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Emily Au: The Ao Dai and Me

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It can be hard to connect with your roots. Emily Au shares how she finally found pride in her culture through traditional wear.

The ao dai is a staple of Vietnamese culture. A long, flowy traditional dress worn over thin baggy pants, embellished with beautiful hand-sewn floral embroidery.

Both my mother and father were born in Southern Vietnam, although my father is fully Chinese. I always felt like an outlier, never being Vietnamese enough around the family on my mother’s side. Growing up, I never saw anyone in the media I consumed who was also Vietnamese, making me feel even more different. I distanced myself from the ao dai, thinking it was ugly and unflattering. Thinking if I removed myself from the garment entirely, I would in return remove my Vietnamese identity.

I remained this way for many more years, embarrassed of who I was. It was only until the pandemic, when I was around my family more, did I truly experience how beautiful my culture was. The little unique details that I took for granted all my life were highlighted in a way that felt captivating.

The night before Vietnamese New Year, I asked my mother if I could wear an ao dai the next day to celebrate. I’ll never forget the look on her face, the excitement in her voice. When I put it on, I was entranced as I stared at the mirror, inspecting every little detail on the delicate fabric. I felt the importance of the garment, the history behind not only this specific ao dai, but every past rendition of cultural Vietnamese clothing that has come to create this beautiful modern silhouette.


When I went to celebrate the New Year with my family, I was truly an outlier this time being the only one wearing cultural clothing. Although, I didn’t feel ashamed. I was proud of outwardly expressing my culture for the very first time.

With a Perspective, I’m Emily Au.

Emily Au is a student at Middle College High School in San Pablo. Her piece was produced with free curriculum from KQED Youth Media Challenge.

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