Sunday, July 12, 2009

Catcalling in Tam Dao, Vietnam

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

This will be one of the last in my series of posts from Vietnam, because I have less than a week left! It’s hard to believe – the weeks have tumbled by in a blur, and now I’m struggling to start saying goodbye to everyone I’ve met. This weekend, I traveled to Tam Dao, a town about 60 km away from Hanoi, nestled into the mountains, with my Vietnamese friends Lien and Duong, their friend Phuong, and another friend from the seminar, Nicole. Tam Dao began as a French hill station, but most of the colonial buildings were destroyed during the war, leaving only a dilapidated church perched above the town that no longer seems to be used for Catholic services (the first time I wandered inside, alone, clutching my camera, I discovered a large number of people eating lunch inside – they offered me rice, which was very sweet, but I couldn't figure out why the church seemed to be a happening lunch spot). We wandered the town, saw a beautiful waterfall, climbed to a temple that was at an interesting stage in the process of refurbishment, and lounged in the hotel room, eating mangoes with chili sauce stolen from the hotel kitchen. Tam Dao also seems to be the karaoke capitol of the Red River valley – either that or it’s the only thing to do at night, as we discovered when we unsuccessfully searched for a DVD store – and the sound of very bad karaoke ricochets around the valley until late on Saturday nights.

The weekend was incredibly lovely, partially because Tam Dao seems to be entirely undiscovered by Western tourists. I met two older white women who spoke English and seemed to be from North America (when I asked them where they were from, they said “Hanoi” and gave me an irritated look – God forbid that I should assume that they weren’t Vietnamese), but other than that, I was the only Western person in the town (Nicole is Vietnamese-American, and speaks Vietnamese, so she didn’t really count). At first, this delighted me. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling in large groups of Westerners (i.e. my fellow Princetonians) and although I’ve enjoyed our trips a lot, it was refreshing to be in a place that didn’t blatantly cater to Western tourists – although there was definitely a thriving trade aimed at weekend tourists from Hanoi. But I was also a little disturbed from the moment I stepped out of the hotel, when Nicole and I were accosted from a man from Hanoi, who seemed interested only in talking to me, although his English was practically nonexistent. As I wandered around the town, I noticed that people were staring at me – even pointing at me. When we walked down for ice cream, the woman scooping our cones said something to Nicole, who laughed uncomfortably and looked at me – the woman pointed at my face and smiled maniacally, and Nicole explained, ‘She likes your skin. She says that if she were a man, you would be driving her crazy. She says she just wants to eat you up.”

Fair skin, apparently, is a rare sign of beauty in Tam Dao. This makes sense, because as obsessed with tanning as Western women may be, my Vietnamese friends walk around with umbrellas in sunshine and wear long gloves and long-sleeved shirts when they’re riding their motorbikes, even in 100-degree weather, because they’re afraid of dark skin. I’ve never thought one way or another about my skin – it’s very pale, which is irritating mostly because I burn easily, but not unusually so. I would never stick out in a Western country because of my skin – and in fact, my redheaded and freckled sister is much fairer than I am. I have never, ever thought I would be considered beautiful just because of my skin – but in Tam Dao, I was coveted, objectified, a source of constant conversation and attention. The weekend was shocking for me, simply because it was a very stern reminder of the varying standards of beauty that the world has to offer – and because I have never been the subject of so much unwanted attention.

EW blogger Shannon Togawa Mercer, who is spending the summer in Cairo, posted in June about the harassment and objectification that she experiences in Egypt on a daily basis. I have to admit, after I read her post, I felt a little smug about my choice of country for the summer – Vietnam may have its problems with trafficking, domestic violence, lack of reproductive health information, and general gender inequality, but damn it, I was not going to be catcalled on the street! And catcalls have rarely been a problem in Hanoi – I’ve been checked out a couple of times when I was wearing a short dress, but that’s a risk I would run in the United States as well – most of the attention I receive from men on the street is when they’re trying to sell me a motorbike ride.

Turns out, this is just a privilege of women in urban Vietnam. In Tam Dao, cars full of men would literally slow down to look at me. Every man (and most of the women) I spoke to commented on my unusual beauty – I suddenly became a magnet for creepy guys from all over the valley. In the afternoon, I was sitting outside a café, writing in my journal, when a cat came over to me. I started playing with it, and didn’t notice when a large group of businessmen sat down at the next table – that is, until one of the businessmen was right next to me, picking up the cat and taking it to his table. He then began to beckon furiously, gesturing toward the seat next to him and saying things like “You sit here, beautiful girl!” I put my headphones in and mourned the loss of the cat quietly, but he was back a second later, offering me cigarettes, which I declined. He leaned forward across the table, smiling frighteningly, and said, “You know I love you!” I responded with one of my few Vietnamese phrases – “không cảm ơn” – no thank you. The table of businessmen exploded with laughter, and (worst of all) the cat ran away.

