In the last post, I started writing about the ways that Long Vanh navigates the perceptions that others place upon him as he searches for his own identity in Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land South of the Clouds. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at “Beautiful,” a chapter in the novel where Long Vanh talks about his relationships with white women, specifically Melanie, and the ways that those relationships compounded his thoughts about himself. Throughout the chapter, the theme of Long Vanh’s fractured identity, in the eyes of others, comes to the forefront.
The chapter opens with Long Vanh talking about being cón lai (half-breed). He relies on stereotypes, the misconstrued perceptions of others, to highlight the ways that he does not feel whole. He begins, “They say blacks have big ones, and Asians are small. Because I am half of one and half of the other, women have always jokingly said I must be somewhere in the middle.” Long Vanh plays upon stereotypes in describing how women perceive him, their own perceptions based upon stereotypes over Black and Asian men’s sexual organs that are steeped in racist and colonial thought. Through these stereotypes, Long Vanh makes the point that he has “never been able to fit anywhere” because of the ways that others perceive him.
Part of Long Vanh’s feelings in his relationships with white women, apart from the sexual stereotypes, stems from the fact that they eroticize him. They see him as “unique,” not as a person but as a specimen that they can explore. He states, “Women were always curious about my kind, and they wanted to know what it was like to sleep with someone like me.” For these women, Long Vanh is a “kind,” an entity devoid of humanity that they can use and “conquer.” For these women, Long Vanh “was something of a curiosity,” and after they had sex with him, they could claim, “I’ve slept with one of them.”
The language throughout is important because it highlights the ways that these women view him. While we do not get the sentiment here, it reminds me of P.O.S.’s song “Out of Category” where he raps about his identity and the ways that others place him into specific categories. In the second verse, he raps about relationships with “Rebel yelling girls tryn’a make they daddy pissed.” These women saw him as someone who would piss their parents off, particularly because of his phenotype. This makes him, like Long Vanh, into a “token,” a tool used for the women’s own devices.
Long Vanh does talk about not dating African American women because they view him as “half,” and not dating Asian women because their parents would disown them if they dated him. He says that “Asian parents see it as a stain on the family, a disgrace” if their daughters dated him. However, while they would be disappointed if their daughters dated “blond haired and blue-eyed” men, it would be “good enough.” Even though Long Vanh is more Asian in relation to the white men, “it’s the ‘half’ they don’t like.” Again, people place him in a boxes, denying him any individuality or existence beyond how they perceive him.
In America, he says that women use all different types of adjectives to describe him. They say he is “exotic,” “eccentric,” “curious looking,” and most importantly “beautiful.” With each of these adjectives, the women eroticize Long Vanh; he becomes something a tourist attraction for the women, something of a stop on their way to their “true” loves. When I think about the ways that the women describe Long Vanh, I can’t help but think about Frank Yerby’s comment in an interview with James L. Hill where he said, “I reject adjectives. Adjectives, which are the enemy of nouns, don’t mean anything.” Through their use of adjectives, the women construct Long Vanh’s identity, again denying him the ability to define himself.
Robert L. Reece, in “What are You Mixed with: the Effect of Multiracial Identification and Perceived Attractiveness,” talks about the ways that individuals become exoticized. He writes, “
Though anti-black attitudes associated with racial stratification shape the standards of beauty to fit white people’s typical characteristics to the detriment of black people, some black people and other people of color are still found to be attractive, not because they fit traditional beauty standards but because they deviate from them in ways that give them an air of exoticism such as having eyes reminiscent of an East Asian person or the long, dark straight hair of Native-American stereotypes. This perceived exoticism, though extremely subjective and objectifying, can have material returns for people of color, particularly women, through increased attractiveness (Brooks 2010; Frank 2002). In many cases exoticism is about deviating from the white standard of beauty but not so much as to be perceived as only black.
The women partly view Long Vanh as exotic because they cannot easily place him into a preconceived category. However, his Vietnamese features features make him easily discernible, and these features, mixed with his African American features (notably his skin color) deviate just enough from the women’s perceptions to make him exotic but not completely from white standards of beauty. As such, they seem him as “beautiful.”
For Long Vanh and his cousin, the people they dated would always describe them as “beautiful.” This word implies that the person is attracted to Long Vanh or his cousin, but it also contains an undercurrent of racism. Even though we connote beauty with something pleasurable and pleasing, the use of “beautiful” here hides the ways that the term privileges whiteness, or close aspects of whiteness, in defining beauty. If Long Vanh did not have Vietnamese features, would the women find him “beautiful” or would they see him as merely another Black man?
By labeling Long Vanh in the ways that they do, the women highlight the ways that they construct identity around whiteness, calling him “beautiful” because his appearance does not push too much against white standards of beauty. They view him as “exotic” because they cannot easily position him within a box. As Melanie, who I will discuss at length in the next post, asks him after class one day, “What are you?” While she asks Long Vanh to define himself, her question also asks him to define himself so she can place him into a category that fits within her mind.
In the next post, I will pick up here, looking at Melanie and Long Vanh’s relationship. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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