Dana Filek-Gibson resigns herself to being a redheaded, blue-eyed curiosity to local Vietnamese.
In a country where none of the local population shares my physical traits, and only a select few are aware my dress size even exists, I am an involuntary object of public show-and-tell. As a redheaded, blue-eyed westerner, I leave dogs and small children quaking with fear in my presence. I am poked and prodded by adults, who are forever informing me that my hair is ‘yellow’. I have yet to meet an old woman who has not a) offered to find me a Vietnamese husband and b) touched my bum. Both privacy and personal space are things I’ve learned never to expect in Vietnam.
Of course, I am not alone in this. Countless among us have been referred to as ‘fat’, and anyone with excess body hair is like a goat at a petting zoo. These are usually well-meaning observations, meant merely to satisfy an understandable level of curiosity. For this reason, I go to great lengths not to chafe when asked what is wrong with my face (an alarmingly frequent question, by the way).
There are, however, instances in which it is necessary to draw the line — say, for example, when a child tries to touch my eyeball because it’s not brown. Unfortunately, sometimes these lines are as effective as a red light on a Saigon street corner.
“Hi Dana,” my colleague says, slipping into the room to take a seat beside me. He rarely says ‘hello’ on its own, instead always affirming that he knows my name. “How are you?”
“Fine, thanks,” I say, depositing the book I’ve been reading in my bag. I give him my full attention, turning to face his chair. But when we make eye contact his face falls, bewildered and vaguely concerned.
“Are you tired?” he asks, his voice betraying a note of worry.
“No,” I say.
He stares at me long and hard, trying to reconcile what he sees with my response. “You look tired,” he decides, studying me.
“No.” I attempt to control the situation and discourage any further interest in my face. As I said before, this topic of conversation never goes well.
“You got enough sleep last night?” he asks.
I nod. “Yes.”
These are ongoing curiosities: my sleep habits and my appearance when I arrive at work, because they are sometimes the first and only thing we talk about. I am determined to make my face a non-issue. We stare at each other, uncertain of how to proceed.
“How many hours?”
“The normal amount,” I say, too quickly. “Six to eight.”
Nothing about my colleague’s facial expression would suggest he’s satisfied with this answer. I, however, hold up the papers he’s brought and begin studying them intently. We fall silent for a moment, both lost in the awkward in-between space of a conversation cut short. I open my mouth to ask a question, but it does not come out in time.
“OH!” My colleague points an accusatory finger at the plastic cup in my hand. I nearly jump out of my chair. “What’s this?” he asks.
“A coffee,” I say, daring him to return to the subject. He does not. In tense whispers, we talk about work, and soon after he’s off to a meeting downstairs.
Probably meaning to counteract this very conversation, my colleague mentions the following week that I look nice — a simple, genuine compliment. I accept this as a personal victory: for once, no one is wondering what happened to my face.