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s an amateur tattoo artist I spend a lot of time thinking and experimenting with skin—in a way, ornamenting it, but in my mom’s words “dirtying” it (làm dơ). She would often call my tattoos “so ugly” (xấu lắm). This is coming from a woman who, like many Vietnamese refugees and even more Asian women (Kang, 2010: 13), spent much of her time in the beauty industry as a nail technician—that is, until all the debris started taking a toll on her respiratory system. The chemicals used to make clients’ nails more clean, beautiful, and strong were the same ones that contributed to my mother’s own bodily deterioration (Tu, 2021: 136). She now works at a hospital—through which she finally has health insurance—cleaning and folding dirtied linens. Throughout her jobs, housework, and personal care regimens, I’d always known my mom to be preoccupied with cleaning and whitening and beautifying, but I could not articulate the connections with the legacies of her war-torn past until I read Experiments in Skin.
Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s ethnography of Calyx Spa in Experiments in Skin contextualizes how some Vietnamese women epidermalized, to use Fanon’s term (1986: 13), anxieties about strength, cleanliness, and/or beauty in attempts to metaphysically remediate the scars of warfare and its afterlives. These women sought the “broader logic of the makeover” offered by cosmetic pharmaceuticals and treatments at Calyx Spa to provide physical and spiritual salves to dermatological issues often caused by structural violence beyond one’s control. For instance, applying lotion and injecting vitamin A in an attempt to remediate the dry, flaking skin of a 16-year-old with chromium exposure from working at a leather manufacturing factory (Tu, 2021: 150-152). Through such case studies, Tu (2021: 8) demonstrates how, “Skin, in other words, is not the site where we might see race and beauty, but rather the stakes around which these ideas have been formed.” Her work thus approaches skin as material, method, and metaphor in order to effectively illuminate the convergence and projection of fantasies and fears yoked to racial capitalism and relatedly, the securitization of US empire and hegemony.
I’m interested in the site of skin intellectually as well—not just as a layer of the body, but also as visual media and marker. Recently, I’ve been researching and writing on Southeast Asian refugee resettlement in 1980s Philadelphia, and the framing of interracial violence that “erupted” with Asian immigration . I examine how the state, news media, and residents alike discursively produced and policed violence against Southeast Asian refugees as “interracial,” for the ways that the term hinged upon both the hypervisibility of Asian difference and the invisibility of structural, imperial, and antilack violence. My archival research likewise led me to Dr. Albert Kligman’s dermatological experiments on Philadelphia inmates at Holmesburg Prison, a history upon which Experiments in Skin expounds to reveal the sadly unsurprising linkages between US military, policing, medical, and carceral technologies. For one, the testing of dioxin on the indistinguishable and captive “flesh” of majority Black inmates (Spillers, 1987) allowed for the effective deployment of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Southeast Asia (Tu, 2021: 60-66). Secondly, the Holmesburg Prison experiments also produced pharmaceutical cosmetics, such as Retin-A, that served to mitigate dermatological conditions. Undergirding the developments of both technologies is the establishment of an anti-Black foundation for mediating conceptions of race, modern subjectivity, and liberal citizenship.
Tu’s monograph further addresses this relation in Chapter 4, “A Laboratory of Skin: Making Race in the Mekong Delta,” with the analogous treatment of Black and Asian bodies by institutions of medicine and military . Using Vietnam as a site to further map racial and geographic differences, military field researchers attempted to capture and care for skin diseases to maintain racial order. Although these technologies of identification and racialization had been imported abroad through US imperial warfare, I query how ideas about Vietnamese skin transform or travel with the post-1975 resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees to the US. What implications might Tu’s work have for this particular moment of liberal multicultural inclusion stateside? Here I draw from Sylvia Chong’s (2012: 9) scholarship on “racial phantasmatics” that travel with and through skin: what she defines as, “the imagined relations of identification, projection, transference, and countertransference between different racial subject positions, in ways that exceed the actual social relations between racialized subjects.”
These inquiries are inspired by the ontological density of Vietnam as a “disease ecology” (Tu, 2021: 88). According to the book, skin disease constituted the most prevalent affliction of US troops abroad, and physical evacuation constituted its predominant solution—therefore rendering the genealogical formation of Vietnamese geography itself as a vector of infection. In other words, Vietnam was treated as a toxic, diseased landscape with indigenous rather than imported threats to health and safety. This framing aligns with my current work on the collapse between Southeast Asia and Southeast Asians, between landscape and people (what I contract into “Southeast Asia/ns”). In this work I consider the visual framing of Southeast Asia as inherently contaminated, ugly, and pernicious, and therefore in need of clearing in a similar matter as Vietnamese women sought to be cleared of chloracne . Whereas the clients in Tu’s book wish to be relieved of the traces of chemical and tactical warfare, the visions of landscapes I explore in my work render Southeast Asia as a site in need of defoliation, destruction, and debilitation. As an anonymous major so succinctly described his offensive in Bến Tre Province, “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”
The teleology of this infamous quote denotes a sort of anticipatory destruction that aligns with preventative measures in skin and healthcare. Experiments in Skin explores a number of speculative junctures that have enabled the progression of both cosmeceutical and imperial pursuits. Tu introduces, on one hand, the histories and ghost stories that narrativize diagnoses and treatments of women haunted by war seeking remedy at Calyx Spa (2021: 42-44). On the other hand, she shows how the US medical corps conducted “prospective studies” at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to predict how variations of skin would fare in the wet and tropical climate of Southeast Asia (2021: 111-112) . In these ways, the book demonstrates how differing scales of temporal, racial, geographic, and skin atlases intersect to chart new terrains of racial knowledge and imaginaries. It reminds us that “when it comes to the racialized body, the literal is always metaphorically manufactured” (Cheng, 2013: 78).
