My cheeks were red and puffy as my laboured breath smoked the fire of my then burning lungs. We had been running uphill for 15 minutes when we passed a small herd of goats, watched over by a gang of youths. That’s when the yelling started. Shouting out at me in a language I couldn’t understand, their thin fingers pointing and stabbing at the air in my direction, I turn to my bodyguard/running buddy and now, interpreter, and asked, “What are they saying?” He muffled but unsuccessfully hid his laughter, “they are saying, ‘she is so white, like a mountain ghost.’”
It was three weeks into a three month ‘Asian vacation,’ when I first experience what it was like to be a minority. I thought I was worldly enough to avoid any cultural shocks, but that feeling of being ‘other’ was wholly unanticipated. A few weeks after the ‘mountain ghost’ event, I found myself standing under a pastel balloon archway, which opened to an elaborate children’s birthday party. While admiring the archway’s soft shades of yellow, blue and pink, I was approached by the birthday girl, in all her Disney Princess glory. Her small hand touched mine and she looked up at me with large shimmering brown eyes and said “You’re skin is so pretty.”
With the typical image of the ‘bronzed beach babe’ as a symbol of health and beauty, I have never heard anyone describe my pale toneless non-tan as “pretty.” The young girl then stretched up her hand and touched a strand of my blonde wispy hair and said, “I hope when I have a daughter she has pretty hair and eyes like you.” Recalling a lesson from high school biology, I was fairly certain that this was one birthday wish that would remain un-granted. I returned the young girls compliment and with a quick pursed lip smile, she run off to join her other Disney Princess friends.
Interactions, such as this, occurred frequently during my time in Asia. I lost count of how many ads to “lighten and brighten your skin” flashed across newspapers, billboards and television during my vacation. The classic case of ‘you always want what you can’t have,’ girls with curly hair pull out their straighteners and girls with straight hair pull out their curling irons, only in this case, it was an entire country of ‘wanting.’
While the sentiments from the young girl at the birthday party (and the many similar comments I experience,) were complimentary, such interactions were honestly – odd. It felt weird to have the colour of my skin so frequently singled out. When a comment or compliment was made, I simply felt uncomfortable, and often didn’t know what to say in return. I hadn’t done anything to earn this shade of non-tan, and being the privileged white woman visiting an Asian country did little to settle the queasiness that turned my stomach every time the topic appeared. All I really could do in such situations was purse my lips into a smile and said “thank you,” like any good Disney Princess would.