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All About Skin

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for my muse Jenny Wai

I went to Derma the week before Christmas to buy an american skin. I was apprehensive because Derma’s expensive and doesn’t allow trade-ins. But their salesman gave me credit on pretty generous terms, and let me take it away the same day, which made me feel good.

This was not an impulse purchase, you understand. I’ve been pricing americans for donkeys’ years. My last topskin, which I got fourteen years ago at Epiderm International, was an immigranta. It was OK, but only really fit if teamed with the right accessories. That got to be a pain. Going american, though, is a big step. After Derma, there’s no place else to go but down, at least, not as long as they’re number one.

You see, my history with skins is spotty. I stay with one a long time, sometimes too long, because change makes me itch. The thing about an old skin is that even if it’s worn or stained, it hangs comfortably because you know where it needs a bit of a stretch or a quick fold and tuck. Before immagranta, I wore cosmopol for seven years. The latter was always a wee bit shiny between the legs, although I knew enough to deflect glare with corpus ceiling-glass, my preferred underskin, from SubCutis.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A chronology of my history with skins will keep names and dates straight. It’s sort of like skinning a lion. First, you have to shoot the beast.

Like most folks on our globe, I got my first topskin from my parents on my eighth birthday. Now I know there are some who start off at six or even as young as five, like the wearers of nipponicas and americans. We were a conservative family though, and when I slipped into china cutis, the only product line People’s PiFu sold back then, I was the proudest little creature strutting around Hong Kong. This was in the nineteen sixties. My idea of skin began and ended with china cutis, basic model.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with basics. This one gave me room to breathe and plenty of growing space. During the teenage diet thing, it adapted nicely enough, although Ma worried about premature tummy sags. You know what mothers are like. If there isn’t a real problem to worry about they’ll find one.

For years, I simply didn’t think about skin. Passing exams was all that mattered so that I too could be a face-valued citizen. I practiced tending to wounds and cuts, bruises and scars, sores and boils. What fascinated me were bites — a plethora of bug nibbles bursting out on the back of my thighs; fang prints snakes sank into my ankles; crab kisses slashing my fingers; teeth marks dogs lodged in my shoulder. Papa was pallid the day I came home from the beach, my back and arms covered with huge, red splotches. They looked awful but didn’t itch, which was merciful, and disappeared the next day. Sand crabs, Ma said. Durable, my old china cutis. There are days I miss it.

My problem began round about age nineteen. Being ambitious types, my parents packed me off to schools abroad. I salivated at Derma’s store windows in New York, desperate for an american. They were all the rage, and outrageously expensive. “You can buy that yourself when you’re earning your own money,” Papa declared. “I can’t afford it.” I stormed and pouted, scratching my face and legs till they bled, giving Ma something to really cry about. He wouldn’t relent. It wasn’t just the money. He and Ma had worn their china cutises since they were eight and couldn’t see why I wouldn’t do likewise. From their perspective, I was acting like a spoilt brat. They were right, I suppose, but you find me a nineteen-year-old who isn’t stuffed full of the fashion of her times.

So I passed the exams, got my face-valued citizen parchment, and, by my mid-twenties, had this great job in advertising. Paris three times a year! Imagine. It was a pretty exciting life, I must say, despite my skin.

In the spring of ’79, I dared to visit Integume of Paris.

If you think Derma’s hot, you’ve never shopped at Integume. From the moment you enter their store — no, store’s too pedestrian — their boutique, you’re engulfed by the unimaginable possibilities of skin. Moisturizer wafts through the atmosphere. Never, never, it whispers, will even the tiniest blemish dare to mar this surface. Jamais! You wander around this cutaneous paradise where an array of products tempts you with seductive promise: euro trash tannis, decadence glorious, romance du monde ancien, french chic . . . Skins! Meters upon meters of skins, both natural and quality synthetic, draped fetchingly, lovingly, placed with the kind of care that plunges skin deep.

The saleslady offered to take my old china cutis in trade, saying it was in big demand and commanded good resale value. Second hands were rare, because few wearers upgraded abroad back then. I really didn’t care one way or another because I was sick to death of china cutis. I mean, it couldn’t tan or wrinkle, and even a little makeup made me feel all Suzie Wong. The only reason I stuck it out so long was, well, family is family after all. But enough is enough. It was time to go cosmopol.

