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Category Archives: Lessons from Two Small Islands (series)

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.

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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.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Image: MorgueFile

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LESSONS FROM TWO SMALL ISLANDS — 5) Keep calm and pour some tea

Teatime CollageDecember greetings, everyone! Can you see us twinkling? The Displaced Nation wants to be part of your Festival of Lights this December — a source of brightness and enLIGHTenment during the dark days of winter. (Unless, of course, you reside in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case, you should be helping all of us to feel brighter!)

But before we get to that — Kate Allison will be delivering some tips tomorrow on generating holiday cheer regardless of location — do you fancy what the Brits would call a cuppa?

If you said no, that you’d prefer coffee or cold beverage, I suspect you may be a compatriot of mine. Once upon a time, I was an American like you — I didn’t drink any caffeinated beverages apart from Diet Coke. But then I traveled to Europe and Asia, and now I can’t imagine a life without tea. As the Chinese lady who owns Ching Ching Cha, a traditional Chinese tea house in Georgetown, DC, once remarked to me, when I told her how much I’d grown to like tea from my travels: “For me, tea is a way of life.”

Those who already know what I’m talking about may read no further. But for the unconvinced, here are 10 lessons I learned while living in two major tea-drinking nations, Britain and Japan, for many years. (If you’re the bucket-list-keeping type, think of it is as 10 reasons to develop a tea-drinking habit before you die!)

1) Even if coffee is more your cup of tea, so to speak, give tea a chance.

Coffee is great for that jolt to the system. One of its most effective uses, apart from first thing in the morning when you’re going to work, is for the jet lag that occurs after a really long international flight — say between the United States and Japan. (Japanese, btw, love coffee as much as the English do — and perhaps thanks to German influence, can make an even better cup than anyone in the UK or the USA.) But unlike coffee, tea is what keeps you going day in day out, putting one foot in front of the other. It’s the sustenance beverage for the marathon known as life.

2) I mean tea, not tisanes.

I apologize to those expats who’ve spent their formative years in France. I have nothing against those herbal drinks with medicinal qualities. I just think it would be a shame to miss out on the kind of caffeine that tea has to offer — the kind that produces sustained mental alertness. Not to mention tea’s own medicinal qualities — all of those lovely antioxidants. Why do you think the Japanese live so long, with all their bad habits of smoking, drinking to excess and overwork? Likewise, the English writer, George Orwell, was able to sustain himself on cups of tea when living “down and out” in Paris and London.

3) Tea has a special role to play in the holiday season.

It’s the perfect libation to help you recover when your feet are aching after a full day of shopping and wrapping gifts (surely, the bane of any adult female’s existence this time of year!) or when you think your hand will drop off if you have to write one more Christmas card. It’s also the perfect drink to serve, because so convivial and relaxing, when meeting up with friends or family you haven’t seen in a long time.

4) Tea is a primary aid for developing a more stoical attitude towards life.

As explained in the very first post in this series, I found it a bit of a challenge to adapt to the brand of stoicism-cum-fatalism both of these small islands, England and Japan, have cultivated over the centuries. But the day I worked out the connection between tea-drinking and stoicism marked the beginning of the end of my struggle. If only I’d paid closer attention to Orwell, who said:

All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes.

5) Tea may also be the key to a philosophical approach to life.

The process of drinking a cuppa slows you down for long enough to clear your head of pressing thoughts and work out what is important. Strangely, I found Brits to be almost as insistent on the importance of a regular tea-drinking habit as the Japanese — even though it’s the latter who are renowned for their Zen approach to tea. Take these words of Rudyard Kipling’s, for example:

We haven’t had any tea for a week…
The bottom is out of the Universe

It reads like a haiku, doesn’t it? Certainly, his sentiments are not far removed from the Japanese proverb:

If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.

6) The rituals are just as important as the tea itself.

After nearly a decade of living in Britain, I had it all down to a fine art: boiling water to serve tea, heating the pot, putting the milk in the cup first, and pouring the tea without spilling. To this day, I cannot imagine making a pot of tea without pouring hot water in it first to heat the pot. The water and the pot need to be at the right temperature to brew the tea properly. Imagine the affront I experienced upon returning to this country and being served a cup of either semi-warm water or boiling water with a Lipton’s tea bag on the side. And though I found some of the Japanese tea-drinking rituals a bit obscure, especially those related to the tea ceremony — twirl the cup around three times, really? — I still took delight in the spectacle.

7) Tea should be served with something sweet.

“Tea and biccies, anyone?” as they say in England — usually meaning the chocolate-coated digestive biscuits. And the perfect way to offset the super bitter green tea (macha) of the Japanese tea ceremony is with the almost sickeningly sweet kashi and wagashi — confections that are usually served beforehand. A tad of sugar helps this most medicinal of teas go down. Not only that but it’s a beautiful combination, as anyone who has sampled green tea ice cream, by now a classic flavor, will attest.

8) Tea should be served in an aesthetically pleasing cup — never paper or plastic!

Part of the pleasure of taking tea at Fortnum & Mason’s or the Ritz is the bone china it is served in. If the world had a treasure chest, surely it would contain a full set of Wedgwood or Royal Doulton? In Japan, by contrast, it is the roughness and imperfection of the tea cup that provides aesthetic pleasure, or, if you’re drinking Western tea (usually served with lemon, not milk), the sheen of a fine china tea cup — either English (Wedgwood Wild Strawberry is very popular there) or a Japanese version (eg, Noritake). Can’t be bothered with china? At the very least, make your tea in a proper mug.

9) Tea is the ultimate social drink.

Perhaps the British writer known as Saki (yes, he was born in the Far East) put it best when he wrote:

Find yourself a cup of tea; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things.

Japanese may not be as fond of having a natter when they take tea; nevertheless, they see it as a custom that fosters social harmony.

10) No one should ever be too busy for a tea break.

My fellow Americans, are you still with me? This pointer is particularly for you — particularly those of you who are always crazy busy — although as Tim Kreider pointed out on the New York Times‘s Opinionator blog, it’s often not clear why what you’re doing is so important. Perhaps if you took time out for a regular tea break, you would slow down a bit — see 5) — and find an escape from your self-imposed “busy trap.”

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And now I must leave you as the clock says ten to three — only, is there still honey for my tea?

Readers, do you agree that tea may be the answer? Or is this just another of my moonbat pronouncements that’s put you in need of a strong cup of Joe?!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post from Kate Allison.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Img: Collage made of two photos available on Flickr via Creative Commons: (left) “High tea,” by John Heaven, and “Japanese tea ceremony,” by JoshBerglund19.

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