Punk Planet 36 (March/April 2000)

by mimi thi nguyen

Browsing through cardboard boxes, I bought a library discard called Customs and Culture of Vietnam by Ann Caddell Crawford, published some time in the early 1960s, a sort-of guidebook. (I always buy this stuff, old LIFE magazines with “exposes” on Viet Nam and garishly colored desserts, Third World travelogues with “tips” for dealing with “the locals.”)

Apparently “comprehensive and authoritative,” the book is typically full of pastoral descriptions and shoddy pseudo-anthropological observations, snippets like, “The first things that newcomers usually notice in Vietnam are the smiling faces of countless children, and the lovely fragile-looking women in their flowing dresses reminiscent of butterflies. The people are a gentle type who are shy, yet can be outgoing with foreigners, especially Americans.” The Vietnamese are thus described as docile and submissive, never mind the lengthy history of native Vietnamese struggles to oust the Chinese, French, and Americans from the region, of course. (I roll my eyes.)

I flip to another chapter, the section on “costume,” in which Crawford writes at length,

The women of Vietnam have, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful national costumes in the world. It is called the ‘ao-dai’. The over-dress is form-fitting to the waist, with long tight dresses. At the waist, two panels extend front and back to cover the long satin trousers underneath. Correct fit dictates that the pants reach the sole of the foot, and are always slightly longer than the dress panels. Occasionally lace is sewn around the bottom of each leg. Tradition has kept the color of the pants of the ao-dai to black or white.

When a woman sits down, she takes the back panel, pulls it up and around into her lap. When riding a bicycle, they often tie the back panel down to the back fender to keep it from getting tangled in the wheels. Often, girls can be seen riding along the streets of Saigon on motor bikes with the back of their ao-dai flying loose, causing foreigners to comment that they look like butterflies, and beautiful ones at that.

Many Americans have become so fond of the dress that they have some specially made to send home to their families. They make excellent hostess gowns.

It bears mentioning again (or more explicitly) that this book was written at the height of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and that the author’s husband was a U.S. Army officer assigned to the Military Assistance Command in Viet Nam. The appendices include “Useful Phrases in Vietnamese,” some of which are too obvious: “Show me some identification,” “The wound is infected,” and “They are surrounded.” These are, after all, the material and historical conditions that made it possible for suburban American housewives to sport the next new “exotic” look at their dinner parties, “reminiscent of butterflies” while serving casseroles and blood-red meatloaf.

Fashion has politics and (sometimes-bloody) histories, you know.

::

I lent my computer to Karina to finish a paper on the “mammy” figure as she’s produced and circulated as a tourist commodity in Cuba, making her return as a nostalgic and immensely popular “kitsch” artifact of Cuba’s sugar plantation past. Karina showed me pictures she took in Cuba of “mammy” figurines and cloth dolls dressed in colorful fabrics and overtly over-endowed –occupying gift shop shelves next to porcelain white baseball players. practically the only black bodies you’ll ever see (officially) in the tourist sections of Havana. (And never mind that most Cuban baseball players are black or mulatto.)

The corollary to the “mammy” is of course the “Jezebel,” who also makes an appearance as a painted statuette — enormous bosom and buttocks, black as coal with thick red lips, in the picture Karina shows me she is a money bank. You put your pennies between her breasts or booty and watch them disappear. (It is an overt reference to the illicit sex industry that operates for the benefit of the mostly white European tourists to Cuba.) In Cuba the “mammy” even has a name — Inez, I think– and her own long history there. In the photographs Karina took it seems that “Inez” is everywhere, and I wonder what the meaning of her popularity (and her commodity production and consumption) is.

It’s an odd, wrenching collision between history, amnesia and transnational capitalism — how do you look at a rag doll, made over in a gendered caricature constructed out of slavery, sitting on a shelf in a tourist shop and not be struck by its totemic rememory of ships, sugar, and servitude?

::

I spend yesterday afternoon in a cramped doctor’s office in Oakland’s Chinatown, straining to hear the words coming from the television, not being able to read cartoon lips. Mark and I wait over an hour before he is called, reading National Geographics and sitting on slated wooden chairs. After a while the elderly Asian couples sitting with us no longer stare, having returned to each their own tasks (nagging, arguing, reading newspapers). One old man grabs a copy of W magazine to lay across his lap. I watch as the cover girl directs her glossy pout at him invitingly, staring unblinking through thick eyelashes. (Her hair is artfully tousled.) From out of his pocket he produces a pair of nail-clippers, and begins trimming his nails over her bared white cleavage.

