One white expat's odd May 19 ode to Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X on the occasion of their respective 123rd and 88th birthdays
|According to this week's 'My Two Cents' contributor, American geniuses Malcolm X (L) and Jerry Seinfeld (R) agree: the Vietnamese people should stop whitening their skin and otherwise desist from further Europeanizing their appearance in any way. File photos
I had a strange vision this past Sunday. It was Ho Chi Minh's birthday and things in my District 3 neighborhood were less festive than I'd expected. One of my most cherished American heroes, Malcolm X, shares a birthday with old Uncle Ho and my vision was of the emergence of a young Vietnamese version of the late great Brother Malcolm - A Vietnamese Stokley Carmichael, if you will.
Better yet, a Vietnamese James "Say it Loud I'm Black and I'm Proud" Brown. Or better still, a Vietnamese Psy (the Gangnam Style guy) that dude's bizarre appeal infused with the black consciousness of Steven Biko, who did more than anyone to render the end of South African Apartheid inevitable. Though Peter Gabriel wrote a song about him and Denzel Washington played him in a movie, damn near nobody on planet Earth knows anything about Steven Biko. But Biko, King of Black is Beautiful, was one of the rare figures in human history to de-brainwash his compatriots for the better.
And while it's far from being an apartheid-style state, Vietnam could use a dude like that an iconic figure of uncanny charisma, somebody who might set the record straight and close the book on a myth that seems to have all Asia shackled to a certain self-loathing that ought to be eradicated, for no other reason than it cannot be healthy.
For me! It depresses the hell out of me every time I come back from a weekend in Mui Ne and my adorable darker-skinned landlady frowns disapprovingly, groaning, "so black, so terrible," at the sight of my faint suntan.
Forget studies about the cancer-causing properties of skin-whitening cosmetics; set aside all the billions of dong going toward futile Vietnamese efforts to Europeanize themselves; and focus on the stress that accompanies the internalization of any inferiority complex. Experts say stress causes more cancer than even the most stressful SMOKING KILLS pictorials, due to hit Vietnamese packs any day now.
Many expatriates have written to Vietweek concurring that despite the problems they face in Vietnam, it is simply not acceptable that people direct their anger and slurs at all Vietnamese. This forum, "Your two cents", opens the floor for you, the expats, to hold forth on the changes you see in Vietnam: what disappoints, what pleases and what you would like to see happen. Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. We reserve the right to edit your submissions for reasons of space and clarity.
But what's sort of just as dangerous as smoking cigarettes? The fact that somewhere along the line, Vietnam got hoodwinked by the notion that White is Right.
It's an antiquated, malicious American idiom holdover from slavery days, but one which, despite our so-called black president, is still very much alive in the States, and also which, for perhaps slightly different reasons, thrives throughout Asia. Here, people are just more honest about it. It's as acceptable as eating instant noodles, defining beauty by strictly Caucasoid standards nose, eyelids, everything.
Very lazily, I've tried to get to the bottom of it who or what is to blame? Portuguese missionaries? French colonizers? The insidious influence of the most successful propaganda empire in human history, Hollywood? The Han Dynasty? How did a breathtakingly good-looking Asian people come to worship all that's Nordic?
I asked all my Vietnamese friends. Nobody knew, as is typically the case with many of the cultural components within an ethos things just are how they are. Life is confusing an unending series of contradictions. But Vietnam's fetish for whiteness is too much for my aberrant Caucasian American soul to stomach self-reared as it was on Black Nationalism, Bob Marley and Martin Luther King without saying something.
Resorting to the Internet, the one halfway synopsis of the situation I found ("Why White Skin is All the Rage in Asia
" ), quoted an "expert" from Houston (of all places) who chalked up this continent's adherence to white supremacy to the Allies' victory in World War II, arguing that the "aspiration of many in Asia toward whiteness is a reflection of the idea that the North Atlantic Powers were the quote - winners - unquote, and therefore they need to be imitated." My Jah, I pray she's not right.
The article claimed that up to 50 percent of Taiwanese women have undergone skin-whitening procedures. "We promote the idea of whitening. Especially in Taiwan we see many beautiful idols on TV and they are all focused on whitening their skin," a Taiwanese executive of a Japanese cosmetics firm explained, "As the Chinese say, 'You can cover all your defective parts if you are white!'"
C'mon Vietnam, you don't want to do as the Chinese say, do you? If Vietnam could find its way home from this diaspora of natural born self-esteem, it would differentiate itself from the rest of Asia I'm telling you, blame all this white supremacy nonsense on the Chinese! I promise they won't notice. Legalize gay marriage while you're at it why not? it couldn't possibly make the Ho Town traffic any worse.
I realize it's an uphill battle my imagined Vietnamese sermonizer would be fighting, as the cockamamie conception that lighter skin trumps darker skin, in part at least, dates back to the Agrarian Revolution, when skin color began denoting a hierarchy of labor. Nevertheless, my fantasized archetype trudges on undaunted, channeling Malcolm X from some prestigious Hanoian podium, challenging a giant local audience to answer questions they'd never dare ask themselves: Who taught you to hate the color of your skin, to such extent, that you bleach it?!
Who indeed? So I say: Down with bleach! Beige is Beautiful! Beige Power! (Methinks Yellow Power may be uncouth.) How 'bout Gold Power? Who could disagree with such a mantra?! Or perhaps we could just agree, whatever our so-called ethnicity/nationality/ race may be, that the constant ranking of pigmentation levels represents a bizarre mindset that's both repugnant and utterly pointless. It serves Vietnam no better than it's aided America or anywhere else, the presumption that lighter skin renders one more qualified to do anything other than succumb to certain melanomas. But it exists and its effects are real. Those with darker skin in white supremacist cultures grow up knowing that their life chances are less than those born of whiter stock. It's an insane tragedy to befall a people who have overcome so much foreign interference.
My fictional Vietnamese folk hero of the future rants:
Vietnam, member state of this brave new world: no longer can we afford to dismiss our darker sons and daughters out of hand! As the world economy stagnates interminably, doomed as it is to crash and burn when peak oil hits in 2015, as China grows ever more aggressive and US promises of support grow ever more hollow, we cannot afford to underestimate our potentially genius executives, military leaders, politicians and artists who happen to have been born with darker skin! Vietnamese girls must no longer grow up emulating Jennifer Aniston. Vietnamese men should be idolizing Thich Quang Duc, not Tom Cruise! What's Tom Cruise ever done for YOU?!? And Vietnamese women! Breastfeed your babies! Your breasts are just FINE!
Am I way off base? Have I impolitely crossed cultural lines? Imposed my own admiration for egalitarianisms uttered by Africans? Is racism any less pernicious when it's applied within a so-called race?
And for you expats still reading, specifically those of you who happen to possess pinkish epidermis, known the world over as "white," wondering what can you do to help the situation. Remember the episode of Seinfeld when Jerry replaces "Bless you" and "Gesundheit" with "You're so good-looking" after somebody sneezes? That's how you can help. Say it to a Vietnamese person whenever you see them sneeze, cough or spit. Say it loud: "Bạn rất đẹp!" Help make it the national post-snot slogan. Because it's true: Vietnamese people are SO good-looking.
Apparently they need all the reminders they can get.
*Josh Tribe is an American expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City