Eye of the Beholder

2366140013_fbb536da3a_mSeven out of ten.  That is what I would give you.  That was how I was rated based on my looks by a close friend.  My attractiveness quantified in a lonely number.  The scale ranged from one to ten – one having a face that would grace Elm Street while ten could launch a thousand ships.  I was initially shocked at my rating but then it quickly evolved into curiosity.  How did I get a seven out of ten?  Who determines this numerical ranking?  And more importantly, is there an appeal system?

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At first glance, seven is a pretty good score.  If the average is five, then a seven is above average right?  If you think so then here’s something to think about, when you received a 70% on a test, did you jump up and down, wave your hands in the air, shout at the top of your lungs to how happy you were?  Maybe, if you were a failing student. However, most average people would be disappointed.  I remember a 70% as being the lowest D you could get without failing.  A 70% to me is like being the second to last kid to be picked on a team.  You are not the last but being the closest runner up is not very comforting either.

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Whenever something is quantified, in this case, beauty, it implies degrees, pluses or minuses if you will.  If you are rated as a one, you are considered ugly.  Interestingly, even the word ugly is ugly.  A score of one means all the minuses are stacked against you.  On the flip side, coveting a ten would be like winning € yea you guessed it, a beauty pageant.  To calculate your rating, you add the pluses and subtract the minuses.  In theory, the end tally determines your attractiveness – a high score gets you roses and a gleaming crown, while a low one leaves you with a paper bag and a broken mirror as parting gifts.

But what gets under my skin is how subjective judging beauty can be.

What is attractive to one may be repulsive to another.  How can this be?  I believe we find beauty in others what we feel are lacking in ourselves and vice versa for what we consider as ugly.  If others lack the qualities we possess, we, in return, deem them as unattractive.

The perfect body, chiseled facial features, thick luscious hair, and luminous teeth are all qualities traditionally associated with beauty.  If we are missing these features but see them on others, we instantly comment on how beautiful those features are.  It is what I call the I wish I had syndrome.  I wish I had your hair it is so voluminous and shiny.  I wish I had your body it is so tone and fit.

The things we demote as ugly fall under the At least I don’t have category.  At least I don’t have bad teeth because bad teeth are ugly.  At least I don’t have bad skin it makes you look unattractive.

What complicate the beauty equation are the differing views from different countries.  The standards are vastly different, as are the inhabitants.  More often than not, an agrarian society tends to adopt a utilitarian concept of beauty.  Sure, Olga is blond, thin and pretty but can she give birth to five children and make goulash?  Yes, Minh is tall and thin, but what happens when the ox is sick, can he pull the plow?

Beauty is definitely a cultural aesthetic.  In African cultures, wives are sent away to fatten up before they are married while indigenous, South American Indians insert large disks inside their lips to stretch them.  Due to an emperor’s extreme foot fetish, Chinese women voluntarily bound their feet.  All this for the sake of beauty with each group adhering closely to the standard set by their cultures.  It is not until a stranger tells them that fat is ugly, disfigured lips are repulsive or that misshapen feet are unappealing do they began to question their culture’s definition of beauty.

Growing up, I was a happy go-lucky kid who liked to smile and laugh.  Never one to shy away from conversation, I love to talk and make new friends.  I was a normal looking kid except for one teeny-weeny flaw: my teeth were discolored and crooked.

My teeth were overcrowded – I had more teeth than mouth.  My canines, embedded higher than my other teeth, protruded forward leaving me with a vampiric smile.  Meanwhile, ruff housing and bumping into the edges of tables and walls successfully knocked several upper and lower front teeth out of alignment.  My teeth resembled the disjointed keys on a broken down piano.

The color of my teeth was also another issue.  They were stained from taking tetracycline anti-biotic as a child.  The medication washed a dingy yellow-gray film over them.  Most of the stain was polished away when I began brushing my teeth with baking soda, but a noticeable stripe still lingered along the center.

Even with the state of my teeth, I didn’t think there was something wrong.  Vietnamese culture views teeth as nothing more than necessary masticatory instruments.  It didn’t matter if your teeth were even or crooked, white or yellow, what mattered was that you had them.  I maintained this indifference until I started middle school.

My attitude changed one cold, gray morning while my sister and I were waiting at the bus stop with several other kids.  We were laughing and carrying on when a girl looked at me and then leaned over to her friend and whispered something in her ear.  They started to giggle.  Typical girl behavior I thought.  But then my sister pulled me close and said in a low, desperate whisper, Close your mouth, they are making fun of your teeth.  My sister had already experienced their ridicule so she knew the target to their laughter.  I, on the other hand, was clueless but my cluelessness was shattered after that incident.  On that fateful morning, those girls handed me a forbidden fruit and I, with my crooked teeth and all, took a big bite.

