Travel guides usually include a charming story about some foreigner going to Viet Nam, the locals look them over and promptly proclaiming them fat. The foreigner takes great offense until they are told that being fat is wonderful and a considered great compliment. ‘Just one of numerous, hilarious cultural misunderstandings you can expect in Viet Nam.’
This is bullshit.
Well I should say that this story is bullshit now. It was a compliment in the past; for many years, the average Viet person struggled to get enough nutrition. Only the wealthy and connected could afford to get plump and everyone else stayed thin. So yes, for a long time being a little husky was considered a good thing, but not now and certainly not in Sai Gon. People in Sai Gon, especially the youth, have been soaking in a heady mix of K-pop, Hollywood movies and Vogue magazine. Being lean is most assuredly ‘in.’ So unless you are somewhere particularly rural, poor or isolated being called fat isn’t the admiring comment it used to be.
Don’t get me wrong, foreigners will still probably be called ‘fat’ quite often. I was talking to a Vietnamese friend of mine about a mutual acquaintance and the conversation pretty much went down like this; “I know (that person), she is fat…oh yes, so fat.” The person in question is a little on the heavy side and my friend employed typical Vietnamese forthrightness and just told it how it was.
Now, this acquaintance doesn’t actually have the silhouette of a walrus with an underactive thyroid, far from it! But that is the tyranny of comparison. Vietnamese people are small in proportion; even the slimmest, western foreigner will usually look large standing next to them. Hell, even the clothes manikins can’t zip up the Vietnamese-sized jeans they are modelling.
I should note that plump babies and children are still considered a very good thing in Sai Gon and everywhere else in Viet Nam. Parents want really chubby babies and there is much hand-wringing when a kiddy doesn’t have a good couple of rolls on their thighs.
One thing to know about me – I’m pale, very pale. Not by design or desire, just that my forbearers are, without exception, the kind that evolved in grey, shivery countries like Ireland and England where the sun shines for approximately 27 minutes per year.
Cruel fate (and global migration trends) deemed that I should be born in Australia, a country with an unreasonable about of sunlight (and skin cancer-causing ultra violet radiation). It was determined fairly early on that I was one of those people whose skin can be one of two colours – glowing white or angry red. This set me up for a vaguely sticky and sweaty childhood covered in various sun creams, hats, sunglasses, and long-sleeved shirts. I watched those bronzed Aussie clichés strolling about in the sunshine as I ran from shade to shade, hissing at the brightness. Moving to Ireland when I was still a child, offered me a reprieve from the relentless sunlight but my pallor was certainly not appreciated or considered attractive there either.
Many times during my teens, I was told I’d look better or healthier with some more colour. It has only been in recent years that my home countries found a new appreciation for us pasty individuals. I think we can thank those sparkly vampires in those teen romance books (or as I call it ‘the 10 warning signs of domestic violence and emotional abuse anthology’) for the newly discovered appreciation for the alabaster-skinned, but I digress.
Cut to my life in Viet Nam; I am walking around Sai Gon at lunchtime, on the lookout for some street vendors who usually assemble in one of the parks. I find them and awkwardly squat (all my squats are awkward) in front of a woman who is delicately julienning a green mango with a cleaver the size of my head. Her Green Mango Salad looks delicious and my mouth floods at the thought of the sour green mango and the vinegary dressing. I ask for some and she starts filling a bag.
She starts talking about me to her fellow vendors; I catch the word for foreigner. The more Vietnamese I learn, the more I realise that I’m often a topic of conversation. This is completely fine; I’m probably worth talking about. For one thing I look very different. I am taller, heavier, and paler than the average person around me. If I saw a colossal, phosphorescent-skinned creature with limited language skills hunkering down in front of me, you’d be damn sure that I’d be talking about them too.
One of the older ladies grabbed my arm and rotated it to get a look at the inside of my elbow and upper arm, which is the palest part of me that can be displayed without having to drop my pants. “Ummm, trắng (white),” she murmurs approvingly to her friends, then she smiles at me. “Cảm ơn, Bà (Thank you, Madam)” I reply somewhat feebly as it occurs to me that I am literally the single, white female in this exchange. I give her until my salad is ready and then I wiggle out of her grasp.
Actually, the ladies were very sweet and very complimentary. They just thought I looked nice and wanted to take the view a little closer up; nothing too wrong with that.
I’ll admit that it took me some time to fully understand where these paleness-based compliments were coming from. Initially, I had assumed that they were wrapped up in the ugliness and discrimination of colonialism; Viet Nam having been a French colony for a number of years. However, over the time I’ve spend living here I discovered that fondest for paler skin has very little to do with colonialism or other countries’ race relations. I’ll actually go so far as to say that having paler skin due to European ancestry isn’t as coveted as being pale with total Vietnamese ancestry.
Rather, the desire for pale skin stems from internal perceptions of poverty and wealth. People who are poorer have traditionally had to work outdoors and get tanned by the sun, while the wealthy live inside. Pale skin equaled high class and tanned skin was one of the symbols of poverty. These beauty ideals continue on to this day and people do what they can be paler. I called this, the desire to be ‘Baby Pale,’ the colour of brand new skin; untouched by sunshine.
People will go to extraordinary lengths to be Baby Pale; there are expensive skin whitening treatments at salons, and most people wear cover-up clothing when they are outside. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a city where there is a constant Invisible Man convention that no one told me about.
This perception about pale equaling beauty is slowly changing, but then, beauty ideals don’t generally change quickly.
Even though I have a better understanding of the desire for paler skin, it doesn’t really make me feel at ease with the idea. It is still putting a value and a judgement on someone based on their appearance and their associated prosperity. Our skin colour at its most basic is the amount of brown-colored pigment called melanin that our skin produces; this quantity is based on genetics, exposure to ultraviolet light, our bodies’ vitamin D production requirements, and the breakdown of folic acid.
It is our perceptions and opinions that that loaded our skin with judgements. I think this, at the end of the day, is actually a good thing. Surely it has to be easier to change our minds, than our skin tone?