Sunday, February 7, 2010

Journal 6: "Vietnameseness" Encapsulated in the Ao Dai by Tien Dang

I feel as though I can completely connect to Kieu Linh Caroline Valverde's article "Ao Dai Revival." Growing up Vietnamese in the American society, I never really knew what Vietnamese or Vietnam meant, or if it was any different from the Vietnamese Community I was immersed in due to my parent's Vietnamese Catholic upbringing.

With my own personal experience, the ao dai is definitely regarded as a "Uniquely Vietnamese heritage" (Valverde, 184). All I knew growing up was the praises of the ao dai. I would follow my mother and sister to San Jose and buy 2 yards of fabric for as close to $100 dollars and watch the tailor measure my sister. I was always in awe at the nice sheer fabric of hot pinks, reds, blues, etc. However, I never actually realized that the ao dai was a fusion of so many different cultures. From the mandarin collar to the multitude of different inspirations to the fabric designs, I then wonder how it is that the ao dai is still so distinctly considered Vietnamese? It then goes to our discussion of the distinction between Asian fashion and Asian American fashion distinct?

Viet Kieus as well as the people in Vietnam highly regard the ao dai and find a sense of pride in it. Therefore, I only knew of the ao dai. Until I became a part of the performance culture, only then did I learn about the different cultural attires such as ao tu than and ao ba ba. The ao dai is definitely not an efficient dress to wear. Only during special events is it worn. Particularly during our big masses (like today's Tet celebration at my church), my mom urges all of the ladies in the house to wear the ao dai. If not, we would definitely receive the guilt trip.
From left to right: my mother, my sister, me, and in the middle, my dashing 4 year old niece. As you can see, the collars and cuts are all different as the ao dai is consistently being reinvented. You would not see us wearing any of these on a regular basis.

The ao dai itself encompasses the Vietnamese elite class. When my parents were still living in Vietnam, they were villagers who were considered very poor. Unable to afford an ao dai for a special event my sister was to attend to, my parents had to borrow my cousin's ao dai. It goes to show that the ao dai is highly regarded because it is meant to be worn for special occasions and the poor people struggle to reach that class level. As the fashion rank is, at times, dictated by the top down, the Ao Dai mirrors that hierarchy.

I feel that there are different depictions that the ao dai portrays which immitats the controversy the American and Asian American society face. On MSNBC Scoop,there has been complaints about how the 9 white stars featured are the "new wave of Hollywood" (MSNBC SCOOP). A rave about no colored actresses because featured surfaced. This is always a societal issue where there is a disconnection between what is deemed acceptable and praise-able. No Asian American actress was featured. I feel this is similar to what the ao dai can also do to the Vietnamese culture. Because the ao dai is so commonly praised, it disregards the economic and functionality of all other attires.

In my high school class, my history teacher told us "Draw an Indian." She left the room and all of my peers and I were completely bewildered and confused. It was a simple instruction, but we did not understand. So we began doodling away. What we drew were people with head feathers, tepees, bow and arrows, fishing spears, etc... We ingrained in our own minds images that have been produced by society as to what an Indian person would look like. As a result, we all reproduced the stereotype and fed this stereotype. In the end, my teacher showed us her drawing. Surprise, surprise, it was a person dressed in regular clothing- jeans, and a t-shirt.

What would people draw if they were asked to draw an everyday Vietnamese female? I also wonder where men tie into this entire ao dai topic. There are male ao dais, but I rarely ever here any discussion on it. This past month, my dad recently went to Vietnam. He came home with two tailored ao dais for me- ao dais that I did not request for nor purchased. Therefore, I say it's a gift and because I did not ask for it, I did not break the compact challenge. I have yet to buy anything since my birthday spending spree on an $18 shirt.

This handsome young man (my nephew) is sporting the khan dong ao dai during today's Tet celebration at my church in the Bay Area. The ao dai I'm wearing is made of a sheer fabric with embellishment on the front. This portrays the changed cuts in the ao dai because of the broadened neck. The silk pants are tightly fitted compared to my first ao dai I have ever worn.


Valverde, Kieu Linh Caroline. Ed. 2006. Ao Dai: A Modern Design Coming of Age. San Jose: Association for Viet Arts and San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.

Hazlett, Courtney. "Why no actresses of color on Vanity Fair cover?" The Scoop: updated 5:59 p.m. PT, Sun., Feb. 7, 2010.

Photos are from my brother's camera.

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