Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Playing Vietnamese Dress-up

I arrived at work Monday morning fully aware that I had an appointment to meet with the journalist and film crew from the local news network that afternoon. As usual, I wasn't really sure what they wanted to talk about, but my staff sure seemed incredibly excited about it. So excited, in fact, that, with bright, shiny eyes, one of my dear counselors, bouncing in her seat at morning meeting, suggested that I should wear the traditional "ao dai" (pronounced "ow zay") to the interview.

As silly a suggestion this seemed, it was quickly taken up by all the other staff sitting at the table, and soon I had a crowd of young women looking far too enthusiastic than is healthy for 8 am on a foggy, dank Monday morning. Uh-oh, I thought, there's no winning this one. But of course, I had to try.

"I don't have an ao dai anymore," I protested, "I took it back to America on my last visit." (I hadn't like how that one fit anyway).

"No problem, we'll rent one," came the answer.

"But I'm about 10 times bigger than the average Vietnamese woman - there's no way they'll have a stock ao dai in my size."

"Yes they will - we'll find one."

"It's too cold."

"We'll turn up the heat."

"Nobody else is going to wear one. It will look funny if it's just me sitting in the office wearing a fancy dress."

"Everybody will love it - and we'll do your make-up too! You'll look Vietnamese! "

Hah. It would take a lot more than a couple yards of neatly embroidered silk and satin and some white-out make-up to make me look like one of the petite, lithe, dark-eyed and black-haired exotic waifs that populate this lovely country. But, what the heck, it's only for local television, and they were so thrilled with the idea. If they want to play "Magic Make-Over" with me on a Monday afternoon, well, worse things have happened.

So, about 11 am one field coordinator rushed in and announced we were going to the rental shop. We must've been a sight - this dear girl is 23, about 4 feet 6 inches tall, about 80 pounds, and just as sweet and feisty a thing as they come. Here she is trying to drive me around town on her miniature scooter (made for petite girls like her) to find an ao dai that will fit this comparatively towering 5 foot 3 white girl. But she was right - they found a dress for me on my first try. It was a standard bridesmaid's dress that must have been made for a girl quite a bit rounder than me. The pants posed a momentary problem in that rounder also implies shorter - but ten minutes later they were ten centimeters longer and the problem was solved.

After lunch I returned to the office with my make-up, high-heels and hairbrush in a bag. Without hesitation the girls set upon me and soon my desk was indistinguishable from a Mary Kay house party. Boxes and bags disgorged make-up of every color, brushes of every size, creams of every consistency. I was strapped to my chair and the torture began. The hardest part of the whole process was keeping a straight face for them to apply the various products while watching them consider every move as carefully as a sculptor or surgeon. Too bad their outcome wasn't an actually masterpiece (I tried teaching them the proverb about silk purses out of sows' ears).

Fortunately after the first layer was applied they decided I should change first - fortunately, I say, because even with a whole team of caregivers and plenty of time devoted to preparation, I still wasn't ready when the TV crew arrived (okay, they also arrived about 45 minutes early). Sadly the early arrival didn't impede the liberal use of an eyelash curler (eeeek!).

And so I had just enough time to jam my feet into my heels and my translator to toss some hot water into the teapot before the much-lauded representatives of Cao Bang's finest correspondents entered my seat of power. My translator had the tact to tell me I looked just like a Vietnamese woman on her engagement day about two seconds before the two young men entered - great, now I finally figure out that they were trying to marry me off to Cao Bang Television. Needless to say the two gentlemen were taken aback to see me in full wedding dress. I'll give them credit that they seemed just as surprised by the show as I felt ostentatious, so at least they weren't knowingly in on any of this.

To add futility to vanity, the lead reporter haltingly explained that he and his cameraman were only there to get a bit more information about our projects and some B-roll for a short brief they were planning for the news that night - they didn't actually want to interview me after all. I doubt I had exactly stunned him with my beauty or anything, but he certainly was distracted because he proceeded to repeat this fact ad nauseum while occasionally interjecting how much they hoped they might be able to work with us more in the future and perhaps to do a much bigger story soon. He even went so far to throw out that they could send the story to the national news if they could find something enticing enough (a mixed-blood wedding ceremony, perhaps?).

I've never found cold interviews with Cao Bang Television to be all that effective before, so I was more than happy to set about giving them more basic information and background on our projects. And background information certainly was needed and called for - despite the fact that we have done several extended interviews and even one large publicity project with Cao Bang TV in the past, this young gentleman was sorely uninformed about our programs.

In the end, I have no idea whether a story was even completed and aired this week...and I have no idea if any of the B-roll of me sitting behind my desk in my full wedding get-up talking to my translator and other staff would have made the cut anyway. The reporters hung around for about an hour and got to scope out an office full of girls of varying degrees of eligibility - which, to them, was probably more of a story than our actual work. I discovered that I can indeed semi-successfully rent an ao dai on short notice in something near my size in this town, but have also been convinced of the importance of having another good one tailor-made to fit me. And my staff have finally satisfied themselves that I won't magically turn into a Vietnamese woman simply by applying a lot of really white make-up to my face in the style of traditional beauty.

Still, we took the requisite pictures to memorialize the occasion. As it was nasty day outside we were left with the rather uncomplimentary interior of our office, complete with bad fluorescent strip lighting, as a backdrop. Between that an the half-worn-off vampire make-up and the blasé hairstyle, I'm not completely proud of the outcome, but, for the record, here is how I looked:

After the fun was all over, I returned to my office and reapplied my own make-up to show them how I usually do my face. I had realized that most of the staff had never seen me in make-up, as that's not something I usually do in Cao Bang. So I went all out, complete with eyeliner, and they all agreed that in the future I can be left to do my own face. Other aspects of Vietnamese attire I will leave to the real Vietnamese.

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