It’s been a long, generally hot summer in Beijing, and I’ve been riding around on my bike, hatless, for much of it. As a result I’ve picked up a highly unfashionable tan.
Chinese people usually want their skin to be whiter. When I first arrived here I made the usual mistake of assuming that this showed some aspiration to become a ‘westerner’, but it’s nothing of the sort. If you’ve got dark skin in China it’s usually because you’ve been working out in the fields all day, and are therefore a poor farmer or migrant builder. The rich spend their days in air-conditioned houses, office and shopping centres and therefore don’t get any sun. In England the rich get to go on holiday to exotic locations, while the poor generally work in shops or factories or stay at home – and even if they can get outside it’s hard to get a tan when it’s drizzling.
So it seems that the same class-based skin-colour-prejudice system is in place in both countries, but with different results. So what should a laowai aim for? Carrying an umbrella as a sun screen and applying a sun cream that actually whitens your skin both seem ridiculous, but so does risking skin cancer to make yourself less attractive to the locals. It’s tempting to just give in, start avoiding direct sunlight, and spend sunny days sheltering inside, but then you remember the really stupid side of it all – the casual racism it encourages, the discrimination against working people, the inability to enjoy a nice sunny day – and the hat stays off.

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