The beauty of cosmopol is its flexibility. I could slip in and out of it into something more comfortable whenever I wanted. China cutis stuck to me like a fragile layer of dried rice glue. It flaked periodically — showers of scarf skin — and had to be treated with such respect. That was the worst part, the respect. Four thousand years of R&D had gone into its design. Personally, I thought the design had already run its course, but then, I’ve always been “one step too many beyond,” as Ma says. When Mao, the primo china cutis wearer of the last century created a big to do by jumping into the Yellow River, thus proving its durability, it was downright asinine.

But the truth of the matter is my china cutis had gotten loose and sloppy. Fashion-wise, the look was making a comeback by then, but not in any real way. Mine sagged. I wallowed in free space. Ma had suggested I return it for a newer model, but those weren’t a marked improvement. People’s PiFu hadn’t modernized their product line for global consumption yet. It was just an ill-destined style.

So I traded it in. My father would’ve killed me had he known. He didn’t though, thanks to cosmopol.

I owe a lot to that Integume saleslady. She showed me how to enhance my cosmopol skin with separates and coordinates. Stuck with china cutis, I didn’t know about all the accessory lines. I confess I was pretty extravagant for awhile there. From Integume, I went to SubCutis where I bought three underskins — a sub-four seas, lady don juan and corporate rung. They were expensive, but worth it. Like the saleslady said, you make the big one-time investment and add extras as you go. Besides, Integume allowed layaway, and SubCutis was running a special promotion for customers of Integume. A year later, I added underwired g-strung and corpus-ceiling glass to my skinrobe. All in all, I made out OK.

Being able to slip any one of these over or under cosmopol was such a liberation. If I were feeling particularly daring, I could combine accessories by themselves. None of them worked that well solo, probably because they were all synthetic. Underwired g-strung slid off at the slightest provocation. Corporate rung was generally a tight fit, although the crotch was absurdly loose. The designer hadn’t quite gotten the hang of that one, especially in female petite.

The real test, though, was passing muster with Papa. By wearing cosmopol with sub-four seas underneath, I could fool him into thinking I had on my china cutis. Things were looking good. But none of this explains why, after a good seven years, I decided to give up cosmopol for an immigranta.

To tell you properly, I have to go back to Derma and their american line. You have to understand that I never lost my yen for american. I’m a sucker for advertising, and Derma could really launch a marketing campaign. Even though they’d only been around a couple of centuries, everyone thought they were the real thing. It was a question of focus. Their entire strategy depended on narrowing everything down to one product. Derma equaled american. The same idea worked for People’s PiFu a few centuries earlier. Their problem was different — times had changed and they hadn’t. Renaming their company and sticking on a new logo back in the late nineteen forties were not, by themselves, sufficient to create the fundamental transformation they desperately needed.

But during the years I ran around in cosmopol, Derma had been steadily losing market share to All Nippon Cutis.

Let me digress a moment. All Nippon Cutis were smart. They invested in R&D for some ten years to produce a top quality american-like skin. I read about them in Forbes. Their chairman sent fifty of their top designers and executives to Paris for two years to check out Integume’s styles. After that, those same folks went to New York for another two years to study Derma’s market leadership. By the time they actually started designing in Tokyo, they had the marketplace all figured out.

The world, they decided, wanted Derma’s strength with Integume’s flair. Somehow, the frivolous fun inherent in SubCutis needed to be integrated. The smartest thing All Nippon Cutis did was to compete in Derma’s primary marketplace, which was an easier target than Integume’s international market dominance.

You know the rest. At the beginning, the very rich would fly to Tokyo to buy an america dreama. By the mid eighties, All Nippon Cutis had opened branches all over the U.S. You remember their commercials — Lincoln’s head superimposed on the Statue of Liberty crying “Cutify!” Market forces being what they are, within a year, you could get an america dreama out in Jersey for half the price of Derma’s american.

Their america dreama impressed me. They couldn’t call it american, of course, because of trademark infringement. I had moved to New York by then, but Ma told me that the product was a big hit even in Hong Kong. In Tokyo, it became very fashionable as a second skin to nipponica.

At that time, I wouldn’t have dreamed of buying from Derma. Not only was my cosmopol still serviceable, but Derma’s prices were quite unjustified. Oh I know they were all natural, while All Nippon Cutis used blends, but big deal, my old china cutis was all natural too. Even when the hoopla about american dreama turning yellow after repeated sun exposure made the news, no one cared, not really, because, first of all, the scientists who claimed that were working for Derma, and most people had begun to believe that skins should be replaced after even as little as three to five years. I find that a little wasteful myself, but All Nippon Cutis made a good point by offering to recycle old skins.

