Behind the Fear of Sun

One day I was driving with my British housemate to a local market in Ha Noi, Viet Nam.  I was actually sitting on the back of her bike. I do not drive motorbikes and that’s often funny to my Vietnamese and American friends because motorbikes are the main transportation here; and they seem to associate motorbikes with Asians in general. Anyway, it was spring here in Ha Noi, and it was rather sunny so we saw many Vietnamese bikers waiting in the shade of some trees at a red traffic light. The trees were a few feet back from where the traffic light stood, so that the short, sun-drenched, stretch of road directly in front on the light was almost empty.  I simply looked at the mass of people under the trees, turned away and remained silent, but my housemate, as she  pulled up to occupy the large empty space in front of the traffic light,  looked back at the people waiting under the trees, then at the largely unoccupied space either side of her and said:

I do not understand why they choose to stay far behind rather than right here where they could  move faster?’

My housemate’s question was not surprising, nor was it the first time I had heard it. I have had friends from Western countries who came to South East Asia [SEA] and voiced similar thoughts when they saw people in the street, fully shrouded in  a long-sleeved jacket, a hood and a face-mask  (or other similar apparel) during scorching, summer days. “Doesn’t it make them feel hotter?” They said. “It probably feels like in the sauna,” others remarked.

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Image by Tố Nga Trần Thị

To this, my Vietnamese friend Ngoc Anh Pham replied: “The fact is that when you dress like a ninja [the jacket, hood & mask combination], it hurts less, as the sun’s rays do not touch your skin. Even if you have sunscreen on it’s still too hot to not wear a sun coat.”

 I have been living in Vietnam for over one and half years, and such a scene is so common that it is no longer surprising, although early on, it certainly was. I even thought the hoodie-like fabric that Vietnamese ladies wear on sunny days was a veil, like those some Muslim women wear.  Initially I was thrilled, because I had never seen Muslims in Viet Nam and I even planned to do a small research project on them. Then a few Vietnamese friends from different regions of the country told me that wearing jackets, or stopping in the shade is a kind of sun protection. I understood it then, partly because I had seen such practices a lot during my younger years in Indonesia. Also I can assure you, that this phenomenon is not exclusively Vietnamese, nor Indonesian at all. I have seen it also in Myanmar, Thailand, and even Cambodia during my short stay there. Whilst there are various reasons of doing so, most of my Vietnamese friends say that their primary reason for doing it is to protect their skin from darkening- that is to say,  to stay white. To that end, many Vietnamese ladies will put on their jacket, or ankle-length coat, with hoodie-like fabric when they are driving or walking on sunny days; even on very hot days when it might seem more appropriate to wear fewer clothes, rather than more. This method of sun protection is by far the most common one employed; and it is interesting to note that, despite the region’s frequently hot and sunny weather,   sunscreen is not so popular in SEA for one reason or another. The fact that it hasn’t really caught on, compared to other countries with sunny climates, can be mostly attributed to its cost, its inability to cool you down (unlike a sunhat for instance) and its perceived ineffectiveness at preventing bronzing of the skin. Other popular ways to stay white include avoiding outdoor activities at the noon time. That is likely why you will find, for instance, local tennis court or swimming pool in Ha Noi, empty and cheap during these hours.

To this, my Vietnamese friend Ngoc Anh Pham replied: “The fact is that when you dress like a ninja [the jacket, hood & mask combination], it hurts less, as the sun’s rays do not touch your skin. Even if you have sunscreen on it’s still too hot to not wear a sun coat”.

So why do the people of SEA (and Asians more generally) fear the apparent curse of high melanin concentration? And; conversely, why is pale skin often considered so much more beautiful and desirable? After all, these standards of idealized beauty stand in sharp contrast to those valued by Caucasians in The West, who will frequently go to absurd and frankly dangerous lengths to obtain a golden-brown tan (the enduring popularity of tanning salons and their UV sunbeds, despite the now widely accepted evidence that they cause skin cancer, is a case in point).

