Quang Tri (17th Parallel, Vinh Moc Tunnels, etc.):
And by Adventure Time I do not mean
I'm talking about real life AWESOME ADVENTURES IN VIETNAM :))) Here's a highlight reel of some of our experiences (read dem captions for more of the good deets).
Quang Tri (17th Parallel, Vinh Moc Tunnels, etc.):
Hue (plus Elephant Springs):
Ha Long Bay (plus a little bit of Hanoi):
đẹp = beautiful
đẹp trai = handsome
dễ thương = cute
Yet just like Western perceptions of male beauty, it is undesirable for a man to be đẹp or dễ thương. This is one of the first lessons I received from several Vietnamese roommates at our welcome dinner. And it really got me thinking about the role of physical appearance and beauty standards in Vietnam and the US.
In many daily exchanges with the Vietnamese, there is a strong aversion to male femininity, which welcomes teasing and ridicule. But there is some complexity to this because beauty standards are not dictated from a single source, but an amalgamation of cultural factors and global trends. While it is easy to say that things have been "westernized" or "Americanized" in Vietnam, it is actually also influenced largely by its neighbors of China, Japan, and Korea, among others. So when it comes to male beauty, Korean ideals of softer facial features and less-traditionally masculine (from an American perspective) fashion and hairstyles has some influence. I watch as my roommate applies foundation cream to his face and tell me that I need to learn how to wear cosmetics because my skin is so bad. I know that he is just joking, but just the thought of men wearing makeup in the US is almost unfathomable outside of the entertainment industry. And indeed, most Vietnamese men still do not wear cosmetics, but it is more common to see here if I can only tell from social media and everyday interaction. Just search "đẹp trai" on Google images and you'll see what I mean.
There is also the issue of skin color. In Saigon and Quang Tri alike, we would see posters and stores plastered with the same phrase: "Ideal White". Some of us Americans were actually a little shocked when we saw this, since we were taught that we are supposed to celebrate diversity in skin tone and never elevate white skin in superiority. But we stared at those words and the glowing Caucasian model smiling underneath them. Our roommates would rave about the effectiveness of "bb" cream, which turns your skin a pasty pale and protects it from the sun. When we went to the beach, all of the Americans would lay out in the sun, getting the ideal "healthy" tan, while the Vietnamese roommates would sit in the shade and dab on more sunscreen and bb cream. Of course, I understand that Asian cultures have valued pale skin for centuries in part because it is associated with royalty, whereas dark skin is associated with the rural poor working out in the fields under the sun. In many ways it seems that beauty is defined by what is difficult or rare to obtain, be it Vietnamese desiring white skin and Caucasians desiring tan skin. It just sometimes boggles my mind when I see dozens and dozens of women on their motorbikes whizzing around the city covered head to toe in 100 degree weather because their skin must remain untouched by the sun. Now, it's true that the sun is scorching and dangerous in Vietnam, so their attire may be more practical than aesthetic. I ask my roommate if they find it a little too stuffy to wear in the steamy weather. He responds, "Oh they're sweating like crazy...but it's better to get hot than to get tan."
Physical size and body shape is yet another factor in beauty standards. When we visited Hue, our tour guide told us about the ideal Vietnamese girl possessing a body shaped like the country of Vietnam itself: long, thin, curved, etc. While it made us all a little uncomfortable, we accepted that this is how women were expected to look in Vietnam. (Aside: this is not even to mention the expectations that women be dainty, gentle, etc.) When I made my students do introductions for ESL class, several girls even felt the need to explain that they were "fat" because of x or y when I never asked them to talk about their physical appearance.
IDK how much is genetic and how much is environmental, but the average Vietnamese person does tend to be a lot smaller than the average American. I'll be honest and say that on first impression, I couldn't believe that our Hue University roommates were the same age or older than us. Kayla told us that Jared, our beefiest member of the DukeEngage crew, is like a giant compared to what Vietnamese are used to seeing. Even myself, a size small in the US is a size extra large here. When Thịnh and I went shopping in Hue, I had to keep going up in size to find clothes that would fit. (Aside: if you ever go jeans shopping, bring Thịnh because he will check every contour and wrinkle, make you squat, tell you to turn and walk, and judge until he squints a little and says it's the perfect fit.)
My most vivid shopping memory was at a men's clothing store (single-gender stores seem to be more common) in downtown Hue. I wanted to find a shirt with a Chinese-neck collar. First off, Thịnh told me to stay quiet so the shop workers wouldn't find out that a foreigner was going to buy something and mark up the price accordingly. Well, that failed, and when I had to try something on, the store worker told me to just change in the middle of the store. I was a little surprised, but didn't think too much of it...afterall, maybe this was considered normal in Vietnam. So I took off my shirt and heard a few "oh's" as I struggled to fit my arms through the sleeves and wrap the new shirt (size large) around my back. Thịnh later told me that some of the workers were like, "cơ kia", which means "that's muscular". It was just a strange experience because it would never happen in the US. Back home, I'm scrawny like a shrimp, and everything I'd try would be too big and loose. The store worker then asked me (Thịnh had to translate of course) if I would be a model for the store and proceeded to make me try on like 10 more outfits, some of which were obviously a little too tight around my chest and limbs. It was definitely awkward, especially when at a certain point everyone in the store was staring, but ngl it actually felt kinda flattering since I'd never been considered big or strong in my life up to this moment.
Moving on, regional differences also seem to influence perceptions of attractiveness. For example, North Vietnamese boys are viewed as a lot more handsome than South and Central boys. However, they are also stereotyped as arrogant. (PS: Vietnamese education never teaches about social prejudice, stereotypes, etc...the PC culture is practically nonexistent, but that's a topic for another blog post.)
I know that in America we love to bicker about whether someone's "hot" or not (*cough* Hilary Swank), but I've always thought that attractiveness is more or less universal. From my experiences on this trip, I've learned that this could never be more false. Comments thrown around about cute boys or pretty girls revealed to me that every culture (and person within that culture!) has their own conceptualization of what is physically attractive. So I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
Phòng 3 = Room 3, a.k.a. Thịnh and Jason's ESL classroom
Thinh and I have a great bunch of kids. We stepped foot into Phòng 2 with initially very low expectations for their English abilities. But we soon realized that they are actually a very bright, motivated bunch of young adults. We teach mostly rising high school seniors. We figured that these older students would have the best grasp of English compared to the lower grades, and since they are (relatively) more mature and have to prepare for college entrance examinations soon (which include an English section!) they would be most willing to learn and cooperate.
Important to note about the English education system in Vietnam is that students begin learning English as a requirement from an early age, and these students often have pretty strong reading and writing skills by grade 12. But opportunities to practice real-life communication in English are lacking. And that's where we step in. While we don't have to worry about teaching tons of English grammar and vocab since they already receive that in school, we do provide them real interaction with native English speakers to improve their speaking and listening skills. It's comfortable knowing that we can have a real tangible impact on their English skills, which they need for college and beyond. In Vietnamese society, English communication skills open a lot of doors whether in banking, teaching, business, tourism, etc. So whether it is fair or not, English proficiency is often a key ingredient in social mobility and providing a better life for themselves and their families.