Ingrained prejudices and stereotypes proliferate in both local and expat populations in Vietnam, but where do they come from? By Lien Hoang and Chris Mueller. Photos by Fred Wissink.
What is discrimination? Is it producing band-aids that match white skin? Is it avoiding goods made in China? Is it feeling attracted to Asian women?
In the 21st century, racism hasn’t disappeared so much as it’s gone into hiding. We don’t live in Graham Greene’s Vietnam anymore. Most foreigners in Ho Chi MInh City, for instance, no longer walk around referring to locals as gooks. But they might encounter an eloquent Vietnamese and dispense of the condescending compliment: “Wow, your English is so good.”
Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a law professor who teaches critical race theory at the University of Iowa, said slights like this add up.
“Racism is very subtle, very institutionalised,” she said in a Skype interview. These circumstances aren’t necessarily an improvement from the past. Back then, “at least when you have obvious racism, you can name it, challenge it, you know what you’re up against.”
Prejudice in Vietnam comes in many colours and has evolved along with the country. The French “mission to civilise” the Indochinese, starting from the mid-19th century, did not distinguish it from other colonisers, who needed to “otherise” subjects to justify their conquests. Hence they turned to skin tones.
“The idea of race is a modern phenomenon,” one that gained currency in the 18th century, according to the 2013 book Race and Racism in Modern East Asia: Western and Eastern Constructions.
Race is a social construct — not because it is a myth (Asians and whites obviously look different), but because humans began to attach non-physical traits to race.
The French and American forces have long gone, but they left behind a sense that, to use Ralph Ellison’s phrase in Invisible Man, white is right. Or at least it’s better. Vietnamese might not come out and say they admire white people, but the sentiment appears when they apply lightening skin creams, pull on socks underneath their sandals, or drive with arm-length gloves.
“All these racial issues have a historical basis,” said David Hardy, who teaches a class on social issues at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
He pointed out that discrimination does not merely place whites above Asians, but Asians above other Asians. Just as colonialists felt superior to Vietnamese, so Vietnamese have dominated the Khmers and Cham, whom they’d defeated in battle, as well as other ethnic minorities. “Racism often comes from victimhood, insecurity,” Hardy said. “If you feel weak, how do you feel strong? You pick on somebody else.”
It would not seem that Vietnam picks on its weak, officially. The state says it prioritises minorities and has been far more effective in promoting ethnic harmony than nearby Thailand, Burma, or Malaysia. Progressive policies here could be the reason that Phan Thi Hong Xuan, vice dean of anthropology at the social sciences university, said about Vietnam’s ethnic groups, “We don’t see a lot of racism.” Instead, the differences are more obvious in “some conflicts over, for example, income disparities.”
The disparities matter because they point to areas where the strong (that is, the Kinh, who make up the vast majority of the population) do seem to diminish the weak. A recent report by iSEE, the Institute for Social, Economic and Environmental studies, said that Kinh look down on minorities for not being as developed, civilised and modern as they. The mainstream press, academic research, and policy documents tend to refer to minorities as backward, unhygienic, uninformed and superstitious, the report said.
This is where issues of race and ethnicity get tricky. Is it racist to say that Kinh are more educated than Khmer? What if one adds that, according to the 2009 census, just 3.2 percent of Kinh have never attended school, compared with 23.9 percent of Khmer? Prejudice is hard to detect because it lives on a slippery slope. School attendance statistics appear objective, but they lead to value judgments about intelligence. And that is further complicated when one confuses race with environment — in other words, saying that a Khmer is not smart because he is Khmer, rather than because he was born into a certain environment.
“It is impossible to say people can’t generalise about any group,” said Onwuachi-Willig, the Iowa professor. She said it’s perfectly natural to make generalisations, and it’s not always a bad thing. But the key is to be aware of the prejudices that might have become deeply ingrained in one’s mind.
“The important thing to recognise is that, even if you’re a good person you might internalise these things,” she said.