Like with many other seemingly irrational and prejudicial beliefs, the current Asian preference for white skin over darker shades of pigmentation is likely to be rooted in reasoning pertaining to racist and/or classist thinking. In South Korea for example, it was reported that having white skin is considered favorable as it represents ”Western” qualities[1]. Imelda Tesalona, General Manager of Fine Nutrition company from the Philippines made a similar remark, saying that after centuries of colonization “White supremacy probably stuck and that became our standard for beauty”in Filipino culture which goes some way to account for her fellow citizens’ obsession for white skin, because “they also want to look presentable and be physically attractive just like our former colonizers”[2]. Here you see whiteness associated with beauty, refinement; and in some other cases, with intelligence, purity, and power.

The origins of such an association is debatable. My former academic advisor once told me that racist thinking could be traced back to ancient times, when untouchable non-caste status Dalits people in India, (smaller, darker people from the South)  were invaded by the northern peoples with their Vedas many, many centuries ago. Other scholars like Hannah Arendt noted in Race Thinking before Racism the appearance of race thinking in the 17th and 18th century France. She recounts in the The Portable Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, and the Origins of Totalitarianism how such race thinking is then developed into racism in the 19th century  and manifested itself in  European countries  in the same century, and subsequently brought  Asia  through the various colonial projects of those countries. The works of Frantz Fanon the Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks also explain the mechanisms by which such modes of thinking  remain in the culture of colonized countries long after they gain their independence, and continue to condition the way the people of these regions think and act.

Whilst the history of European colonialism in Asia may play a significant part in Asian’s current differing attitudes towards varying degrees of skin pigmentation, the obsession for having white skin could also be tied to class-thinking that seems to have pervaded each country in Asia long before colonialism came around. I know that adherents to the Brahmanic Religions of South Asia (such as Hindus) have practiced the caste system long before the arrival of the British Empire in the subcontinent. Moreover, in respect to Indonesian milieu, as far as I am concerned a more open type of class system than the caste system has also been around long before western colonialism came, which is still supported by many to this day. This system is rooted not in perceived notions of racial difference, but in economics. Thus, it was no surprise to read McDougall’s finding, “Asian countries look down on dark skin because they don’t want to be perceived as poor. Historically, dark skin was associated with people who worked in the fields. The upper class stayed indoors and under the shade”[3]. Thus, having whiter skin may be less about not wishing to look Asian, and more about not wishing to look poor.

Either way such a prevalent obsession for having white skin is not merely about physical beauty. The longing for white skin is more about a yearning for social emancipation; to move up to a higher social rank in relation to the prevailing class system in one’s respective living environment, or perhaps in relation to a racial hierarchy; which invariably favors white people [to put it blatantly, in relation to white people]. The end goal of this game is to attain a change in lifestyle, to assume a life which frees people from the sweat and toil of meeting their daily physical needs, and in doing so, grants them the freedom to do what they wish to do. Such an aspirational goal is normal and, in fact, advisable. However, because a great many countries in Asia have at least some history of colonial oppression (either in a traditional sense or, in a much broader sense of globalization), one needs to take into account the possibility that such an obsession with white skin could be an indication of a latent problem Frantz Fanon refers to as collective inferiority complex.