Afterwards, I became so self-conscious about my teeth that I shied away from smiling or covered my mouth when I laughed.  I pleaded with my parents to get me braces.  My parents, unsurprisingly, did not see anything wrong with my teeth.  Why do you need straight teeth?  You are lucky to have so many.  Your cousins in Vietnam would love to have your teeth. They continued in this vein while I calculated how long it would take for me to learn sign language since I would never open my mouth again.  In the end, I finally got my teeth whitened and straightened but only after I finished college and when I was able to afford it.

I often reflect how much my uneven, discolored teeth affected my self-esteem.  I allowed one person who laughed at me, who pointed out my flaw, who thought I was ugly to change the way I looked and felt about myself.  It’s so easy to allow other order viagra no prescription people to influence how we look and feel.  We fall prey to their judgments believing them to which is better viagra or cialis be so true that we make them a part of our mantra.  Over the years, I thought I had developed an impenetrable armor deflecting any negative comments that impacted my self-esteem.  Jabs about my sloping chin, cracks on my slanted eyes, slights on the size of my nose only fortified my armor.  I had grown to appreciate what I called my character traits.

But history has a way of repeating itself and I find myself once more being judged on my appearance.  No matter how much I thought I’ve moved forward, I still find myself regressing back to that little boy standing at the bus stop.  But something had changed – the little boy suddenly wasn’t so little anymore.  I had grown considerably since that incident.  It’s true others may rate me as a seven out of ten but it no longer mattered.  I’ve learned over the years that it’s not important how others see me but how I see myself,  whether it’s a seven, a five or even a ten.  Once you start to create your own values, you’ll stop using other people’s as your own.

Seven out of ten huh?  Fine by me.  Just means the rest is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

June 26, 2009  2 Comments

Agony of Defeat


This is where it happened.

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What happened, I asked?  Did something bad happen?

Yes. Somebody died here.

Who died?  Who got killed?

With deep hesitation, she looked at us and said, Your grandfather.

My brother and I stared at her in disbelief.

?  Our word for mother in Vietnamese.

This is where the loving man I knew as a child died and, here in his place, a sad, remorseful man was born. This is where the Viet Cong had your grandfather brutally beaten.

During the war, the Viet Cong illustrated their might by having respected members of the community publicly beaten.  As if the beatings were not humiliating enough, the Viet Cong forced neighbors to carry out these beatings.  With the bravado of militant gang members, they effectively demoralized the village leaders.  Once the leaders were subdued, they knew the people would be easier to control.

In the early 1950’s, the Viet Cong began to dominate the northern provinces.  They particularly targeted small local villages where the weak defenses made them easy prey.  My mother’s hometown of Thien Hien was no exception.  After squelching all resistance, the Viet Cong began to select distinguished village members to harass.  In my mother’s poor village, my family had some modest repute.  My grandfather was the son of the village’s equivalent to a mayor.  His status made him the prime target of the Viet Cong.  It was only a matter of time before they made an example out of him.

My mother remembers the day the Viet Cong invaded their home with mob-like ferocity and strong-armed my grandfather out of the house.  They forced him to kneel execution style on the sidewalk.  Then, they coerced his neighbors onto the streets.  Once outside, the neighbors solemnly encircled him like mourners at a funeral.  One by one, they were shoved in front of him.  Manipulated like marionettes, each villager was forced to slowly lift my grandfather’s chin with one hand and then quickly slapped him with the other.  His face was raised each time so he would have to stare into each neighbor’s eyes before and after each strike.  If the villagers were too lenient or soft handed in their blows, the Viet Cong made them do it again until they were satisfied with the severity.  If he fell to the ground, he was propped back up in his kowtowed position.

Powerless to stop it, my mother and the rest of the family stood on the perimeter clutching each other for comfort.  She watched in anger and disbelief at his defilement.  He didn’t cry out or lash back.  He knelt in complete silence accepting the fate delivered to him.

In the aftermath, his cheeks were dyed crimson from the many blows he endured.  His hair mangled and frayed like steel wool.  His head bent so low his chin rested on his chest.  His blackened eyes no larger then small slits.  Thick, syrupy blood oozed out of the hollows of his nose.  His swollen lips unable to hinder the cerise saliva spooling out of his mouth.  His gnarled knees bloodied from continually scraping the cement as he tried to balance himself during each blow.  His hands clinched tight ballooning the leafy veins in his arms.  Shoulders, once jauntily dignified, now stooped in relinquished defeat.

The same hands that delivered the punishing blows were now lifting him up and carrying him home.  Apologies were made but my grandfather said nothing.  Once inside, my mother cleansed and bandaged his wounds.  He didn’t breathe a word.  Staring blankly in front of him, he sat inert and leaden.  She saw the emptiness in his eyes and felt his hands quiver like viagra order no prescription a cautious flame.  She set out to console him with an embrace but he slowly turned away from her like someone trying to hide his tears.  With strenuous effort, he laid down, turned to face the wall, and closed his eyes.

June 17, 2009  2 Comments

Luck in Translation


Do you eat roast duck?

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Puzzled, my friend and I looked at each other, not sure we had heard my classmate, Gabriela, correctly, but then she repeatedly herself, this time with a little more bravado.

Do you eat roast duck? she demanded.

