Upon my arrival in Cambodia, I am immediately called beautiful.
The compliment is given by a tuk-tuk driver and relayed through my friend Weh, who I am visiting for three weeks as part of a world tour. Given the thirty hours I’ve just spent in transit, the number of times I vomited while on the journey, and the way the heat has turned me into a human geyser that gushes sweat with every movement, the compliment can only be ascribed to one thing: I am white.
I don’t mean Caucasian. I mean white.
Thanks to my British and Scandinavian heritage, I match the snow on the ground from whence I came. People have been blinded when I remove my clothing at beaches. I have been mistaken for nude while wearing white clothing. If my skin were a paint chip, it would be somewhere between “blackboard chalk” and “sterilized skim milk.”
In Canada, my skin’s translucence invites concern about my health; in Cambodia it marks me as an attractive woman of leisure. While I am used to tans being associated with wealth and time spent lounging on a beach, here they are associated with poverty and time spent ankle-deep in paddy fields.
Here, it’s a good thing to have skin the color of bathtub caulking, so I’ve found where I belong.
In pursuit of beluga-whale-white skin, nearly every Cambodian man and woman uses skin whitening creams. Whitening agents are in soaps and cosmetics. Bottles promising lighter skin proliferate at drug and corner stores.
Being colour-you-wish-your-teeth-were-white saves me an incredible amount of money, as I do not need to buy these products. I thank my lucky stars for this blessing and find other ways to burn through the money I’ve saved, like crashing motorbikes into fences.
Weh serves as my tour guide throughout Cambodia. We visit the ocean, which glows at night with the movement of phosphorescent plankton, and drive through the countryside, where coconut trees line red dirt roads.
As Weh speaks Cambodian, he is obliged to engage in conversations about my whiteness wherever we go. Tuk-tuk drivers, elderly fruit vendors, and smiling masseuses are all interested in my skin, and they are all interested in talking to Weh about it.
Though I don’t speak the language, I quickly pick up enough to discern when Weh has informed whoever he is speaking to that where I’m from, it is dark skin that is desirable. Ergo, I am actually ugly.
This is the point in the conversation when the masseuses look at me and giggle, when I look at Weh and roll my eyes.
Regardless of what he says, I know I am particularly attractive because I am blessed with not only “squawking egret” skin, but also blonde hair falling somewhere between “pale flax” and “pancake batter.” My masseuse strokes my hair and murmurs, “Good, good.”
As Weh has dark skin, he is overcome with jealousy at this praise and masks his insecurity with what he thinks is humor. While the masseuse massages my legs, he asks her if she thinks I have a nice ass.
As if it is a question; I am ivory-tusk-white, so everything about my body is perfect.
Because Cambodia has taught me that pale is better, I am dismayed when a friend from back home sees a photo of me in the sunny country and comments that I look tanned.
This news is so unsettling that I flee to visit another friend in China. It’s January, and I am confident that if Beijing’s cold winter does not keep sunlight from my now “toasted marshmallow” skin, the smog will. Here, in this city where pollution is so thick it settles in my mouth, my skin will return to precious snow-goose-white.
I am willing to sacrifice my lungs for the sake of the greater good.
I spend a week in Beijing, with gloves on my hands and a hat on my head as I walk through icy streets. I visit the Great Wall on a rare clear day, its walls winding beneath an expansive blue sky. I stroll the grounds of the Summer Palace, under red lanterns marking Chinese New Year and over bridges crossing frozen lakes.
As I take in the sights, Asian tourists take in the sight of me. Numerous times I turn to find that a ten-inch camera lens is firmly fixed on me rather than the panoramic vistas of a World Heritage Site. While this is a bit jarring, it is heartening to know that my skin is still light enough to make me worthy of photos.
After a week in Beijing, I continue on to France. I walk briskly through the streets with my head down and a scarf pulled up around my neck, willing the sun to turn its gaze from me and the clouds to cast shadows over my head. Each time soft flurries fall from the sky, I breathe a sigh of relief.
My efforts at avoiding the sun are rewarded when, a week after arriving, I am asked if I am Swedish.
Success. The pigment has leached from my skin and I am again a virginal white.
No one will think I have spent time working in the rice paddies or lying on the beach, for my skin is Andalusian-horse-white, a pure elemental Platonic ideal to which all other whiteness can only aspire.
Allison Jane Smith is the editor-in-chief of WhyDev and a freelance writer and communications professional. She is a contributor to Beacon, and her work has been published in Matador, Killing the Buddha, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia. For more Allison, visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.