Everyone has days where they feel emotionally drained. You may want to speak to a friend but you don’t want to feel like you’re burdening them. Trust me, you are not.

The Matter With My Skin

The thing about Vietnam is that with colonialism by both China and France, and it’s proximity to South-East Asia, Vietnamese people are extremely diverse in physical appearances. Some people look far more East Asian than others, while others look slightly Eurasian. Vietnam, however, like the rest of Asia, is also a society that values fairer complexion despite the diversity in skin tones and physical appearances. The desire for paler skin tones can be seen through the widely available whitening products in stores, the prevalence of skin bleaching, and how covered up the typical Vietnamese woman is when she heads outside. It is a culture that reveals the remnants of a colonial past that prized Eurasian appearances and whiter skin tones, over-celebrating diversity, and inclusiveness.

For myself, being part Southern Chinese/Cambodian in heritage, I was one of those individuals in Vietnamese society that was tanner than most. Growing up tanned in a culture envious of those who are fairer is no easy task. After 20 or so years, I was finally able to be comfortable in the skin tone I was born with. But for the most of my life, being tanner than most Vietnamese individuals have meant that the Vietnamese adults around me treated my darker skin tone as a manner of inadequacy as if I was somehow responsible for the amount of melanin I possessed. It didn’t help that in the sweltering sun of Southern Vietnam that persisted all year round, that I would gain a darker complexion from playing outside with my friends. It was so entrenched in Vietnamese society that it became a manner of ridicule and jokes. Playing power rangers with the children on my street, they would assign me the black power ranger as if to play mockery on my darker skin tone. My family would joke around that I was from Africa when I was curious about the continents of the world. It seemed that colourism was entrenched in an unspoken merit system. Vietnamese people had in regards to someone’s success or likeability, and by being born with a darker appearance, it’s as if I was already given a minus in life.

When I moved to Australia when I was 7, the cold winters of Melbourne kept me mostly inside, covered up. When I got paler through less sun exposure, the comments quickly changed to how much “better” I looked with lighter skin. When I got older and went through puberty and returned to Vietnam as an older teenager, relatives who haven’t seen me in years said that I used to be “ugly and dark,” but now I looked a lot better with a lighter skin tone. It provided my teenage self with the gratification and validation of my skin tone I never received as a child. I felt as though I had finally sought approval about a complex I had never been able to change. The inadequacy remained entrenched in me as I got older, I wore sunscreen every day even in winter (and still do, but now it’s for skin health purposes). I hated going to the beach to tan because I didn’t want to get any darker. I bought whitening soaps from Filipino grocery stores, hoarded whitening creams from Vietnam. I remained deeply envious of friends who were paler than I was, even though I knew how toxic those whitening products could be. It was as if gaining social status and approval was more important than my health. But eventually, I realised, no matter how hard I tried, there was no way I would ever be as pale as those models on the whitening ads blasted on television. I would never be as pale as Korean pop stars, that I would always be seen as inadequate for my darker skin tone. It became that as I moved through life successes, that I realised the only approval, I was still looking for was from myself. The comments have already stopped, and I was no longer chastised for being darker, the only voice that told me I was inadequate for being tanned was my own voice. I had been trained to be my biggest critic by the merit-based Vietnamese community that had raised me. I had never questioned the criteria they had set onto me, the insatiable list of things to be, or how to look. I had simply taken those criterias on as my own criterias, using it to measure my own self-worth. Only to realise much later in life, that such criterias would make me never feel enough as I am. 

The effect of colourism went beyond the Vietnamese community. When I went into University, I learned about the concept of “Jungle Asian.” A concept whereby those of South-East Asian backgrounds were considered uncouth or dirty. I couldn’t help but feel that such a concept was rooted in colourism, the idea that Asians with darker skin tones were somehow less sophisticated than those with lighter skin tones from East Asia. That their lack of refinement meant they were lesser or in-superior. The experience, alongside my long time struggle with my tanner appearance, made me feel ashamed of being Vietnamese. I flouted being half Chinese as if it gave me a symbol status that would make me feel more superior. Only now do I realise how wrong that was, that I would feel so ashamed to be a member of a community so resilient and hardworking, striving to build a community after being devastated by war. It was absolutely so wrong for me to disassociate myself with a community that has raised me and given me values that I am proud of, in fear of being seen as lesser or inferior by the wider community. 

As I got older and became more comfortable with who I am as a person, and with the growing Black Lives Matter movement, I realise how blatantly entrenched and wrong colourism is and how it affected my life. How it was a system designed by European colonisers to oppress and disenfranchise the very people that lived on the land they stole by force. How white supremacy played a role in a culture that valued the European ideals of beauty and those of European heritage. How this affected the local colonised community and how they perceived beauty. I no longer care how dark I get in the summertime, nor do I care about whitening products anymore. Because my dark skin tone is not a matter of being inadequate in a society that tells me I’m not enough. My dark skin tone makes me diverse and makes me who I am. There is nothing wrong with looking South-East Asian; it is a heritage I am proud of, and it makes me a large chunk of my identity. I hope one day the culture will change, but for now, I can only hope to tell other young girls out there worried about the darkness of their skin to realise that they’re enough just as they are, not tanner or paler, but enough exactly as they are.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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