A few days ago on the subway I was reading my book, happily unaware of my surroundings when my boyfriend Josh interrupted my ignorant bliss to alert me to a particularly disgusting individual sitting directly in front of me. The man was a middle aged Chinese man with salt and pepper hair, seemingly normal except for one disturbing behavior. He was picking at a scab on the back of his neck, with a pair of toenail clippers. I had to actively hold back vomit every time he snipped at the wound. The sound the nail clippers made as they hacked small particles of crusted blood and pus from the scab still haunts me. By the time he disembarked the scab had become an open, bloody sore. It was horrific, but the truly disturbing thing is that this is not the first time I’ve seen something on a Chinese person’s skin and thought, what the hell is that and why are you picking at it?
I’ve noticed that a great many people suffer from skin aliments here ranging from dry patches and dandruff to what looks like severe psoriasis and irritated red welts. I can only assume the problems stem from a variety of factors including poor nutrition or hygiene, unsanitary conditions, pollution and untested topical products. I have struggled with adult acne since my early twenties, but when I moved to China the problem intensified. Compounding the problem is the fact that I cannot escape from the things that trigger my acne. The pollution in Shenzhen, though better than many other large cities, clogs my pores and the water I then use to wash my face is also polluted. The food I eat I know does not undergo the same type of sanitation regulations that it would in America and so I fear that I often eat things that aren’t good for me, let alone for my skin. Then there are the products I put on my skin. Not only are the labels ambiguous but they are also incredibly hard to translate. Chemical compounds like benzoyl peroxide aren’t exactly part of most English courses so nobody knows them let alone can translate them (even my spell check is flagging the word benzoyl). And the limited variety in many shops means I habitually have to choose between a product with unknown contents or a product with whitening properties (see my blog White Beauty for more on China’s obsession with porcelain skin).
A lot of the time I feel hopelessly acne prone living here and it’s a bit depressing. But sometimes I am able to find a little humor in the situation, like when a student told me that I looked much younger than my 31 years because my acne was like a teenager. Umm, thank you? And my acne hasn’t gotten so terrible that I feel the need to pick at it with a toenail clipper while riding public transportation, so I guess that’s also something to be happy about.