Today after my class, I ran into one of our Vietnamese students as she was waiting for the elevator. She had on an Angkor Wat shirt, and I remarked on it. “I visited Cambodia. Have you been there?” she asked. “I live there!” I said. She laughed. I explained that I really did live there. She looked genuinely confused. “But…Cambodia is black,” was her reply, pointing to her skin. “We are white.” As usual, I just nodded, smiled, and said have a nice day.
I get it. I’m white. This sort of thing shouldn’t bother me. But after two years in the ‘bodes, I’ve had about all I can handle of black-white-absolutely-no-grey-area. If it wasn’t so loaded in sociopolitical and cultural meaning, I might feel differently (well, probably not), but it is.
White is beautiful, noble, eligible, marriageable, intelligent. Black is detestable, uneducated, unattractive, pitiable, lascivious.
Colour is also largely femininized. A man may become more desirable the lighter he is, but he will never decrease in value if he is darker. For a Cambodian woman, her skin tone lies somewhere on a spectrum of (both implicit and explicit) value.
Hence why my host sister uses products like this, and why cosmetics companies make a killing from various skin whitening creams, soaps, deodorants, makeups, etc.
And pun intended, when I say “make a killing”. Many of these creams and soaps use powerful but poisonous whitening agents– sometimes even mercury. People have asked, Is it worth jeopardizing your life to be “beautiful?” Hard to say, as most people are largely unaware of the potential dangers, and the Cambodian government does nothing to educate the public. Of course, this is part of a wider obsession in Asia and SE Asia with skin lightening. On the whole, Cambodian mainstream culture supports discrimination against “darker” skin while praising “lighter” skin.
As frustrating as it is for me, the [white] observer on the outside looking in, you really can’t help but empathize with Cambodians: their conception of physical beauty is often shaped by powerful external forces that cement age-old appreciations for certain phenotypic features. Cambodia’s major idol at the moment is South Korea (a manifold obsession, really), and eats up its pop bands and soap operas with their light-skinned stars. Cambodian awe of blonde hair (hair bleaching is IN, for the moment) and lighter-coloured eyes appears to be a long-standing relic of colonialism and “Western” influence in general. (It is interesting to note, though, that young Cambodian boys and girls alike seek to imitate big, shiny Korean and Japanese eyes– particularly in anime/manga fashion– by wearing black contact lenses. My students occasionally freak me out when they show up to class wearing them and I’m not expecting it; reminds me of the black, oily virus from the X-Files, frankly.)
I’m not gonna lie: I am quite surprised by how light-skinned most HCMC dwellers seem to be. Women here, even moreso than they do in Phnom Penh, go to extraordinary lengths to cover every inch of their skin when they go outdoors. And yet I detect a similar trend to Cambodia: thus far, whenever skin has been mentioned, the people having the conversation were almost exclusively female.
This is not to say that men go unaffected by this beauty standard. While it doesn’t have nearly the same impact on their everyday lives as it does for women, it certainly impacts the major bullet points of the human social existence: from getting a job (all Cambodian resumes must include a photograph) to being accepted to university to getting married, men also experience discrimination or praise on their skin colour. In wedding photography, the groom is photoshopped to be lighter-skinned, just as the bride is. A lighter-skinned man is more likely to get a job or be promoted over a dark-skinned man (my school is a testament to this form of discrimination). A dark-skinned man, however, will always still be able to get married, whereas a woman’s intrinsic value as a token of status decreases with the darkness of her skin. It is something to make good fun of if a woman has a dark-skinned husband, but it is embarrassing and goes unremarked-upon if a man marries a woman with darker skin than him.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that such superficial phenomena can maintain so much power over society and the individual in Cambodia, but one need only look around to find equally superficial (and equally powerful) examples in American society…or any society, for that matter. All hail the power of sociocultural hierarchy.