Standing at five feet and three inches tall and over 230 pounds of heavy weight, an áo dài was something far beyond how I wanted to display my “curves”. It started when I was eight years old. Childhood photos that travelled with me throughout my teens years recorded how I transformed from an underweight infant, to one of the heaviest girl in my entire fifth grade class. I guess youth growing up in the U.S. attempting to pass their teenager years with rebellious acts, made the poor decision to either use illicit drugs or consume copious amounts of alcohol. For either self-medication purposes, to ease the pain of their daily troubles or to appeal to the elite social groups, I conformed too; I choose food as my drug of choice.
Ever since I was tall enough to reach over the kitchen counter to scoop my own bowl of rice, the self-medication rituals continued. The outcome? My pediatrician’s notes in the after-visit summary quoted “be sure of monitor your eating habits and make sure you are feel hungry before you want to eat. Let’s keep monitoring your weight until out next visit.” Mom could not leave the office without asking the pediatrician if there were magical diet pills small children could take to make them not overweight, every. Single. Time. Oh yeah, sure, a pill could fix my thunder thighs and expanded waist line at the age of 12. I don’t blame mom though, she watched way oh-too-many American commercials flooded with the “magical diet pill” and combined with a middle school education and lack of English competency, there was a reason she dragged me to the store to read English packaging labels.
The self-medication with food has been one of the longest relationships I have in my life, even longer than my childhood friend from Pre-K. It’s one of those love-hate relationships, you know? Like the ones where you can’t seem to call it off with one of your exes from Vietnamese Sunday school. You try with all the might Buddha gave you to remove them from your life but when Sunday mornings roll around, you kind of start to fall for the way they recite the Vietnamese alphabet? Oh yeah, it began with “a, ă, â, b, c, d, đ”, you know how it goes ladies. You found true love in kindergarten, at least that’s how I found mine.
I am 120% sure that teenage angst hit me but it was not the rebellious side that provoked me as much as the topic of my physical appearance. My distorted views of body image fell into the statistics of U.S. young adult females with poor mental health. Those around me knew I did not look like society’s standards but more so, I did not “look like” a Vietnamese woman, small waist line set, long jet black hair and a delicate and soft voice. So holy hell, as a teenager, my voice developed with a lower-than-expected octave, my shoe size ran over the average female U.S. size and my favor towards a short hair style did not really place me in the “strut with confidence” category. I strayed away from make-up or any cosmetics, my hair remained natural virgin black and the wardrobe was lose-fitting clothing; nothing worn could tightly cling to my body.
Reflecting on my teen years, I denied myself the right to feel beautiful and comfortable. I was adamant beauty evolved with privilege and it was reserved for size 4 waist lines and my exceptationally gorgeous childhoods friends who had a closet cluttered with clothing, most importantly, an elegant, flowy áo dài that capture their petite figures. And when we speak of “privilege” well, as a female of color, that word has so-much invaded my life in other aspects aside from my body image.
This privilege tied my tongue when I wanted to ask my high school math buddy to prom and it held my tongue when I needed to voice my opinion that the pulchritude buxom-blonde high school valedictorian cheated on a calculus exam. The lump in my throat suffocated me from psychologically tearing apart each of my petite female friends’ minds when they had the option to try on a size 6 dress and proceed to call themselves “fat”. So I wallowed and kept the silent in my head and ignored the social behavior of “skinny” people and focused my studies and scholarly achievements that put me at the top seat of my graduating class. The teen years I kept my silence were the years I prayed that college would arrive and be freed from the judgment and teenage ridicule and rise to be accepted, appreciated for my merit.
Leaving the comfort of my birth town for college was the beginning of the arduous journey of discovering identity, environment and support that would guide to my true self. I remember laying in bed the second week of fall quarter, grapping myself from crying. I lived in a single-room residence hall, so the weeping did not interrupt anyone’s REM cycle, just my sense of sanity. I laid there for three torturous hours rocking my lumping body back and forth, praying to Buddha to make the deathly-feel of loneliness to be eviscerated from my soul.
Amidst the moist cheeks and self-medicating rocking, my dad’s parting words erupted in my head: “ con nhớ luôn luôn chăm học để con co một tương lai rat la sáng. Mặc dù sẽ co một số thứ sẽ rất khó , con nhớ không bỏ cuộc và cuối cùng con sẽ thành công. Nhớ cố gắng nhe con?…….” Whimpering slowly subsided, snot-filled nostrils began to clear and I dragged my feet to the bathroom. As I washed my swollen eyes, I starred intensely in the mirror. My mother’s almond and hazel eyes and witty intelligence, the undying gumption and endless resilience from my father, I was a walking recipe of success.
My dad’s words blew a typhoon away and allowed the sunlight to peer through. The role of Filial Peity revived me from mental psychosis. My father raised me as the oldest daughter, to be the first to encounter and navigate the Vietnamese-American identity, the first to receive the privilege of being an American-born, educated female. Privilege began to become mine. The labels I received as female of color, I embraced them. The label I embraced the most was “plus-sized”. It was apart of my identity; I could not hide nor pretend it was not real. Facing the mirror each morning no longer involved regret or self-loathing.
An admirable mentor once gifted me with this wisdom: “don’t pretend to be someone other than yourself. People can see the real you and if you keep being yourself, people will naturally be attracted to you and gravitates towards you.” I swore by this wisdom through my undergrad journey. I slowly received the privilege that was mine. I accomplished and met the most supportive individuals, mentors and influential characters who have conditionally shaped my perspective of life.
My VSA (Vietnamese Student Association) at Oregon State, granted me the gift of family, the large part of my identity today. They lifted my spirit when I was knocked down, we laughed and cried together, they created a piece of who I am today. Through VSA, I learned to appreciate myself and my heritage day after day, year after year. Leadership, acceptance, dedication and patience are the pieces of life this organization has imprinted in my mind, body and heart. Utmost, primarily, they showed me how to love the biggest M.V.P. in the world: me, my plus-sized self and I.
They say, and “they” usually means the big-bad wolf known as life, narrates that some things appear or exist in your world as challenges. Some small, some catastrophically damaging to social relationships or your wallet. I guess my challenge is acceptance, the state of being comfortable of being me, Olyvia Chac-Nguyen, the jack of all trades but master of none, a little extra curvy and fluffy around the mid-section. When I see an authentic and flawlessly crafted áo dài, the ones my younger sister wears during large Buddhist celebrations or for the engagement receptions for our other mentors, I see the elegance, grace, and finesse of a woman. The challenge I have acknowledged and accepted is revealing the true definition of a real Vietnamese woman: 1) it is not through her physical presence but her sincere demeanor to act with principle, dignity and carry the traditions of our people 2) beauty is not found on the surface but from within and the journey of realizing true beauty, not vanity, is how raw charm will illuminate and attract others and 3) to be resilient through the most arduous of situations and to respond to chaos, distress and begin to heal through the pain is to act with warm actions and simply embrace.