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Illustration: Lu Ting/GT


It has been an extreme summer in Shanghai, with record-breaking temperatures soaring to over 40 C. On the hottest days, the only way to survive is to stay inside under air conditioning. Not even riding my bike helps, as the breeze just burns my face, a similar feeling to winter frost back in Russia, my home country.

But in a Russian winter, you can easily dress in as many layers as you need to get warm; in a Shanghai summer, you can only take off so many layers until you are stark naked.

Ironically, I notice that Shanghainese women tend to dress in more clothes the hotter it gets, such as covering their shoulders with windbreakers or wool cardigans. Don't get me wrong, I respect the traditional, conservative style over the modern style with ultra-mini-skirts.

But when I see people dressed up in this heat, I can't understand why. Chinese mothers do this to their poor children, too, bundling them up in layers even on the warmest day till their faces turn bright red.

Looking for an explanation for such bizarre behavior, I discovered that, among Chinese and, especially, Shanghainese women, the only thing worse than being hot is getting tanned from the sun. In China, having dark skin implies that one works out of doors, as a laborer or farmer. Those who have the luxury of staying indoors all day long show off their leisure class with their white skin.

Biologically, Asian are prone to burn more easily under the sun. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, one of the founders of what some call "scientific racism" theories, once came up with the idea of calling Chinese "a yellow race." Undoubtedly, many Chinese people dislike this description, which is why they still adhere to the old belief that white skin implies prosperity, while dark skin is a sign of poverty.

Even though human DNA structure has not changed with the times, what has really changed is the structure of Chinese society. People are no longer rigidly divided into poor or rich, elite or peasant. Everyone in China now has a chance to become a millionaire. Of course, success might still largely depend on family background or business connections, but it has little to do with skin color anymore. Modern Chinese society has introduced new values, such as intelligence, education and ingenuity.

Just like how curly-haired girls always want to have straight hair while girls with straight hair make everything permed, the Chinese will always envy white Westerners like me who don't tan under the tropical sun, while I envy their tan, countryside skin.

After all, there is a fine line between traditions and modern reality. People shouldn't have to suffer in this heat just because they are afraid of getting a sun tan.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.