“I was worried about her skin,” said Cao Lihua, mother of 21-year-old Chinese Olympic beach volleyball bronze medalist Xue Chen.
No, nothing was wrong with Xue’s skin, except that it was tanned. And in China, tanned skin carries a stigma.
For a society that used to fawn over broken arches in foot binding because it signified that women were wealthy enough not to have to work, it is only natural that skin color would tell the same class-based, stereotypical tale.
Pale is beautiful. Tanned skin, therefore, denotes that the individual is poor and performs manual labor outside under the punishing sunlight.
As a Chinese mother who grew up with tough cultural boundaries, the biggest part of letting go was embracing the thought that tanned skin was acceptable and healthy.
“It was very tough. I felt very uncomfortable watching her work so hard under the hot sun in the beginning. I was worried about her dark skin and what people would think,” Cao said.
Adjusting to the rules of beach volleyball was also difficult for Cao. While volleyball is extremely popular in China, beach volleyball is not so. “It was very unknown, and it concerned me,” she said. “However, in the last few years, the sport has undergone so much growth. The national team is doing very well.”
Having a successful 2008 Olympics in Beijing was monumental for the sport in China. In addition to Xue and her partner Zhang Xi winning the bronze medal, the Chinese female duo of Wang Jie and Tian Jia won the silver medal.
Sitting in the stands watching her daughter was almost unbearable for the mother’s nerves. Cao said, “In Beijing, I was so tense in the close matches. I told myself that I would never watch her play again because I was too nervous and couldn’t handle it.”
But something else happened in Beijing, too. Cao discovered that the people around her were thoroughly enjoying the matches. “I heard them cheering and talking about how much fun they were having and how much they liked the sport. That made me very happy,” she said.
Cao has worried about her daughter throughout Xue’s entire life. The 6’3” Xue was extremely tall from a young age, a rarity in a country known for petiteness. “I encouraged her to go into athletics because I was worried that she wouldn’t fit in anywhere else since she was so tall. I was a physical education teacher so I took her to athletic facilities often so she could play sports,” Cao said.
After Xue was discovered by a beach volleyball coach for the Chinese national team at 14, she left home to train and live with the national team. “I missed her so much. That was a very hard time for me,” said Cao.
However, the international success that Xue has reached on the FIVB Tour along with her Olympic medal has finally reassured her mother. For the first time in 21 years, Cao has stopped worrying about Xue: “She is growing up and she is so successful now. I am so proud of her. She doesn’t need me to worry about her anymore.”
As for the tan, Cao even admitted, “I think it looks good. She looks healthy, and that’s what’s important.”