It was remarkable I ever moved to Laos. I’d turned down grad school in Hawaii because it was too hot. My adult life had been one extended migration north for cooler temperatures, at some point calling New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Washington state home. I hated hot weather and by extension the beach, tropical vacations, and summer. Pre-Laos, when the sun was out I was in. So when I said yes to spending two years in the tropics, you know there had to be a damn good reason.
My interest in cultural and ethnic diversity had driven nearly all the big decisions I’d made in my adult life post-college. I moved to China after learning about its different ethnic minorities. I lived in the Gobi Desert so I could see how some of those groups lived. I chose UW-Seattle for grad school because one professor specialized in Chinese ethnic groups, and I wrote my statement of purpose about my interest in that topic. When I finished graduate school and saw the position at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Laos, I was completely galvanized by their mission to “promote pride and appreciation for the cultures and knowledge of Laos’ diverse peoples, support ethnic communities to safeguard their tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and promote their sustainable livelihood development.” Bring on the heat.
When I say I learned to like hot weather because of the positive associations I made to it in Laos that is only half of the story. I do fondly remember al fresco dining along the Mekong and Namkhan rivers. One particularly “warm” memory was Christmas 2012: I came home from work after midnight and my neighbors, barbecuing in their front yard, invited me to join. How wonderful that a late December evening could be ideal for anything other than curling up on a couch in front of a fireplace with an oversized cup of peppermint hot chocolate!
Melanin was really to blame both for my hatred of hot weather and my eventual embrace of it. Lao people are many-hued and I found myself admiring the darker of their skin tones. My boss had the perfect skin color and I noticed it wasn’t that much lighter than mine. For the first time in my life, I truly began to see darker skin as beautiful.
I am the lightest-skinned person in my family. My mother and sisters are all darker than me. When I was young, my sisters teased that if I spent too much time in the sun I would get dark and never fade. I couldn’t risk it. I needed to stay light. For beauty’s sake, to be found physically attractive by people outside of my race—and I suspected even within it—I needed to be lighter. Sunbathing? Get real. The sun was my enemy. Colorism and not discomfort kept me indoors.
As I shed my fear of becoming darker, I began to love my color. At 29, I was finally comfortable in my own skin. This allowed me to enjoy all those experiences in the sun.
What little girl doesn’t want to be beautiful? Some learn early to define that for themselves. Yet somehow, by the time I’d become a woman, I thought being beautiful was the key to being loved and that white features—paler skin, thinner nose, silky straight hair—were the key to being beautiful. Believing my ability to ever marry might rest on my being found attractive by a man outside my race, I couldn’t bear the thought of being any darker. Too much was at stake. I would never have admitted this then, but deep down it was true.
I began reckoning with the words of Malcolm X:
Who taught you to hate yourself? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don’t want to be around each other? You know. Before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God made you.
My work in Laos had other positive effects on my self-image and ability to not just accept my blackness but take pride in it. Actively trying to encourage others to be proud of what made them different and unique while I struggled with that myself challenged me. It felt hypocritical to call out what was worth celebrating in other cultures while trying to suppress or minimize what might be worth celebrating in my own.
In the midst of these positive gains in self-awareness and self love, I watched racial tensions increase in the US from my tiny slice of landlocked jungle. In July 2013, the non-indictment of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin came out and a Lao colleague of mine asked me why there was no punishment and why it seemed like lives like mine did not matter in my country.
Things in the States continued to worsen in 2014 with the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. I broke the first rule of the internet: don’t read the comments section. Hateful comments next to avatars of white men brought back some of the anger and distrust towards whites, and specifically white men, that I hadn’t dealt with in a long time. Just in time to return home.