“Your skin was so pretty, but now you’re getting so dark!” they would cry, in a tone usually reserved for national disasters.
Coming from the States, where those odd cancer-causing machines called tanning beds are still popular and people think it’s a good idea to go to the beach to lie out in the sun until they turn as pink as undercooked pork, I was flummoxed by my coworkers’ attitude. I have to admit I reacted in typical foreigner fashion: I ignored them. Finally, one of the receptionists moved decisively to save me from my own ignorance. She bought me an umbrella.
Parasols have a long history in China, along with an appreciation of pale skin, and neither shows signs of fading. In Shanghai, you will find many more umbrellas deployed on a sunny day than on a rainy one. I stubbornly resisted until one brutally hot day when a friend insisted that I step under her umbrella. I discovered something amazing: it felt at least ten degrees cooler under that glorious round shadow. Instead of scurrying from leafy tree to leafy tree (which tend to be few and far between in Chinese cities), I could carry around my own personal shade! Feeling sheepish, I started using the umbrella the receptionist gave me, and it made a huge difference in how sweat-soaked and cranky I was when I arrived at the office. I learned to love my protective nylon friend.
But then I came back to the States, and I had to give up my habit out of shame. Using an umbrella just invited too much gawking and unwanted attention. (This from a guy in a landscaping truck: “It must be raining baby, ‘cause you just dropped from heaven.”) But I really miss it on those hot days when you can feel the sun burning your shoulders, turning your nose an unsightly red and incrementally inching up your chances of melanoma.
So I plead with you, gentle reader: let’s bring the parasol back. Not only does it protect from the heat of the sun and offer better SPF than any lotion, it can be a fashion statement. In China, there are ruffled parasols, polka dot parasols, silk parasols, painted parasols, even personalized ones. We could start our own American parasol industry to replace chemical sunscreen manufacturing. Once the idea takes off and carrying a parasol becomes common, all sideways glances and comments will disappear. And a lot of skin cancer with it. Remember: Power in numbers!