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Sunday, September 19, 2010

A time to rant: The ink is black, the page is white

Vampires are all the rage these days in Hollywood, what with "Twilight", "True Blood" and others of that ilk, but here in Taiwan, vampirism has long been the norm. No, I'm not implying that Taiwanese are blood suckers - duck's blood, perhaps, but not the human variety. What Taiwanese and vampires have in common is a fear of the sun. Whenever I go hiking, it's not uncommon to see people on the trails with virtually every exposed part of their flesh covered in some manner or another (some women look like they've just flown in from some fundamentalist Islamic society), as well as carrying umbrellas. Scooter riders will search out any patch of shade to park their bikes while waiting for traffic signals to change, even if the only source is fifty meters or fifty feet back from the intersection (and even if it means blocking other scooters behind them). Now, Taiwan does have a semi-tropical climate, and the sun can get pretty strong here, especially in summer. And it's well-documented that too much exposure to that which gives life to everything on our planet can also shorten our own lives, thanks to nasty things like melanoma and other types of skin cancer. So it's understandable why many people try to limit the time they spend in the sunshine. Ask them why they're so afraid, however, and the answer most likely won't have anything to do with health. Rather, more likely than not, it's the cultural perception that having dark skin, especially for women, is somehow unattractive. And therein lies today's rant.

Once upon a time in the West, white skin was considered the standard of beauty. After all, if one's skin was of a pearly, translucent hue, it meant one had money, and therefore, plenty of leisure time in which to enjoy it. Suntanned skin, on the other hand, implied that one was a laborer who spent his/her time outdoors, toiling in the brutal light. Over time, however, as the middle class grew (along with the white-collar jobs associated with it) and more people started finding themselves with more free time on their hands, perceptions changed. Now, a bronze body seems to suggest a life of leisure spent idling by the swimming pool or at the beach, while the pasty look implies that someone is spending too much time in the office, and needs to get out more. Of course, one does have to be careful out there under the ozone layer, but that's why God gave us SPF 50 sunscreen.

In Taiwan, white power reigns supreme. Commercials for skin whiteners dominate the airwaves, and Caucasian models are often used as standards of attractiveness that Taiwanese women must aspire to reach. This whole notion of the beauty of a pale, been in a hospital for an extended stay-looking pallor could be considered amusing or quaint, except for the downside - if white is beautiful, then by extension the inverse must also be true. And if being dark is something to be avoided at all costs, then it can also by safely assumed that people with lighter skin are treated much better, even if only on the subconscious level, than people of a browner or blacker hue. Though most Taiwanese would probably deny it, the darker one's skin, the lower down on the social totem pole one is here (and in many other countries, too). I've certainly never seen any Africans or African-Americans being used in advertising to promote concepts of beauty. Come to think of it, I haven't seen many Africans or African-Americans in Taiwan, period, at least in comparison to when I was living in Japan (which is certainly no paradise for people of color, either). Contempt for the Thai factory workers, and Filipina/Indonesian caregivers and domestics, one often sees here is widespread. But it isn't just black or brown foreigners that are looked down on - Taiwan has its own natives of color, the aboriginal peoples 台灣原住民族, as well as plenty of dark-skinned folks of the Han Chinese 漢族 variety. The further south you go in Taiwan, and especially into the more rural areas where people spend more time working outdoors, the more examples of less-than-white skin you encounter. Yet you hardly ever see these people represented on TV - certainly not in TV commercials, and not even on dramas that purport to take place in the countryside. If you didn't know any better from watching Taiwanese television, you would think this was an island with four distinct seasons, including cold, snowy winters, and not a land bisected by the Tropic of Cancer.

What brought this rant on was my daughter, as is often the case. The other day in the car, while we were driving back home after I picked her up from her kindergarten, Amber complained about the brightness of the setting sun. While doing so, she mentioned that she had been told that she should stay out of the sunshine because it might make her skin "black". Concerned father that I am (despite what some creepy posters might say), I'm now worrying if this line of thinking might lead her someday to look down on those whose skin color isn't as dark as hers. So I'm resolved to have her spend more time in the sunshine (with all proper precautions, of course) to show that the sun is nothing to fear, and that there is nothing wrong with having black, brown or dark skin tones. I admit I've been lax in recent weeks about taking her out for walks, so this morning we went hiking on some of the trails in the hills behind Chung-cheng Park 中正公園 in Fengyuan 豐原. Amber had a good time out in nature, being especially fascinated with all the ants we saw (and learning about the differences between the workers and the soldiers). And while many of the other walkers out there were covered up as usual, as you can see from the picture below, Amber was dressed, well...normally. The Tea Partiers and Fox News watchers might not like having a black president, but the world is a beautiful rainbow of humanity, and I want my daughter to appreciate and enjoy all the colors.

Speaking of not being afraid of the dark, we were in downtown Fengyuan this evening, where I took this pictures (don't strain your eyes looking for any 日本語 I just wanted a shot of some of the lights):

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