[This piece won Honorable Mention in The Diversity Story Cultural Writing Competition - Middle School]
BY OLIVIA LEE
Vietnam. When most people hear this word, they think of jungles, brutal war, and Internet memes, if they’ve even heard of Vietnam. But there is so much more to this vibrant, beautiful culture that remains undiscovered by many. I used to keep my mind closed to anything about Vietnam until I experienced one event that changed my view of Vietnam forever.
In case you didn’t know, Vietnam is a country in Southeast Asia, bordering Laos, Cambodia, China, and the South China Sea. It’s about the size of New Mexico, with a population of almost 99 million. Vietnam almost constantly struggles with war, and has only recently begun a peaceful era. The country has been under Communist regime since 1976.
To begin with, I didn’t like Vietnamese culture. When I was younger, every time someone asked me about my ethnicity, I would answer, “I’m Korean.” This was not a complete lie, as I am half Korean, but I didn’t want to admit that I was Vietnamese. None of my classmates even knew that Vietnam was a country.
The memory of a recent book project was still fresh in my mind. At my mother’s request, I’d read a novel about a twelve-year-old, American-born Vietnamese girl who is forced by her parents to visit Vietnam over the summer. In the story, the protagonist suffers through such extreme conditions in her parents’ motherland that I, a privileged, American-born nine-year-old at the time, could barely stand to read the book. I can imagine that my mother assigned this book with the intention of showing me just how great Vietnam was, but the book damaged my view of Vietnamese culture even more.
To cap it all off, Veterans’ Day had just passed, and I vividly remember sitting in the school cafeteria/auditorium, watching as elementary-schoolers spilled onto the stage. Their Vietnam-veteran grandparents staggered along beside them. Perhaps I only imagined the waves of guilt that washed over me.
When my mother first expressed her desire for me to participate in this event, I was initially skeptical. As much as I wanted to be an obedient daughter, I was far from thrilled about the idea of prancing around with a straw hat in front of my entire school, parents included. When she mentioned including a couple of my fellow classmates from our local martial arts school, I almost vetoed it then and there. I wasn’t close to either of them, and I didn’t want to rope them into it. Nevertheless, I conceded.
The classmates in question were also American-born Vietnamese, named Tess and Natalie and aged 10 and 9, respectively. I’m not sure how their parents told them about the dance performance, but they certainly didn’t seem as resistant to it as I did. It was agreed that we would meet at my house for weekly practice sessions.
At our first practice, my mother gathered Tess, Natalie, and me onto the rug in my family room. We clustered around her as she pulled out her laptop and opened up YouTube. Tess leaned forward to see what was on my mom’s YouTube recommended page, Natalie looked around obliviously, and I sat stiffly on the rug, hoping I didn’t look as uncomfortable as I felt.
“All right, this is it,” my mother announced, setting the laptop on the floor and turning it so all of us could see. The video thumbnail showed three teenage Asian girls in traditional dresses (áo dài), and they held conical straw hats. I tried and failed to hide my look of distaste, and I’m sure my mother noticed, but she chose to ignore my nasty attitude. She clicked the play icon. One of the girls started speaking in a foreign language that had to be Vietnamese, then music started playing and the girls began to dance.
I admit, the performance was much better than I expected, given that I had expected a couple of chubby five-year-olds walking in a circle while swinging straw hats in the air. In fact, the dance was so graceful and complicated that I had no clue how Tess, Natalie, and I could pull it off.
The solution? Practice. Lots of it. Under my mother’s coaching, we rehearsed each section of the dance over and over again, making modifications as necessary. I began to see dance steps in my sleep, and I practiced spinning my hat until my fingertips were raw. The weeks fled by like a dream.
And finally, one chilly evening in January, performance night arrived. My parents drove my brother and me, clad in our áo dài, to our elementary school, where we were welcomed by cheerful parent and teacher volunteers. Immediately after we entered, we were greeted by a host of bright colors, exotic aromas, and a vibrant atmosphere. One of the teachers handed me a booklet. I flipped it open, finding that it was an event program. Skimming over the program, my eyes landed on my name. Olivia L., Tess T., Natalie J. ~ Vietnamese Hat Dance, the program proclaimed in fancy font. We were performing at eight PM. That was something to look forward to for the next two hours.
I remember walking through the cafeteria, which had been converted into a huge space filled with stands and booths, each displaying a different country. In the center of the cafeteria were dozens and dozens of folding chairs. The array was enormous, with countries ranging from France to Jamaica. Each booth boasted activities, native foods, and more.
