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This installment of Life in China is focused on an aspect of Chinese culture that stands as a fairly stark contrast to our American culture. Read on for a bit of insight into how the interesting people of this vast city of Shenzhen, in this vast nation of China, approach the outdoors. Specifically, we’re focusing on how Chinese women (don’t) tan. That’s right, sun tanning is a no-no here.
Chinese Women and Tanning
Unlike us nutty westerners who like having a good tan, Chinese women don’t like overexposing their skin to UV rays. In fact, they go to great lengths to avoid sun. Why is that? Pale skin is deemed beautiful. We’ve heard a couple of different explanations for this, but for the time being let’s just keep it simple: pale is pretty here in Shenzhen, as well as the rest of China.
Uh oh, a Tan
One day Shon and his students went on an outdoor adventure field trip of sorts, and one of the students complained to him afterward that the SPF50 sunscreen didn’t work.
“Did you get sunburned?” Shon asked, aghast.
“No, look,” she said. She pulled her sock down a half inch, and there, sure enough, her skin was lighter. She had gotten a gentle tan on her legs, and she didn’t like it one bit.
Shon tried to restrain his chuckles and told her he was sure that it would go away in a couple of weeks, and that nobody would notice. She was genuinely anxious about it.
Truly, this seems a bit humorous to us. Not because we think Chinese folks are foolish for their perception of beauty, but because they go to great lengths to avoid even a slight tan, and that’s such a contrast from what we’re accustomed to. For example, it’s not uncommon to see a woman cover her head with a book or whatever she’s carrying if she has to cross the road and walk through the sun. Parasols or umbrellas are seen as often on sunny days as rainy ones. What’s more, women often have these amazing sun visors that look like a mix of an old-fashioned bonnet and a welder’s mask with the face shield tilted up, and that raised our eyebrows at first. However, we’ve got to admit, they’re effective at keeping pesky rays of sunlight from darkening the skin.
Head to Toe
Besides headgear or parasols, people of all ages wear very thin jackets even in 35C-degree heat to avoid UV rays. In fact, in hot, sunny weather sometimes women will be covered head to toe, even using face masks. We also spot women wearing what looks like really long fingerless gloves that reach way past the elbow to keep their arms pale.
Extreme, but OK
If you’re thinking this seems a bit extreme, well, we think so too, but let’s admit it–excessive sun is bad for us. We can’t argue that these are all good ways to avoid getting sunburned and also, in the long term, to avoid skin cancer. Yes, yes, some sun is good for us, but too much is harmful.
Pale is pretty goes beyond simply avoiding a sun tan. It also applies to skin products. Whitening skin creams represent the majority of skin products on Shenzhen store shelves. It’s also not uncommon for women to use make-up in tones lighter than their actual skin tone.
Some Products to Protect You from the Sun
(the images are clickable links)
Avoiding a Tan
So, after spending the best part of a year in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China, we no longer have much reaction when we see women avoiding the sun. At first all the jackets, masks, and so forth seemed ridiculous. However, as we adjusted to living in China, we stopped thinking it weird. It is simply a part of Chinese culture. Still, it made an impression on us since it represents a vast cultural difference between China and the USA, so we wanted to write about it. As always, we’re not writing to belittle Chinese people or Chinese culture, but simply making an observation and drawing a comparison, as it is cultural differences that make living in Shenzhen, and indeed living in China, such an interesting experience. Sun tanning in China simply isn’t popular. Also, as a final note, while we were outside taking photos for this post today, we noted that roughly half of the women out and about weren’t concerned with special gear of any sort.
For more Life in China, click below.
A final note: if you’ve traveled through Asia much, you’ve probably seen women taking similar measure to avoid the sun elsewhere. For sure, this isn’t exclusive to China or Chinese culture.