Over the last couple of posts, I have written about issues of identity in Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land South of the Clouds. Today, I want to conclude the discussion that I started last post and look at the rest of “Beautiful,” the chapter where Long Vanh details his relationships with women, focusing on the white woman Melanie first then his relationship with his cousin, Phương. From the outset, Melanie positions Long Vanh as a “beautiful,” “exotic” individual that, while challenging her ideals of white beauty does not obliterate them. She attended California Arts Institute with Long Vanh, and one day, he says, “She approached me one day after class and asked me what I was.” Melanie’s question presents Long Vanh not as a person but rather as an entity, an entity that Melanie cannot define.
Continuing, Long Vanh states, “She said she could see that I was something else other than black.” When he informs her that he is part Vietnamese, she tells him, “No wonder you’re beautiful.” To Melanie and the other white women that Long Vanh dates, his beauty stems from his exoticness, not from his identity and the way he sees himself. Long Vanh falls in love with Melanie, and Long Vanh introduces her to his uncle. Long Vanh’s uncle tells him to teach her everything about Vietnam and his culture.
As their relationship progresses, Long Vanh talks to Melanie about Vietnam, showing her the magazine and newspaper clippings he had in hopes of seeing his mom in one of them. When looking through the images, she pauses on an article featuring “Amerasian” children. Looking at the magazine spread, “Melanie marveled over the pictures of children who had their fathers’ brown and green eyes, but they were shaped in tight ovals; she noticed the tallness they inherited from their fathers, but they kept their mothers’ slender builds.” Melanie, like the security officer in Vietnam, sees the similarities between the children and their parents.
With Long Vanh, she treats him, somewhat, as the magazine spread. In bed that night, she moves her hand over his body, running it over his neck and Adam’s apple before saying, “This is Vietnamese.” Long Vanh affirms her statement. She moves her fingers up to his lips and says, “And your lips and face are Vietnamese.” Again, Long Vanh affirms her statement. She traces his eyes and says, “Vietnamese.” Long Vanh simply responds, “Yes.” Eventually, she asks him. “Is there anything that’s not Vietnamese?” Long Vanh tells her, “The color of my skin.”
Melanie accepts Long Vanh for who he is and loves him; however, Melanie cannot let go of her preconceived ideas about identity. When they begin to talk about the possibly of having children together, she asks, “What do we call them? I mean, they’ll be mixed, so what do we call them?” Long Vanh tells her, “This may sound funny, Melanie, but we call them by their names.” Here, Melanie asks her question based on the adjectives that she uses to define the world (Black, Asian, etc.). She cannot disentangle herself from those adjectives, falling back on them, projecting them onto her nonexistent children.
Long Vanh’s response highlights that the adjectives do not matter. What matters is that him and Melanie will name them, give the children a name. While others may place adjectives upon them, he will not. In this manner, he disentangles himself from the adjectives, allowing the nonexistent children to construct their own identities by giving them their names, sharing his culture with them, and raising them.
Melanie admits that she only asked Long Vanh the question because her sister Beth had asked her if they were discussing it. Beth married a man twice her age, and when people tell her husband that they didn’t know he had a daughter, Beth feels the sting. Melanie says, “She said no matter how many times it happens, it hurts to hear them say things like that.” Beth’s situation causes Melanie to question whether or not she could handle the stares, the comments, the racism. Ultimately, Melanie tells Long Vanh that she sees the way people stare at them.
Even though she tells Long Vanh that she loves him, when she sees people stare at them, she says, “It’s just that some days, some days, when we’re out, I could feel their eyes on us and it makes me uncomfortable.” Long Vanh asks her if she has ever heard anyone say anything about them, and she tells him, “No.” Yet, she continues, “It’ll happen and when it does I don’t know if I can take it.” Melanie is unsure of herself. She is fearful of how overtly racist comments, towards her, will make her feel.
As a white woman, Melanie has not endured racism. Her race has been invisible, and she has not had to even consider what it means to be white. Her relationship with Long Vanh exposes the racism around her, and at the slightest acknowledgement (the stares) she becomes afraid. Her fear is understandable, but when she tells Long Vang, “I don’t know if I can take it,” she shuts down, placing her own feelings above the man she supposedly loves. She also places her feelings above the children that her and Long Vanh may have one day. She exposes, in essence, her white privilege and position.
After their relationship, Melanie can go back to “normal,” ignoring her whiteness and moving about without having to worry about racist stares or comments. She does not have to endure what Long Vanh has to simply because of the color of his skin. She also shows that while she tells Long Vanh that she loves him because he doesn’t care what people think she cannot do the same. In her inability to not care, she sinks deeper into her whiteness, unable to uproot the preconceived notions that she carries within her psyche.
Ruminating about the end of his relationship with Melanie, Long Vanh thinks, “But what about me? Who do I marry or date for that matter? How do I date my own kind?” He asks about his own identity, his own longing to feel whole. Even though Melanie thinks he doesn’t care, Long Vanh does care, and he struggles with finding himself amidst a world that labels him in specific ways. He continues,
Biracial people tend to date and marry whites, or someone other than their biracial make-up, whatever that my be, because they don’t want to be reminded of being denied by their own respective races. They assume if they marry white, for instance, they have elevated themselves past their previous status, half-breed. In that person, a half-breed seeks to become a whole person, which places a great burden the other person may not want to undertake. To marry someone pure is also a way of denying who they are and their pasts.
For Long Vanh, dating Melanie becomes part of his search for wholeness. He continually works to construct his identity, but the world around him holds their own conceptions of him, painting him in specific ways.
There is a lot more that I could discuss, but I will leave it here. In the next post, I will examine identity in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced (2013). 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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