She approached us while we were sitting at our workstation during Chemistry lab.  We were surrounded by Bunsen burners, beakers filled with sodium chloride solution and small bottles of concentrated hydrochloric acid.  Our white lab coats were stained like painter’s smocks with flecks of black iodine and red potassium.  The acrid smell of sulfuric acid was as distinct as the unmistakable smell of hair perm solution.  It wasn’t quite the setting to be talking about food.

Gabriela was a short pretty girl.  Her long brown hair was tied up in a ponytail.  Her fair Caucasian skin was the type that splotched red quickly if exposed to the sun.  She looked at us, her brown eyes the color of dark pecans twinkling with anticipation for our answers.

Not knowing if this was a trick question, I answered cautiously, Yes, I do eat roast duck.

Gabriela looked at us bewildered.

That’s not what I asked you, she said.

You’ve just asked me if I eat roast duck, I insisted.

No, I asked you how you were feeling€ well, at least that’s what I thought I asked.

Her Vietnamese lab partner had attempted to teach her how to say Hello, how are you in Vietnamese and since my lab partner and I were both Vietnamese, Gabriela decided to test her newfound language skills on us.

But in the short walk over, she transposed crucial accents and words.  So instead of saying:

Chao anh, anh co khoe khong? Hi brother, are you healthy?

She said this:

Chao anh, anh co an vit quay khong? Hi brother, do you eat roast duck?

We all laughed loudly at her mistake causing those around us to turn their heads. Her attempt to speak Vietnamese ended abruptly as soon as it had started.

All it took was one mispronounced word and the meaning and context of the sentence completely changed.  With the complexities of the Vietnamese language, this was easy to do and, more often than not, the subtle change can go unnoticed to the untrained ear.  Speaking was one thing, but translations, whether written or verbal, can be just as trying.

Take for instance when I translated Chao anh, anh co khoe khong. The literal translation is Hi brother, are you healthy. But most Vietnamese employ this greeting as a casual everyday How are you. It came to no surprise that I used the popular translation without even realizing it.  Then, after some editing, I realized the translation wasn’t correct.  I decided to change it to the literal one.  If I was going to stay true to the translation, shouldn’t I translate it correctly?  Shouldn’t I be one hundred percent accurate?  That’s important, right?  As I have to come to find out, the answers to these questions are not so simple or clear-cut.

June 17, 2009  Leave a comment

The Beheading


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The tension between my family and the Viet Cong was as thick as the dense jungle landscape surrounding my mother’s village.  The animosity had been fermenting since the Viet Cong first started to persuade residents of my mother’s village to join their cause.  Spewing credos of communal brotherhood, they initially appealed to the destitute villagers.  But soon after, their sense of community changed to one of entitlement.  They started to harass the female villagers and bullied the older ones.  They pillaged goods from the local shops taking whatever they wanted.  In addition to free meals and housing, they insisted on weekly payments from the destitute village.

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When dissenters voiced their concerns, the Viet Cong tried to swiftly quash any resistance with brutal force.  But they were still recruiting and didn’t always have the numbers to quell all the dissidents.

During one fateful skirmish, the confrontation escalated to a violent clash.  As fast as milk tans coffee, the scene erupted into a vicious battle.  In the end, most of the Viet Cong fled for their lives; however, one was left behind.

His dead body lay broken among the high grass.  No one knew his name.  Such was the impression the Viet Cong made on the villagers that the corpse was immediately decapitated.  The severed head was then paraded around the village like a victory banner.  With pride and conviction, the man marching through the streets with the detached head established his reputation that day.  That man was my uncle, Bac Noan.

As my mother’s older brother, his title Bac translates to elder uncle.  Reserved and stoic, he usually kept to himself and restricted any conversation to nods and headshakes. His hands were strong and calloused from the many years working as a carpenter.  My mother remembers him as a strict disciplinarian who would often cane her when she misbehaved.

He inherited my grandmother’s stubborn facial features.  The lines underneath his eyes were like worn cracks in the pavement.  On the rare occasion he laughed, the tips of his eyelids would smile upwards.  He had a soft nose that was barely distinguishable and his ears fanned out like the sails on a boat.

Growing up, I remembered my uncle strayed away from large crowds.  He was usually found on the fringes with his arms folded tightly across his chest.  Short in stature, he had a thin, wiry frame.  His arms and legs resemble the slender spokes of a wheel.  He skulked during family gatherings and preferred to eat at the kid’s table.  The times he was thrust into the spotlight, he behaved like an actor auditioning for an un-rehearsed role. Attention to him was like a swarm of angry assaulting bees, relentlessly stinging his vulnerability.

He didn’t believe in status or fame and always had deep creases in his brow unveiling his persistent concentration.  His lips were constantly pursed.  He adhered to traditional Vietnamese principles and lived his life accordingly.

The only times he was stirred into action was when his principles were compromised. Provocation was the last thing he wanted, but when his beliefs were challenged, he cast off his inhibitions and became a man compelled to action.

June 16, 2009  2 Comments

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