I’ve returned from vacation at the beach, and I am now black. Back and Black. By black, I mean, I am very tan. Very, very tan. And hey, isn’t that the summer goal for us Americans? We want to get to relax by the pool drinking some beers. We want to grill out with the family and friends. And mainly, it is the ideal time to soak in those rays and add some healthy color to our skin.
But this isn’t the case in China.
For people who have never traveled to China (I’m not quite sure in what other countries these are popular), you may or may not have ever come face to face with the infamous “sun umbrellas.” Sun umbrellas are just what the name suggests: umbrellas to fend off the sun. They are different than ordinary rain umbrellas that are logically used to keep your body dry. Sun umbrellas are more of stylish baby strollers for adults. Their function is to keep the sun off of an adults fair skin, but since the adult needn’t be pushed around (having the capability of walking on two feet), there is only need for the cover part of the stroller on a stick. And there you have it: a sun umbrella. But the sun umbrella can’t look like the cover on a baby stroller–that would be ridiculous. These are fashion accessories. And let me tell you, “They are so fashion!” (Chinese people commonly make the mistake of using the word fashion instead of fashionable…) They are made with light, delicate material covered in intricate designs such as flowers and butterflies (maybe, not quite sure if butterflies are on them but it seems like something that would suit a sun umbrella).
My friend Halina bought a sun umbrella. It was purple. I’m not quite sure what design was on it because she was often too self-conscious to completely assimilate herself into this cultural trend and rarely ventured outdoors with it in hand. Up until this moment, I never thought about why she actually bought a sun umbrella (she loves to be tan), but it must have been because the sun can be unbearably hot in the cities while somehow neglecting the fact that its main duty is to give us a tan. What I mean, is that the sun is incredibly hot, it sears the skin and melts your soul, but your skin always seems to remain within a short radius of pale (in the eyes of a foreigner that is…some of my Chinese friends told me that I was black when I could have dressed as a ghost for halloween). So… I assume Halina thought that the umbrella would keep her cooler.
Additonally, only women carry sun umbrellas (although, I did witness a man using one was as a rain umbrella one day…this resulted in him looking absurd for 2 reasons: 1 – large drops of rain were pouring through the light canvas and 2 – he was holding a pink bedazzled umbrella). And, I actually do understand their ideology: if you are tan then it is a signifier of lower status since it is likely that you are working in the fields attaining such a dark color. If you are pale, then you must have higher status as you probably never worked in the field a day in your life! It doesn’t need to be to those extremes, but that’s the main gist of it. Therefore, Chinese women want to remain as pale as possible.
Once, my friend Sarah was tutoring a guy (about 25-30 years old) and he went as far as to tell her, “Your students will tell you that your ugly when you return from your trip in Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines.”
So, while it is often considered unhealthy to tan, especially at tanning salons (which are virtually nonexistent with the exception of the very big cities in China), Americans view tanning in the exact opposite way of the Chinese. Being tan in America is desirable! It is not a sign of working in the fields. It is not a sign of the lower-class. On the contrary, it usually means that you are of the higher class and have the time to lay out in the sun and enjoy wonderful weather.
Bottom Line: the definition of beauty is often culturally defined.