Hanoi We were all used to seeing facemasks of different sorts, fashions, and colors on the tens of thousands of scooter drivers when we first navigated the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and then later Hanoi. What was more curious in the stifling heat and humidity was figuring out the long arm stockings that were being worn by many women even working as street cleaners. Also baffling was the full head and shoulder coverings on some women on the scooters and elsewhere working in the fields and even as I saw yesterday plying the fruit trade from small row boats in beautiful Ha Long Bay.
What was up with all of this?
Well, part of it was simply explained by an effort to not suck in every scintilla of pollution from the teeming streets, fair enough, but that turned out to only be a small part.
If our sources among the guides and others we queried are to be believed, most of these efforts to cover up are rooted in a strong cultural commitment to “whiteness” in Vietnam. The “whiter” the woman, the more desirable, because it signifies that she is not dark and suntanned from common labor in the rice fields and other working pursuits.
And, if that doesn’t take the issue to extremes, one of our delegation, Juliana Buitenhaus from BCGEU in Vancouver, reported that you had to be very careful buying even the simplest skin products in the local drugstores, since hand lotion and every other product were sold in two offerings, one normal and the other including various bleach and whitening options.
My cultural understanding is not good enough in Vietnam and neighboring Asian countries to fully following the messages about “whiteness” and race expressed by all of this fetish about skin color. It’s fair to call it a fetish because with heat and humidity way over 30 C and one day threatening to 42 C (high 90’s and over 100 Fahrenheit), there’s no question that women are living in a sweat box when they end up encasing themselves in sheaths of materials. Among a relatively homogeneous population does this come from a prejudice centuries old about the Chinese being “lighter” or speak to divisions between the mountain people and the rest of the country?
I don’t know, but it definitely signals that even in a “socialist managed economy” there’s still a lot of discomfort among people about valuing manual labor for women and the battle of the classes is alive and robust in the personal space.