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.
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. 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”. 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”. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
https://tnhvietnam.xemzi.com/tw/spot/7050/q-cut-hanoi. Retrieved on July 28, 2017.
 Martin, Phillip.”Why White Skin is All the Rage in Asia”. PRI, November 2,2009.