Chinese people avoid the sun like the plague. For them the beauty standard ideal is to be as pale as possible thus getting a tan is obviously something to be avoided at all costs. This is valid for both men and women – perhaps a bit more for women but during my years living in China I saw plenty of men using parasols. Why is pale skin considered prettier? Well, I’ll let Wikipedia explain the historical reasons for it and leave it at that because if I start on the connotations derived from this…. well, it would be one very long post.
Anyway, back when I was living in Xian – China I missed the sea terribly so on one of my holidays I decided to go to Hainan and spend a week in Sanya (Hainan is China’s southernmost province and it happens to be a tropical island). Knowing that the Chinese abhor being under the sun did not prepare me for what I experienced there.
I arrived in Sanya late at night and quickly and easily took the bus to the hostel I had booked. Checked in, and slept. The next morning I woke up to beautiful blue skies from where a glorious sun bestowed upon us its warm rays. I was anxious to explore the beach so had a quick breakfast, asked for directions (it was a 7 min walk) and went to the beach! When I got there I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was stunning! A long wide white sandy beach met beautiful light turquoise water. It was just what I had been craving. For the first time since I had left Mozambique I was at what I considered to be a first-rate beach.
One oddity perplexed me however. It was deserted. This was a beach at a city’s doorstep how could it possibly be empty? And right in the middle of summer? Was I in the wrong place? Was this maybe a private beach? Was the area unsafe for swimming? But, there were clearly many restaurants along the esplanade and empty deck chairs everywhere…
Barring a few Russian tourists that appeared later I had the beach to myself all day. At 4pm I got up and went to have lunch and by the time I finished my late lunch I noticed people trickling in. Maybe there had been some event in town during the day and only now it was over people had time to come to the beach? Later in the evening the beach was absolutely packed.
The next morning I woke up at dawn in order to watch the sunrise and although it was obviously super early when I got to the beach there were actually people swimming! Entire families playing in the sand and swimming. However, the moment the sun rose they picked up their things and left. And just like that the mystery was solved. The locals were all vampires! Ok, fine, they weren’t vampires, they were just Chinese. Meaning that although they lived by an awesome beach they avoided it during sunlight hours so as not to tan!
I made friends with other tourists at the hostel and spent the rest of the week exploring Sanya and the nearby beaches with them. One of the most astonishing things I discovered during those days was that when mainland Chinese go to the beach their main goal is to document the occasion by taking as many photos fully dressed next to the sea as possible. They will brave the sun for a few minutes to get the perfect photo and then quickly disappear back to the shade. Actually getting wet and swimming is not part of the experience.
Obviously the local islanders don’t go to the beach solely to take photos but they still avoid the sun at all costs. The few times I did see people at the beach during the day they were always in what little piece of shade they could find.
Seeing the long stretches of phenomenal beach deserted was something that baffled me the entire week I was there. Knowing why they were neglected didn’t help. I guess it comes down to the fact that no matter how much I tried I simply can’t imagine living in a tropical island and avoiding the sun and the sea. And for what? A beauty ideal that says I’m prettier a certain way?
Noticing the power social beliefs can have on us is scary.
Beauty ideals aside I truly enjoyed my time in Sanya and given the chance I would gladly return.