I know that much of the issue in Tam Dao was the fact that young Western women are rare, and I certainly looked very out of place. But I’ve always been confused by friends who say that they find catcalls flattering (mostly because I get catcalled when I’m out jogging, when I know I’m not looking good, unless guys are secretly into the drenched-in-sweat look), and after 36 hours of almost-constant attention to one small part of my appearance, I can say with great certainty that catcalls are not gratifying. They didn’t make me feel more beautiful, or enhance my pride in my skin, because they weren’t about me. I could have been any light-skinned woman in a town where light-skinned women are rare – everything about me could have been different, and people still would have gone out of their way to compliment my beauty and whistle at me in the street. But that doesn’t make the attention more acceptable – it actually makes it worse. It shows the extent to which women’s bodies are public property, and the highlights the horrible fact that standards of beauty are just that, standards. They’re not about the individual, or personality, or even a combination of traits – if you possess one standardized beauty component, like big breasts or a small waist or, in my case, fair skin, everything else about you disappears and you’re subject to endless harassment.

This may sound completely obvious, and that’s because it is, but I’m highlighting all of this because I read essays (or in this case, news articles) way too frequently about how catcalls are a compliment, that it’s a male way of paying tribute to female loveliness. Bullshit. For the Vietnamese women who saw me, I was a reminder of an absurd standard of beauty – for the Vietnamese men, I wasn’t a person, I could have been floating pale epidermis and they still would have yelled “beautiful girl” at me. There is nothing as alienating, in a foreign country, as knowing that your body is public property, for an entire town to ogle.


At July 17, 2009 at 12:17 AM , Blogger Lucas Allen said...

You start out with valid complaints about how people can be rude when they are fascinated with how other people look.

Then I was confused when you strayed from complaining about rudeness (start of 6th paragraph) and started trying to explain why giving attention to attractive or beautiful physical qualities is just bad.

You just seem bitter that people care about how other people look.

It's true that you try to make your complaints seem like something more complex, like when you object to the "objectification" and the use of "standards of beauty."

But if upon entering into conversation with people, you were very often complimented on your intelligence, you would not be writing about how terrible "Standards of intelligence" are.

If, upon entering into conversations, you were often complimented on how humorous you were, you would not have constructed sentences such as "I wasn't a person, I could have been a floating humorous remark, and they still would have yelled "comedian" at me."

Once again, your point about how admiration can become rude seems obviously correct.

But I just spoke with a girl who told me (in a conversation with no relation to this one) that she "likes guys thinking I'm attractive, or nice or both."

Simply because you or I tell another person that they are good looking, does not mean that their beauty is ALL we see, which is why your point about how "everything else about you disappears" doesn't seem very believable (although there doubtless are people who only care about looks).
But to suggest that when all of these men and women call you beautiful, they are doing a very rude and dumb thing by objectifying you, is in itself not very nice.

You just seem very upset, or angry, that anyone cares about beauty. You even struggle to distance yourself from it before deciding that you should attack beauty outright, when you tell us that you've never really considered the potential attractiveness of your skin.

The confusion created by your post reaches a climax in the last sentences, when you try to equate shouts of "beautiful girl" with a woman's body becoming public property. Like someday, somehow, you are going to show us all that we shouldn't care about beauty, that it is wrong and shallow and sexist to care about it.

Lucas Peter Allen

p.s. It was your last two paragraphs that I found the most fault with.

p.p.s. I cannot imagine what mangos with contraband chili sauce must taste like.

p.p.p.s. While barely knowing her, I respect the author for many things, in particular her writing, which reminds me of (and likely had influence on) her sister's. I do not mean to disrespect the author, just to try to show that she is wrong.

At July 20, 2009 at 7:29 PM , Blogger Amelia said...

@Lucas Allen:

Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure if you've ever experienced something like this, but even if you haven't, you should understand that it wasn't just about rudeness, it was power. Even if I was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen, the people in Tam Dao had no right to point to me, shout comments, slow down in their cars to admire me - they weren't trying to let me know how beautiful I was, because they know that there are lots of people with skin that's the same tone as mine - they just don't get to see them on a daily basis. Thus they were objectifying me - treating me not as a person, but a foreign object, something that they didn't need to treat as a human. It didn't actually have anything to do with how attractive I was - a point that I tried to make at the end of my post, so this isn't about attractiveness. It's about the right to encroach on someone else's physical dignity.