My first book project argues that the debilitation of Southeast Asia during US intervention produced the conditions of possibility for seeing, categorizing, and thereby knowing Southeast Asian refugees. This argument hinges upon the dissolution of a distinction between landscape and people, enabled through such visual technologies as aerial, chemical, and tactical warfare. This elision happens in Experiments in Skin in a number of ways such as: 1) through the photography of US military researchers framing native bodies within inherently hostile environments, and 2) in the individualized beauty regimes attempting to correct the bioaccumulation of toxins in order to expunge skin memories of imperial warfare. By contextualizing the Vietnamese landscape as an essentially hostile and undesirable one, and by demonstrating the extent to which slow violence came to surface on the skin, Experiments in Skin unveils an elaborate web of race, beauty, and power that closes the epistemological gap between racialized places and people. The book thus explores medical and military aspirations of dermatological intelligence to make it possible to simultaneously conceive of both spatial and racial difference through uneven exposure and development.
The way that Experiments in Skin traverses between the spaces of Calyx Spa, Ho Chi Minh City, Holmesburg Prison and more, prompts me to ask how we might think beyond the materiality of skin, for the ways that metaphoric skin stretches across the scales of nations, landscapes, and neighborhoods; perhaps, but not merely, spatially and/or geopolitically. It reconsiders the ways that skin as a hermeneutic might advance our readings of other surfaces. An example from the book considers the urban makeover that Vietnam underwent after Đổi Mới reforms (Tu, 2021: 24-26) to cover up and move on from the “imperial debris” of war (Stoler, 2008) with new construction, industries, and imports. Through an engagement with skin as city surface, Tu similarly shows how latent or slow violence extended beyond the visible realm through the unraveling “architectonics of forgetting” (Draper, 2012, quoted in Tu, 2021: 163)—in other words, how visuality mediated the mnemonic politics of renewal, redevelopment, and regeneration within scarred landscapes. Tu’s intervention thus posits skin and landscape to be connected through simultaneous destruction and debilitation, spatially and racially: as aerial bombardments cut craters into the earth, as herbicides burned away Southeast Asian jungle, as napalm searsedthe skin of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, and as remainders of militarized violence troubled our inherited skin.
As a corrective and a convalescence, my mother applies whitening agents and Estée Lauder to her face; though she has facial tattoos, they are merely cosmetic (since tattoos are only acceptable to her if they enhance beauty). Despite our varied approaches to skin, we both share the impulse to externalize a wounding from within. I recall helping my mom study for her nail technician license as a child and learning that there are three layers of skin: starting with the epidermis on top, the dermis in the middle, and the fatty hypodermis at last. Through tattooing, I’ve learned that in order for the pigment to take, I need to penetrate the topmost layer, but if I go too deep, it risks bleeding or blowout. Navigating this balance reveals how liminality, though precarious, is ideal as the dermis teeters between the edges and intimacies of il/legibility, beauty/ugly, interior/exterior, in/visibility, anesthetic/pain. These practices, as with Tu’s book, have exposed the tensions of and within skin to reveal and conceal, as both defense and vulnerability, distinct yet connected, close but still so far and foreign.
As cultural theorist Anne Anlin Cheng writes (2013: 99), “we are looking not at hidden depths or longings but the material traces of a desire that is written on the skin/surface again and again, like striated lines.”
 Following the 1975 Indochinese Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 and the Refugee Act of 1980, an estimated 26,000 refugees arrived in Philadelphia in the 1980s.
 By analogous I do not mean homologous; as my own research demonstrates, interracial always means anti-Black.
 While chloracne looks identical to cystic acne, it is “accepted as a clinical sign of dioxin exposure” (Tu, 2021: 89).
 Perhaps related, and much like attempts of redress in sites of heavy dioxin contamination in Vietnam, the recent passage of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 provides compensation to US veterans who may have been victim to chemical exposure over four decades of water contamination at the military training facility (from 1953-1987).
Cheng AA (2013) Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chong S (2012) The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era. Durham: Duke University Press.
Draper S (2012) Afterlives of Confinement: Spatial Transitions in Postdictatorship Latin America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Fanon F (1986) Black Skins, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.
Kang M (2010) The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Spillers H (1987) “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17(2): 65-81.
Stoler AL (2008) “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination.” Cultural Anthropology 23(2): 191-219.
Tu TLN (2021) Experiments in Skin. Durham: Duke University Press.
Jacinda Tran is a writer, researcher, and teacher based in Brooklyn, NY (Lenapehoking). She is currently finishing her PhD in American Studies at Yale University, and working towards her first book project titled “Search and Destroy: Southeast Asia/ns through the Lens of US Visual Warfare.”