People had often warned me that people would take pictures of me because I am a white almost blonde girl travelling in a part of the world where that is not common. I thought that would be true in the rural areas, but not in the cities because those are often quite touristy. I was very wrong. I don’t know if it was the time of year, where I was sitting, or just the people who were around, but I became something like a local celebrity one day.
Family after family came up to my friend Magda and me as we sat on a bench in the main park in Hanoi and kindly asked, ‘May my children take a picture with you?’ Many more snapped pictures when they thought we weren’t looking or tried to drag their young children to come sit on the bench with us, while the kids tugged away and became very shy. I was so surprised the first few times it happened because I knew there were other people who looked just like me and Magda in the park as well, so why did they take pictures of us? Was it really that big of an event to take a picture of a white girl who hadn’t showered in three days wearing clothes she hadn’t washed in a week? That is something to remember I suppose. I’m also curious what they are going to do with the pictures? It is just a picture of me sitting on a bench so I don’t know who exciting that is.
The people who asked to take pictures ranged from older men, twenty-something beautiful women, twenty-something men, young girls, young boys, and of course parents with babies – so basically every type of person. The one I was most shocked by was a young woman who was tall, had long jet-black hair that had been softly curled, a stylish outfit with heels, and bright red lipstick. She looked like she was straight off the runway. I was in awe of her beauty when she came over and sat on the bench next to us and motioned for her boyfriend to take a picture of all three of us. I looked like trash, in my opinion, and she seemed to be the ideal image of beauty. I would love to have such long legs, and beautiful hair. I suppose to Asian people being blonde and very pale must be exotic, just like women from Asia, South America, or Africa seem exotic to white westerners. It was an interesting change of perspective.
After the first few people wanted pictures we started to be friendlier with the people passing by. We would wave at the young babies and children and say “Hello!” To which the parents would make them stop and feed them words to say in English like, “hello,” “good morning,” “thank you,” and “happy new year.” Other kids would run up to us and say, “Hello!” or even “Howdy” if they were feeling bold. It was so interesting to be welcomed into a foreign country and even marveled at. Thinking about how a foreigner who does not speak English would be received in America makes me cringe. Such a difference in perspective and respect for other cultures from different parts of the globe.
A final reflection that troubles me the most is the ideal kind of beauty in Asia (in general). The ideal woman has porcelain white skin with no blemishes. I think that blonde hair and blue eyes are fascinating to many people in Asia because it is not common due to them being recessive genes. In many of the stores we went into to look for face cream, we had a hard time finding plain face cream, wash, or lotion of any sort without any whitening formula in it. Each bottle would say, “Face Lotion: With Extra Whitening!” I was astounded. I couldn’t believe people would bleach their faces and bodies in order to fit a beauty standard. Meanwhile in America, people are frying themselves in the sun to be tan, our version of ideal beauty. Oh the irony.
One common thread through western and eastern cultures seems to be the social hierarchy of skin tones. In Asia, I have been told that those with lighter skin are not only seen as more beautiful, they are often more economically successful. People with darker skin tones, whether they are Indian, Indonesian, Black, or something else, are treated as working class citizens and often are of lower economic status.
When speaking with a young woman in my hostel about her experience being a black woman in Asia it was particularly distressing. She lives in Taiwan while she is earning her Masters Degree, so she has lots of experience with Asia culture and everyday life. She told me that often times while on the subway, people will move away from her out of fear, or stare at her in amazement. The way they would stare at her was different from the way people in the park would stare at me. She often felt unwanted in Taiwan and, had she not had such a strong shell, she probably would have left ages ago. People are afraid of her because of her skin tone. People on the street have run away from her when she tried to ask them a question. She speaks English very well, although it is not her first language, and has even learned some Chinese, but she felt her treatment did not change.
It is so unfortunate that in almost every corner of the globe, it seems that skin tone runs society. In America we have been accused of having a similar system of racial oppression both social and economically. I personally believe this to be true as I have had many conversations with friends from different areas, and reflected on my own privilege over my lifetime. I am both thankful for my reception in Vietnam, and upset that just because someone has darker skin, they will not be received the same way.
It is hard to change people’s minds, but I believe the only way to start this process is by travelling. If more people of color would have the opportunity to travel, it might bring more awareness of differences in culture to more areas. Meeting people who look different, talk different, and believe different things than you, will help create a more understanding world.
Unfortunately, if the majority of people of color in the world are living in less fortunate economic and social positions than others, it can be hard to save money for travel, or even prioritize it. Things need to change in each country that prioritizes light skin over dark skin, so the fundamental of social, economic and political life can be made more equal.
Lots to think about here from small interactions that meant so much. This day in the park and chat with a hostel mate opened my eyes to another perspective I had never experienced. Now I will try to be more conscious of the assumptions I make about people just based on the color of their skin. I will try my hardest to abide by my own beauty standards, not the ones that society dictates. I hope that in setting a good example for my self, others will follow. I encourage you to look at the ways in which your life has been different based on the color of your skin, both the privileged side and the oppressed side. If we all acknowledge our privilege, I believe it is easier to understand how to fix the inequalities that are present today.