A Canadian in Beijing: Umbrellas Not For Fellas

Today they’re calling for a high of 37 degrees Celsius here in Beijing. The sweat gathers on my skin within seconds of stepping outside and I was so agitated by yesterday’s (equivalent) heat that I went straight to the market and bought some super light-weight shorts and a light-weight, long-sleeve shirt to help me survive. My Canadian summer clothes cannot compete with this heat. I had to relent.

Oh, and flip flops. I had to abandon my sneakers and socks. My feet were threatening to leave my legs in dramatic abandonment; their long term relationship was near to crumbling in a fiery mess with my feet dumping my legs after burning my leg’s favourite pants in disgust and cleaning out the pedicure account. I can just imagine my leg’s shock at their departure (I’d obviously be sitting down for that news)… and, that gives a whole new meaning to the expression “footloose and fancy free,” don’t you think?! Perhaps it is best said: “Footless and fancy free?”

Alright, now that I’ve thoroughly amused myself . . . (I think the heat is getting to my brain!)
The sun here is way too hot for my white skin. I’m going to have to gather some more light-weight, long-sleeved shirts like this one. I have had to lather on the sunscreen to avoid a burn even on the cloudy days. I am really sensitive to sun anywhere that I am and the sun in China is no exception.

I’ve noticed that the women in Beijing all carry umbrellas on sunny days. It makes me think of the olden days (or old movies) where women are wearing corsets and flowing gowns with petticoats while twirling umbrellas with lace or fringe along their edges. Women here carry umbrellas to protect against the sun that are pastel in colour but otherwise look like regular umbrellas. It’s a great plan, really, and it makes for a beautiful array of bouncing colours everywhere. In fact, seeing these umbrellas all over town brings to mind images of balloons gathered and floating from the hands of children at fairs and carnivals. It seems happy somehow.

When I first noticed this practise, I looked out my window in the morning to check the weather before school and I saw a bunch of umbrellas in the courtyard and assumed it was raining. In fact, I didn’t even notice the sun, just the umbrellas. I grabbed mine (a black one) and headed out.

When I got outside, I noticed that it was a brilliant sunny day and clued into the fact that these umbrellas I had seen were to protect against the sun. I thought, “Great plan! I’ll do it too!” and I opened my umbrella and walked across the basketball courts and towards my classroom buildings on the other side of the campus.

About one hundred yards into my walk, I start to sweat profusely. The heat under the umbrella was intense, like I was being cooked. People turned around to glance at me strangely a few times and then, as sweat dripped directly into my left eye and stung me to the point of having to stop, put my bag and umbrella down on the sidewalk and fish around for a tissue . . . I realized why they were staring at me.

When I moved the umbrella away from my body, I was greeted by cool air and felt refreshed. I thought, “How could it be cooler without the umbrella? It’s 36 degrees today!” And then it occurred to me how genius I am:

The umbrella is black.

Yes, there is something to be said for colour. Sometimes colour is not about style and is all about function.

I put my umbrella away and walked the rest of the way to class unprotected. Either I get a pastel one, or I wear my hat, sunscreen and long-sleeves while walking under the trees for sun protection. I’ll go with the latter option. I don’t need any more stuff… and I’m truthfully not really ready for a pink umbrella in my life.

Now let’s get back to the fact that it is only women who are carrying these umbrellas. Why not men? Would it be too feminine an act to carry a pastel-coloured umbrella to guard against these aggressive rays? I guess so. And in China, where gender division is as obvious as the stupidity of my umbrella’s colour in this heat, I suppose such a question is also out of the question (!)

Although, as I am wont to do, I asked it anyway. I believe my questions was: “What do men do to protect against the sun? Do they ever carry umbrellas too?” First, I got only laughter as a response, but when I pushed for a real answer, this is what I got: “Of course I would not carry such an umbrella!” my friend said in slightly shocked and exaggerated English (and his cute Chinese accent), “That is for women to do, not for men!” And then he laughed some more.

I suppose “sun umbrellas” aren’t likely to become “son umbrellas” anytime soon!

I looked down at my feet and smiled.

So much for my visions of an umbrella-holding gender revolution in China.

A girl can dream.