As impressive as it was, I wasn’t quite sold on what amounted to only a make believe american. Which meant my alternative was Epiderm International, makers of immigranta, asia personals and ec, among others.

My problem was that cosmopol wasn’t fitting quite right.

Life in New York was expensive enough without keeping up my cosmopol skin. It was flexible, but only if pampered a lot. You needed the best face creams and lotions, and could only be seen in the most fashionable places. Worst of all, it radiated this worldly air, while hinting at a sexual undertow, but avoiding any engagements that would ravage its surface charms. Debt did not aid its sustenance, as I was still paying off my balance at Integume.

At least cosmopol could be cashed in. Unlike china cutis, which had great trade-in value but generated no cash, New Yorkers would kill for second hand cosmopols. I actually made a profit, because naturally, with the original trade in, I hadn’t paid full price, although the interest alone was staggering.

For almost six months, I went around without a main skin. Luckily, I had all those secondary ones. Depending on my mood, I usually wore either corporate rung or corpus-ceiling glass, with sub-four seas underneath. It was an uncomfortable time. I was sometimes tempted to slip on lady don juan with underwired g-strung to get back that cosmopol feeling, but was just too embarrassed. I hated admitting I didn’t have a main skin, but I needed to pay down debt, even if not completely, before my next investment.

The day I purchased my immigranta, I dreamt about flying back to Hong Kong to see my parents. This was the real reason to lose cosmopol. Lying to them was fine when I was younger, but now, it made me feel like a hypocrite. It wasn’t their fault I didn’t like china cutis. They couldn’t have foreseen my life.

Even then, it was another six years before I finally made it home. I had retired lady don juan and underwired g-strung to my back closet, because the market for those secondary styles had pretty much gone bust. You remember the beginning of the dual skin craze. Anyone who was anyone wouldn’t dream of being without a second skin. SubCutis hung on, but just barely. Word flew on the street that they were going to file Chapter 11. I won that bet when they succumbed to a buyout by All Nippon Cutis. You have to figure there’s a niche market somewhere for their questionable lines. Besides, the rest of their products did have mainstream appeal.

It was a big bet, which was good, because the money paid for my trip home. I had left advertising and was working on the fringes of Wall Street, a bad place to be post Black Monday. With my debt on immigranta, I lived paycheck to paycheck. Maybe I was sticking my neck out unnecessarily with that bet. But the great thing about my immigranta skin was that it absorbed immunity to risk.

I suppose that’s why I kept it so long. I didn’t have to lie to my parents because it was the one other acceptable skin in their eyes. Call them old fashioned, but they like the chameleon complexion of immigranta, especially because on me, it looked enough like china cutis. What they didn’t know was that I had slipped golden peril on underneath. I’d picked that one up cheap at a SubCutis fire sale before going to see them. I’m awfully thankful for fickle fashion trends; products in a downturn sometimes prove extremely attractive, given the right circumstances.

So why american now? You might say I got caught up in the wave of market forces, because I’m past much of that fashion stuff. Derma went through some pretty shaky years, losing considerable market share to All Nippon Cutis, who took their range way out there with ho-ho hollywoodo. Tacky, I think, but who could predict its huge appeal, from Los Angeles to Beijing? Even Epiderm International horned in on Derma’s territory with their Epiderm US subsidiary, whose emigrantis and global villager became ludicrously popular. All Nippon Cutis retaliated quickly enough with worldo warrior. For awhile there, I almost shed immigranta for one of these newer models.

Derma had it all wrong. Their feeble attempt to launch heritage hides was laughable. Imagine thinking Mr. Ed singing “got to know about history” would make any impact? I think it was voted the worst commercial of 1988. Price was another factor. Some say they priced themselves out of their own marketplace.

Derma refused to entertain the idea of growth even though revenues were down 30% and profits almost non-existent. In the meantime, All Nippon Cutis merged with the largest hairbank in Frankfurt, while Epiderm was borrowing heavily both in London and New York to finance their expansion. The Wall Street Journal suggested that Epiderm’s reliance on junk bonds would be their undoing, but you couldn’t be too critical of junk in those days. Even Integume dived right in, expanding and grabbing share in markets like Moscow, Shanghai and Prague, as well as in places like Cincinnati, Seattle and Minneapolis, where cosmopol became more popular than american. By now, Derma was a distant number four behind those three global leaders, at least in sales and profits. If you count market size, People’s PiFu is right up there, but of course, prices aren’t comparable, given their rock bottom manufacturing costs.

In the end, everything turned on principle, plus a little Chinese intrigue.

