This past Tuesday, the sky was a blindingly bright blue, stretched over the arid landscape like a protective tarp. Nary a cloud interrupted that boundless mantle above. And the sprinklers on the campus lawns splashed the grass with their afternoon drink, because the weather still wouldn’t bring rain to this semi-desert terrain.
But there I was, strolling down the dusty hill in the shadow of a salmon-colored umbrella.
Crazy. That’s what I thought of the sea of umbrellas that ebbed and flowed on the urban streets of China in the scorching summer heat. In my mind, umbrella always meant rain, not sun. And if I hated the heat, I just donned a hat and slathered on the sunscreen.
But the longer I stayed in China, that sea of umbrellas soon flowed right into the background of my mind. Summers in Zhengzhou, Hangzhou, and later, Shanghai simply meant a parade of parasols — because the people prized snowy white skin. But I still held on to my hat, and kept dabbing on the sunscreen.
Then I started dating John, and everything changed. Sure, John already believed in the protective power of umbrellas against the sun. But when I told him my mother died of skin cancer, that was it. Suddenly, my skin was “too tender” for just a hat or sunscreen. And John was too invested in the umbrella culture to take “no” for an answer.
So I got used to getting shaded in the sunshine, with John holding the umbrella for me, like a guard against the UV rays all around us. If I left the apartment on a blistering summer day, John wouldn’t send me out without the prerequisite umbrella. Even when I went to his family home, his parents urged me to take umbrellas on walks in the fields and mountains.
Pretty soon, umbrellas weren’t just a China thing to me anymore. I loved the protection of an umbrella against the sun. No fussing with sunscreen (that, chances are, needed reapplication anyway). No mussing around with a hat that might get blown away, or ruin your perfect ‘do. And, did I mention China’s umbrellas are so damn cute?
By the time I left China in 2005, I accumulated a sizable cache of UV-protective parasols. And when my wedding ceremony in 2007 came along, I didn’t say “I do” without my pink umbrella there (though I ended up burning slightly on my shoulders because I had to put it down for all of those outdoor photos).
But this is China I’m talking about. The US, however, is another story.
This past Tuesday, John warned me the sunshine was really strong. So I slid my salmon-colored umbrella off the shelf and meandered in my own private piece of shade all the way to the pool for a swim.
And just as I slipped out of the gym, slipping my own umbrella open, a group of American undergrads trailed me, laughing and sniggering. I didn’t hear everything they said, but “umbrella” and “sun” and “crazy” popped out like an umbrella popping open. To them, I was a walking paradox. A parasol paradox. Suddenly, even though I held that umbrella far above me, I felt exposed like a lone naked sunbather on a European coast.
Maybe I should explain myself, I thought. Maybe if they knew my mother died from melanoma. Or that my skin was more sensitive. Or even that I’d learned this from the years I’d spent in China.
But I looked over my shoulder at them, and then looked up at the umbrella. Nah, I don’t need to give them a reason, I thought. I’m covered. 😉
Have you ever used an umbrella to cover you in the sunshine? Or have you adopted other similar good ideas from foreign cultures you’ve visited?