Greater understanding helps. Tran Thi Thu Nga, a student at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Education, said she used to see Russians as old-fashioned or backward. She grew up in Phan Thiet, a popular beach vacation spot for Russians. But she has found them to be friendly and modern, ever since she learned their language in school. “It improved my knowledge,” said the 25-year-old, who dressed in pink glasses and rainbow-coloured sneakers.
While the French played a role in shaping 20th-century prejudices in Vietnam, the transient expat population is helping to determine today’s racial attitudes in the country.
Pretty quickly, most expats get used to standing out. From harmless stares and giggling to awkward groping, it’s all part of the experience of living in an Asian country. But it often goes too far. Western teachers have been known to not get hired simply because of their skin colour or Asian heritage. Dark-skinned foreigners are often looked down upon, with some Vietnamese linking their complexions with poverty.
There is no denying that racism exists among Vietnamese, though the reasons behind it differ from those in the west. But what is often ignored, intentionally or otherwise, is the other side — expat bigotry towards Vietnamese. Expats tend to be well-educated, or at least well-travelled, and would never consider making racists comments back home, but what is it about Vietnam that changes that? Frustration is certainly a factor. Whether it’s venting from having a “bad Vietnam day” or something more deep-rooted, making off-handed comments about Vietnamese is often a normal part of expat conversations. Even some westerners, who have lived in Asia long-term, often revel in the freedom that this often politically-incorrect country can afford.
Another reason could be the institutionalisation of racism towards Asians in many western countries.
Tobias Hübinette, a researcher at the Multicultrual Centre in Botkyrka in Sweden, said in a 2009 report that Asians are almost always stereotypically portrayed in contemporary Swedish visual culture.
“Arguably one of the most disturbing and stereotypical themes is the image of the Asian man [as portrayed in media], who either is weak and sensitive, unmanly and homoeroticised, or he is ugly, nerdish and goofy, and in any case utterly despicable and ridiculous,” Hübinette wrote.
He also argues that Asian women in visual culture tend to be “enlarged in an objectifying and fetishistic way”.
This isn’t limited to Sweden. Throughout other parts of the western world, Asians are racially profiled as a ‘model minority’, or a group of immigrants that uses hard work and intelligence in order to assimilate and succeed. Simplifications like this suggest that it’s acceptable to stereotype Asians, which can turn into less-flattering generalisations.
Also take the case of Asian-American NBA basketball player Jeremy Lin, who in 2011 went from being an unknown player to a superstar in a single game. Other than the plays off his name (Linsanity), Lin’s rise to fame ushered in a flood of racist comments that, at first, went largely unchallenged. ESPN, for example, ran the headline “chink in the armor” when Lin started playing poorly.
So when expats move to Asia, they are already bringing preconceptions with them, which perhaps makes it easier to stereotype Vietnamese.
Vu Thi Quynh Giao, who works for a market research company, said she has witnessed numerous occasions where westerners have lumped all Vietnamese together, usually under a negative light.
“My [western] boss at an NGO kept referring to ‘those Vietnamese people’,” Giao said. “It was ‘us and them’, when there were so many Vietnamese employees in the room.”
Van, a research assistant, translator and project coordinator in Hanoi, who asked that only her given name be used, mainly works with western expats. She said she too has dealt with western chauvinism. In her experience, she has noticed that language plays a huge role in how westerners perceive Vietnamese.
“Expats tend to judge people [Vietnamese] based on their English-speaking skill,” she said. “In my case, I often receive compliments on my English, and that equates with being smart, or at the same level with the expats. While in fact I might have ample resources and time to learn and practice English, and those who don’t speak good English are perfectly capable in other aspects.”
She adds that her Vietnamese colleagues are sometimes devalued simply because of their lower English level.
Of course not all expats harbour prejudices towards Vietnamese, but the line between harmless complaints and racism is hard to see.
Hardy, the university lecturer, suggested taking an open-minded approach, whether you believe you have prejudices or not.
“I think shaming people is not the way to go,” he said, because people are more likely to become defensive than to admit they discriminate. “My thought would be to make a friend, friends from other countries. Good relationships are a good way to fight racism.”