to my friends at CondeNast), navy, grey, and of course, black. They all wore heels, though not too high (it was, after all, just Starbucks), and apart from their chunky designer watches and diamond studs, each had about two thousand dollars (not including the items inside) hanging off the backs of their chairs in the unmistakeable forms of various designer handbags.

I spied the soft woven leather of Bottega, the awkwardly shaped slanted prism of Givenchy, the classic LV monogram (in grey and white) and of course, Queen Chanel. They spoke loudly, brashly almost, and when they frowned (as in the photo), they frowned in unison and when they laughed, it was also in unison and with abandon, at what, I couldn’t understand, though when they did brought perfectly manicured hands to hover (not completely cover) over their mouths.

And directly to their right sat their exact opposite: a single (I’m not talking about marriage status) and singular lady, someone whom I could tell with just one glance was Chinese. What gave her away? Well, the Chinese characters she scrutinized on her computer screen for one thing. But had she been reading aloud without accent from a German translation of Harry Potter I would still have guessed correctly that she, like me, was Chinese and not Korean, or Japanese, or Vietnamese, or any other Asian ethnicity, the female members of which generally administer more self-care than Chinese women do.

No, she was obviously Chinese:

Particle Physics: when disparate elements of fashion collide.

If for some reason the photo is not loading, let me paint her portrait: She was slender, as most Chinese girls are, not from dieting but from, depending on what PhD she was pursuing, her brain using up more glucose than the average female brain. She had thick, straight hair, coarse from genetics and from lack of conditioning pulled back into a low, unattractive ponytail (a hairstyle I am often guilty of), and tacky, glittery barrettes clipped along the sides to prevent flyaways. Hovering above her pale forehead were blunt bangs leftover from girlhood, when the cut was either a.) required at her provincial all-girl’s high school or b.) when some well meaning queen bee at her high school had taken note of her “moon-face” and suggested that bangs might alleviate the issue. And topping it all off to appear like a well meaning but poorly thought out gift was a bright red bow, a finishing touch, an ode to the motherland. I wonder if she hesitated that morning as she did her hair, looking at her bowless ponytail and thinking, “Something is missing,” and, seeing the red bow, lit up and thought, “Yes, just the thing. Just the thing.”

She wore an off-white, stretched out cardigan and a large, billowy dress dotted with tiny, multi-colored hearts. It was not in any style I had seen in the last ten years (and yes, I have been paying attention) and I wondered if she had brought it with her from the Mainland. It was nearly to the floor when she sat, though I’m sure if she stood it would swish and sway gaily about her ankles, which, despite the warm weather of Southern California were swathed in thick cotton athletic socks. These socks then disappeared into the most modern thing about her dress: shiny Sketchers, the same brand I had lusted after in middle school but now seem to me a relic of the past.

She wore no jewelry I could see except for a round, jade bracelet, the kind preferred by many Chinese women, even fashionable ones, though hers was pale and, I would surmise, not too expensive. But then again I am no expert on jade – perhaps it was an excellent piece, an heirloom given to her by some loving grandmother or aunt, a parting gift for when she left her small town of 2 million to pursue a doctorate at UCI. It was wrapped rigidly around her pale left forearm and clicked dully when she reached out to type.

I did not need to see her face to know that she wore no makeup. If she owned any, they were surely now-expired orange-based lipsticks (all wrong for yellow-toned Asian skin), gifts from the same well meaning aunts and grandmother who, noting her age (she seemed late twenties, early thirties) were more or less trying to hint (or in true Chinese fashion they probably just told her straight up) that she was no longer a girl and would need, out of necessity, to dress up her face from time to time (especially when outside the house, at Starbucks where other potential male PhD students lurked!) to ensure that she would have a family and children to whom she could pass on her brains. I’m sure she nodded pleasantly when the lipsticks were presented to her, but she stepped off the plane in this new land, met her professors, advisors and her fellow grad students, the more serious ones who gave about as much attention to their dress as she did, and voila: her new world.

The woman peered intently at her screen, devouring whatever it was she was reading (something related to physics, organic chemistry, and/or computer science – not to stereotype or anything) and seemed utterly oblivious to the Korean clucking that was going on all around her. She never once looked up, whereas I looked up many times, and at one point even pulled the computer screen up close, as though she wanted to embrace and procreate with it. I’m sure mentally, she did.

Now, having read this you probably think I was sneering at the woman, or perhaps just embarrassed for her, wondering why she couldn’t at least, at least just have left the bow. And perhaps wore flats instead of Sketchers and what appeared to be some man’s old gym socks. But I think that time – when I cringed when my friends came over and saw my mother’s shopping bags from TJ Maxx, when the only shoes my mother would buy me were black double strap Reeboks on sale at Big 5 (though oddly, I now want a pair) or when I thought life was cruel for all of the above reasons and because the only pants I had were flowery, handmade leggings passed down to me from my cousin Wendy, whose mother had lovingly made those leggings – that time has long passed.

Maybe it has to do with growing up (yes, finally) or with the time I spent at Berkeley where I met two similar PhD students from China, who were not like the uber-rich scions with unlimited spending power and taste to match often featured now in American and Chinese newspapers alike – they are Chinese too, but a very different breed – but were literally one in a million if not ten million who had over and over again, clambered their way up and out of the overwhelming and, to outsiders, impossible pool of smart, diligent Chinese applicants, testing first into the top high schools, and then into the top universities (China, for all its vastness, has only three universities the Chinese see as worth going to), and finally, into fine American graduate programs where both nation’s governments were proud to sponsor them. (In Korea the education system is just as cutthroat, but subtract a few billion people and you’ll see why certain Chinese people just don’t give any thought to the way they look.) To study in America, for those PhD students I met, was a dream. They came from poor families and on a stipend most American students I know would have struggled to live comfortably on, they lived to the best of their ability and sent money home. Buying clothes for the sake of novelty and fashion was not so much out of the question as it was ridiculous. I could tell, looking at this woman who would nurse her two dollar coffee long into the afternoon (her one, weekly splurge, I’m sure) that clothes would never mean more to her than something to cover up her body with.

No, I did not sneer at the Chinese woman. I admired her studiousness, something I could definitely have borrowed heavily from, and her disregard or general unawareness of how her sartorial choices made her stand out like a sore thumb. But I did wish for her some sort of balance between the desire for beauty (which she sorely lacked) and brains (which I’m sure she had in terabytes) because looks, ladies and gentlemen, looks do matter. I know, newsflash, right?

1. At Starbucks, Yogurtland, and Jamba Juice, fat people seem always to be dressed in workout clothes, as though they’d just come from the gym and need a post workout snack or about to head to one and need to fuel up. It doesn’t matter because none of those chains offer wise pre/post workout fuel options, unless they’re about to or have just run a marathon. I’m going to take a wild guess and say this is never the case. Just wear normal clothes (unless the workout clothes are the only ones you can fit into, in which case, I completely understand. See: High School Betty, 2000-2004), enjoy your venti mocha chip frappuccino/tub of taro yogurt with cookie dough/mango smoothie with protein boost and live honestly.

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