The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

LESSONS FROM TWO SMALL ISLANDS — 6) Keep Calm and Run a Bath

I didn’t think seriously about fashion and beauty until I, an American East Coaster, became a resident of two small islands: Britain and then Japan.

Both London and Tokyo are fashion capitals, and living in each of these cities, I found that every so often I really enjoy thinking about striking clothing combinations, make-up, and self-pampering.

Would I have discovered this love of what America’s Puritan founders would call frivolity had I stayed in this country? It’s conceivable, especially if I’d moved to New York City, where I now live as a repatriate. (NOTE: While I do not have Puritan ancestry, I was raised to be a bluestocking, not a girl in rhinestone-studded pantyhose.)

But in the event, I discovered fashion and beauty through my travels — and from learning about how women in other countries clothe and groom themselves.

So what, you may ask, were my key take-aways from this relatively speaking decadent period of my life? No specific beauty products or fashions, but these five guiding principles:

1) To get an English rose (or any other perfect) complexion, you have to be born with it. Nevertheless, skin care is worth it.

As a Caucasian woman, one of my beauty ideals was that of the English rose: a woman with flawless porcelain skin and rosy cheeks that look as though they’ve been produced by good bracing walks in the countryside wearing sensible shoes and tweed skirts.

When I first moved to England and encountered some actual English Roses, I wondered: is it because of the climate, the cosmetics from Boots the Chemist, the diet? (How do I get me one of those?)

My research soon revealed that diet has nothing to do with it. Not in a country where people grow up eating chips and crisps.

And as nice as the No7 products are, they can’t work miracles.

So maybe a glowing appearance is the result of England’s unique climatic conditions: a paucity of direct sunlight and the moisturizing drizzle that almost always seems to be in the air?

I hardly think that can be the case, as there are plenty of Britons with problem skin…

Trying not to turn pea green with envy (hardly a flattering shade!), I could come to only one conclusion: you have to be born with it.

But, not to despair! Once I reached Japan, where women are obsessed with their skin — some even use whitening lotions to obtain a creamier complexion — I learned that of all the things you can do for beauty, skin care is the most worthwhile.

Ladies, if you protect your skin, you might find yourself turning into an English Rose when you get a bit older — the Last Rose of Summer, so to speak.  While some may swear by Crème de la Mer, I go with the regime I picked up in Japan: sunscreen, a hat and a parasol.

I’d also recommend befriending your dermatologist, who knows a lot more about skin care and sun protection than the woman behind the cosmetics counter…

2) Don’t be afraid of experimenting with your hair: it can add some spice and life to your image.

In the UK one of my English rose-complexioned friends favored a chic bob — but with a streak of blue, green or red in it.

As an American fresh off the boat, I was rather scandalized. Why was she ruining a perfectly good hairstyle?

Over time, however, I came to realize that when you live in a country where skies are often the color of lead, adding a bright color to a strand of hair can brighten up your day.

By the time I left England, I could no longer understand why any woman, once she reached maturity, wouldn’t dye or highlight her hair. She doesn’t know the fun she’s missing out on! And, even though I have yet to streak my hair in an outrageous color, it’s definitely on my bucket list.

In Japan, too, I got some kicks from playing with my hair — this time, by adorning it with the kinds of hair ornaments that have been popular since the times when women wore kimono and kanzashi: combs, hair sticks and pins, hair bands, and fancy barrettes.

I did not have particularly long hair when I first reached Japan, but as long hair is the signature of Japanese ladies — and they were my new role models — I soon had locks long enough to make the most of such accessories. My favorite was the snood — I had one that was attached to a barrette covered with a bow. What a great way to keep long hair out of one’s face.

3) Gemstones and pearls are a girl’s best friend.

Sorry, Marilyn dear, but after living in the UK and Japan, my BFFs are gemstones and pearls. Is this because I went to England in the era of Princess Diana, with her (now Kate Middleton’s) 18-carat sapphire ring?

My relationship with colored gemstones only deepened after I moved to Japan and went on several sojourns into Southeast Asia, land of rubies and sapphires, among others.

My engagement ring is a ruby (purchased by my hubby in Tokyo!).

In Japan itself, I fell for pearls and now have quite the collection of necklaces, earrings, rings, and bracelets, mostly from Wally Yonamine’s in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. The owner, Jane, wife of  Wally (a professional baseball player who played with the Yomiuri Giants) is a displaced Japanese Hawaiian.

4) Youth is the time to have fun with fashion.

In the UK, I was taken in by the spectacle of punk and post-punk kids and their strange fashions, while in Japan I found it mesmerizing to watch the Lolita fashions of the Harajuku kids, on a Sunday afternoon.

Eventually, instead of thinking they were weird, I regretted never having had my own equivalent of wearing Doc Martens with a Laura Ashley dresses … sporting long, back-combed hair, pale skin, dark eyeshadow, eyeliner, and lipstick, black nail varnish, along with a spiked bracelet and dog-collar … dressing up like a Victorian boy …

It just wasn’t the done thing, in my stiff, conservative American circles, to wear outlandish garb. And now it’s too late, of course. Youth is the time when you can get away with it. After that, you have to wait for Halloween. (Unless, of course, you want to come across as “mutton dressed as lamb,” as the English say…)

5) Last but not least, my top beauty tip, reinforced by both of these countries: A bath is much preferable to a shower.

At the beginning of living in England, I missed the American shower so much. I was convinced I would never be clean again. But then one day I woke up and realized I’d been brainwashed into believing I needed to have a shower every day. In fact, daily showers dry out the skin. As one dermatologist puts it:

Most people wash far too much. Using piping-hot water combined with harsh soaps can strip the skin of its oils, resulting in dryness, cracking and even infection.