Mark shows me a full-color photograph from a National Geographic of convicts (all black) with bags slung over shoulders in contemporary Louisiana, on work-detail in what looks to be a field, or farm. “They’re picking cotton,” he says grimly. We can’t help but think backwards, recalling plantations and also-imprisoned black bodies bent over white bushes.

Is history ever just “past,” really over? Recognizing the specific social circumstances, the ideological development and material differences hardly breaks the thread — just splits it, like a net cast wide.

I can’t think in anything more than fragments lately. I’m unfocused and in disarray; I sit down to try to bang out one of the academic abstracts and essays I’ve got due in a week, two weeks, but nothing comes to me but these small punctures in my daily routine. For instance: a friend e-mails me a call for papers for a panel on women and trauma, and I come up with lists like this one.

And how many incidents like this do we encounter everyday? Do you even notice anymore, what sociologist Avery Gordon calls the “phantoms of modernity’s violence”? (They are everywhere if you allow yourself to notice.) Did you think that the legacy of slavery was all but disappeared? Of war, human bondage, invasion or assault? There are at least a hundred cases on the books of Cambodian refugee women who have been struck blind out of thin air; health experts, finding no physical explanation, can only conclude that the blinded women are experiencing a psychosomatic reaction to the atrocities they witnessed under the Khmer Rouge. POW/MIA advocates continue to look for the phantom bodies of wronged patriots in Southeast Asia even while thousands of veterans are homeless “at home” in the United States, sleeping under freeway overpasses and in doorway stoops. States build memorials to some genocides and not others; grandmothers reveal tattooed numbers beneath polyester blouses; a woman pulls her coat tighter and walks a little faster, keys clutched in hand, passing a particular alley in downtown Seattle; tango fever sweeps the nation while the U.S. role in Argentinean dictatorships and mass “disappearances” is swept under rugs; “Indian” mascots are claimed as common American heritage even as Native protesters are spit upon outside the gates.

We are so haunted; we are so used to it.

And a black girlfriend of mine offers a bag to an older white male bookstore customer, par for course in retail cashiering. He says in response, “No, but I could use a couple of Nubian slaves to carry these books out to the car.”

Overwhelmed, still I’m a packrat: I catalogue every small instance, every stumbling bump I can. I try very hard to let every one of these ghosts inhabit my memory for at least a little while, if only to remember where they came from and that they still exist, as injustice also does.

::

Note to letter writers, et al. — There is an enormous difference between critiquing a social and structural logic that abstractly privileges some bodies over other (such as, say, heteronormativity or, in the shorthand notation, “straightwhiteboy” hegemony) and making sweeping generalizations about the “character” of all individuals perceived as belonging to an identity category or group (“lesbian feminists are mean”).

Note to “what about unity?” inquirers, et al. — What kind of unity is bought at the price of forced silence, policing, and exclusions? (It’s so old school anyway.) Whose “common good” is served when we don’t examine the politics of our rhetoric or our strategies? It’s not a nuisance we can put off until that mythic “after the revolution,” but a task that has to be constantly offered as a challenge to how we imagine we might “do” politics. Can we really avoid that kind of critical self-reflexivity by claiming to be “caught up” in the moment, that the times are too urgent to allow for an accounting of how we couch and conduct our actions? The race and class-based movements of the Left too often continue to insist that “we” need to close ranks against an imagined “outside” — and all of a sudden I’m “outside” because I don’t want to coalition with overtly homophobic nationalists or romance the ghosts of ’70s radicalism. A student in my women’s studies class wants to know if I think if women ran the world, there would be no more war. Mentioning Margaret Thatcher, Janet Reno, and Madeleine Albright, I point out that women can and do violence to other women in the context of uneven race, class and international relations. I’m not going to make another list here, but can we afford not to subject our politics to scrutiny? It’s hardly too much to ask that we articulate our goals under pressure from each other in order to ensure that we democratize our politics.