I am totally in agreement with you that I enjoy it when people think I'm attractive (or, as your friend said, nice), and I think that physical appearance is very important. But that's precisely why I was so angered by this experience - when the people in Tam Dao said I was "beautiful", they really meant "different." Very few people of Southeast Asian descent have skin as pale as mine, simply because fair skin isn't a common trait. Therefore, it's ridiculous to consider fair skin a mark of beauty, simply because it's uncommon. Like many standards of beauty, fair skin is prized because it's unattainable. Kind of fucked up, yeah?

So I hope you can see why I was not, in fact, suggesting that people in Tam Dao were "dumb" (although, yes, they were kind of rude) - the issue is way more complex than that. There is a big difference between you telling a friend that she's beautiful (or being attracted to someone you don't know), and yelling "nice ass" at a woman on the street. Even if you genuinely think someone has a nice ass, you DON'T YELL IT unless you feel the need to assert some kind of power or control over them, or you feel that they're sufficiently bizarre that you don't need to treat them with the same standards that you would normally apply. Beauty is great, although I think the way we think about it needs to be revised (any reading about eating disorders will convince you of this, if you're not already). What is not ok is using "beauty" to invade, embarrass or humiliate someone else.

At July 20, 2009 at 8:05 PM , Blogger Lucas Allen said...

I'm not sure that i agree that catcalling is about power. I don't know that I disagree either.

So then I think you have two different complaints, but it's hard not to get them confused.

First, that it feels bad to be yelled at, because it lets you know that the people yelling don't really care about how it makes you feel.
-although they might assume that you would appreciate it
-and it seems reasonable that the people calling you beautiful wouldn't think that they were doing harm

But that leads to your second complaint (couldn't think of a better word than "complaint), that standards of beauty make the people that don't live up to them feel bad, such as the women who would never have your wondrous skin tone, or the girls who look at magazines full of waistless, digitally modified women.

I wish I had seen these points (if they are fair representations of your points) more clearly before. I just thought some of your language was ridiculous, and I still do, such as when you write about beauty being used as an excuse to "invade."

As for your second point, I also question whether our ideas of beauty can really be "revised." I don't know why magazines would have the goal of making anorexia attractive, but I can see why magazines would want to reflect the naturally changing ideas societies have about beauty.

anyway I don't think that you are as unreasonable as I did before, so that's progress

At July 20, 2009 at 11:00 PM , Blogger Amelia said...

@Lucas Allen:

Just one small comment - magazines DO have a large vested interest in actively modifying the way that people think about beauty, and making that kind of beauty unattainable - because it will make people buy endless makeup products, shampoos, diet foods, as well as expensive clothes, cars, brands of whiskey - because all of them carry the message that yes, you will be better if you buy his product, because you do not live up to the standards that society sets. Except it's not actually society setting the standards, it's the media, catering to the advertisers, who make the media possible.

This doesn't tie into my point exactly, but it bugs the hell out of me when people say that advertisers just go along with people's ideas about beauty, because that is wrong wrong wrong.

Also: I know some people who don't find catcalling offensive. I am not one of those people. And there is something very different in anyone, even a stranger (which actually happened to me today - an old woman stopped me in the street and told me very sincerely that my outfit was "lovely") telling you nicely that you look good, and some random dude (or woman) yelling "Hey beautiful" or "Nice ass" from their car/front porch/mango stand. In the first instance, I felt appreciated and I thought, yeah, I do look good in this dress. In the other, I felt creeped out and violated - and it kind of bothers me that some women find this to be a compliment, because it seems to me that our culture teaches women to derive most of their main self-worth from their appearance, so it seems odd that they find a rude comment from a random guy to be in some way affirming. But again, that's just me.

I do think that it is about power - whether it's exerting power over a woman in a public place in front of other men, or even a foreigner, as in my case - I'm not convinced that the catcalling I experienced was entirely gendered (although I think men would have it much easier), because it really just continually reminded me that I did not belong in Tam Dao.

Glad we're having this conversation. I hope you understand that this is really not about me being anti-beauty in any way, or against people giving compliments - pretty much all societies make this issue very tangled and complex, and adding foreignness into the mix in a place where foreigners are out of place does not make it any easier to analyze. My language may seem extreme, but it's a reflection of the extremity of these issues, and the extent to which they are not discussed.

At July 20, 2009 at 11:27 PM , Blogger Lucas Allen said...

That's a good point about the motivations of magazines. It would mean though, that the people who promote models who weigh very little, would have to be connected (or be the same people) as those who would benefit from the public buying diet foods, or other weight-loss products.
If there is no connection, I wouldn't be sure whether we could say for certain that the standards of beauty and weight come from advertisements and fashion shows, rather than the trends flowing the opposite way. I couldn't say exactly why our culture would have started seeing thinness as so attractive, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a reason.
It seems like you're probably right though.


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