You’ve heard the conspiracy theories, about how the CIA negotiated with Soong & Dong to flood the global market with synthetic epidermatis. There are even whispers that it had to do with WTO membership for the motherland. I don’t believe those rumors myself, but you must admit the sudden availability of top quality synthetic raw material, at a third of the prevailing price per kilo, was unprecedented. Ever since the worldwide skin crisis of the seventies, the industry’s been wary of shortages. Survival has depended on reducing costs, which meant going synthetic.

Price wars raged.  Folks started buying five, ten, even as many as twenty topskins, never mind the multiples in underskins. Even my parents each bought a second, although Ma complained that synthetic just didn’t feel as good. Suddenly, skin took on a whole new dimension. The markets for other bodyparts went into shock, unable to compete against this surge in demand for skin and only skin.  Meanwhile, futures in natural epidermatis were priced 25% up even in the nearest months, which battered Derma. Rumor had it they were buying supplies from People’s PiFu, who of course didn’t suffer an iota, given their government regulated market.

And then, in the middle of 1997, the worldwide skin market crashed.

It was bound to happen. Folks were carrying debt over their heads in skins. Even with cheaper prices, an average one still comprises a hefty percentage of most incomes. Besides, as Papa declared, how many skins can a person wear anyway? Used, recycled and even slightly defective new skins flooded the stores. Now, everyone’s fancy skins were worth less than a mound of toenails.

Things looked bleak.


Folks are funny. They self correct pretty quickly in the face of disaster. Everyone laid low on skins for awhile. Television pundits compare the past few years to the Great Eyelash Famine as well as the New Deal in Teeth. I don’t pay much attention to pundits myself. They invent connections where there are none.

Derma’s comeback was quite the media circus. Among the larger companies, they had the upper hand now because they hadn’t invested in growth, and consequently, weren’t sitting on useless inventory or excessive debt. There’s nothing quite like cash, is there? But I have to admire their new CEO for some pretty quick moves. First, there was the hostile takeover of Epiderm International, instantly transforming Derma into the largest in the industry. That caught Integume and All Nippon Cutis completely off guard. By the time they proposed buying SubCutis, that company’s parent, All Nippon Cutis, was too broke not to capitulate.

Ultimately, however, it was brilliant marketing that invigorated them. “Why pretend? Slide into a genuine american. One is all you’ll ever need.” Sales picked up, thanks to their clever offer of low interest, long-term loans. If you bought a top-of-the line, they threw in an Epiderm topskin or SubCutis accessory on layaway at a discount. They didn’t have to lower prices or re-design their main line. Timing was all. Folks were sick to death of hype.

Well, I wasn’t going to be left behind over something as important as skin. Skin buying is something you do once in a purple sun, or at least, that’s the way it used to be in my father’s day, as he loves to remind me. Derma refinanced my debt with SubCutis and Epiderm. It made my millennium celebration.

I’d like to stay with american for awhile. You know, give myself time to get used to it. It fits well, neither too tight nor too loose. I still have faith in this classic model.

But the skin industry’s so unpredictable these days.

Epiderm US launched two niche lines in time for Christmas, indigo jazz and latin hues, and sales were bigger than anyone predicted. Maybe they’re not so niche. And how about that rash of IPO’s of small companies in the middle of last year? Who would have thought the stock prices of Kimchee Kasings, Hide-the-Curry and TagalogitPelts could triple by year end? Some analysts think these upstarts could give Derma a run for their money. Nothing’s what it seems anymore.

Also, People’s PiFu has been making noises recently about going public here, saying they’ll list on the New York Stock Exchange. Now that’s earth shattering news in my books. They hired this youngish CEO a few years back — quite a change for them — and just launched a brand new product line, sinokapitalist. I like it. It’s got a kind of post modern pizzaz, something I can’t quite define, that seems right for this century. Papa thinks it’s ridiculous, although he grudgingly admits now that china cutis has run its course.

Let’s just say I’ve learned from my fashion mistakes. Besides, for all we know, the next trend will be in chins or something else equally as unexpected. I’ll wait a bit, to see how this new model fares, before I even think about exchanging my american skin.

Xu Xi ( is the author of nine books of fiction and essays. Her most recent titles are a story collection, Access: Thirteen Tales (Signal 8 Press, 2011), and the novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (Haven Books, 2010), which was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. She is currently faculty chair of the MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the full-time Writer-in-Residence at the Department of English, City University of Hong Kong, where she directs the first international low-residency MFA in creative writing that focuses on Asia.