This inferiority complex, put simply, denotes a feeling of not enough: not smart enough, not beautiful enough, not worthy enough, not big enough and et cetera. Such a neurosis results from the colonial practice of systematically undermining the self-worth of the colonized peoples.  The colonizing, “developed” people,  in varying ways, constantly tell the colonized, under-developed people  that their knowledge systems, culture, ways of life, educational systems et cetera are not [good] enough compared to that of the developed peoples’. Therefore, the new, modern, and supposedly better practices are “imported” and imposed on the colonized peoples to replace those of the natives. Consequently the conquered peoples internalized such inferiority-superiority doctrines and acted them out so wholeheartedly that they become the living embodiments of such doctrine; the artifacts of I am not enough mentality, in Fanon’s terms. Such cultural trauma has not yet been addressed properly and thus, it remains with, in this case, Asian culture in Asia to this day and asymmetrically manifests itself whenever the underdeveloped people come in contact with the developed [white] people, to follow Fanon. More perniciously, still to Fanon, this internalized sense of cultural inadequacy not only affects interactions between colonizers and their oppressed subjects, but also interactions between members of the oppressed, colonized group, causing the colonized groups to, in some situations revere and favor their colonizers over their fellow victims of colonization, who are often treated with relative contempt. Such manifestation of I am not enough spreads across various aspects of life from the economy, to tourism and even to romantic relationships.

From a romance perspective, one could ponder over the phenomenon of the so-called “bule hunters” in Indonesia, in which some locals (mostly ladies) “hunt” white looking fellows to date, or to marry. This phenomena in fact has been documented in a book called Kisah Para Perempuan Pemburu Bule [Bule Hunter: the stories of women who hunt for white men] by Journalist Elisabeth Oktofani. “Bule hunter” is supposedly equivalent to the “câu Tây” in Viet Nam, a Vietnamese woman told me [ some Vietnamese girls may  refer to it as “Săn Tây”]. I first encountered it in a city in Central Viet Nam where some Vietnamese ladies I know would compete with each other for the affections of the limited number of white men. As for Ha Noi, I have had a few Vietnamese friends asked me to hook them up with my white friends. I obliged – and it regrettably made me feel like a pimp.

Are white men aware of this? I suspect that they are. At least, that’s what I have learned from a few different sources: one of my bule hunter friends in Indonesia and, a former American housemate who admitted that part of his reason to come to Viet Nam was to find a local girl. I heard the phenomena of a marked preference for Asian women by non-Asian men referred to by an American expat as Yellow Fever. A more disturbing trend is that of the sex-pat, a usually white, usually middle-aged, non-Asian man who comes to Asia for the purposes of Sex Tourism or simply for sex with Asian women. This phenomenon appears to be becoming a problem for some countries like Thailand and Cambodia; and Thailand has responded by revising their immigration laws in a manner aimed mainly at keeping away the expats who stay for sex, a Canadian expat once told me. This is possibly why Thailand now has “good guys stay in, bad guys out” signs in DMK airport. As for Cambodia, you will find some hotels in Phnom Penh will have sign on the wall “No drugs, no guns, no women allowed.”

Meanwhile, the manifestation of such the post-colonial inferiority complex in the professional sphere; (particularly in relation to teaching English as Second Language –TESL) and tourism is obvious, at least for those who have been living in Viet Nam for a while. It is not uncommon for white tourists in SEA (with the exception of Singapore) to be approached by locals mostly either for photographs, chatting, or even to be invited to stay in locals’ house, be offered free food and generally to be treated like royals. Whilst this level friendliness and generosity is of course very charming, it is important to note that it would be very unlikely for Asian tourists to receive the same courtesy. In my personal experience, there were times when I went out with my white friends to restaurants or other public spots in Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam and I noticed that locals would treat me differently from my Caucasian companions. Thus, I was not shocked when I read of a Vietnamese-Australian girl who complained of being treated different from European looking customers by the manager of the salon she visited. She ascribed the discriminatory treatment that she received to her Vietnamese appearance[1]. By the same token, I tend to be skeptical about my white friends’ remarks about hostels or other public spots on the basis of their apparently wonderful service and friendliness, until I check it for myself. Meanwhile, from TESL working setting, the inferiority complex seem to have led to some blatantly discriminatory practices. My former housemate once told me that his Korean-Australian girlfriend had difficulty finding teaching jobs because of her Asian appearance, despite the fact that she was a native speaker of English, just like any other Australian person. In a similar story, an African- American friend of mine was told by a prospective employer that they could not hire him because of his skin color. Instead, they chose to go with white-looking candidate, who’s imperfect grasp of English meant that he unfortunately needed to look in the dictionary when he talked with me. Clearly this was a decision bound to not only negatively impact upon my friend, but also upon those students who hoped to learn an English with a qualified and competent teacher.

