Three things happened in my first few weeks in Vietnam.
First, I went shopping for body wash. This was a hard process. I am not especially picky when it comes to grooming products, but every bottle seemed to be labeled “skin whitening”. I don’t know if you have seen me any time recently, but I don’t really need whiter skin. I finally found one that has a floral fragrance. It has done the trick.
Second, a lot of people called me beautiful. I was confused, at first. Then I decided it must be a Vietnamese cultural idiosyncrasy. You just go around calling everyone beautiful. But then I realized no one was really calling me beautiful. They were calling my skin beautiful. They would rub my skin and point to my skin and stare at my skin, before deciding that it was beautiful. As a reminder, I am really, really white.
Finally, it was cold outside. I am living in the mountains, and days would see a high of 50 degrees Fahrenheit. So, naturally, everyone would bundle up in hats and gloves, scarves and pants, big coats and earmuffs. Giant piles of clothing, usually with people hiding inside, would run around town on their motorbikes. Then the sun came out. The sun made things warmer.
In about 12 hours, 50 degrees had become 90 degrees. I assumed that the warmth would lead my Vietnamese neighbors to put their winter garb away for the spring. But, in a great plot twist, the Vietnamese motorbike riders put on even more clothes. They pulled up their hoods and put on their ski goggles.
It was then that I understood. Vietnamese people are not afraid of the cold, they are afraid of the sun. You see, the sun makes people dark. And in Vietnam, dark is bad.
I am not an expert in this stuff and can’t begin to diagnose a sociological cause. There are, however, a variety of cultural anecdotes that are perhaps relevant.
For example, pop culture is dominated by Korean and (White) Western celebrities. Adele and Justin Bieber are just as famous as Ho Chi Minh. Taylor Swift is becoming a household name. Alternatively, I have yet to hear the word “Beyoncé” mentioned.
Also, darkness is ostensibly associated with Laotian people and Vietnamese ethnic minorities. Both groups are poorer than ethnically Vietnamese people. In fact, many ethnic minorities are severely impoverished. In Vietnamese culture, the amount of money you have largely determines your position on the social hierarchy. So, perhaps the Vietnamese social math equation looks something like:
Poor = Bad Poor = Ethnic Minority Ethnic Minority = Dark Dark = Bad
Before I make any national judgements, it’s worth considering the following: Perhaps the only difference between systemic racism in Vietnam and in the U.S. is that the former wears It like a badge of honor, whereas the latter shamefully sweeps it under the rug. Just throwing it out there.
Paradoxically, I can’t help but a consider the following quote from a man much wiser than me: “What does it say about humans that in America we sit in tanning beds and in Vietnam we rub whitening cream all over ourselves.”