The Shake Sisters
Posted On June 1, 2020
The Shake Sisters worked at the street-side shop around the corner from our housing complex. They were probably 13 or 14-years-old and as adroit at sales as they were at making mango smoothies. Foreign students daily graced their shop and sat in small plastic chairs meant for children, their knees shoved into their chests in uncomfortable ways. It was customary to enjoy a blended smoothie or Vietnamese coffee in the early morning before high humidity caused hair to frizz and clothing to dampen and so each morning, we would stumble out of mosquito nets and make our way to their shop. Our student group of 10 found the Shake Sisters to be as charming as ever, their wide smiles and open arms ushering us into seats that sat askew on cracks in the sidewalk. They were quick to intercept anyone who wanted to try another shop just a few feet away, shaking their heads with vehemence and saying in their limited English, “Not good, not good. You stay here.” Nearby shop owners would cluck in disgust and look upon us as if they did not need our money or our help and to some degree, they were right. They subsisted without tourists for the previous 20 years and in 1996, we were an anomaly—not a constant—just a flash between here and gone, taking our twenty cents to purchase a shake with us.
At all hours of the day, it was not uncommon to see foreign students sitting down at the Shake Sister’s shop. We all knew each other by then (roughly fifty of us from the USA, Australia, and some European and East Asian countries) and could easily sit down with one another to enjoy the slow pace of the day, reflecting on the final destination of the river of black sludge up the road or observing sidewalk barbers using sharp, silver razors to trim hair. At that time, before Vietnam became one of the world’s foremost economic trading powerhouses, it was still a third world country, shuffling its plastic sandals along dirt roads and still suspicious of foreign occupation no matter if the foreigners toted book-bags instead of weapons.
One time, while sitting down with a friend whose mother was Vietnamese and father, Irish, we chatted with the Shake Sisters who by that time had come to know each of us by name. They patted us on shoulders, learned more English, and inquired after our studies. Sometimes, they would teach us the names of things like mango (xoài) or ice (đá) and so from them we learned and vice versa. This day, my Vietnamese American friend, who knew a lot of Vietnamese from his mother, asked the sisters if they thought I was pretty. I did not know they were having this conversation, but it was a friendly exchange, and I was enjoying my smoothie. I saw him point to me and heard his question (albeit in Vietnamese). I then saw their cupped hands whispering their answer in his ear. My eyes widened, my back straightened, and my friend shifted in his chair uncomfortably.
“What?” I said, “What did they say?”
He did not want to tell me. I rolled my eyes as if it were no big deal and urged him to share.
“I asked if they thought you were pretty,” he said, and his eyes darted sideways as if he were embarrassed for having asked and even more embarrassed to share the answer.
“And…” I said, clearly not letting him off the hook.
He let out a sigh and his shoulders slumped.
“They said you were too dark to be pretty.”
“Oh,” I said and shrugged.
From that point forward, I do not think I saw the Shake Sisters in the same friendly light again. I took the few extra steps to sample the goods from a shop next door, trying out a pastry from the case despite the occasional black ants scrambling over the tops. I waved hello when I walked past on the sidewalk headed out for some random adventure, but I did not go out of my way to spend twenty or thirty cents on their smoothies no matter how much I loved them. Their monopoly on my friendship ended as quickly it had come, lost with the understanding that rank and file will always go hand in hand no matter which country you live within.
Understanding race relations in every country I have visited is a telling exercise in tolerance and acceptance. The incident with the Shake Sisters was not the last time I was told I was the wrong kind of color in Vietnam nor in the United States. I suspect, in the countries where I do not easily blend in with the majority skin tone, this will always be a burden for me despite being touted for beauty as an “exception to the rule.” The rule being: white is beautiful. It is difficult for me to talk about racial disparity because I am surrounded by white people in my immediate family, my best friends, the city and state I live in, and to some degree, the country I belong to. I often feel like my words about race identity draws the line between them and me and while sometimes it does, that does not mean that I feel any less love towards them for being white. I would often joke with a friend about being her token, non-white friend to which she agreed, and we would laugh about it. I suspect I am that for many of my friends and that is okay, too, as long as they are aware that my tokenism is not for their redemption any more than they being white is for mine. As an educator, I have been tokenized as well, but I find that it does not matter in the end since we are so used to disallowing teachers of color to have a voice in education that getting in is infinitely more difficult than getting out and even then, you become for them and not with them, a checkmark in a diversity inclusion box that only serves that purpose. But I digress.
When I hear others says I should be proud of who I am or what I look like, I do not think they fully understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of being made to feel less than for what you represent or how you present, especially when it comes to the color of ones skin. If our recent pandemic has given me anything, it has been the ability to cover up my face, hiding behind a mask that might give away the fact that I am Asian (although not of the lighter-skin variety) and potentially become the target of anti-Asian resentment or blame for Covid-19. It has allowed me to walk amongst the people as not the exception but the rule: wear a mask in public. And, it gives me some comfort knowing that others can only partially judge my appearance and the rest is up for speculation.
I wrote about the Shake Sisters nearly twenty years ago, my master’s thesis housing most of narratives about living in Vietnam in 1996. At the time, I was twenty-three and far more susceptible to being influenced by those who would not accept me than by those who would. I would like to say I was more vulnerable back then, a shrug of indifference carrying more weight than it would now. But I do not think that is the case. I am still impacted by moments when I recognize that I am “too dark to be pretty”, a statement that is loaded with so much more than an assessment of my outward appearance. Maybe that’s why I am so resistant to conforming—to walking the lines of expectation in strict patterns that do not allow me to cast aside the masks I wear and feel a sense of pride for being a mixed race, dark-skinned Asian living in a world still oppressing people of color. I always have been and always will be “too dark to be pretty”—the Shake Sisters’ whispering a constant in my ear.
Photos: Steve Rosenfield Photography – What I Be Project