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By now, I hope I have made the case clearer that the obsession with Whiteness and having white skin could be the symptom of the collective inferiority complex; and that striving to be white is an attempt by Asian peoples to complete themselves by attaining something that they have been conditioned to they think they lack: be it beauty, self-worth, power or intellectuality.  This inferiority seems to have become so deeply entrenched into the social system that you could see it manifested even in children, who instinctively “hold white-looking people to be smarter than they are”, as a volunteer from the Netherlands I met in Cambodia told me. Moreover, employers in China might have incorporated whiteness into the criterion to look in their future employees[1].

For those who wish to see an end to this self-imposed, self-perpetuated and self-denigrating racism, there are no quick and simple solutions. For example, the fact that many scientific facts about the danger of chemicals substances in whitening products apparently do nothing to lessen the  popularity and ubiquity of skin whitening products is a troubling puzzle; and whilst the availability of safer skin-whitening products might ostensibly improve matters, this is a simple solution that masks a much more complex societal issue.

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Image by Tini

Instead, the first step towards finding any solutions would first require this inferiority complex to be examined   critically, Fanon advised. Only by doing so, Fanon says in White Skin, Black Masks: one is able to see that people of color’s devaluation of their fellow colored peoples is a form of self-alienation; that the fact they hold prejudices or act discriminatorily toward their fellow Asians or other colored people is actually an attempt to overcome or disown what Asian identity is perceived to represent – an “inferior” culture. It is then foreseeable, perhaps even reasonable that people may attempt to overcome such a matter by running from it towards “whiteness”, which supposedly represents all encompassing “superiority”, he adds. Accordingly, in Fanon’s terms, having white skin or actively attaining some other feature of “whiteness” in one’s life  – be it language, manner, or Romantic partner- could be interpreted as achieving this goal of casting off or masking an identity seen as gauche or inferior in relation to the dominant, white cultural hegemony. But, this is false consciousness, loaded with self-destructive notions of inferiority; and reliance upon it should be shattered using the second step.

The second step consists of coming back/returning to yourself, in Peter Berger’s terms. Be yourself, no need to change your skin or hair color, in my housemate’s terms, which I understood as finding that aspect of yourself, in your Asian-ness, that you like the most and nurture it. These aspects are your beauty features which could lift you up when you have that moment in which, Fanon described,  your ego collapse, your intellectuality shrinks, your self-esteem evaporates, and you have stopped being a self-motivated person in the presence of white fellow. After completing both these steps you will truly understand that you do not need to change your skin or hair color, or emulate white people so as to be like them or be liked by them. Or, if you do, that action is better meant for yourself. On national level, such advice could be executed through, for instance, cultivating local wisdom in relation to education or tourism projects which could help other national projects. Once this step is completed, more effective secondary solutions such as choosing healthy beauty products or even unsubscribing from mainstream beauty standards would come more easily.

 

[1] “Racism in Asia”, last modified 19 August 2017, last modified on 19 August 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_Asia.

[2] Pe, Roger. “Yes, Asia is Obsseed with White Skin”. INQUIRER.NET, August 25,2017.  http://business.inquirer.net/215898/yes-asia-is-obsessed-with-white-skin.

[3]Ibid.

[4]https://tnhvietnam.xemzi.com/tw/spot/7050/q-cut-hanoi. Retrieved on July 28, 2017.

[5] Martin, Phillip.”Why White Skin is All the Rage in Asia”. PRI, November 2,2009.

]https://www.pri.org/stories/2009-11-25/why-white-skin-all-rage-asia.

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The Origin of Madness : A Philosophical Review of the Film “In the Mouth of Madness”

Manipulated image from John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness

Do you ever wonder how people go from completely sane to wholly mad? Or, think about how each of us is equally exposed to the possibility of catching insanity every time we open ourselves to the outside world?

