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.

Image by
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 Looker: John Berger

I was making my way through Ways of Seeing when I stopped at the end of the third essay and sent a text message to my friend. Within a few minutes he had responded, telling me that he was reading the same essay, at the same time, for a class; he had the same thoughts and was going to get in touch with me. This was not to be the last time this would happen. I worked my way through the rest of the book, finding germs of the theoretical lenses I would be studying in theory-heavy courses outlined with concrete examples. It still guides many things I write about—many of the conversations I have had in the last year were sparked by reading John Berger.

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John Berger by Jean Mohr

Berger was a multidisciplinary thinker before we used words like “multidisciplinary.” The seventy years of his critical explorations reflected the radical changes in the way we think about art, politics and the act of thinking itself. Berger was, in many ways, responsible for starting the process of consciousness raising many of us needed and still need. His work made us question the preconceptions we brought to analysis in a way that was both serious and playful. I can sum it all up in a single painting by Magritte: The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas un pipe).

magrittepipe

The image appears as if it is a pipe; yet as many have said, the viewer cannot take the pipe down and fill it, light it, or smoke it. In the end, it is not a pipeit is the representation of a pipe. It is in this area of differencebetween the thing and its representationthat we find the best of Berger’s work.

The way that of Berger holds most of his influence is bizarre. He is best known for (essentially) a novelization of a television program he presented in the 1970s: Ways of Seeing. The actual program hasn’t been released on video because of copyright issues, so to admit to having seen it is to admit to walking in the grey area of copyright law. The book is broken up between essays and visual (wordless) essays. The two connect together and reinforce one another to the point that they cannot be separated. Seeing image after image reproduced side by side, themes that previously would have required travel around the world to different galleries, close observation, and the persistence of memory in order to connect between point A and Point B, become apparent. Ways of Seeing compresses the journey while preserving a small part of the overall experience. Once these changes are seen, they linger in our consciousness. We can place them in our own world.

I will never forget reading Berger’s essay on the female nude included in Ways of Seeing, particularly the last paragraph, which so many seem to have missed completely:

But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from mennot because the feminine is different from the masculinebut because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the images, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer. (64)

Reading this set all the lights in my mind ablaze. In terms of feminist consciousness, this was the moment in which the pose and figure of women across the history of art shifted for me. Going to an art gallery soon after, I came upon a picture and imagined that it was now a naked man looking at himself in a mirror, with a woman viewing from the bed, or two men: a study in homoerotic narcissism. I turned the youth and a wolf (playing with the wolf? being chased by the wolf? actively attacked by the wolf?) from female to male, and the ambiguity of the image was removedthey were playing, roughhousingbecause, my consciousness told me, that is how boys and animals interact. I thought too of my transgender friends and lovers, and the way that we assign meaning based on sexual characteristics that may not always be present in the equation. Eventually, I did not even have to go that far. I could look at faces and paint them androgynously, letting them become bodies that were neither female nor male. I could read a painting leaving these assumptions for later, after the pose was discovered.

Outside of his writing, Berger lived the radical practice he wrote about. Almost every obituary recounted how he had donated half of his winnings from the Booker Prize for his picaresque novel, G., to the London branch of the Black Panther Party and used the remainder to finance a book on migrant workers. This was also the man who translated the poetry of Cesaire and Mahmoud Darwish into English and supported revolutionary struggles for independence throughout the world with the same ease he would describe a work by Picasso. At the time that the world was becoming more industrial, Berger moved to France and lived the life of a farmer (who also happened to be one of the most influential critics in the world). This shift in his life was responsible for a new branch of his writing: Berger wrote about the connection with humans and animals in the same tender way he wrote about depictions of lovers in paintings. He removed the distances between a life of the mind and a life of activity, becoming more aware of the difficulties facing those whose work feeds us in the literal sense.

What I miss most about Berger is the constant appeal to looking, for discovering the unseen connection between images, of parts of a single image. In art history and art criticism, we were taught how to read paintings. Unlike the majority of printed books, there seemed no way to instantly grasp the way a painting should be read. One can start with the whole, or the upper left, or move from the right counter-clockwise. The advice to “show, not tell,” seems to run amok here, and art felt like a puzzle with missing pieces. What was it, I wondered, out loud in a gallery by accident, that these critics had done to understands this meaning behind the artwork? (In other words, what sort of drugs had they taken?) Berger made the process of looking, thinking, discovering, a program I could follow through on because he took the mystery out of looking while retaining the beauty of the discovery.

Berger is best in miniature. The strongest works were the most concentrated, as if they had been boiled down and mixed together on a stove top. He revisits the importance we ascribe to objects, either as artworks, historical markers, or personal reminders of past encounters with other people, other places. An essay about a wooden bird given to him by a friend invites a discussion, not about the bird, but about exile, craftsmanship, and a disappearing mode of life. Berger returned to vision again in his short work, Cataract, exploring the way the anatomy of the ocular device impacts the process of vision and thought. Recovering from cataract operations in both eyes, he wrote about the radical shift in clarityfirst in one eye, then in the otherthat made colors intense again. As he aged, he had become a critic operating in a diminished capacity for some time as things began to come in clearly. Now it seemed as though he was entering a second wind in his late 80s. And so it seemed for the rest of the man and his reputation: Verso had just put out two large collections of his art criticism, a documentary, The Seasons in Quincy, had just been released at film festivals, and it seemed as though the world was turning its vision back to John Berger. Even with this productivity, it was clear that he was slowing down. His death was not unexpected. Still, no one I knew was ready for it.

I think of the way in which so much about Berger is contained in the physical world still. He seems like a man of the 19th century, still working on crisp paper in a digital age. I wonder how he would investigate the new trend of the 360 degree film footage, meant to be viewed on a mobile device, based around the idea of being there without being there. So many of the questions he raised about our critical engagement with images remain unanswered: How do we see the world around us? How do we process what we see? How do we distinguish between the representation and the real? In response, the gentleness of John Berger’s voice keeps asking us: Look.

1926-2017.

 

 

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