Before college, I had always been Vietnamese—not Vietnamese American. I grew up in a predominantly Asian neighborhood in San Jose. Crispy fried catfish atop rice and bittersweet cafe sua da were not objects of Western fascination. Elderly Vietnamese men gambling in the park were not sociological phenomena. Diversity wasn’t a slogan; it was a lived reality.
I was but one of the many suburban Vietnamese children dragged to Vietnamese video stores that sold Vietnamese-dubbed East Asian serial dramas and Vietnamese variety entertainment shows like Paris by Night and Asia. Carrying a distinct smell of dusty gloss paper, these stores were small and cramped, but also popular because of their arsenal of Vietnamese entertainment.
Paris by Night and Asia featured very serious, traditional content: Women in elegant ao dai dresses doing fan dances during the Tet season. Vietnam War remembrances. But mostly they featured singers of the 1.5 generation—Vietnamese immigrants who spent at least some of their teen or young years in the United States singing in Vietnamese, English, and French. Before I knew Canadian singer-songwriter Terry Jacks, I saw a bubbly Trish Thuy Trang performing “Seasons in the Sun” in a teenybopper camo outfit. Before I knew Bonny or Kill Bill, I heard Thanh Lan’s smoky voice entrancingly singing “Bang Bang.” And I’ve heard so, so many half-drunken ABBA covers before I actually listened to ABBA.
A few years ago, I huddled in my dorm room watching Grease for the first time, priding myself in being a late-blooming but tasteful consumer of culture. Early in college, my obsession with classic Western culture drove my strong affinity to everything from American musicals to indie music with bearded hipsters. Grease was yet another classic that I needed to add to my repertoire of Western erudition.
But when John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John started singing “Summer Nights,” something hit me. This wasn’t my first time watching this musical for the first time ever.
As a child, I watched a Paris By Night remake of this scene with singers Lynda Trang Dai and Tommy Ngo. Dai sashayed around in a pink poodle dress and hair bumpits. Ngo sported a suave leather jacket. For me, this performance was not a cover. It was the original.
The Madonna of contemporary Vietnamese entertainment is the provocative, sweltering Lynda Trang Dai. Frankly, I don’t remember much about her. I vaguely remember the jauntiness with which the emcee Nguyen Ngoc Ngan announced her name, just like how Jimmy Kimmel might announce Rihanna’s name on his late night show. Her performances were marked by colorful lights, prurient dance moves, and a rounded, sultry voice that exerted an effortless panache.
In a performance of “Sky,” for example, Dai wiggled her hips while singing, Ngo slipping his hands down her breasts and hips.Their back-up dancer pairs more or less performed the dance equivalence of clothed sex. This was done all on stage, as they faced a sea of Vietnamese viewers who were likely somewhat conservative.
Dai occupies interesting space between western and Vietnamese culture, a space that defies the schism between traditional reticence around sexuality and modern—Western—sexual liberation. And her sexual comfort has drawn everything from cheap pervy shots to quiet disdain.
Throughout college, I experienced similar bouts of deja vu. I realized that I was not only Vietnamese, but more specifically, Vietnamese American. What intrigued me, bothered me, was learning about “original” Western cultural sources after consuming them first through a “Vietnamese” iteration.
What does this conflation of Vietnamese and Western culture mean? Did America successfully impose its culture upon the refugee body? Did the Vietnamese mimic what they perceived as superior?
No. These appropriations of Western culture are subversive. They are both a clapback to the Western imperialism that degraded Asian bodies and a challenge to patriarchal traditional Vietnamese culture. Dai owns her sexuality, rather than being a sexual object. Embracing this interpretation, I forgo the attachment of truly belonging to a culture, which is scary.
Today, Dai still goes on tours. She also invests greatly in her banh mi business in Westminster, California, conjuring recipes and working with her family. She tells NPR, “When I'm off stage, I'm like 100 percent completely different, a total Vietnamese traditional girl who takes care of their family, food on the table, everything.”
To my generation, Dai represents a person who exceeds mere representation. Her very being defies expectations that have been imposed onto her, expectations of loyalty to tradition or utter embrace of Western culture. Dai emerges as complex and multifaceted, the embodiment of an identity Vietnamese Americans often yearn for in a world that wishes to compartmentalize and schematize us as either Vietnamese or American.