My mother mingled with other parents while my brother and I madly ran around, greeting classmates and visiting booths. I passed by the South Korea booth, recalling how I had performed last year with my martial arts team.
I met Tess and Natalie at the Australia booth. Tess was clad in a simple blue áo dài, and Natalie wore a pink costume borrowed from me. I wore a red áo dài with intricate gold patterns on the front, and long silk pants. My mother had turned up the hems so the legs wouldn’t drag on the floor—and so I wouldn’t trip during the dance.
We browsed through the stands, sampling foreign dishes and trying traditional activities. The China booth hosted a competition where contestants tried to pick up marbles with chopsticks. Much easier said than done. After dropping dozens of marbles, I managed to lift one marble off the table and was awarded a bookmark.
Our trio moved on. We learned how to fold origami crafts at the Japan booth, learned some interesting facts about the Amazon Rainforest at the Brazil booth, and gorged ourselves on fried snacks at the Netherlands stand. Abruptly, someone started speaking into the microphone on the main stage. An adult’s familiar voice echoed through the cafeteria.
“Parents, students, families, welcome to International Night!” It was my mother’s voice. “I am Ha-Van Nguyen, the director of tonight’s events and performances. Thank you for coming! You are guaranteed a phenomenal evening, so please, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!”
Applause emanated from the auditorium. The curtain fell and the lights dimmed.
“Quick, check who’s on first!” Natalie said. I pulled out my event program and scanned the pages.
“An Indian skit,” I replied quickly. “We should probably sit down somewhere. It’s like 15 minutes long.”
“Right,” Tess responded. She pulled Natalie and me towards an empty spot on the floor, right in front of the stage, and sat down with us in tow. Together, we sat on the linoleum tiles and tried to enjoy the performance. All of us were too nervous to pay attention to the dancing and singing.
Next there was a karate demonstration. Then a German folk song, followed by a Chinese solo dance. As the seconds and minutes ticked slowly by, my feet grew numb, my neck ached, and a queasy feeling gnawed at my stomach. Finally, as a South African drumming team filed onto the stage, my mother appeared behind us. “You’re on next,” she whispered.
Tess, Natalie, and I followed my mother through cold, pale corridors, up a flight of stairs, and onto the right wing of the stage. There, several teacher and parent volunteers awaited us. The drummers finished with a flourish, and the curtain fell. An announcer began to speak, her words muffled by the curtain. “Good luck!” my mother said, hugging us, then we were ushered onto the stage.
The three of us stood stiffly behind the red velvet curtain, bare feet against the polished hardwood floor. I was in the middle, with Tess on my left and Natalie on my right. The spasms in the pit of my stomach and the pounding of my heart drowned out the announcer’s voice. After an eternity, the curtain lifted.
We snapped to the starting position, hats over faces, backs straight, feet planted shoulder width apart. I snuck a peek over the brim of my hat. Instead of seeing the audience, I saw only darkness in the cafeteria. Not a comforting sight.
Our dance music started playing, and I was jolted out of my trance. We began moving our hats up and down rhythmically so that the three hats looked like an undulating wave, or the body of a dragon. Following the dance steps without allowing myself to be distracted, I stepped forward, backward, forward again, swirling my straw hat this way and that. The stage lights glared down on our trio, and my palms soon became sweaty. My feet felt heavy against the floor.
We tightened into a circle, spun outward, and bent to one knee, all while guiding the hats gracefully. Natalie stumbled slightly, but Tess covered for her, and thankfully no one else seemed to notice. Then came the twirls, the sideways shuffle, the spinning of the hats on one finger. One missed step and it’s all ruined, I kept on telling myself. Just one step.
Then I heard the finale, the dramatic crescendo of the strings as the piece reached its climax. Each instrument in the ensemble joined in harmony, and so did the three of us. One final spin, then each of us would strike a pose. Tess would twist, holding her hat by her face, I would sink into a full split, arms spread to the heavens with my hat in my left hand, and Natalie would be in the center, lunging to one knee with her hat held behind her head.
It was now or never. I took a deep breath and gripped my hat so hard that the straw left indentations in my fingers. Time to pull it off.
And we did it. And it was beautiful. And as I gazed into the darkness of the audience with the stage lights sending down their smiling beams of light, the roar of applause sent vibrations through my whole body. I couldn’t help but smile. An overwhelming emotion flooded me.
That emotion was joy. Pride. Satisfaction. It didn’t matter which. All that mattered was that I loved it, and I knew it. I began this journey with reluctance and distaste, and I ended it with respect and love. Love for this beautiful country and culture that I had left unappreciated. Yes, I was American, but I had learned to acknowledge and admire my Vietnamese heritage and identity.