When I first started traveling to Asia over 30 years ago, I became aware people were having a disproportionate reaction to my appearances. To be succinct, they treated me like I was movie star handsome. I wasn’t then, am now. What was happening?
I hit Taiwan as a nineteen year old student. There were almost no foreigners at the time. As part of the class, I traveled around Taiwan visiting temples. I had two Taiwanese women follow me from city to hamlet, mountain to ocean. Everywhere I went, there they were. As a teen I was mystified by the attention and incapable of fully taking advantage. Before this, women never went out of their way—except to avoid me. I was probably the first foreigner they’d interacted with beyond the movie screen. I was the unwitting beneficiary of a glamorized and fetishized view of Westerners common at the time. [Is it any wonder I still love this place].
I lived in Korea not long after, and found myself continually compared with Robert Redford, back when he was still handsome. I don’t look like Robert Redford—never have. I’m more of a Brad Pitt. Korean women were simply comparing me to the only handsome blonde foreigner they knew. Perceptions of my face benefited from being part of a very small control group.
Beauty is a cultural construct and is radically different between groups. I know that doesn’t seem earth-shattering, but that was pre-Internet, when cultural groups, ethnicities, races, and nationalities were not sharing videos and other information. Now we’re a little more aware—black men like big butts, white guys like big boobs, and Chinese are face-focused. (I know this is a wild generalization, but in broad sweeps it has some truth).
The Chinese have 5,000 years of literary and artistic output codifying their ideas of beauty. These ideas are numerous and deeply entrenched. As a single example there are many notions of what constitutes a beautiful female face. One traditional ideal of Chinese beauty is a face shaped like a pumpkin seed (瓜子臉).
People I met were surprised at what Asians I found attractive. Their tastes equally mystified me. When this extensive code of beauty is applied to Westerners the system implodes. Our faces defy Tang Dynasty ideals of beauty, leaving the Chinese without a baseline for judging foreign beauty. I’ve benefited from the phenomena. I have a large, protruding, hooked, ugly Germanic nose. Asians simply cannot see it, though it is literally as plain as the nose on my face. Asians measure nose size by broadness not height. Many find my prodigious proboscis positively pretty because it’s paper-thin. Sometimes having a misunderstood face isn’t beneficial. When I was younger, my eyes were limpid pools of cobalt; an azure sea the ladies could swim in. They’ve since become plain gray. When Asians look at eyes, they simply survey the eyelid shape. Do you have double eyelids? Check. Moving on. Poetry must suffer greatly from the lack of the concept of eyes being the windows to the soul. My best and worst physical features both get ignored. I guess it’s a bit of a push.
It is interesting to watch people react to mixed couples. Those I saw were always a foreign dweeb with a super-hot—model quality—Asian woman. It was so common that it became a clichéd commentary among expats. In Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam I was dimly aware the women didn’t share my assessment. I have a large circle of Taiwanese female friends, they vehemently hold the opposite opinion. Often asking me why is that handsome foreigner with such an ugly woman? I used to be stunned, now I take it in stride and just wipe the pulchritude-induced drool off my cravat and shatter their reality with the news that the guy is clearly a dweeb. This doesn’t just happen in Asia. While in Canada, my wife had the distinct pleasure of overhearing strangers trying to figure out what she—an obvious babe—was doing with such a dork [me]. Years later the memory still warms her heart.
In cross-cultural dating clearly what’s happening is two ugly people are finding each other, each thinking they’ve scored big and are punching above their class. Everyone wins. That’s beautiful.