Column: Adventures in Multicultural Living

How the sunshine throws light on our cultural differences
Frances Wang

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang (photo courtesy of Mark Bialek)

Called my girlfriend Nina to see if she would play hooky with me one recent Sunday afternoon. Alas, she’s off with her latest beau somewhere, no time for me. So I sit on the sidewalk outside Sweetwaters café downtown, soaking in the sunshine on this glorious spring day. My laptop sits unopened at my side.

Instead, I steal my friend Rich’s New York Times and I guiltily and gleefully read the entire thing, from arts all the way down to business and even, ugg, politics (which I generally try to avoid). Just one day to stop. One day to sit in the sunshine. One day to visit with all the friends who walk by – Kenji-san with his big brown dog; Diane with her latest middle-aged man from; Arthur with yet another joke from his old Jewish uncle. There is nothing like the beginning of spring in the Midwest.

A year ago about this time, when I was also bursting with spring, I ran into my girlfriend Vee on Main Street. “Hey girl!” she says after a big hug that nearly squeezes me inside-out, “You’re getting some color! Your freckles are coming out.”

Both my hands fly instinctively to cover my cheeks as I take a step sideways to duck into the shade. She looks pained, “What did I say?”

I catch myself in my reaction – “It’s a cultural thing” – and I explain how Asians prefer fair skin, to show that one is a scholar or rich person rather than a laborer, the opposite of America’s mainstream culture where a tan is desired because it indicates wealth and leisure. When I went to Taiwan when I was 19, people were shocked at how dark I was, in May, from just a few months of running around in the sunshine. I have been slathering on the sunscreen and hiding under hats ever since.

Then I realized, with horror, that I was telling this to an African American woman.

Then another horrifying realization, “I have freckles? But I thought only white people could have freckles.”

This year, an Asian American friend asks how come my son, Little Brother, is so much darker-skinned than his sisters (about the same time that Little Brother’s grandfather also asks how come all his pants have holes in the knees). I want to shout to them both: “He is a five-year-old boy! He is always running around outside!” Still, I want to protect him from needless criticism, so I begin to take more care with the sunscreen and I take him to Downtown Home and Garden to look for a hat.

Back outside Sweetwaters on the sidewalk at Washington and Ashley, an elderly African American man tips his bright red broad-brimmed hat at the ladies as he hops and jumps his big old white Cadillac in front of Grizzly Peak Brewery, classic blues music blaring. He is sooo cool, and I love watching him drive up and down Main Street every summer, a different Cadillac and a different hat every time. Even though I know this will result in some unintentional color in my cheeks, after which I will get both grief and compliments, this is where I need to be, out on the sidewalk, in the middle of it all.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village and a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website or contact her by email at


  1. June 14, 2009 at 2:05 pm | permalink

    Interesting article. It has been a very long time since anyone I knew tanned. Too dangerous. Cover up, cover up, cover up — black, white and everyone in between. Maybe those Asian elders knew something we didn’t?

  2. By Mena
    June 15, 2009 at 2:59 pm | permalink

    I am always the darkest among my friends and proud of it. I’d be under the sun hours and hours working in the garden planting flowers. It’s safe and don’t worry. One friend just said lately that she is jealou of my tan! The doctor still said that I need more Vitamin D!

  3. By Kenji
    June 17, 2009 at 8:49 am | permalink

    Thanks for mentioning my dog. She has freckles, too, on her belly. I think it’s a pit bull thing. In Japan where I come from, I grew up with women, like my mother, who were very protective of their skins. They would walk outside with a parasol on a hot summer day. But at the same time, I had friends who were avid skiers and surfers who didn’t care much about getting tanned.