Anyone who has ever visited an East Asian country has probably noticed something unusual when the sun is out. You'll be walking around on the brightest, sunniest, most beautiful day, and you'll be surrounded by a sea of umbrellas.
...or parasols, really. The fact that we have a word for them in English shows that we once too used these items often enough to bother having a name for them. However, in modern-day America, the parasol is probably only seen at Victorian-themed Halloween parties and steam-punk conventions.
I have direct evidence (my eyes) that people commonly use parasols in Japan and Taiwan. I've also been told that they're used in Korea, China, and Vietnam, and probably other countries in the region as well. And it doesn't just stop with parasols. Other sun-protection items include things like long gloves, long sleeves, and generally covering up as much skin as possible even when it's quite hot out.
Not that this is so bad. Skin cancer is real, and protecting your skin from the sun is a good thing, but I've never understood why people don't just slap on some sun screen and then wear short sleeves. Maybe some day I should do an informal poll to find out why people cover up so much.
A new sun-protection technique I noticed upon arriving in Taiwan that I had never seen in Japan is demonstrated in the photos below. I actually had been wanting to get photos of people doing this for a while, but I felt strange about taking photos of random women I didn't know on their bikes/scooters, so I waited until yesterday, when I went on a group trip to Cijin Island and we all biked around the island. Ms. Y and Ms. Z [not their real names] below were nice enough to let me take their photos and make them into representations of "Taiwanese women on bicycles in the sun".
Ms. Z, below, has added "humongous sunglasses" to the ensemble. For the complete picture, imagine combining big sunglasses, a mask, and a backwards sweater. At that point, the person's face is mostly covered, and their arms are totally safe.
What I found amazing about this is, it's such a little thing, but it's so noticeable because just about every woman is doing it. And it's extra noticeable because I don't think I've ever, even once, seen someone doing this in NYC. Or Japan for that matter, where sun protection methods are much more similar to those used in Taiwan. (Namely, covering up, as opposed to using sunscreen.)
When people talk about culture, they usually bring up the big things: festivals, special foods, traditional arts, but as much as anything, culture is also these little practices that most of the time no one even thinks about. That is, until they go abroad and realize that everyone around them is doing something differently than they are. At least I think that's what culture really is. I bet no one ever sat any of these women down and taught them in a class that wearing a sweater backwards is a good way to avoid getting sunburned arms. It's one of those things that you just pick up if you grow up somewhere where everyone does it. So much of human culture is just that kind of thing. No one tells you to do it, but you imitate it from a young age, and everyone is doing it, so it's totally in the background and invisible to you and everyone around you.
I wonder what strange habits Americans have that people from other countries notice when they come to the US to live. What things do we just about all do without ever thinking about them?