White Wash

I am slowly turning white.

Yesterday, I looked down at my belly while sitting on the toilet and there was a patch of white, roughly 1 cm squared, to the left of my navel. I scrubbed at it. It peeled away like old paint.

Must have been toothpaste,” I thought. “Will be more careful in future.”

Throughout yesterday, I found patches of white all over me. Some of it was on my clothes, but most of it was on my orange-toned skin. I was perplexed. When I do my teeth of a morning, I can be vigorous. I am often running late for walking to work. But I certainly was not wantonly flicking toothpaste all over the bathroom and myself. Especially as I was dressed and ready for work (sort of).

Today, I was more careful in the bathroom. As I sat at work – reading, typing and surfing the net (I mean researching) – I notice a streak of white on my left forearm. As I turn my arm around, I see little spots of white. Whatever I have done now, I can’t scrape these off so easily.

There are the tiniest spots on my right arm, too. I wonder if it’s permanent, if it will spread.

People have described my skin tone as ‘olive’ and I cannot see how this is correct. No olive I have ever seen has been a kinda browny orange, with streaks of blue and some blotches of red. Olives are either green or a purple-tinted black.

Some have described me as yellow, but I am sure that my skin colour looks nothing like a banana, or the sun as drawn and coloured by children. And I don’t think they were referring to my courage (or its lack).

I think that I am definitely orange(ish). Or brown. Or brown with an orange base. Or orangey brown. Anyway, my skin is definitely dark(ish) South East Asian coloured. I am not fair like most of my sisters. I am of fishing stock, and my colour pigment is there to protect me so that I can spend most days sorting through the fish that my father, brothers and cousins have hauled in. I was obviously meant to remain in Viet Nam, and live the fishing life. Or failing that, perhaps the farming life. My fairer sisters were destined for distant shores, less physical labour type lives. Oddly enough, my parents took all of us over with nary a thought for what our skin colour indicated we were fated to become.

These days, of course, I sit inside an office for much of the sunlight hours. The sun slants in through my office window (yes, I’ve got the window seat) but it is barely enough to warm me, let alone to justify my skin colour. Its greatest effect is in the afternoon, when it glares so horridly from the reflection of the other huge glass covered buildings that I am forced to close my blinds.

My mother wastes precious breaths telling me to stay out of the sun. I do not waste any breath telling her that I don’t actually spend much time in the sun anymore. As a child I was often out in the yard, climbing trees and chasing after frogs (in winter) and lizards (in summer). I was a dark brown back then, and I would get darker as the days got warmer. Um often stuck her head out the back door and hollered for me to come inside. I always pretended not to hear her.

When I was in school and playing sport, Um always berated me for the colour my skin would become, darker and darker as the netball season drew to its exciting conclusion (we were never in the finals, but always made it to at least the quarter finals).

I tried to tell my mother that my skin tone was not my fault! I had no conscious control over what colour my skin was. If I was feeling especially rebellious I would tell her that it was HER fault, or perhaps my father’s, if I was not beautiful rich-person white but dirty peasant brown. She would retort with the example of my sisters, very few of whom played sport or chased lizards and frogs. I would scowl.

Years inside an office and I might, after all, be turning white. My skin tone is still orangey-brown, brownish, orange-based etc. But I keep discovering these patches of flaky white.

My mother would be so pleased.

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5 Comments

  1. I wonder how far back it goes in Vietnamese culture; the idea of the fairer the better? It just seems universal in Vietnam that the lighter the better, so much so that it spills over to 1.5 and second generation kids. A Viet friend in college used to say that she’ll trade skin tones with me any day (I’m relatively light). I have a theory that it goes all the way back to the Chinese who tend to be lighter rather than the French, but wherever it came from, it makes me feel just as uncomfortable being lighter (but not white). I can’t control it either, and it feels weird to be told that my complexion is desireable when I was raised in a post civil rights movement world that tells me that all colors are beautiful. And you should get those white spots checked out! That’s not good!

    Reply

  2. I agree you need to get the white spots checked… it sounds like loss of pigment. Lots of women spend a fortune on “whitening creams” – they’re a huge industry in Japan where I’ve read that pale skin is considered more middle class. I guess they’re basically bleach – nasty!

    Reply

  3. one word….oh wait. make it two…

    micheal jackson!!

    harhahr

    but in all seriousness…if it is your actual skin ‘bleaching’, yeah, get it checked…if you are being attacked by the liquid paper or toothpaste monster…maybe you need a change… =D

    Reply

  4. hi all – thanks for your concern 🙂

    well, except for you Laziicat! heaven forfend that I should be turning into Michael Jackson; although I was called ‘Wacko’ in high school … hmmm should I be worried?

    Hong Lien, I think you are right about the preferencing of light skin going back to imperial times in VN. And Meredith is also right that it is a class thing. And there are a number of cultures, of which I am aware, that consider lighter skin more beautiful: Indian, Thai, Filipino, Japanese etc.

    It’s interesting what you say Hong Lien about being brought up in a post civil rights environment. I guess I am too, but I don’t think that changes one iota the beauty ideal within VN culture: light and not skinny. And the civil rights movement certainly had no impact on my mother.

    I also don’t think we’ve come that far in fundamentally challenging the power base of white male middle class protestant heterosexual able-bodied etc. So I don’t think that it is true that the wider world actually believes that all colours are beautiful. After all we are still confronted in media and advertising with predominantly white people, or if people of colour, those people of colour tend to appear more like the mainstream white beauty ideal(lighter skin, bigger eyes, pointier nose etc).

    Reply

  5. Oanh, I agree, the civil rights movement probably doesn’t have as great an impact worldwide in terms of what people intrinsically feel is beautiful. However, I do think that post civil rights movement, people are more open to the idea that beauty can be found in any skin tone. The success of models such as Tyra Banks, Tyson Beckford, Naomi Campbell, etc can be taken as examples (although they do have more European features, except Beckford). Perhaps I am generalizing too much when I say “world”. I only of course, mean my world. My world is Northern California, here, you see so many different examples of beauty, the VN ideal seems rather archaic and ignorant. To me, this begs the question; are the ideas of what is considered beauty a part and mark of a culture, and if it isn’t fair, is it necessarily bad? Would the culture be losing something if it were to embrace a more egalitarian ideal? My mom was affected by the Civil Rights movement, even though if you ask her, she wouldn’t know what it was. She was affected because she lives in a mixed city, where people of all colors live side by side and therefore, her ideas of people are much different now than they were before. This change in perspective has also changed the way she feels about herself, she no longer feels she is fully Viet.

    Reply

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