អំពៅឬរូបរាងរបស់ស្រីស្អាត (ampev nwng ru:p srej s’art:)
Meaning: “sugarcane or (lit. and) the form of a beautiful woman.”
– Cambodian: Khmer by John Haiman
A few months ago I commended a yaeey (grandmother) for her granddaughter’s cleverness. This girl has always been sharp in the classroom and is never afraid to participate. She stands her ground and asks questions instead of immediately acquiescing to any of my instructions. As I babbled, I noted the slack look of disbelief in yaeey’s lined face, but was nonplussed given that most people couldn’t make head or tails of Khmer on the first go. I tried to tie everything together with, “I really like your granddaughter, she is a good student.” Yaeey’s clear eyes made me realize, suddenly, that she had understood everything. However, all she had to say in response was, “But she is so black.”
To have a personal opinion about who and what I consider beautiful was a privilege I took for granted in America. The virtues of empowering young women by praising their aptitude and work-ethic as opposed to their appearance was easily practiced and was rapidly becoming the accepted norm. On the other hand, as the beholder, I was permitted to admire aesthetic, physical beauty in all its forms: the crinkly smile lines around my mother’s eyes, the rich laugh of my rotund theater director, the paper thin skin on the backs of my aunt’s hands. Thus far, this brief Khmer adventure has proven that beauty here is more rigidly defined – what I used to think of as fluid, subjective standards are now neatly outlined in an omnipresent, objective manner. Recently all volunteers within the K10 cohort participated in in-service training during which a group of us gathered to discuss the many ways Khmer beauty ideals intrude into our daily routines, and seemingly into the many Cambodian lives that they dictate. Another volunteer explained Khmer beauty as being strictly physical and if it is to be accomplished, certain characteristics must be achieved. Oddly enough, Celine Dione represents Khmer female beauty ideals incarnate: tall, thin, long nose, big eyes, and very, very white. This is why the likenesses of internationally known celebrities cut from this same cloth, such as Taylor Swift, appear everywhere from the sandwich boards outside the café to the cover of my holiest student’s English textbook.
Despite being the complete antithesis of natural Khmer skin tone, the worth of white skin has become so inflated in this region that the colossal skin-whitening industry has crept into the furthest reaches of rural Cambodia, not unlike the bloom of cancer throughout flesh bleached to excess. As explained in this spot-on article, white skin is associated with affluence and separation from the toils of labor in direct sunlight. This cosmetic industry combined with social pressures has resulted in a mindset that appearance is the responsibility of the bearer and any shade, form, or nationality can be emulated if only one puts forth the effort and money. What is more, these whitening products can be pricey and I know at least one young girl’s decision to discontinue her studies for factory-work was motivated by the fact that her family both endorses the whitening of her complexion but expects her to purchase the products on her own.
Most women in my community will cover every inch of their bodies with some type of garment – flesh-colored stockings and socks, thick and wide knit caps – in order to protect their treated skin from the dreaded sun. A traditional social mandate known as the Chbap Srey (“woman’s law”) described the female period of maturation as chol mlub or “entering the shade.” Since the first day at site, I have been shouted at and frantically motioned to get out of the direct light whenever I walk with my arms or face exposed. Upon looking noticing the disparity between the tone of my arms and shoulders, several aunties lamented that they had failed me – now only my shoulders and the band of white underneath my wristwatch were “American” and/or “beautiful.” The rest of me had become the dreaded kmaow. Black.
As a later post will soon describe, Cambodians pride themselves on eating only the most natural, untreated produce and other foodstuffs. Neighboring countries (Vietnam, essentially) are accused of poisoning their exports to Cambodia with criminal amounts of pesticides and the like. Khmer individuals will proudly offer homegrown produce and announce that it has “no chemicals, no medicine, it’s all natural.” This point of pride became a vein through which I have posed questions in the community about why lathering the skin with chemicals is commendable while ingesting them is not, why a natural diet is prized but natural beauty is considered lazy, bordering on negligent. Brows have been wrinkled, uncomfortable laughter has been shouldered, but always there is an auntie armed with the perennial rebuttal, saar s’art. White is beautiful. Once already I have looked on, pained, as my lovely friend and tutor, Leakhna, has laboriously painted over her glowing complexion with an acceptably white death mask for a wedding we attended. Priya, fellow PC volunteer and one of Earth’s finest humans, once pointed out that the Khmer word for “beautiful” and “clean” are one in the same.
