A Disney Princess in Áo Dài: Learning to Love Being Vietnamese in White America

A Disney Princess in Áo Dài: Learning to Love Being Vietnamese in White America
Claire Tran
April 24, 2019
Editor’s Note: The following piece was chosen as a finalist in NextShark’s personal Essay Contest 2019. The views expressed in story are the writer’s own.
On a hospital bed lays a tired and drowsy woman with an IV in her forearm and nasal tubes in her nostrils. The nurses quickly shift their attention to the unconscious woman when they hear the first sound of life. “Waah! Waah! Waah!” One of the nurses holds up the newborn who has a full head of black hair and excitedly says, “Congratulations, it’s a girl!” The day is May 2nd, 2004 and that newborn is me. The woman with the IV is my mom who carried me in her womb for nine months only to face ten hours of excruciating labor and the man next to the bed is my dad who immediately stormed out of a university lecture when he got the call that my mother was in labor.
My parents are immigrants from Vietnam and I was the first person in my family to become a first-generation Vietnamese American in its essence. My parents knew this would differentiate me from them. I was born with two heads: a Vietnamese head and an American head. Although I did not know it at the time, growing up with two heads would expose me to the harsh realities of society.
Like most American girls, I spent my early childhood devoted to the Barbies and Bratz dolls neatly aligned on a tall, wooden white shelf in my bedroom. I happily sang Vietnamese songs with my younger sister. I also watched many Disney movies and fantasized of becoming a Disney princess so much that I convinced my parents to go to Party City to purchase a sparkly, pink dress that resembled Aurora’s dress from Sleeping Beauty for Halloween. With sparkles in my eyes and a captivating smile that showed the empty spaces in my mouth, I wore that dress to my school’s annual kindergarten Halloween parade.
At that very moment, being able to feel like a princess was magical. However, that magical moment was only temporary. When the parade ended, one of my classmates approached me and tapped me on my shoulder.
“Are you supposed to be Sleeping Beauty?” she said with her eyebrows knitted together and arms crossed over her chest. I nodded in response to her question with a big, toothless smile. “Well, you can’t be Sleeping Beauty because you don’t look like her.”
I tilted my head, felt my eyes narrowing, and nose wrinkle as if I smelled something funny. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say,” I said with a puzzled tone.
“Well, Sleeping Beauty has blonde hair and she’s American. You have black hair and you are not American, so you can’t be Sleeping Beauty.” I felt a slow burn surging through my body, my fists clenching, steam coming out of my ears, and the sparkle that was once in my eyes turn into a burning flame. Giving her one last glare, I stormed through the crowd whose eyes were focused on the remainder of the parade and ran to the restroom to cry. When my dad picked me up, with tear stains under my eyes, I asked him why I was not born with blonde hair like Sleeping Beauty, skin with freckles, and blue eyes.
Indeed, it is strange that I idolized a Disney princess who was cursed into a deep slumber only to be woken up by a kiss from a complete stranger. However, as a naive five-year-old girl who dreamed of being a princess, being told that I could not be a princess was one of the worst things I could hear. Although the classmate who approached me probably did not understand how deeply her words impacted me, replaying this memory in my mind makes me understand that society has shaped people into thinking that an Asian-American girl like me is incapable of doing or becoming something because I don’t have the ideal blonde hair and blue eyes.
This was not the only time I struggled emotionally with the concept that I was Asian-American and not Caucasian or some other ethnicity. Attending a school that was mainly Hispanic, I was one of the few Asian-Americans. I was considered exotic among other students, and often felt targeted by other students who would refer to me as the “Chinese girl” or the girl who spoke “ching-chong.” It was not until after Lunar New Year (also known as Chinese New Year) in second grade when I began to resent my “Asianness” and longed to have blonde hair and blue eyes like the Barbies on my white shelf.
The date was January 23rd, 2012 and an important holiday for my family and Asians across the world. It was Tết (Chinese New Year/Lunar New Year) and the year of the dragon. Families are together, ancestors are honored, red envelopes are filled with money from one dollar bills to twenty dollar bills, and the beginning of a new year. It is also a day that I cannot forget.
