Monday, July 26, 2010

Pretty Women; alternative title: Being White in Asia

First a link to some photos:
Tim's Visit:
Family Vacation:
Cambodia 2.0:

When something is novel it is quite easy to find the beauty in it. When one first arrives in Asia, every ornate Chinese temple, every strange tropical flower, every white sand beach at sunset, is easy to marvel at. It is easy to let the new and exotic capture your senses and take your breath away. It is easy to feel lost in awe, and it is easy to live in each moment, present entirely.

What is not as easy, however, is to let oneself marvel at the 57th ornate Chinese carving, to fully appreciate the scent of magnolias riding on the wind morning after morning, and to stand in complete awed silence as yet another sunset casts a golden sheen over the same white sand beach. But, while the initial sense of overwhelming wonder may fade, it is important, though not necessarily easy, to find an appreciation for the novel that has become the norm. Because who would want to live a life in which the fantastic has become mundane?

It has therefore become my goal, in these last few months in Asia, to find a full and complete appreciation for the 58th and 59th Chinese temples, to let myself feel, taste, and smell each morning, and to be lulled into an absolute peace as the sun bids each day farewell over those Paradise-esque beaches. Luckily, I was blessed to have two sets of visitors for the last six weeks who were, as newcomers, able to marvel and wonder at the beauty of the novel and who were able to re-instill in me the same sense of awe.

To Asians living in Asia the novel and by default the beautiful are not, obviously, the myriad of temples, strange tropical plants, or palm-tree laden beaches. In Asia (more so in countries other than Singapore but in Singapore also) the exotic and beautiful are Caucasian people and by default my family, boyfriend, and I.

At Princeton in Asia orientation over a year ago the directors mentioned, almost as an aside, that we would never in our lives feel or be as beautiful as we would be in Asia. Because Caucasians are a novelty in many places in Southeast Asia we are, according to the rule of novel things, beautiful. If the rule of novelty is not enough to make you believe in this strange phenomenon, perhaps a few examples (and pictures to prove it) will.

Almost every time I go to Sentosa, a major hub of tourist activity with a casino, several beaches, a giant Merlion, and the recently-opened Universal Studios, people ask to have their picture taken with me. More often than not, the people are tourists from remote places in India, Indonesia, or Malaysia who have rarely, if ever, seen a white person. To be completely clear, I am not by any means bragging, because who in their right mind wants their sunbathing constantly interrupted by groups of Indian men desperate for a picture with a white girl in a bikini? In a way, though, they can’t really be blamed for their forwardness, as the only places they have probably every seen white women are porn movies. (The porn industry in rural India is booming, and the majority of porn movies come from the West.) But it is not only large groups of Indian men seeking a photo shoot on Sentosa. I have also been asked by parents to hold small children for a snapshot or to pose with an elderly Muslim woman and her friends.

In Beijing, I sat on a bench near Tiananmen Square for nearly 30 minutes as people lined up to capture a moment on film with me, and several not-so-covert Japanese photographers took my photo on both my trips to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (As a side note, I’d be interested to hear what they tell their family and friends when they are going through their vacation photos. “Oh, this is the random white girl I took my photo with.” I wonder if I’ll make it to someone’s mantelpiece or blog someday?)
So, of course, my sister, mother, and grandmother were no exception to the novelty rule throughout their visit in Asia. They were good sports when the large group of Indian men requested a photo shoot at Sentosa and graciously accepted every compliment they received about their beauty from everyone from my Vice Principal to the street children and masseuses in Cambodia.
Tim was not spared the ego-stroking power of the rule of novelty either. After he paid an afternoon visit to my school, the rumor running ramped among not only the students but also my colleagues was that Ms. Rachel is dating a David Beckham or Justin Timberlake look-a-like. In addition, the lady at my regular nail salon gave me a thumbs-up sign and mouthed the words “very handsome” behind Tim’s back as he was waiting for his massage. I am oh so glad the lady at the nail salon approves of my taste in men. Thanks.

And, as if to drive my point home, this afternoon, while riding home on the bus with one of my students, I noticed a group of elderly Chinese women making not-so-stealthy glances my way and muttering in Mandarin under their breath. Feeling, understandably, uncomfortable I asked my student what they were saying. “Oh, they think you are beautiful, Ms. Rachel,” she said, and then smiled and offered the women the thanks I asked her to on my behalf.

So, for the next few months in Asia, I am happy to submit myself to the rule of novelty.

I have made myself a promise: I will see what I look at. I will recognize the fantastic in even that which has become the norm in my life. I not allow myself to feel that the awe-inspiring is mundane. I will try to find an appreciation for all that is or was once novel to me, because in less than five months, that Chinese Temple on the corner will be worlds away, the morning scent of magnolias will become the evening scent of ever-greens, and the white sand beach will be a vacation destination instead of a home.

In addition, I will gladly take the compliments and ego-stroking without a twinge of guilt…after all, I will probably never be this good looking again in my life.

Two down…six to go.



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