Deconstructing the Myth of “Indian Smell” in Vietnam: The Early Formation of the Annamese Nation

Chi Pham, Department of Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages, University of California, Riverside
Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - 3:30pm
Thomson Hall 317

It is not difficult to find in Vietnamese oral and written conversations discriminatory statements against Indian smell, which is believed to be associated with Indian food: Indian food and its association with bad odors are seen as traditional and unchangeable. Old Hanoians still openly use the folk saying “'ông Tây đen nằm trong cái bồ, đánh cái rắm thành bánh ga-tô” [the black Westerner lies in basket breaking wind and using it to make cakes]” if someone mentions Indian migrants. The folk saying suggests the agitated feelings against Indian food, eating and Indian sanitation: their food smells like waste; it is made of waste. This saying has been circulating around Northern Vietnam at least since the early 1970s; evidence of it can be found in the novel by Duyên Anh, Con thúy : truyện dài published in 1972. Vietnamese in the South are familiar with the adjective usage of the term “cà ri.” Commonly, “cà ri” is a noun referring to curry power and curried foods. In Southern Vietnam, the word also implies stinginess, dirtiness and cunningness. For example, “He is very “cà ri!”; “How cà ri he is!” Using the term “cà ri”, the term for a typical Indian food, to name immoral and unclean dispositions in general shows how deeply the negation of Indian food is mentally rooted among Vietnamese.

Analyzing Vietnamese newspaper articles and literary works, I examine here how racist discourses of smell have been central to the historical discrimination against Indians, known as Chà và, in Vietnam. I argue that the circulation of the Indian smell in Vietnamese works reflects the social, political, and economic tensions between Indian migrants and the Vietnamese at the time of the formation of an awareness of a Vietnamese nation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In other words, growing perception of an intellectually and economically unique and promising identity of Annam was concurrent with making visible and problematic the Indian smell and the presence of Indians in Annam.


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