China, May 22, 2000
Too many shades of ass-white in Asia if you ask me.
Today, in one of the rare, smog-free days of a Beijing spring, I am outside and semi-nude. No, its not an attempt to get even more stares than usual, though I am succeeding in making the neighbors look twice in shock. I'm trying my best to keep some semblance of the rich, dark tan I had in Koh Samui, Thailand.
Ever since my surfing days in the tropics, I've tried to have some color. At times, mainly about March in Russia, I would loose my tan lines, and split to Turkey for melanin replenishment. Once I started wandering last May (yes, its been a year now!), my tan darkened, reaching a lovely dark brown in Thailand as I spent each day running, swimming, reading, and just plain chilling in the warm tropical sun.
Since then, my tan has faded, as I became preoccupied with hitching across Australia or surviving in China. Unfortunately, Jingmei doesn't help one bit. She's not out in the sun with me now, preferring to stay indoors. She even tries to increase her ass-whiteness by applying special 'whitening' cream I've only seen in Asia.
For Jingmei is not alone in her quest to glow in the dark. Most Asians, the Thai's a notable exception, try to keep white in the most odd and extreme ways. I've seen Japanese wandering along Perth's beaches dressed in long sleeves, pants, and a hat, while here in Beijing, umbrellas sprout at the first sign of a clear day.
Why do Asians have this crazy fear of the wondrous sun? I can only offer my wealth theory. As far as I can tell, like Victorian Europe, tan skin for Asians means outdoor manual labor and therefore a low status in society. The rich need not plant, weed, or harvest, only relax while others do such menial tasks, and white skin shows this wealth of time and money.
Those of us in the industrialized West have the opposite view, for we've been indoors for the last 100 years. We've worked in factories, then offices, for three or four generations now, erasing our old prejudices against tans. Instead, we glorify tanning, in movies, pop culture, and daily life.
Why? Because someone with a rich tan must have a decent amount of leisure time, the scarcest commodity in America today, to laze on a poolside lounge chair. Think of all the images of super wealthy. Aren't they always portrayed poolside, even if they are in a robe under an umbrella?
Well, I'm not poolside, as I would like, I am in a little patch of grass between buildings in Jingmei's apartment complex. Unlike virtually every complex in the USA, there is no pool here, for Asians, as I've said already, do not tan.
They can't even comprehend the desire to do so, depriving Beijing of any decent tanning locations. No parks allow sitting on the grass, much less stripping to a pair of shorts or bikini. The river, which is more like a canal, has no sandbanks, and no one is permitted to swim in the few lakes.
Actually, Jingmei wanted to drive to one of Beijing's reservoirs today, but when I found I wouldn't be allowed to swim there, I objected to the trip. Why drive two hours to clear, cool lake, on a hot spring day, if you can't swim in the water?
I still can't fully understand why I can't swim there. The argument that too many people would foul the water for Beijing makes me wonder how good the tap water filtration system works these days. Maybe that's why we never drink the tap water.