Finally, I’m settled in Việt Nam. My apartment is right next to a lovely hole-in-the-wall cafe with excellent coffee and free wifi. ‘Tis here, Dwarves and Elves, that I shall be blogging away.
I’ve been thinking about many things since I came here, but beauty standards are close to the top of the list (the top of the list? caffeine). As a Westerner living in the decidedly non-touristy District 5, I get a lot of stares, a lot of shouted greetings, and a lot of people asking me if I’m married. But the second question people usually ask is where I’m from. And people really, really want to know this about me, to the point that if I don’t tell them, don’t understand the question or laugh it off, they get upset and ask very, very urgently. Why the urgency?
First of all, this is not a question that most Americans get nearly as much as I do. Most people here are very surprised that I’m American; after I tell them that I’m from the US, they usually say that they thought I was from India. Or Turkey. Or “Arabia.” Or even South America. After I convince my interlocutor that yes, I am American and no, I didn’t move there as a child, their next sentence – 80% of the time – is: “Wow! You’re very beautiful.” And this is interesting, but not for the reason you’d think.
I came to Việt Nam with several other Americans, and have met more since I’ve been here. One of them is someone whose beauty is both striking and conventional: blonde hair, blue eyes, very fit and tall physique. Yet she doesn’t get called “beautiful” half so often as I do….and I’m a short, curvaceous, olive-skinned type. Pretty, sure, but not exactly knock-out material. Thankfully, however, I’ve been trained in the art of cultural analysis, and as such have been busily pondering my experiences in a broader cultural context.
Every day when I get on a moto to take off somewhere, I see lots of advertisements on billboards. But the one I see the most without a doubt is the Sunsilk Shampoo girl.
She’s everywhere. She’s gorgeous. And she – her name is Ho Ngoc Ha – also happens to be a very famous pop singer. Which, of course, could help explain why she in particular was picked to be the face of Sunsilk. But there are other things at work, too.
Beauty standards are screwed up. The West has screwed most of the world over on this one: white is considered beautiful. White is thought to be better. My local Co-Op mart carries roughly 8 bajillion “skin whitening creams,” the better to make you look whiter, more beautiful, “better.” Ho Ngoc Ha is conventionally pretty in just about every sense of the word: not only is she tall, thin, and blessed with sparkling eyes… she has *very fair skin.* And this equates her with whiteness, which unfortunately means “beautiful” in far too many places.
But there is more at work here. If whiteness is really the goal, why not just have a white model? It could be possible. Sunsilk is made by Unilever, a non-Vietnamese, Western company. They could find plenty of white models willing to be the face of one of the world’s most popular shampoos.
You could argue that the reason the company doesn’t do this is because, well, they’re selling the shampoo in Việt Nam. So having a Vietnamese person in the billboard is just better advertising. And this is certainly true. But I think that there’s more.
If I saw Ho Ngoc Ha in the States, I might not know where to “place” her, just as many Vietnamese people don’t know where to “place” me. I’m definitely not Vietnamese, but I’m also definitely not “white” looking…I’m ambiguous. I’m not definitely anything. Both familiar and strange. Which is both intriguing – hence the higher-than-normal-for-a-foreigner amount of attention I get – and uncanny – hence the urgency to pigeonhole me, set my ethnicity in stone and thus “know” who I am.
This feeling is what Freud called “the uncanny.” The German word is better (as always): “unheimlich.” “Heim” is the word for “home;” something that is “heimlich” is home-y, comfortable, normal, close to yourself. Something that is “unheimlich” is therefore not just strange, completely other and alien, but rather a making-strange of that which is close to you. Freud actually does a great job of explaining this in his essay on E.T.A Hoffmann’s story “The Sandman” (the link is to the German original). In the story, Hoffmann takes normal things – eyes, fathers, etc – and makes them strange. They are fascinating, bewitching, alluring, and frightening as all hell because they are somehow known to us and yet given an uncanny “twist” at the same time.
This kind of known/unknown entity provokes a two-fold reaction: the unknown must be made known, but it also must be glorified as “exotic,” or other. Take the expression of gender identity as an example. Conventional society wants you to be either male or female. Either/or. If you’re not, that’s baaaaaaaaaaad. But! It’s also fascinating. And not just because it’s “different,” but because that difference is created by modifying and reconfiguring “normal” gender expression.
All this to say: that which is both known and unknown is simultaneously fascinating and frightening. Beautiful and uncanny. Like the urgency with which people want to pin down my identity. Creating ads with that promote beauty that is both familiar and other – or in this case, Vietnamese and Western – is pretty smart, but it also leaves little to no room for other, not white-oriented expressions of beauty and identity. And that is a shame.
How does this all relate to fairy tales? Find out tomorrow, when Part II of this post goes up!