The Consummate Traveler: When West Goes East – Culture and Sun Exposure

BY Michele Goncalves TIMEJune 22, 2013 PRINT

As a westerner, I am sometimes left awestruck by how drastically different our habits are versus those found in the Far East. On my recent trip to Bangkok, I had one such experience that I’d like to share with you regarding culture and sun exposure.

My company’s office complex was made up of a few buildings including a small cafeteria that we reached by walking outdoors for about one and a half minutes. What surprised me is that my colleagues from Thailand refused to walk that short distance without using an umbrella to shade their skin. I on the other hand was thrilled to get a short burst of sunlight in the hopes of getting some color on my famous pale white skin.

To make things even more interesting, I noticed that one of the translators we hired locally stopped joining us at lunchtime and instead brought her own food to work. I found out later that she had just done a whitening treatment on her gorgeous mocha colored skin and didn’t want to expose herself to any sunlight—not even a few seconds worth. I learned that skin whitening creams and treatments are a very big deal in many parts of Asia. Funny how one person’s plague (my translucent white skin) is another’s treasure!

For the rest of my trip, I decided to carry an umbrella in my handbag like the locals did in order to have a parasol at my disposal. It actually came in very handy during my sightseeing tour of the Grand Palace. The sun was beating down so brutally that I had to whip out my polka dot umbrella to save myself from wilting. I chuckled at the sight of me blending in amidst hundreds of other petite Asian umbrella carrying women, when I would have NEVER done this back home in the United States. Actually, I do think I will apply this approach going forward versus layering on sticky sunscreen on my face and body.

I guess the takeaway from this story is that human beings seem to rarely be satisfied with our God given attributes and are always striving to be what we aren’t. The westerners are all about getting deep and dark skin—even going so far as to buy fake tans in a can. In contrast, most Asian cultures still glorify clean and blemish free white skin.

I say we all need to learn how to better embrace our differences and take good care of our skin no matter the color! With that said, I will be sporting my white legs this summer with confidence in honor of my new Thai friends.

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