I used to be like most Americans. I wore a jacket in the rain and thought umbrellas were for the weak. When I arrived in China the sun was shining, it was 90 F, and every woman on the street was under a decorated umbrella of some kind. Some carried their own; some had boys to do it for them.
Over time I discovered that it wasn’t just a weird fashion statement. In the U.S., women are obsessed with finding new ways to burn themselves like rotisserie chickens: not too much, just the right amount of brown. They spend their hard earned money on places that will let them sit inside, in artificial sunlight, and rotate and cook just long enough to look like they’ve been outside.
In China, the aesthetic of choice is the whitest possible skin. The sunscreen (although most people don’t use it) actually makes your skin lighter with bleaching chemicals. The umbrellas protect the carefully preserved skin from the ultraviolet and… there’s more. As I started to walk around with girls, as I am wont to do, I found myself underneath their little protective domes. Mysteriously, I noticed that every time I was walking around with a girl, life was more pleasant. It was ten degrees F cooler! Not only that, but when it rained instead of wrapping my body inside a jacket, trapping more of the 90 degree heat, I was nice and cool and dry.
It took a few months to break down a lifetime of American hipness training, but I finally picked up an umbrella and never looked back.
In fairness, I have to point out that Ray Jardine, ultralight backpacking freak and guru, was the first. He’s not one to fear fashion risks, to say the least, and in Beyond Backpacking: Ray Jardine’s Guide to Lightweight Hiking he talks about how much he loves umbrellas on the trail. I thought it was one of his freakier ideas when I read it years ago and had forgotten about it. Now I’m sold. Despite carrying as little as possible when I travel, I keep a little friend called the “Happy Rain” that I picked up in Taiwan tucked into my backpack and it’s a permanent part of my ultralight travel collection.