As many expats in Asia and perhaps even some travelers know, being white-skinned is considered beautiful, desirable and essential. This is quite laughable to the Westerner who wants to be tanned. Creams, sprays and salons are dedicated to making us look like we’ve just been to Mexico or the Bahamas. When I lived in Hawaii, I was sometimes teased for looking “too white,” for not getting enough beach time.
In Asia, however, being tanned represents looking poor: bent over in the fields, working outside in the hot sun and appearing dirty or, Buddha help us, old.
And even though, throughout the years, I’ve explained to my students or colleagues that a tan means you got out of the office, you were on vacation, you have time to play, this ideal simply does not correspond to life in the East. Of course, Asians try to make it sound like the sun’s UV rays are extremely harmful, and while there is some truth to this, the lengths Thais, Chinese, Koreans, etc., go to, to look lily-white is shocking, and a little scary.
This phenomenon is something I’ve touched upon here and is something that I’ve learned to accept, but it was this article shared by a friend that got me thinking about the issue again. In short:
“A young woman in southern India is painting her body black to protest against what she calls the growing intolerance in the country against the low-caste Dalit community, writes Ashraf Padanna in Kerala.”
Can you imagine? Horrible that Indians are killing themselves for being in the “wrong/dark” caste system. Unbelievable that Asians are poisoning themselves in an attempt to look whiter. I’ll be keen to read a follow up article on her experiment.
I remember my b/f told me that one of his university students in China had to wear a mask because she took the whitening creams too far and had to hide the mistake. He also told me an amusing story of when he was teaching in Ankang, a small city smack in the middle of China. One of his colleagues was a Chinese American who had dark skin (I’m sure he wasn’t that dark) and the security guard wouldn’t let him on campus because he didn’t believe he was a teacher. He eventually had to jump the fence in order to teach his classes.
When I first got to Thailand I saw pink nipple cream at one of the malls. I laughed. Then I thought, “Are pink nipples considered more desirable than brown ones? Is this something I’m supposed to want???” Then, of course, I started noticing how Thais hid under umbrellas, covered themselves with sleeves, scarves and socks, all in an attempt to avoid Vitamin D as much as possible.
In Cambodia they are much more relaxed about it. I think this is because they are browner and it really can’t be helped no matter how much you try to avoid the sun. It’s also a poorer country. Women here don’t walk with umbrellas like Thailand or Laos, wearing hats are much more practical. Although, they might cover up, which I understand, because the sun is super strong here. My own efforts of putting on sunscreen while at the pool have been futile. I’m getting dark as my archaeology days.
But Cambodia, just like its sister Asian countries, loves its light-skinned celebrities. In Thailand (I know Thailand better), Chompoo is such a crazy popular actress and she is Thai and British. She is everywhere, on TV, at the movies, on commercials, and advertisements. Mario is Thai-Chinese and German, and is a very popular celebrity as well. It’s rather maddening, actually, to see many luk krung (half-Thais) dominate Thai pop culture. And if they aren’t on top, then milky-white skinned celebs are – seriously, unless it’s comedy or a villain, you won’t see a nice brown tanned Thai.
I know other Asian countries have the same beauty standards because whenever I turn on the TV this is what I see. I watch marshmallow-white, creamy Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Khmer, Indians on TV. Just once (okay not just once!), I’d like to see a popular dark-skinned Asian celebrity on Asian TV (because ABCs – Australian born Chinese, American born Chinese, etc, you get the picture, want to be tanned and healthy looking). I think it would do a world of greater good for teens to see someone that looks like them and for everyone to understand beauty comes in all shades.
I know others have expressed their concern and disgust over Asia’s white-skin obsession, but sadly it does not appear to be going away any time soon. My students tease each other for having ‘black’ skin and then, of course, I have to step in and tell them they are being ridiculous. But I can’t help but wonder if my dark-skinned female students will have a harder time finding a man than their light-skinned counterparts.
Enter Dr. Rhonda Tindle who is a professor of East Asia studies. I tweeted her asking where this white-skin obsession came from and here’s what she had to say:
(27th century BC /creation myth) If you look up one of the Yellow Emperor’s consorts, you will find Leizu. She was very young (of course) when she became consort of the Emperor and the myth is that she was of the purest yellow as was the Emperor. She was also apparently really clever because she discovered silk.
The Japanese in particular really take the purest yellow thing (pale skin) to heart. But the whole pale thing goes back to these mythical creation stories of the Yellow Emperor – or at least the preference for pale skin is supported by the myth. I read an anthropological article a few years ago that the whole love of pale skin and pale being beautiful relates to the male preference for young females.
When I first got to SE Asia, I mistakenly thought Asians obsession with being white-skinned meant they wanted to be White. But I was wrong. They might admire whiter skin and there are certainly Asians who are obsessed with mainstream ideals of beauty (wider eyes, bigger breasts), overall though, I think Asians want to be Asians, but with lighter skin. Take the controversial Chinese laundry detergent commercial. The woman puts a black man in the laundry, but he doesn’t come out White, he comes out pale Asian.
Interestingly, the commercial it was based off of (right down to the music), was an Italian one claiming and boasting to add color to the wash – same scene, but in went a skinny Italian man and out came a big black hunk. My goodness, if these two commercials don’t represent the fundamental differences of wants and desires between the East and West, I don’t know what does!
To make matters even more complex, I asked a few of my colleagues regarding Cambodia’s desire for whiter skin or finding a fair partner and one of them said,
“Khmers are dark-skinned people. If you find a light-skinned Cambodian then it probably means they are Chinese-Cambodian which is considered more desirable because the Chinese are known for their business savvy. Regardless of whether or not this is true, it’s what people believe.”
To be honest, I think I’ve been living in Asia for too long. I notice skin tones, who’s darker than me and who’s lighter, but I don’t use it as a benchmark for beauty. I can’t. I’ve seen too many situations where appearances were deceptive and when looking good mattered more than being good.
Besides, standards of beauty change, but compassion, generosity and kindness go beyond the shades that seem so important today.
What do you think?