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A short piece on cultural transition I wrote for a friend who has a great blog for parenting Third Culture Kids.
Putting a label on things used to be bad. The 90s were interesting that way. We wanted to have a DTR, “Defining the Relationship Talk”, but because we thought labels were so bad we made fun of the fact we had a label for it. . Then we got into slogans, mantras and mottos for people, products and places. Now it seems like everything has a label on it. I hadn’t even noticed, but then the other day I was out shopping and bought instant soup. There were two kinds of powdered instant soup and one kind said, “Made with responsibly grown New Zealand pumpkins.” Can you guess which soup packets I bought? Yes, I bought the reconstituted pumpkin with maltodexin thickener, sugar, creamer, glucose syrup and hydrolyzed corn protein. I felt good too, until I realized how ridiculous that was. I mean what does responsibly grown even mean? On top of that, it is powdered soup so does that even make it taste better? Does anything make powdered soup taste better? I guess in the end I am really happy for those pumpkins because they were raised well. The label did make me feel better though. It made me feel better long enough to pick up two packets of that soup and bring it home.
After I thought about how silly my responsibly grown pumpkin soup was, I started to wonder how many labels were on things in my house. I found quite a few. My lotion says, “Gentle formula for sensitive skin.” Our peanut butter said, “Never oily, always smooth.” I am not sure how on earth peanut butter is ever not oily. My tomato sauce says, “No artificial colours, flavours or preservatives”, but it lists sugar and food acid as main ingredients. My brownie mix says, “premium brownie mix.” Any time you put premium on a mix I think a chuckle is deserved. My coffee has a fair trade logo on it but I will be honest and say that I don’t know exactly what the details are of why one product is allowed to put fair trade on it and another product isn’t. Is it actually a fair product which helps people in need or does it just make me feel less guilty? Does it make me feel like I have done my part without actually researching what I am putting in my pantry? I found a drink mix online and its slogan was, “There is love in every cup.” It also said, “Australian Brand.” I am not sure that love is something I can taste, contrary to what pop culture might tell me. Also, being an Australian brand doesn’t actually guarantee that the product is made, packaged or grown here.
Now if you think I am getting snarky, well maybe I am, but my point is not that the products may be misleading us, but that we like to read those things on our products. We buy those things for our house and feel just a little better, maybe we even feel a little healthier because someone wrote five words on a plastic bottle. Maybe you don’t, maybe it is just me and my premium brownie mix but I felt good about that too. I may buy brownie mix instead of making brownies from scratch but gosh darn it is premium brownie mix. It says so right there on the box. My zip lock bags have, “Secure lock guaranteed”, printed on the front. I don’t know for sure that they work better than the other brand but I sure do like it when someone prints guaranteed on the front of something. My dishwashing liquid is apparently, “safe for hands and for the environment.” I am not a scientist, so I have to trust that the label on that dishwashing liquid actually means what it seems to say.
Some of those labels mean something so I don’t think we should do away with labels all together, no matter what the 90s taught me. I just think we have to be really careful about letting the labels make us feel better about the kind of person we are. Do I feel like I am a better person because I have a label on the soup in my pantry which says the pumpkins are responsibly grown? Does the fair trade label on my coffee encourage me to feel superior? Sometimes we just let it make us feel healthier. My soup must be healthier because it says the pumpkins are responsibly grown. I let that label make me think that, even if only for a short while. I think marketing companies are talented and I think sometimes I am silly. I do not think you will see me reading the back of every product in the grocery store, but if you have time to do that then more power to you. I don’t think you should put the fair trade coffee back and go home and research the fair trade stipulations on the internet before you purchase coffee again. I would be in real trouble if I suggested that, because I can’t make sense out of the written word until I have had my coffee in the morning. I just think we need to buy what we buy without thinking it changes the person we actually are. No matter what those labels say it does not make me healthier. I am an exercise-hating, chocolate eating and coffee-drinking booklover and no amount of responsibly grown pumpkins is going to change that.
