I tried so hard and got so far, but despite my best efforts, I am still a judgmental American. Maybe it’s human nature. Maybe it’s American nature. Maybe it’s my nature. Either way, I have found myself judging the norms of other cultures, and I have moderate to severe shame because of it.
I consider myself a pretty liberal and open-minded person. My values and beliefs fall far to the left side of the spectrum, and I have always worked hard to keep an open mind. Yet, when I go abroad, I still catch myself judging some of the differences in other cultures.
You don’t have to spend much time in Asia to see how fervently white skin is valued. It’s common to see women walking around with umbrellas on hot, sunny days or covered head to toe in clothes. At first, these actions might be taken for a health-conscious attitude. They’re simply protecting their skin.
However, step into any drug or makeup store, and you will see nearly every skincare product is combined with properties that whiten the users’ skin. This phenomenon initially caused me both confusion and frustration. I needed moisturizer, and I couldn’t find even one that wouldn’t whiten my skin. I am already a pasty, freckled white girl, I don’t need any help.
My frustration quickly turned into judgment as I questioned why someone would want to bleach their skin in the first place. (I know skin whitening is not a foreign concept in America, but it does not exist nearly on the level that I have observed in Asia)
Eventually, by chance, I somehow found the exact same moisturizer I used in America, but even that had been modified to fit the Asian market. The fine print informed me it now had the added benefit of whitening your skin. In fact, most of the products we are familiar with in America now double as a skin whitening treatment in Asia.
The reasons for skin whitening are complex and extend far into East Asian history. As long ago as the Han Dynasty in China, tan skin was associated with lower-class field workers while pale skin was correlated with wealth and prestige. These associations have continued to ripple through other East Asian countries for thousands of years.
As for why these norms still exist today? Some people infer that because western culture holds much of the wealth of the world, and is populated by mostly white people, the same effect is taking place. Standard (white) “beauty” is still being associated with the wealth and privilege held by predominantly white nations, so the desire to be pale remains. Others say it is both the influences of history and western culture. However, I am obviously not an expert, so I leave you to your own evaluations.
Regardless of its history, I spent most of the days following my moisturizing debacle riding my judgment train. I’m not proud of it, but I am also human.
It took me far too long to realize that Americans aren’t any better. The only difference is Americans work hard for tanner skin, not whiter skin. We go lay outside with oil on, use lotions that darken our skin and pay money to be put in a tube that does the sun’s work for a deadlier price. We see airbrushed models on billboards and go to similar lengths to assimilate to a standard of “beauty” we believe we should exhibit.
Obviously, America’s animosities towards someone’s skin tone are much more complex and serious than just the simple actions listed above. So complex, in fact, that I am not going to attempt to articulate them in this short piece. It also goes without saying that not everyone conforms to these behaviors, but enough people do that there are billion-dollar industries built around maintaining these “beauty” standards.
THE POINT IS, I was judgmental, and I’m annoyed that I was judgmental. Despite my best efforts to have an open mind, I failed (what a concept). I am still working to withhold judgment of things I am unfamiliar with when traveling. You know, “seek first to understand” and all that good stuff.
A large part of understanding a culture comes through self-education. Lately, I have been more diligent in researching a country’s history so that I can better understand how and why their norms evolved. I’ve already learned a lot and have recently become kind of obsessed with Vietnamese History.
No matter how hard I try, I will fall short in understanding why some things are the way that they are. For example, I still find myself fighting the urge to flip a table when I see people leave their trash everywhere after exiting a restaurant or coffee shop. Apparently, it’s normal, and employees don’t appear upset by it, but it KILLS me. I mean WHO throws sunflower seeds ALL over the floor of a restaurant then walks away?! I just don’t get it, and it’s possible I never will. But I don’t think that makes me a bad person. It just makes me a judgemental person who likes to clean up after herself.