Monday, February 13, 2012

Umbrellas on Cloudless Days

Rainy season in Salatiga oftens brings weeks of rain laden clouds that effectively cause one to forget the existence of the sun.  The last three weeks have been like this.  Each day begins without rain but with foreboding clouds that promise the rain will fall later.  As the gray days drag on they begin to color our existence.  Slowly a mild depression begins to set in.  Of course the onset of this sunless despair is so slow that one hardly notices it until the string of cloudy days is broken by a single bright morning.  Today we had a bright sunny morning.
Rain.  The time when you expect to see an open umbrella.
Riding to school each day on the motorcycle, we've gotten used to seeing people with umbrellas during the rainy season.  Since it rarely rains in the morning, most umbrellas are carried closed.  Today with the sun out, the umbrellas were up and open.
At first it seemed perfectly normal for people to be carrying and using their umbrellas.  Or so I thought until the warm sunshine on my arms reminded me that it wasn't cloudy today.  Strange isn't it, umbrellas are carried on cloudy days but open on sunny ones?  This was my thought as we passed two young girls on their way to school carrying between them an open umbrella.  Had I not lived in Indonesia for the past three years I may have continued to be baffled by what I saw.
You might be wondering "Why would people use an umbrella on a cloudless day?"  The simple answer is to stay cool in the shade of the umbrella.  While this makes sense it is only partly true.  A more truthful answer would be to say that people, especially women, use umbrellas during sunny days to avoid becoming tan.  Yes, in Indonesia fat means health and people don't want to be tan.  It seems completely backwards to me as an American.  We tend to want to be skinny and think people are sickly if they are too white.
In this case, wanting white skin goes a bit deeper than a simple case of vanity.  Skin color is connected with status.  Those who work in the fields become quite dark.  Years of long days in the sun doing menial manual labor deeply tans a person marking them forever.  In contrast, those who work inside or not at all remain untouched by the sun.  They tend to be wealthier and more educated than those who work in the field.  As a result, skin color is more than just a preference, it is a sign of status.  The whiter your skin, the more status you may have.  Interesting isn't it the things we think are important.
While it is easy for me to comment on the peculiarities of my Indonesian neighbors I wonder what they would see and say if they visited the US?  I wonder what would seem strange to them?  I wonder how I would respond to their critic?  Would I have the ability to question my own life or would I vigorously defend the normalcy of my oddities?  Today, the sunshine was more than just a welcomed change.  It was a reminder to not hold anything of this world too tightly.  So, consider opening your umbrella on a bright sunny day.  It might teach you more than you think.