Sometimes the ways different cultures see your physical features is like looking in a fun house mirror. All the sudden small features are big and big features are just well bigger. I have this nose. It isn’t a large nose but then again it isn’t a small nose either. It used to bother me. I used to want a small button nose and blue eyes more than anything. When I was pretty young I used to wish that my eyes would change colours and my nose would somehow morph into a button nose. If I was going to wish on shooting stars then maybe I should have been wishing for a few more inches height wise but no one ever accused 11 year girls of being rational.
Maybe adult women aren’t that rational when it comes to their appearance either. I have been hearing about this body dysmorphic disorder recently. The Better Health Chanel describes Body Dysmorphic Disorder as, “…a mental illness. People who have this illness constantly worry about the way they look. They may believe an inconspicuous or non-existent physical attribute is a serious defect…” This is a serious issue but the first time I heard about this disorder I thought, “Well isn’t that like all women?” So I started trying to list features I have that I really really like and I came up with about three and that was a real stretch. I mean I spent the vast majority of my teenage years worried about my hips and now it turns out booty is all the rage. I was born too early. It is really funny because if you asked me about any of my female friends I would say they are beautiful. If you asked me why I thought they were beautiful you probably couldn’t get me to stop talking about all the ways they are gorgeous. The men in their lives are lucky to have them.
But for me my nose was just one of those things that used to bug me once in awhile. I felt like it was a little too crooked and a little too “prominent” let’s say. That is how I felt when I went to China. It turns out China was exactly what I needed. Chinese people didn’t think my nose was “big”, they thought my nose was “high”. In China having a high nose is kind of a good thing. They have celebrities with high noses and they talk about how good looking they are. Eventually after overcoming how self-conscious I was about people talking about my nose all the time, I started to be OK with my nose. It was my nose and it gave me character and character is better than being a Barbie Doll any day. Once I started being comfortable with my nose I started being more comfortable with everything else. I realized that if a change of geography was all it took for my nose to be OK then it didn’t really matter what the other features looked like because somewhere some people would think they were good.
That is certainly what happened with hips after all. It is not as though I get up every morning, look in the mirror and say to myself, “You are one hot mama. Work it girl!” It is more like I just don’t really think that much about it. I enjoy putting on make-up and wearing pretty clothes but I am comfortable in my skin. It is what it is.
I also always wanted a tan. Blame this one on the 80s and 90s as well. I wanted golden sun kissed skin. Again, in China my very pale skin was great. Not all my features were great in China and there was plenty of discussion about each feature. It was difficult when it felt like I had to convince an entire country that my hair really was naturally curly. It was also challenging when people thought I couldn’t be American because I was too short and Americans are tall people. The real clincher was when one woman pinched my hips to demonstrate how generous the padding was in that spot. What it taught me was that the way we perceive our physical features is like a fun house mirror. Going from one culture to another is like walking into a room of fun house mirrors. One second you’re tall and the next second you’re tiny. Your legs look like stilts in one mirror and then tree trunks in another. To borrow from a very famous Disney movie maybe it is time we just let it go. Maybe we should just all look in the mirror and realise that each feature we don’t like is probably a feature someone somewhere else wishes they had. Did you know that in ancient Greece the unibrow was fantastic? If a woman didn’t have one then they would use black paint to fill one in.
I am me and each of my features expresses exactly who I am. I am short, which is so handy if you are also mischievous. My eyes crinkle up so much when I smile they almost disappear. That is good because when I am old everyone is going to know I laughed and smiled and loved my family. My hair is curly bordering on downright frizzy which is fine because I can’t really imagine mornings without my hair sticking up all over the place like Albert Einstein’s.
Have a big party with your friends and tell each other why you are beautiful inside and out. Tell your friends why you wouldn’t change even one of their physical features. Look up some of those fun cultures where exaggerated hips are prized. Remember you are not objective, whatever you see in the mirror it is filtered through a fun house mirror called culture.
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