That was around the same time I opened my mind to the possibility that baths — which tend to be favored over showers in the UK (at least in my day) — might actually be preferable. Nothing like a long hot bath with a glass of wine and a book, my English friends would say. Or, as one British beauty site puts it:

A nice bubble bath is the closest you can come to having a spa-like relaxing experience in your own home, without much effort or without spending a lot of money.

Too true! Plus the English shops sell such wonderful bubble bath creams. My favorite was the Perlier Honey Miel (actually from Italy).

Still, I didn’t mind giving all of that up once I reached Tokyo — not the bathing but the bubbles. In the land of the communal bath, you scrub the skin first and then have a long soak in clean hot water, in a tub (ofuro) that is deep rather than long.

Indeed, Japan was where I learned the benefits of exfoliation: I ended up sloughing off dry skin from parts of my body I didn’t know existed. And then the immersion in clean hot water: bliss! Like returning to the womb…

For a Japanese who works long hours, bathing is a sacred time, a ritual. While I haven’t quite converted that far, I have a Pavlovian reaction every time I hear bath water running. Time to go into Total Relax Mode!

I even have a Japanese bath here in my apartment in NYC, and the thought of sitting in it is what keeps me going … That said, I must confess that I sometimes put bubbles in. What can I say? I’m displaced.

* * *

So, readers, what do you make of my five beauty principles? Have you picked up any of your own in the countries where you live? I’m all ears — only please excuse me for a minute while I make sure the bath water isn’t running over. (I don’t want my downstairs neighbors knocking on my door at 3:00 a.m.!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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Image: MorgueFile

10 responses to “LESSONS FROM TWO SMALL ISLANDS — 6) Keep Calm and Run a Bath

  1. Apple Gidley March 7, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    You invariably make me smile – thank you!

  2. giddayfromtheuk March 7, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Oh I laughed at this…I too arrived on England’s shores and mourned the lack of showering facilities in my various places of abode. But lo and behold not two years had passed when I found myself travelling and wistfully looking forward to a long soak in the tub when I got back home. And it was 7 years of shower-free, bathtime bliss…I have been living in a flat with a shower and a bath for the last 14 months and while I have the best of both worlds again, I’d be far more devastated if I couldn’t bath.

    Who knew??

    • ML Awanohara March 7, 2013 at 8:09 pm

      Indeed, who knew? We have both in this apartment — a Japanese style bath, or furo, and a shower — but I am invariably found in the furo. It has much more a feeling of “my time” than a shower, something I appreciate more and more nowadays, with our 24/7 communications.

  3. expatlogue March 7, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    When we arrived in Canada, I was distraught to discover that a “soaker tub” was a special feature and not a given in every home as it is in Britain. Instead I was met with what looked like a tub for the cast of The Hobbit; way too shallow for a soak and with no gently sloping end to relax against even if one did try – it’s purely for standing in while you shower. I still mourn the loss of my jacuzzi-tub back home. I spent many a happy hour there with a glass of wine, a book and various bubble and emollient concoctions… *sigh*

  4. ML Awanohara March 7, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Ah, Aisha, your jacuzzi-tub back home sounds divine! I am sighing as well! What is it about the New World that they (we) don’t understand the joys of home bathing?! Your Canadian “soaker tub” sounds like a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater! 😦

  5. Justine Ickes (@justineickes) March 9, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Lovely post! I too am a big fan of long soaks in the tub. I guess my American family was a bit of an anomaly because, growing up, we always took baths. At the time, I thought bubbly baths were just for me and my four siblings. Years later, when I lived in a bed-sit in London, I remember whiling away many hours in the bath, listening to the drip of the leaky faucet and staring out at the grey sky. The bath was lovely but huddling in front of my 25 pence coin-operated heater in my room, not so much. Years later, when one day I was telling my father how frazzled I felt raising two toddlers, he suggested I get a glass of wine, a book, and relax in the tub. “That’s what your mother always did,” he said, “Don’t you remember how she’d be in there for hours?” Now that I’m married to a Turkish man, I get to enjoy the delights of a Turkish bath when we visit Istanbul. Have you ever had one? Drifting off to sleep on a heated marble slab and feeling the cascade of bubbles = heaven. Back in the U.S. I’m not as lucky as you to have a furo, the communal women-only soaking tubs and jacuzzis I have to settle for the occasional visit to the Korean spa in Queens, NY.

    • ML Awanohara March 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm

      You’re married to a Turkish man? I had no idea. You have so many dimensions! 🙂 Pls pls pls write a post for us one day on cross-cultural marriage!

      And we should ask you for a post on cross-cultural bathing, too. You’ve had the whole range — anomalous American, British, Turkish and Asian — of beautiful bathing experiences. (Have you also tried the Roman baths in Budapest?)

      Somehow I managed to miss the Turkish baths my one time in Istanbul. I recall regretting that one year ago when TDN featured Anastasia Ashman as “Cleopatra for a day” (as you probably know, she, too, is married to a Turkish man). She collected all the haman implements while living in Istanbul…. I must ask her if she’s still using them, now that she has repatriated to San Francisco!

  6. Amy Chavez April 18, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Agreed on the bathing front! If I ever had to live in the US again, I’d build a Japanese style bath! My husband built a rock bath in our Japanese home and it gets used every day. It’s a great way to relax at the end of the day and helps you sleep at night too.

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