You might think that the hardest part about attempting to communicate across languages and cultures is when something completely baffles people. But the really treacherous bit is when people think that they know exactly what the other person means, and exactly where they are coming from.
I was thinking about that because I read a couple of angry posts triggered by the assumption by many Americans that Asians living in Asia get their skin bleached and their eyes enlarged because they are trying to look like white people. One things that people (understandably) find extremely frustrating is that, if you tell an American that Asians are not doing this because they want to look like white people, more often than not the American simply will not believe you.
Now, I think if you actually take the time to look at, say, over-surgeried Koreans, you won’t think that they’re trying to look like white people.
For example, the eyes may be bigger, but they look “Asian” in much the same way they look “human.”
Plastic-surgery eyes in the U.S. tend to look like this:
Note: This representation is actually far more nuanced and subtle than most eye-lifts.
Plastic-surgery eyes in Asia tend to look like this:
See? There’s a little triangle hacked out of each corner so that you still look Asian! Lo, the artistry! What miracle workers these plastic surgeons are!
So why do Americans make the assumption that Asians in Asian countries who get their eyes chopped up and their skin bleached out are trying to look white? And why don’t they believe anyone who tells them otherwise? Are they big fat racist imperialist assholes?
Maybe. They’re certainly not doing their homework. But they most likely think that because that’s what it means here.
Do you think that when Julie Chen was told, “You’ll never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese,” and got surgery to enlarge her eyes, she was hoping to appeal to Ohio’s large population of anime fans?
When Connie Chung wore her eye makeup like this:
Do you think it was because there was this really popular singer who wore a shit-ton of dark eye makeup three-quarters of the way up to her brow, and Connie Chung wanted to hitch her wagon to that star?
I remember when I was a kid and would occasionally see Asian women wearing a thin line of eyeliner in about the same place Connie Chung’s makeup stops in those pictures. They might have had a natural crease like Connie Chung does, or maybe they didn’t–it didn’t matter, that wasn’t the point. The crease “needed” to be really high, because that’s how (some) Caucasian eyes look. (I think the majority of Caucasians don’t actually have a crease that high up the lid, but what does that matter? This is all about pandering to the stereotypes about how people are supposed to look.)
I haven’t seen the eyeliner thing in decades, but Julie Chen had her surgery 20 years ago, which is a solid 10-15 years after I would have thought that that sort of thing would have stopped happening.
Skin bleaching has a loooooong history in the United States.
Read that advertising copy: Of course it’s not about being ashamed of who you are! It’s about love! and looking your best! and bettering yourself socially! and being all that you can be!
Buuuut…why exactly do you need lighter skin for all that?
This kind of shit has always been dressed up in pretty little of-course-this-doesn’t-foster-racism-you-just-want-to-look-better package. It has always been sold that way in this country–don’t worry, you’re not an Uncle Tom for doing this, you just want to be pretty! As a result, if you tell the average American, “Asians who get their skin bleached aren’t ashamed to be Asian! They’re just trying to be fashionable!” that American will NOT believe you. Not even a little bit.
It’s not because they can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be white–that’s not actually some huge source of identity or pride for most white Americans.
White Pride activists are not too popular for some reason.
It’s because this is something that has constantly been spun and lied about in this country. (The skin’s not even being bleached! It’s being “cleared!”)
If you really want to convince an American that you are incredibly racist, tell them that Asian people bleach their skin to look “high class.” (The American will be thinking, “And not ‘ghetto,’ right?”) It’s been a very long time since tanned skin was associated with manual labor in this country, but refusing to hire people of color because they aren’t “high class” or “fashionable” enough is, unfortunately, something that still happens. So when you talk about light skin vs. dark skin, the average American will interpret that to mean white people vs. people of color. Trying to look fancy by getting lighter? Americans think they know exactly what that means, and it’s not “I’m proud to be Asian!”
I think the other thing that triggers American assumptions is that fact that, at least in K-Pop, there is extensive cosmetic surgery happening to people who are very young. Of course there’s cosmetic surgery going on in Hollywood (whenever I go through LAX I am astonished at the sheer quantity of conspicuously fake-looking boobies), but you don’t usually see extreme surgery until a star gets older and starts to lose their looks. Then they panic and become the ready prey of Dr. This Will Change Your Life (Please Pay Me In Advance).
In K-Pop, however, you’ll see stuff like this:
And the person is in their 20s or maybe even their teens. That much work that early in life suggests to Americans self-loathing on a Michael Jackson scale.
What Americans don’t necessarily realize is that K-Pop idols often don’t choose to have cosmetic surgery. The choice is made by somebody else–somebody who is not going to have to undergo the risks and trauma of medically-unecessary surgery. Making somebody else get the cosmetic surgery is like spending somebody else’s money–it’s always so much easier. But if Americans don’t know much about the industry, the only reason they can think of why a person would get that much work done is that they must really hate themselves.
But I think all this focus on whether or not wanting to have white skin means that Asians want to be like white people distracts from the much larger problem that comes with the lighter-is-better mentality: If you despise dark skin, you’re not going to treat people who have it very well.
That’s the real issue. And the anger at the assumption that Asians must want to be white can be a real baffler for Americans, because it often comes hand-in-hand with the acknowledgement that being dark is often associated in much of Asia with being a lesser person. It comes across as: Of course Asians don’t want to be white! What a horrible and offensive assumption! What a racist you must be! Asians don’t love white people–they just hate black people!
That’s really not going to convince Americans that these beauty standards aren’t profoundly racist and wrong. Especially when they lead to things like a maker of skin bleach in Thailand appearing to section off seats for people with white skin. Those ads were pulled after an uproar, but you know, I don’t think it’s really such a false analogy to liken that kind of “shadism” (a form of discrimination that just so happens to exclude certain racial groups) from straightforward racism.
Company spokesman Bull Connor discusses the issue with protestors.