Chinese versus Western Views of Beauty in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet

At home she wore flat Chinese slippers, thus physically exemplifying domestic inferiority. When they were out together Lily seemed more than the actual fraction taller, thanks to her long slim limbs and graceful carriage which contrasted to his disadvantage with Chen's stocky legs, long torso, and jerky strides; his wife floated beside him.

Chen had a pasty, bun-like face with squashed features which gave it a character it would otherwise have lacked. His skin was as smooth as a child's. Apart from some down on his cheeks near the ear he was free of facial hair; he had never shaved in his life. The only razor in the house, in fact, belonged to Lily. Since leaving his village and coming to the UK he had put on weight, particularly in the face, and there had formed under his cheeks and around the jowls a thin film of subcutaneous fat which while it did not entirely obliterate the planes of the bone beneath did have an effect of blurring them, so that there was an impression of wrong focus, fuzzy double images marginally unmerged as yet into one in the range-finder of the kind of sophisticated camera Chen's Japanese customers would carry. Working in the fields, Chen had once had a physique which had been lean, tanned, and sinewy; now it was almost impossible to see the outlines of his ribs for the plump flesh which clothed them. Not that he was chubby, just prosperous, as he was careful to explain to Lily. She teased him about it, pinching up the folds of adipose flesh between thumb and forefinger as they lay in bed.

'Fat boy!' she would say.

'Hakka girl!' he would retaliate, jokingly referring to the numbers of those immigrants in her home province (Lily was, of course, good Punti stock).

On Lily there were two opposing views. Chen did not think she was pretty. She had a long, thin, rather horsy face and a mouth that was too big for the rest of her features, and also a tiny mole just under the rim of her lower lip on the left side, which fell into a dimple when she smiled, which was frequently, too frequently to be consonant with Chen's passive ideal of female pulchritude. She was also rather busty and her hands and feet were a fraction too big to be wholly pleasing to her husband. It was her face, though, which really let her down (Chen had decided), being over-full of expression, particularly her bright black eyes which she had a habit of widening and narrowing when listening to something she found interesting. Probably there was too much character in her face, which perhaps explained the lack of Cantonese male interest better than any particular wrongness of an individual feature or their relationship to each other. Westerners found her attractive, though. Lily was unaware of this but Chen had noticed it with great surprise. That was if the second glances and turned heads on the street were anything to go by.

Chen wasn't disturbed. He knew what he liked and Lily didn't conform to the specifications. This he knew with a certainty as absolute as his knowledge that the food he served from the "tourist" menu was rubbish, total lupsup, fit only for foreign devils. If they liked that, then in all likelihood they could be equally deluded about Lily. He did once attempt to see what exactly it was the English saw in her, trying to look with new eyes, starting at her well-shaped calves, and moving up in stages to her glossy but too short hair, but still couldn't detect the remotest hint of any sexuality, however exotic and alien it might be. Perhaps they could see from her general bearing what she was like in bed, in which case they might be more astute than he gave them credit for, because in all conscience he had no complaints on that score, none at all.

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