I returned from my holidays yesterday as one should after two weeks of doing very little under the Italian sun: rested, full of vim and vigor and sporting a healthy tan.
My Chinese cleaning lady was horrified.
“How dark you are” she squawked when she saw me this morning.
I was a little crestfallen at this reception, but hardly surprised. In this part of the world pale skin is prized above all when it comes to physical beauty.
“One white covers a hundred uglinesses” goes an old Chinese saying, variations on which can be heard on the lips of women all over Asia.
Bronzed skin, to the Chinese eye, is associated with low-class field work, with peasants bent over their rice paddies under the searing sun.
Pale skin evokes an indoor life of comfort and the elevated social status that allows intellectual pursuits, or mere indolence.
I was reminded of this as I boarded my Air China flight home, and out of curiosity surreptitiously picked up one of the vanity bags given to first class passengers. Inside I found a small tube of “whitening emulsion.”
Needless to say I did not seek to bleach any of the bronze out of my cheeks. Nor do I go out of my way to protect myself from Beijing’s sun. (Not that anyone here has seen much of the sun for the past few weeks; it has mostly been hidden by smog.)
It is not unusual, though, to see women here shielding their faces from the sun with umbrellas, wearing elbow-length gloves, or donning wraparound face-shades that resemble welders’ masks. “Pale and smooth skin” is a clichéd phrase in Chinese literature when it comes to describing a beautiful woman.
I suppose I should consider myself lucky. Here are all my Chinese neighbors, baffled by my pride in my tan and doing all they can to achieve a pale complexion, whereas all I have to do is wait three weeks. It’ll wear off soon enough.