my first year away at college, my parents decided my lifestyle was
demographically deficient: I did not have "enough" Vietnamese
friends. So after my 19th birthday, when I came home to visit for
the summer, they took action and told me, "We've entered you
in a Vietnamese beauty pageant." What!? Me?! A beauty pageant?
Yes. Specifically, the 13th Annual Little Saigon Hoa Hau Ao Dai,
or Pageant of the Ao Dai, the Vietnamese traditional dress.
One moment they were stressing the importance of cultural kinship,
the next they were handing me a flier for the pageant that someone
had stuck on their car at 99 Ranch Market.
Every week, my parents drive 25 minutes out of their way from their
home in Carson to Orange County's Little Saigon in order to buy
groceries at Sieu Thi Ai Hoa 99 Ranch Market, the kind of
place where, with every purchase over $75, you also get a free box
of Kleenex. It's their way of connecting with community... the community
they live very, very far away from.
chief pageant advocate was my father, an intellectual who didn't
like when I got voted Homecoming Princess. He thought the rigors
of high school royalty would mess with my schooling. This was the
man now trying to sell a beauty contest. "You like that frou-frou
stuff, don't you? Well you can be frou-frou, learn about your culture,
and make Vietnamese friends." It was a combo deal, surely I
could appreciate the economics of that. He laid out his points,
like a math theorem.
You, Lan, like wearing sparkly things. Well if A: you enter the
beauty pageant; then B: you will get to wear sparkly things."
off I went to the first rehearsal for the 13th Annual Little
Saigon Hoa Hau Ao Dai!
were 17 of us contestants, in one small room. And as we stole careful
sideway glances at each other -- 16 of them in colorful outfits,
me in friendly denim overalls -- I was sure they were all wondering
the same thing I was. Gee, who's gonna be my new Vietnamese buddy?
I was five minutes late but it didn't seem like I had missed much.
A young guy wearing glasses was at the front explaining the pageant
history, its celebration of the ao dai. As he yammered on,
I noticed the girl to my left. She had spiky, cropped hair, a short
black skirt, and peeking out from her high heeled sandals were Hello
Kitty characters, painted on her toes.
"Oh, what cute toenails," I said. She didn't look up but
to my right, another girl with pouty red lips and an armful of bracelets
turned towards us, shushed me, which made all her bracelets tinkle,
and turned back. Trying to be quieter, I gently tapped my neighbor
to the left and made silent, discombobulated gestures to relay my
enthusiasm for her fashion forward feet. In response to the animated
miming she gave me a strained smile, which cracked a visible line
in her makeup, then uncrossed her crossed legs, and swung them to
the other side.
Next we were given forms to fill out. A sea of pens click-clicked
around me as the girls all dutifully finished their paperwork. I
hadn't thought to bring a pen so, given Shushy Girl and Hello Kitty
Toes on either side, I turned to the girl in front of me -- she
had long permed hair and convex bangs grouped into five distinct
sections on her forehead. "Excuse me, do you have an extra
took her time looking me over, dug into her fake Gucci handbag and
handed me a ballpoint saying, "Give it back when you're done."
I tried to be extra nice and chummy when I did return it with a
cheery tilt of the head saying, "Thank you SO much. Who knew
you'd need a pen?" But she clinically removed the pen from
my hand like a claw arm going for a plush toy, and said, "The
first day is always form day. Always." Then she glanced at
my denim overalls saying, "You were the one who came in late.
so it went. Me, friendly as a Smurf! The other girls treating me
like a suspicious foreign antibody. It was like high school all
over again except in high school, I actually had friends.
we learned our runway walk with Mr. Vy, a professional pageant coach.
"Okay girls," he called to us, "Mr. Vy here to make
you all gorgeous and walk like a movie star! You follow Mr. Vy and
do like this." Creating his own runway with a dramatic flourish
of the arms, Mr. Vy demonstrated a slinky walk with lots of hip
action, a dramatic halt and pose, shift to another pose, then a
third pose with a flamenco-like turn, and sauntered back. "Walk
in V-formation, okay girls? Mr. Vy say 'V for Very easy!'"
Right, very easy. Except I've never been a particularly coordinated
person. I tried to do what the girl in front of me had done but
when I finished, Mr. Vy was eating his fist.
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