On a recent business trip in country, I stayed at a very nice hotel. The decor was French colonial, very tasteful. However, some of the artwork in the hotel was off-putting at best, offensive at worst. The reaction of my Vietnamese coworker was surprising to me, though.
So look at this ad. Do you see what I see?
I see a white man (and he’s dressed in white, as if to underscore his race), prominently strutting, as “natives” toil.
Look at the details of the Vietnamese people’s faces. What’s wrong with this picture?
It’s as if the illustrator went out of his way to make the Vietnamese people more “other.”
And here’s another one. This one is a little more subtle, but the message is still clear:
All of the servers are Vietnamese, and all of the servees are European.
I showed these to my wife, who was as horrified as I was. She asked what the Vietnamese people though of them. I happened to be traveling with a locally-employed staff member, so when I had the chance later that day, I showed him the photos that I took of the ads. He didn’t seem to have a strong reaction, so I asked if he thought they were racist, or colonialist, or simply offensive. He thought a moment, and told me that he understood the message of the advertisement, and intellectually agreed that it wasn’t appropriate, but he wasn’t offended by it.
I told him that if such an advertisement appeared in China, there would be a very strong reaction by the government. There would possibly be economic sanctions on the hotel that posted them. Why not in Vietnam? I asked. Vietnam has an even more recent history of colonialism than China does, and fought a bitter war to gain its independence. Wouldn’t the country want to put that painful period of humiliation behind it, and certainly not glorify it in advertisements for a hotel?
He seemed bemused, and hinted that I was thinking too much. He said that Vietnamese people have more important things to worry about, implying I was overreacting. He asked how many Vietnamese guests we saw in the hotel. I had to admit that he was the only one. So, he said, maybe the artwork is aimed at foreigners.
But that’s the point! I countered. Why would the Vietnamese people not have a problem with glorifying colonialism to the colonists?
He conceded my point, but maintained that it didn’t bother him. He said that he knows about Vietnam’s colonial past, knows that it was an unpleasant period in his country’s history, but he didn’t think the symbolism of the ad was worth getting upset about.
Maybe he doesn’t want to waste time and energy re-fighting a fight that his people won.
I guess he is OK with us foreigners dwelling in the past. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese people know who won in the end.