Young, Popular and Good-looking

A significant cultural difference between China and the U.S. is the way that people here talk about subjects that are taboo or at least sensitive in the U.S. (and vice versa but I will mostly speak in one direction here).

Last summer we hosted a party at our home for the Vermont Law School China Programs Chinese Scholars – faculty and students spending the summer at VLS. I thought it was a nice event, but now I realize how meager the spread must have looked to the Chinese scholars – just 3 or 4 dishes and some basmati rice that was on the dry side and we didn’t sit down to eat. I didn’t offer tea until after dinner or even hot water. We had a fruit tray and cake for dessert but did not make them available for some time after the meal.

Anyway, one of the Chinese scholars at the party, upon meeting me, said, “I am happy to meet you. Your husband is so young and handsome.” Instantly my hackles were up. I felt challenged, judged (as if my spouse was out of my league) and a bit embarrassed at the topic of
conversation. By this time I have become accustomed to such comments and have learned that I am meant to take them as a compliment – that the qualities of my spouse indicate my own high status.

We had dinner with my graduate students the other night and, upon meeting Jason they all exclaimed that he was so young to be a professor. One of my students said, “He is also very handsome. I am sure the students really love his class.” I replied, “He is a very good teacher.”

People frequently ask how old we are, how much money we make, how much our house cost, etc. Job opening state the mandatory age range for applicants. Such topics are legitimate here.

I think the thing about such talk about ascribed characteristics (looks, age, height, etc) that rubs me the wrong way is that it makes explicit the assumption that those characteristics are considered an advantage. Naturally, the thinking is, a young and good-looking professor is going to be beloved by his students. As one student put it, “It is easy to pay attention to a handsome teacher.” Such talk flies in the face of the emphasis on effort and achievement that characterizes talk of value and success in the U.S. At home we aim to talk about a teacher’s knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject, their ability to build rapport with students, their preparation of clear and informative lectures, etc. Those are things that, ostensibly at least, result from the skill and effort of the professor.

Do I think this means that judgments in China are more superficial – based upon appearance rather than substance? It’s complicated by the fact that sometimes in China they do explicitly take looks and age into account (for example when, in the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony they used one 7-year-old with a perfect voice to sing “Ode to the Motherland” but put a more attractive child on stage to lip sync the song). All the same, the short answer is no for at least 2 reasons.

1. In many ways China is a much more meritocratic society than the U.S. College admissions and even many jobs that college and advanced graduate students seek are distributed on the basis of performance on examinations. While there may be some merit to American arguments that examinations only capture some aspects of a person’s potential, the examination system is an equalizer even considering class differences in access to preparation assistance. It is easier to overcome class inequality in tests results than to override the influence of familial or school networks on employment or “legacy” points on admissions applications (the advantage that applicants get for being the descendant of a University alum) on creating ascriptive advantages.

2. Discussion of ascribed characteristics in China does not indicate that the country is more superficial, just more open about the influence of those characteristics. While we tend to use an achievement-oriented language in the U.S., research shows again and again that your age, gender, race, height, weight, motherhood status, class indicators, accent, and looks all influence how much attention people pay to you, how smart people think you are, and how influential your opinion is (google “Status Characteristics Theory” for a start on the relevant literature). Whether or not people admit it, having the “right” ascribed characteristics really is an asset

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