Tall, Handsome, and Rich
The Chinese have an expression to describe the perfect man: “高、帅、富,” or “tall, handsome, and rich.” Unwittingly, I fulfill these requirements very well by Chinese standards: I am fairly tall (somewhere between 6’2” and 6’3,”); for many Chinese people by being American I automatically must be rich; and, for whatever reason, Chinese people think I’m really handsome (which probably has a lot to do with the first two criterion: being tall and American). Hence, each time I leave my dorm and go for a jog, or get on a bus, or walk to class I receive from all directions bashful looks, giggles, pointing, and even pictures. I am constantly told that I am handsome, tall, good-looking and so on by everyone from Chinese roommates in the dorm to the woman who cuts my hair (who told me if I shave more often I will certainly find a good wife). I’ve even been asked by a middle-aged man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth to star in his television show.
To some this might sound like paradise: women flocking me and telling me how handsome I am. But to me, a 21 year old who spills drinks on the girls he likes and identifies intensely with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer, I often have no idea what do with myself, how to react, how to just be a normal guy in this country.
For example, what do you do when your program assistant, without blinking an eye, lets you know in front of a group of people that she thinks you have, “very nice legs”? Or when you’re on the bus and a woman wearing pink high heals covered in rhinestones and a white coat with a fur collar says in a dreamy voice, “You are very tall!” I mean, is that a compliment or stating reality? Should I say, “Thank you”? Or, “Yes, that’s true, very astute observation!”? Or, practicing traditional Chinese modesty, should I say, as I tower over everyone in the bus, “Oh no, I’m really not that tall, I actually think I’m kind of short.”
The best story my height has lead me into has to be my brief stint as a male model. One pleasant Monday afternoon I was sitting at a table outside on the Yunnan University campus reviewing my vocabulary words for the dictation quiz the next day. All of a sudden a young Chinese man riding a bicycle stopped and asked with a big grin,
“Hey, what country are you from?”
I get this question a lot, as does every foreigner who comes to China, and replied unenergetically, “I am American.”
“Well,” he continued, “I am looking for a model to show off our new line of suits, we would pay you 800RMB for eight hours of work!”
At the sound of 800RMB (you could get a bowl of noodles for 7RMB in Kunming if that gives you an idea of how much it is) my ears perked up.
“I have no experience though,” I said honestly.
“That’s no problem My company believes if we have a tall American wearing our clothes it will give our brand more prestige.”
“Alright, I consider it,” I said, and proceeded to get his contact information.
The next Saturday I was in a taxi on my way to the Ousidi Shopping Center to get fitted for my shoot the next day. I brought along with me a Chinese friend, Xuanyu, one of the female roommates in our program to give me moral support and prevent them for them to ripping me off.
We entered a fancy shopping mall and took the escalator to the second floor, where the same young man greeted us with a smile. He introduced himself as Little Xiong.
After drinking some tea, it was time to get fitted. We went into the main shopping area, lined with rows of suit pants, jackets, shirts, ties, and shoes. Little Xiong went and grabbed a shirt and a pair of pants, which were unsurprisingly far too big for me. I’m lanky to begin with, and recent digestive problems had caused me to become even skinnier. But eventually we found a suit that fit and headed to an elevator that took us down to a basement-parking garage. Right off the lot was a room with white walls lined with camera lights, flash bulbs, manikins, and racks of clothes.
“We are going to practice some poses, okay,” Xiao Xiong said as his female assistant shoved a book in my hands. I flipped the pages, all of male models that looked at least five or ten years older than I. “Here, pick some poses from this book; we are going to need ten of them for each article of clothing.”
I looked at the models, all with confident, smooth expressions on their faces, subtly crossing their arms, taking a step, or sweeping their hand through their hair. I took a deep breath and tried one out, putting one hand in my pocket and crossing one leg over the other.
“No, no you have to look natural. That’s not natural,” Xiao Xiong said while he slightly adjusted my arm and turned my head. “Also don’t smile, you smile too much.” I tried it again, this time being “natural,” but it felt totally awkward. Xuanyu, standing behind us, was holding her self back from bursting out laughing.
“Okay, that’s a little better, lets try another one,” he said handing me a brief case. At this point a group of five or six middle-aged Chinese businessmen pulled up in a Range Rover and walked over to the door of the room we were shooting in. They were smoking cigarettes with very serious expressions on their faces, and after a couple minutes silently staring at me as I vainly tried to look natural for the camera, Xiao Xiong told them,
“This is the new model we found, what do you think?” They didn’t respond and kept staring me. After a couple minutes they went on their way.
One exhausting hour later, we were done practicing and I had ten poses to work on that night for the shoot the next day. We took the elevator back upstairs where I said goodbye.
That evening I was a little worried about the next day. If one hour had been that exhausting, how was I going to do eight hours tomorrow, and try on forty different suits?
That night at dinner, I received a phone call from an unknown number. After a few seconds, I figured out it was Xiao Xiong’s boss:
“Listen, we are really grateful you came in today, but I took a look at the photos you took and I think you’re too skinny. It’s just not going to work for you to come in tomorrow.”
“What?” I said, “but I thought we had everything worked out?”
“I’m really sorry sir, there is nothing we can do.”
Well that was that. I wouldn’t make any money the next day, but at least I didn’t have to waste eight hours of my life looking “natural.” And for the first time I embraced my height in China and it made for a pretty interesting experience.