Question: Why were so many women holding umbrellas over their heads on a clear, sunny day in Zhengzhou?
Answer: To shade themselves from the sun and avoid darkening their skin.
Chinese women are obsessed with having white skin: the lighter, the better. It’s an ancient preference that fuels a multibillion-dollar, skin-whitening industry and gives tanning-bed salesmen nightmares.
Chinese women – and even some men – have adopted many notions of Western beauty. But tanned skin isn’t one of them. They avoid the sun like poison, not out of fear of skin cancer but because it will make them ugly in the eyes of their compatriots.
Light skin is associated with glamor and high social status. Dark skin is considered undesirable because it reminds people of a peasant working in the field.
I haven’t been to a Chinese beach, but I’ve seen pictures of women wearing long-sleeve shirts, sun hats, tights and gloves while covering their face with florescent masks. I’m guessing “Baywatch’’ was never a big hit here.
Since coming to Zhengzhou last August, I’ve visited all the places in the city that were on my must-see list except one: the world’s largest iPhone factory.
All my attempts to tour the facility have been futile, which isn’t surprising considering that the plant run by the Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn has been mired in controversy. The factory, which reportedly employs 300,000 workers and churns out 200,000 iPhones a day during peak production periods, has been criticized for its bleak conditions and mistreatment of workers.
I recently met a Foxconn executive at a local bar and asked him if he could get me into the plant. “No way,’’ he said. “You’d have a better chance of getting into North Korea.’’
I could try to sneak in, but I’d probably get caught and end up in a Chinese jail, an institution not known for its hospitality. I also thought of going undercover as a worker there, but I’m afraid my looks would disqualify me. So I guess I’ll never get to see the massive assembly-line operation that allows spoiled Americans like me to buy iPhones that most people in China can’t afford.