It only struck me yesterday, when I went to shave my beard, that the only place there’s a mirror around here is by the dinner hand out window. In London, I’ve been used to one in my bedroom, one in the bathroom, one in the lift and handful in and around the workplace. I realised that it’s nice to be in a place where appearance isn’t an everyday pressure or a signal of social status. So I questioned why do we care about appearance and why doesn’t it matter here?

Firstly, lets define appearance. I’m not talking about genetically good looks, rather I’m talking about well-groomed you are, because that’s how people tend to look at it in western culture. Off-the-bat, a good appearance usually signals that you have money (because you’re spending it on yourself), pay attention to fashion trends (because you’re wearing it) and you’re popular (because we associate super groomed celebrities with popularity). So we like to look good as much as possible.

Why doesn’t it matter here?

Well, the reasons for having a good appearance here aren’t applicable. It doesn’t signal money, because no one here has much – it’s a much flatter monetary hierarchy. Fashion trends aren’t applicable to a small rural town because even if you knew what the latest thing was, you couldn’t get hold of it. Thirdly, without newspapers and limited TV, there’s little indulgence with celebrities and their lifestyles.

So what does matter instead then?

If appearance doesn’t, you’re basically looking for a replacement for an attribute that demonstrates social status. These are the ones I’ve picked up on:

  • Ability to be late, but not get reprimanded for it – When the bell goes off, you have about a minute to get from your room to a “line up” outside. It’s obvious to me that any time a younger kid is late, they get some penalty exercises to do. There’s a handful of older, continuously late arrivals, who manage to slip through.
  • Ability to “jump” the food queue – Dinner should be handed out largely speaking in age/height order. So the younger kids go first all the way up to the oldest. If you manage to jump the queue, whether by cleverly tapping someone on the shoulder at the right time or bullying your way through, it puts you in good stead.
  • Which area of the building you live – Quicker hot water on the ground floor, fewer people per room, working toilets and distance from the school room means all round better quality of life on the ground floor. Top floor corner is a little more like a ghetto.
  • Which room you eat your meals – This is somewhat related to the food queue. By jumping the food queue, you can get a seat at the table with chairs. Recently, some of the older kids have been sneaking in sauces to have with the food. Seat at the table means a tasty meal, otherwise you’re left squatting on a mini stall.
  • How much you get b*llcked by Master Wu – This one cracks me up. Every so often, Master Wu will drop in a class and strategically takes apart the senior instructor who’s teaching us. It’s good, because it show just how much more can be done to work on and improve your technique. But it leaves me thinking something like “if HE [the instructor] is so far from the perfect form, what must Master Wu think about me?”. What it means is that the more feedback you get, the more experience you must have.