(By Sughnen Yongo-Okochi)
When Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu went to Vietnam to conduct research for her second book, she had an idea of what the final product would be. She expected to focus on the beauty industry in Vietnam, but a closer examination of every-day life changed the course of her plans. She realized that the far-reaching consequences of the Vietnam War still lingered, and she also noticed that while the effects of the war remained, they were shrouded in political uncertainty, influencing the way that Vietnamese people approached and discussed their bodies. This realization became the premise for her book.
Tu is Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. She is the author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Duke University Press, 2011), winner of the Cultural Studies Book Prize from the Association for Asian American Studies, and runner-up for the Lora Romero Prize from the American Studies Association.
For her second book, Tu originally wanted to understand how global capitalism was transforming Vietnam, a post-socialist state, by looking at luxury consumption. “I wanted to study what people do when they are flooded with a market of luxury goods like Chanel lipstick,” she said. “So what I did was I spent a lot of time interviewing people … and I met with a lot of the cultural and economic elite of the city.”
One of Tu’s oldest friends took her to a spa in Ho Chi Minh City where she worked, and it was there that Tu uncovered a different story. When she realized that the spa was not for elite or wealthy women, but for regular, working-class women trying to care for themselves, this suggested an entirely new perspective.
The Chemical War
The Vietnam War was a years-long conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal associate, the United States. The war, which spanned two decades, was a part of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The war was deadly and chemically poisonous, killing more than three million people, including over 58,000 Americans. Both the U.S. and the Republic of Vietnam militaries used herbicides for tactical purposes at different times. The most rampantly used chemical was Agent Orange, which contains a deadly contaminant called dioxin. The U.S. army sprayed Agent Orange over southern and central Vietnam. Many Americans and Vietnamese are still affected, directly and indirectly, by the chemical.
Dioxin can remain poisonous in the soil for decades and so continues to harm Vietnamese soil today. American Vietnam veterans link the toxin to cancers, diabetes, birth defects, and other disabilities, and according to The Vietnamese Red Cross, approximately three million Vietnamese have been adversely affected by dioxin, including about 150,000 children born with severe disabilities because of its impact.
The Vietnam War has been characterized as one of the deadliest, most controversial, and chemically saturated wars in history. Upon observing the effects of the war firsthand, Tu decided to pursue an entirely different angle for her book, which eventually became Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam.
“I originally thought that I would go to Vietnam and study the cosmetology and beauty industry there, but what I came to find out was that a lot of the history of what the Vietnamese endured during the war was narrated through their skin, and I call these skin memories.”
Skin memories, according to Tu, are the stories told by our bodies even years after events have passed. “Things can linger in our bodies, and just show up in our bodies after a really long time,” said Tu.
Her research in Vietnam enabled her to examine the far-reaching consequences of the war. “Many of these women had earned income from working in hotels, cleaning and doing textile work that was part of the market economy,” said Tu. “They were seeing the effects of the labor on their body and they wanted to use some of the money that they earned to find relief.”
Tu observed that the women she spent time with at the spa were not just using modern skin care products and techniques because they wanted glowing skin; they were using it because they wanted to heal, and many of them coupled the modern techniques with other traditional practices like lining their skin with crushed papaya. This caused Tu to research further the obsession with skincare. She discovered that the emergence of skincare and dermatology really sprung from the war by way of military medicine. “Many of the soldiers who fought in the war developed unsightly skin conditions, and many of these practices were formed then,” she said.
Tu’s book offers an extensive chronicle of how Vietnam’s chemical war was documented on the skin, and how Vietnamese women came to live with the toxic continuity of everyday life in the decades that followed. Tu ultimately makes a case for the Vietnamese seeing in their skin a record of the residues of violence left by U.S. militarism. She argues that militarism has left a destructive condition for others to salvage, while also, ultimately connecting both Americans and Vietnamese in a toxic aftermath.
To learn more about Professor Tu’s research, watch Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam, an event held on April 1, 2021, and hosted by the Asian|Pacific|American Institute.