Fashion is my intercultural communication tool

An international student from China writes about the fashion differences in China and the United States.

Siyun Ai, a second-year media studies and production master’s student, in the Student Center on Monday. | DYLAN LONG / THE TEMPLE NEWS

“I love your outfit. Where did you get it?” 



This must be the perfect way to start a friendship in the United States, because I’ve participated in this conversation more than 20 times — on the street, the subway, in a shopping mall or even the women’s restroom — since coming here from China in 2017. 

At first, I didn’t know how to respond to these random compliments on my clothing. In China, girlfriends show peace and love to each other through teasing. My best friend from China never complimented my new dresses, but would instead joke about how I shouldn’t expose my “elephant legs” by wearing them. I have strong legs because I am a former sprinter and basketball player, but in China, a size-4 woman like me is considered fat. 

I took these comments to heart, and, for a long time, I hated my big legs. I seldom wore pants because I felt fat in them and I would start fights with my mom, blaming her for giving me “elephant legs.” 

As I encountered more and more compliments here, my perception of myself and my legs started to change. To my surprise, I am not fat at all in America. Instead, people tell me I have sexy legs and a beautiful shape.

To better understand these odd-but-nice interactions, I started to ask my American friends if it was normal for Americans to compliment a stranger’s outfit. Some of my friends told me these compliments were genuine, some told me they were considered polite and others told me the person was most likely less interested in my outfit than they were in me.

Nonetheless, these beautiful encounters gave me valuable intercultural communication skills that would help me initiate conversations with strangers and interact with others in America. They also became useful tools to build my self-confidence. Fashion became a magic string to connect me with other people, and myself.

I learned that by mimicking compliments as simple as “I like your pants,” I could brighten a stranger’s day on the morning subway, and they could brighten mine.

I started to admire myself in mirrors and became grateful to my mom for giving me such powerful legs.

I paid more attention to people’s outfits and became more aware of the differences between day-to-day Asian and American fashions.

Women in China wear skirts and dresses more often than they wear pants. I didn’t realize how frequently I now wear denim jeans and black pants until a friend from China pointed this out to me on social media. In America, or at least in Philadelphia, women tend to dress more sporty and casual. A common outfit is a hoody or dark-colored sweater with striped joggers or sweatpants. 

When I returned to China for winter break, it was the opposite. Women wore light pastel sweaters with skirts and pantyhose, trench coats and long boots for public outings. 

When it comes to business attire, Chinese and American professionals dress more similarly. But, Chinese people have a more conservative approach to their choice of tie and button-up shirts than Americans. 

When I was in middle school and high school in China, a lot of my teachers and professors wore navy blue or dark grey suits paired with stark-white shirts. Even students were required to wear uniforms on weekdays — oversized blazers and slacks. Many of us disliked these uniforms, which may be the reason women in China love to wear skirts and dresses after they graduate from high school.

Although some of my professors at Temple still wear a suit and tie for important occasions, I more often see them wearing business casual, but unrevealing, outfits. On the other hand, Chinese people tend to dress more casually for informal occasions than Americans do.  

In any country, I’ve learned knowledge of fashion helps us create good first impressions and succeed professionally. Fashion is more than just a greeting skill. It is an introduction to show people who you really are.

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