Priya is no stranger to deflating encounters with these superficial decrees. As a tall, striking, Indian-American, these remarks and conversations are incessant in her village. Even when one is relieved briefly from harsh mutterings, there persists the ever present sensation of at least one tenacious pair of staring eyes. The same goes for volunteers Amanda and Shaniqua who are Chinese and African-American, respectively. Throughout the vastly different regions in which the four of us live in Cambodia, it persists that one’s appearance is eternally on the table for discussion – kilos gained, lost, in what places, the shape of one’s nose, eyes, height, breadth, and always, complexion. On the one hand, the occasional shared-laugh among aunties about one’s rice-belly is a pleasant the departure from the constant American conversation revolving around thinness. On the other hand, to walk openly in the street as a foreigner is an open invitation for heckling and pejoratives, something which I admit I don’t have to endure half as much as my three closest friends.
It is so unfathomable to me that anyone should manufacture so great a loss for themselves as to reduce these powerful, compassionate, generous, gentle women to their physical appearance and thus never know the true depth and light they can bring to one’s life. When the opportunity arises within the village, I whip out my phone and champion these women so that my village might sense Shaniqua’s gift for elevating others and seeking new experiences, for Amanda’s humility and humor, and Priya’s boundless, unbreakable heart.
I have to constantly remind myself what it must be like to have only ever known life through the lense of such a small, homogenous state as Cambodia, populated with forms so analogous to my own – bronze skin, straight black hair, slim-boned, button-nosed – and then one day encounter a supposed human who looks absolutely nothing like me. The hysteria upon arrival of extraterrestrial beings as described in many an Isaac Asimov novel comes to mind. As I shared in our group discussion, sometimes my only consolation when repeatedly faced with this useless, cyclic debate within the village is to think backwards about how I and other volunteers will be remembered through our attitudes and actions. And that despite the fact that these days we don’t always feel as though the country we came to represent advocates our same values, we can do our best to create our own America, the one which we all dream can lift up every life regardless of color. When faced with U.S. headlines and figureheads espousing racism and xenophobia, we can hope our villages can remember the example set forth by “their American.”
Our American claimed that in her country, all colors were equally beautiful.
Our American didn’t fear the sun because it touches only the skin and not the mind.
Our American never participated when we chided young girls to cover up or stay indoors.
Our American encouraged us to look joyful when we felt so, even though smiling narrows the eyes.
Our American valued my words and mind, even though my family values only my appearance.
Our American would look at two women, one lighter and one darker, and insist that they were equally miraculous.
Grampa, it is one of the great fortunes of my life to have been raised with so many kind adults as some of my closest companions, adults who let me wear princess costumes and ratty hand-me down Power Ranger shirts in equal measure, who, if they commented at all, commended my ability and strength and not my weight or hairstyle, who let me play in the dirt if it meant that one day my self-worth would become so untouchable that I might elect to live in a foreign place with the conviction that I could help elevate all girls and women in the very same way.
Thank you, Grampa, and thank you, family.
I love you all the time,
P.S. Statements from the Ladies! (Shani, Priya, and Amanda.)
Shani: It has been rough being a women of color in another country because the way I look isn’t beautiful to them, I am a black women with locs and that is not what they consider beautiful! I was hurt the most my health center supervisor asked me if I wanted to be white. I later found out she wanted me to cut my locs off because she thought my hair would grow out straight and look like her hair. I explained to another coworker my hair will never be straight like hers if I was to cut off my locs (which would NOT). My hair would just be an afro! But all in all, I have let my personality shine brighter then my beautiful brown skin and my gorgeous kinky locs!!
Amanda: I know that being integrated is the whole goal here, but there are times, because I am Asian American, that I feel as if I have to fight for my respect. I’m told I’m foreign, but that I’m not a “real” American. It took time to be fully proud of my Chinese heritage because of mass media in the US and it breaks my heart to see Cambodians fall victim to the same marketing I once found myself in as a teenager. However, I think I’ve felt the most beautiful when I was able to just be myself and have others accept me as me. I feel beautiful when I’m able to laugh and be comfortable sharing stories with others.
Priya: It is incredibly painful to live in a country where my most defining characteristic is something that I can not change about myself. But what is more painful is to know that we live in a world where a person’s worth is still largely judged by their external features. I think the day-to-day experience of challenging the Cambodian beauty ideal can be very disheartening and frustrating but if I can spend every day showing my students that I will never straighten my head of “hair enough for nine Cambodian women” (as my host mother puts it), or lighten my ugly-Cambodian/exotic-American toned skin, I will always be able to show them that human worth can also be measure by the resilience of our minds, the love in our hearts and the magic in our souls.