I don’t mean white as in Caucasian, but as in not tanned. Which, if you live on a tropical island, is pretty damn hard to do. It leads to all sorts of uncomfortable clothing choices. While myself, and most other westerners are running around in shorts, wife-beaters (sleeveless T-shirts) and sandals, lots of Taiwanese are plodding along in long sleeve shirts, wide brimmed hats and long trousers – during million degree days.
Just watching these people walk around in clothes hot enough to fry a phoenix gives me heat induced comas.
One could argue that this is a style thing, and Taiwanese put a lot of emphasis on looking professional and not “bummy”. But there is clothing available that’s comfortable as well as stylish, so I don’t think it’s all style.
And then there is the curious sight of people (mostly Tawanese women, but sometimes also men) walking around with umbrellas on a perfectly sunny, rainless summer day:
I’ve come to realize that this is about exposure to the sun more than anything else. You see, Taiwanese people want to be fair. Fair , fair , fair – no tan. Which is totally backwards compared to where I come from. Everyone wants to be darker and tanning salons are milking peoples obsession with…uhh..dark meat.
But here on the other hand, everyone wants to be milky white. So why this opposing view of beauty? And why do these people go to such uncomfortable lengths to achieve ghost-like complexions? Asking around has yielded a few ideas.
It should be noted that this is from a small town perspective.
1) Western obsession
Everyone and their dog in Taiwan is obsessed with the west – mostly all things American. So naturally, they equate beauty with the western ideal of beauty – fair skin, blonde hair etc etc. This seems to be the most obvious answer, but I’ve discovered that even before the ancestors of Taiwanese people had regular relations with the west, white skin was heavily prized. So while this may be the case in modern days, the obsession with being fair goes further back than the west.
2) Cover up imperfections
It was explained to me that having fair skin helps cover up imperfections like wrinkles or freckles. In fact, there is even a saying – “一白遮三醜” (Yī bái zhē sān chǒu) Which means one white covers three uglies.
This was a little confusing because it seems to me that fair skin would only enhance the appearance of freckles and wrinkles – providing more contrast, whereas a darker complexion would help hide them better. But, years of family wisdom passed on in Taiwan says otherwise, so who am I to argue. Apparently white skin helps cover up imperfections and signs of aging. Who knew?
3) Dark = dirty
I tried not to take this personally as I am of a darker shade, but I guess some Taiwanese believe that dark = dirty. When I asked how this applies to white (Caucasian) people with tans, the answer invariably turned out to be “Oh…it looks good on white skin, but looks dirty if you’re not white.”
I see. I’ve heard that people of colour tend to be discriminated (negatively) against here, and now I understand why. They are dirty, dirty rats. Hmmmm…I wonder if this also extends to not shaving and having a 5 o’clock shadow.
4) Dark = unsuccessful, worker type from underdeveloped Asian country
Successful people have fair skin and labourers have dark skin. Didn’t you know that? – It’s obvious! Labourers (from Asian countries lower on the economic scale than Taiwan) who work out in the sun, doing menial jobs for a pittance of money, are all dark. Of course, a respectable Taiwanese doesn’t want to be mistaken for such a person. No sir. Having fairer skin implies being successful – working 12 – 16 hours a day in an office, 6 days a week. In this case fairer skin pegs one as being from upper class as opposed to a lower class.
So there you have it. A few reasons why Taiwanese are obsessed with being fair, and the justification behind some of the ridiculous clothing choices I’ve observed. It seems that this mentality is quite deeply rooted in the Taiwanese pshyche – I can’t see any other reason why people would expose themselves to such discomfort. For the regular Taiwanese, it’s go white, or go home!