The Parasol Paradox

China umbrella
I thought the umbrellas in China -- for sun protection -- were just crazy. Until I started carrying one too.

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?

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9 thoughts on “The Parasol Paradox

  • September 20, 2010 at 2:49 am

    Now I live in Israel – and the UV here is SOOO strong. I can’t just imagine getting out of home without my umbrella. And – yes – people always stare at me but I really don’t care 🙂
    Anyway, when one umbrella got broken, I couldn’t find a good one in the local stores – so my cousin had to send me one from China.

  • September 20, 2010 at 3:09 am

    I have wholeheartedly embraced the sun umbrella since moving to China and I can’t believe I never used one before! Humans just don’t get any paler than me, and I’m very careful about staying away from the sun, but there are times when I’d forget the sunblock or I didn’t realize parts of me were exposed. Carrying an umbrella has saved me countless times. I had serious blisters and burns in my childhood and watching my brother and father have parts of their anatomy cut away due to skin cancer – well, I could care less if people laugh or stare at my umbrella. I just want to be safe! I plan to use a parasol no matter where I am in the world! (I do draw the line at the arm covers and full-frontal face shield girls use here on their bicycles, though!)

  • September 20, 2010 at 4:10 am

    I still feel that using the umbrella all the time is little bit silly, but maybe after some time I notice using it my self too! I have to admit that it’s good to protect your skin if the sun is shining a lot. And maybe I should keep my white skin because in China it’s considered so beautiful 🙂

  • September 20, 2010 at 7:46 am

    My skin is pretty white, even for a European… I’ve also started using an umbrella in China. I think it’s particularly cute how Chinese guys always hold their girl’s umbrellas 😉

  • September 20, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    Yep, the parasol is a great thing. I always use one, or else I wear a hat. Of course in Beijing the pollution gives us an additional layer of sunscreen! 🙂

    Protecting my skin from the sun is one of the best things that China has taught me.

  • September 20, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Sorry, not on the umbrella train here, not even after 7 years in China. My husband does not buy into the umbrella thing either, so he never tried to convert me. I hope you folks that carry umbrellas at least try and watch out for other people — so annoying to be walking down the street on a sunny day and have your eye just about poked out by passing umbrella carriers! 😉

  • September 20, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Ah, Jessica, don’t even get me started on umbrella etiquette! I frequently complain about it on Facebook. I’m very conscientious of my umbrella after living in Costa Rica. During the wet season, we carried umbrellas constantly and it didn’t take me long to see all the carefully orchestrated lifting, lowering and side-tipping the locals used to navigate the narrow sidewalks.
    Something else I’d point out – if you’re going to carry an umbrella for sun protection, make sure it offers UV protection!

  • September 22, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    My friends and I used to laugh at all the Chinese immigrant moms who would bust out the umbrella or huge visor when they had to face Southern California sunshine. Then I went to Beijing and Shanghai in the summer, and my friend and I caved and busted out umbrellas to save ourselves from the crazy heat. It totally was 10 degrees cooler under the umbrella, and now we’ve resolved to never laugh at an Asian under an umbrella ever again.

    But I’m still against the crazy huge visors and arm covers the Asian ladies use when driving. Those are still silly.

    • September 24, 2010 at 12:02 am

      @Crystal, thanks for the comment! Yeah, I bet the UV is strong in Israel — it’s pretty strong here in the mountains, so I don’t mess around either. 😉

      @Globalgal, thanks for sharing! Guess I’m not the only one with skin cancer in the family. Yeah, I definitely don’t do the arm shields or visors. Gotta draw that line somewhere, right?

      @Sara, ha, how funny — just like me, thinking it was silly in the beginning, and suddenly finding myself thinking umbrellas are kind of a good thing. When in Rome… 😉

      @Mali, indeed, it is super cute to see the men holding umbrellas for women. John always relishes the responsibility of holding my umbrella (and, of course, making sure he also shields his own skin). 😉

      @Melanie, ha ha — pollution as sunscreen! You crack me up. 🙂

      @Jessica, ah, umbrella etiquette! That is super-annoying. I can promise you that, like Global Gal, you’ll never catch me poking you on the streets.

      @Louisa, they really are so much cooler in the shade, aren’t they? When John and I traveled around China in summer 2009, we wouldn’t have survived without the “mobile shade” of our UV-protective umbrella.


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