One of these answers can be found in the film In Mouth of Madness (1995) directed by John Carpenter. The film understands madness as “that thing [which is] messing with the church [values]”; “that thing that offers pain and suffering beyond human understanding.” Madness is an abstract being that “wasn’t here [in this material world] before l wrote it”, says the character Sutter Cane. The question is how this very abstract matter known as “madness” manifests itself into material form, and thus becomes viewable, spreadable, discussable, and perhaps “curable”.

Such a journey can be seen in the character John Trent, who has gone from a “sane” insurance investigator to a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Trent is one out of a number of people who show schizophrenic symptoms after reading Sutter Cane’s horror books, including the Hobb’s End Horror and In the Mouth of Madness.  Books that are known for their success in generating a kind of seed of “madness” in the mind of a “less stable reader”. These seeds range from “disorientation, memory loss, to severe paranoid reaction”. Trent’s case is significant in that it may offer a potential clue to the outbreak of mass murders and riots in the city, which are claimed to only involve those who read Cane’s book.

At this point, it is safe to say that “madness” made its way to be among us by finding representation. “Homecoming instrument (s)” the film calls it. I would say that its first representation is in the mind of Sutter Cane. Then it manages to move Cane to write about his encounter with “madness” in the form of books. These books then could be considered as the second form of representation of “madness”. This second representation is special in that it signifies the presence of “madness” in the material world. With Cane’s books, “madness” is now viewable, discussable and spreadable to each individual. It will keep spreading until it achieved its fullest form, Hegel would say.

The fullest form of which every single being strive for is equal to life because it supposedly represents an achievement of completely being oneself, as Hegel implied in the Phenomenology of Spirit. What is often forgotten is that the way to the fullest form is violent and painful in that it constantly requires analysis of what one already achieved. In this analyzing process, the defective representation must be abandoned and destroyed, Hegel would further assert. Only by doing so, one can continue to find a new and better representation.  In the case of this film, we can see that only when Cane [as first representation of “madness”] sees the book Hobb’s End Horror is not perfect, he then can proceed to write the new one, that is In the Mouth of Madness. This new book [and other new form of representation that might come later] supposed to be better representation of “madness” as it corrects flaws of the previous book. Thus, the quality of this new book is stronger than that of the previous one. The new book In the Mouth of Madness is so strong that it “will drive you absolutely mad; choked [you] with the gleaming white bones, the hideous unholy abominations, countless unhallowed centuries”, says the character Cane when persuades Trent to open himself for “madness”. Trent does open himself for “madness” and, thus, rendered as insane.

Trent’s case shows that the desire for self-examination, which “madness” inspires in whoever come in contact with it, is more challenging with human beings than with the madness being [the abstract matter called madness].  This is partly because human beings reflect social values. Identifying some of those values as “wrong” and abandoning them not only challenges the individual’s inner stability but also disrupts the stability of the society in which one lives. As a consequence, once society classifies a person as “insane”, the individual may find himself lonely and isolated, or he may even be killed for such apparent “deviation”, Berger warned us in his Sacred Canopy. There are plenty of examples of killing done on the basis of “deviation,” and one of them is the religious conflict involving the Ahmadiyya community. To anticipate such horrific effect of madness, society advises those who are infected by madness, like Trent, must be made named, isolated from the healthy society, and cured before sent back to society.

The film even prescribes that to survive the influence of madness, one must do what Trent did. ”He did not shriek. He stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown. And refused to close his eyes”. He continually refused to subjugate his life to the power outside himself i.e. the influence of Cane’s book and the label “insane” from a medical representative. He does it by often announcing his self-knowledge that he is a rational, independent and happy man who has control over himself and that no one will have a chance to control his mind.  In short, he fights madness by maintaining his ability to think for himself. Otherwise, madness will seep in and take control over his mind and dictate his body to do things he may not like doing.

