On the first sunny day of Spring, I wandered outside in my shorts and t-shirt, basking in the blissful feeling that is the sun’s warmth on the bare skin after a long, cold, gray winter.
There were no clouds in the sky, and the temperature was the kind that I’d describe as perfect – it was hot in Northern Ireland terms (maybe 20C), but there was a breeze that kept the air cool and fresh. Glorious. I bought an ice cream at the shop to celebrate, and wandered happily along the streets. Sauntered, even! What a lovely day.
Imagine my confusion, then, when almost every woman I passed was carrying an umbrella. An open umbrella.
Apparently, the Koreans are afraid of the sun. It’s not enough to lather yourself regularly in copious amounts of sunblock and stay mostly in the shade. Nor is it enough to carry around the aforementioned umbrella. No, you’ve actually got to cover every part of your body lest it see the light of day. The hotter the weather becomes, the more clothing they don. It is extremely rare to see an ajumma without a huge sun visor covering most of her face (and the usual mask covering the rest of it), but many people take it even further than that, tucking something that appears to be a tea-towel into the headband of the visor to create what I can only describe as a shepherd’s headdress from a children’s nativity play. They also cover themselves from head to toe in loose, baggy, undeniably unattractive clothing, and wear long gloves in scorching heat. It’s a sight to behold.
Here are a couple of pictures (kindly donated by Terri) of some ajummas doing the gardening at O World, where we went on a school trip yesterday.
All the taxi drivers wear long gloves, too, which I used to think was simply a hygiene thing, but no – I have been informed that it’s to avoid any contact with the sun on their hands and arms while they drive. It’s not even about sunburn – the idea of tanned skin is singularly unpopular here. One Korean friend told me, when I asked why she was wearing long gloves on a day when I was fanning myself in the shade, that she would soon be attending the wedding of a close family member, and couldn’t risk getting any sun on her arms before then. It struck me as just the opposite of our attitude back home, where women might try to top up their tans for a special occasion like a wedding! Here, you aim to stay as white as possible.
That’s maybe why so many people tell me I’m beautiful, here. Many of them stroke my skin and marvel at how white I am. I suppose they’re envious – while most Westerners I know would (and often have, calling me a milk bottle) remark that I need a bit of a tan! The Korean reaction to my sunburn after my beach weekend was hilarious. At home and in other countries, I’ve had people tell me I’m stupid or careless for getting so badly burnt. I’ve had looks of sympathy, amusement, and pity. But not until I came to Korea did I see looks of absolute horror and genuine disgust at my glowing red skin! Even my pupils told me that I was “ugly red teacher”. One little girl observed me in utter disapproval, arms folded, shaking her head in disgust. I found it hilarious.
Mind you, I may have a different attitude before very long, as it’s becoming a little too hot for comfort now, and I’m finding myself hiding in the shade wherever I can. By July, I’m likely to be just as afraid of the sun as any Korean!