The sunlight peeks through the royal blue fabric my mom uses as curtains and gently taps me to wake up with its bright rays. Slowly and reluctantly, I start to remove a thick, striped blanket to reveal my face. With heavy eyelids, I start to blink, close my eyes, and blink again while staring at the colorless ceiling above me. I sit up, rub my eyes with my knuckles, and drag my feet out of bed. Raising my arms up above my head, I begin to stretch and exhale a loud yawn. My eyes begin to shift towards the nightstand to see two red envelopes that lay next to a note that reads, “Chúc mừng năm mới!” (“Happy New Year”) and I smile at this sight. Trying not to wake up my little sister, I quietly stand up and tiptoe my way out of the room and head towards the bathroom.
I turn on the bathroom lights and begin my morning routine. Before exiting, I took one last look in the mirror to make sure that I didn’t forget to untangle the knots from my glossy, black hair and straighten out my bangs. Pleased by the sight of my hair, I start to walk out to the kitchen where an unpleasant smell intoxicated my lungs and a strange sight greeted me.
The smell was coming from my mom who was holding what looked to be about twelve recently lit sticks of incense and waving it around the kitchen (this is why our fire detectors are off). This is a traditional thing my mom does every year to welcome the Kitchen God, which is basically like the Santa Clause of Tết who descends from heaven to Earth on this day.
Even I know that the Kitchen God isn’t real, that’s like saying the tooth fairy is real. Mom suddenly drops the incense in the ash catcher and grabs my arm.
“You need to change into your áo dài before going to school!” Mom exclaims while dragging me back to my bedroom to dress me.
(An áo dài is a traditional Vietnamese dress worn by females and males for special occasions such as Lunar New Year.)
Mom peeks into the room to see if Victoria, my younger sister, had woken up and gone to the bathroom. The coast is clear and there is no sign of Victoria in the bedroom. Mom walks to the white closet door, turns the knob, and pulls out a hanger with the áo dài and a pair of white satin pants. I am immediately mesmerized by the silky hot pink (my favorite color at the time) fabric that is covered with embroidered silver flowers. I slip into the áo dài and satin pants and Mom helps me button it up. I couldn’t help but smile at how different the áo dài is from all the other ones I’ve worn for the past 7 years. This one is sleeveless and doesn’t suffocate the life right out of me. Being able to wear the dress is my favorite part of Lunar New Year and makes me feel connected to Vietnam and my ancestors. Excited to show off my dress at school, I pack my backpack and begin to walk to school with Mom. However, the reaction I got was not what I was expecting.
As I entered the school, I felt holes burning through me as people stared. Embarrassed, I proceeded to walk to my class with my head down. Mom waved goodbye to me as I lined up with my classmates in front of my second-grade classroom.
“Hey, are you Chinese?” asked the classmate standing behind me.
“No, I am Vi—”
“Ni hao, ching chong ching chong” he laughed and clasped his hands together and started bowing. A few of my other classmates saw what was happening and joined in. They pulled the corner of their eyes back to mimic Asian eyes and hysterically laughed at me. I was mortified and angry. I wanted to crawl back into my mother’s womb, where I was safe from all of this teasing. My eyes brimmed with tears and I quickly ran to the restroom and cried. The same restroom I cried in two years ago at the Halloween parade. After this day, I stopped smiling at the sight of an áo dài.
Replaying this memory makes me want to travel back in time and hug my younger self. To shield her from this type of negativity. To tell her to love her Vietnamese half, even if it made her different, instead of pushing it away.
As I assimilated into American culture, my bangs disappeared, my jet-black hair turned into a dark brown color, and freckles formed on my cheeks. When Tết came around each year, I would only wear an áo dài to please my mom. I avoided family pictures with my áo dài and rejected my mom’s suggestion to wear it to school. I became a banana: yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.
The year is now 2019 and things have changed. I am not the five-year-old girl who wanted blonde hair like Sleeping Beauty or the seven-year-old girl who cried because she was tired of being Asian. I am a young fourteen-year-old girl who is still trying to find her place in this planet we call Earth, but I have learned to be proud of the culture and features my parents gave me.
I am thrilled about the rise in Asian representation in Hollywood such as the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” and the show “Fresh Off the Boat” and exposure to music genres such as K-Pop. If I had been exposed to these films with people who looked like me, I probably would have embraced being Asian-American. Despite this, I have learned to be grateful for grow up in the melting pot known as America. I am proud to be Asian-American/Vietnamese in this diverse world. I am grateful for the silk dress that I call áo dài.
About the Author: Claire Tran is 14 years old and proud to be Vietnamese-American. She is born and raised in Southern California and is a boba addict.
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