The film is indeed very intellectually stimulating in that it not only portrays the origin of madness, but it also alludes to the insidious violence inherent in the transformation of knowledge. The film shows that knowledge transformation is violent because it requires the potential receiver to first destroy what he already knows before this new knowledge rests in their mind, a Foucauldian would say. However, such violence is mostly tolerable, if not acceptable, in almost every society. Why? Because such insidious violence, like the kind that Cane’s book generated, represent “senseless, seemingly unmotivated acts of violence”, says Trent. Only when it obviously threatens the life of the larger society, as in the form of a riot, will the power representatives act.  Again, the key to survive both the violence inherent in the madness and in the transformation of knowledge is to maintain the ability to think for oneself.

Understanding the Islamic concept Inshallah through Psychogeography

Image by Morag Rose.

Travel has always been illuminating for me—every place I visit presents me with experiences that shed light on things I was previously unable to fully understand. That this is so, is only natural to Mrs. Trang, an urban planner from a university in Hanoi. She introduces me to Psychogeography. Psychogeography is an urban planning concept which suggests that our geographical surroundings have a psychological impact on our emotions and, hence, our behaviors. According to Mrs. Trang, when designing a city, urban planners must first know the kind of feeling(s) they wish the inhabitants to experience. Only then will the urban planner be able to determine such things as building design to the kinds of trees and flowers to be planted. All of these elements, she says, will allow a city to emanate certain vibes—“Every city has its own personality.” These vibes are designed to affect the way people think and act. Therefore, it should be no surprise if people are to some extent different whenever they change their geographical locations.

Internationale Situationniste “Naked City” by Guy DeBord

Psychogeography is also a concept that allows me to better grasp the concept of Inshallah, a religious concept central to my own personal and professional life. The term Inshallah simply means “God willing” or “If God wills.” Muslims ought to say it, instead of “I will,” whenever they agreed or “promise” to do something in the future for another party. Looking at the practice of Inshallah from Arendt’s perspective, it appears as a social transaction of advanced request for forgiveness from the party who makes a promise, and a guaranteed release of forgiveness from the party to whom the promise is made. This social transaction of forgiveness would be important when the first party, for whatever reason, is unable to keep their promise. Such failure produces certain effects such as distrust or contempt which is, to some degree, damaging to the relationship between them. However, within the Muslim community, such negative effects are likely mitigated because forgiveness (understanding) has been given upfront, i.e. when they say “Insha’Allah” (“If God allows me to do so”).  Accordingly, the practice Inshallah offers a remedy for the damage that is not even there yet.

The practice of Inshallah does offer an insight into the irreversible and unpredictable nature of human action and its redemption, as Hannah Arendt mentioned in The Human Condition. Once a certain deed is performed, the consequences exceed time and space and are unforeseeable and impossible to undo. If the consequence is negative, it prevents the related parties, especially the wrongdoers, from moving on with their lives.  The way to free them from such an imprisonment, Arendt says, is through forgiveness. That way, the wrongdoer may release the guilt and the offended party is free from grudges. Then they will be able to interact with each other again, or at least, moving on with their lives. Finally, I should also like to say that to merely use the term Inshallah without genuine efforts to meet the promises is an irresponsible act that would also be damaging to social relationships.

One of the effects of the change in location that has always troubled me was that people are more likely to fail to meet their promises. Having many encounters of just such an experience, I lost my ability to trust people and their promises.  But, after four years of psychological, religious and physical homelessness, I think the Psychgeography concept has just dissolved the grudge I have for people and promises. It helps me to see that there are many factors at play in the failure in meeting promises including pyschogeography. Thus, releasing my resentments and people I despised become a natural and personal process which does not need the presence of remorse, nor request from the offender, and, that is I think what Derrida meant by giving yourself the gift of forgiveness. Finally, pyschogeography has shown me the intelligibility of Inshallah, which is helpful in better understanding the dilemmatic religion vs. science relationship.

 

 

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