STORY // Paulina T.

Paulina and I know each other from college—we were members of a hip-hop/cultural dance team at North Carolina State University. Since then, she was crowned Miss Vietnam of the Carolinas, she served in the Peace Corps, and she recently started graduate school.

I got the chance to catch up with her in Durham, and we’re honored to share her stories. Enjoy!

// Family Journey

My dad always told me his boat stories about coming over from Vietnam. But it was never in one big conversation. Even though I heard it plenty of times growing up, I never remembered the details. So, I finally recorded it.

I have four thirty-minute videos of my dad telling his story. It’s very sporadic, but I learned a lot. When I was younger I didn’t ask questions so he didn’t elaborate. But now being older I’m more interested and curious to know. I asked my dad, “how’d you get from Vietnam to the U.S.” and I had him pull out a map!

He was twenty when he left Vietnam, and ended up in a refugee camp in Malaysia. He was the only one who knew how to play the guitar, so he would play music for everyone. He said because of that, he felt that one of the leaders took care of him—he got my dad and uncle tickets to America.

My dad arrived here at a time when you didn’t have to have all these credentials to work, so he did everything to earn money: mechanic, manicurist, restaurant manager. My family resettled in New Orleans, and then we moved to Raleigh while I was still young. 

// Miss Vietnam of the Carolinas (MVC)

Vietnamese people are very big on hoa hậu (pageants), but my parents didn’t want me to do it. They said, “It’s a waste of time. It’s a waste of money.” It was tough to explain my reason to them, but I just wanted to do it.

I got involved with the pageant mainly to forgive my younger self for being ashamed of Viet culture growing up. In high school, I just wanted to be mỹ trắng (a white person). Back then, I didn’t embrace my culture at all. So the pageant was a way of embracing my Viet side.

After I was crowned Miss Vietnam of the Carolinas, I volunteered to coordinate the pageant. I’m pageant mom, not director, so my role is to help participants feel comfortable. I don’t want them to feel like they’re in a typical, cut-throat competition. Before MVC, I didn’t have a lot of Viet friends but the pageant really helped me to meet other Viets. Now, we all follow and support each other.

In 2017, I introduced a personal development workshop to address body image, self-esteem, and stereotypes. I wanted the participants to get to know each other. It wasn’t a lecture, we just asked open-ended questions and then all of a sudden, it took off on its own. People were really sharing. “I’m too tall. I’m too short. I’m too fat.”

We talked about our “lunchbox moments.” It’s that moment when you’re at school, and you open your lunch and you have really pungent food—especially anything with fish sauce. All the other kids with their chicken tenders are like “Ew, what’s that?!” We felt ashamed to be Vietnamese and just wanted to be “full-on American”...whatever that means. We said, “Mom, I don’t want you to pack me lunch anymore. I just want chicken tenders.”

I wanted to emphasize to pageant participants this opportunity to explore our Vietnamese roots, because otherwise we’ll lose it.

// Peace Corps

I joined the Peace Corps to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone while doing service. I thought about my parents and how they restarted their lives in a new country. They learned a new language and adapted to a culture different than the one they grew up with. I wanted to immerse myself in a different culture and experience the challenge of adapting to life in a new country.

I served in Paraguay and stuck out like a sore thumb. People would ask me if I was Japanese, and I’d say, “No, I’m American.” Then, they found out about MVC. So they’d ask “Wait, you were a pageant girl?!” I was like, “Yep,” and it bumped my status. It was great to share my Vietnamese culture with the community abroad.



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