September 13, 2017
I pushed the door open into a small and cozy room where the walls were lined with shelves full of fabrics. Overflowing. The sound of sewing machines whirring. Around five to six women were busy measuring and cutting fabrics to be sewed into the beautiful blouses and dresses that hung on the racks next to me.
My auntie, who spoke Vietnamese, described to the lead artisan the custom dress and romper I hoped they would make for me. I showed her two photos of designs I had in mind. Afterwards, she walked to the fabric shops next door and came back with a few floral patterns I could choose from. My waist, arms, and chest measured. A few laughs. She told us that it would be done within a few days.
My family and I had been spending the last few weeks in Saigon visiting my dad’s siblings, eating anything and everything, and exploring various parts of the city. It was my first time being in Vietnam, but it felt like a part of me was coming back.
Being the Asian American child of ethnically Chinese refugee-immigrants from Vietnam often times leaves me lingering in a state of liminality - always in transition. A piece of me taking root in the multiple spaces of Los Angeles and Vietnam. I was in a way coming home - to welcoming arms of family members, multidimensional working-class folks, struggling notions with my identity, rich histories full of not only trauma but love and resistance, hot and beautiful sunny weather, motorbikes, hardworking street vendors, and talented craftspeople and artisans.
Before I began this family trip, I made a few intentions for myself as a traveler. I wanted to be as respectful as I could to the communities I was visiting, in addition to carving spaces for myself to reflect and learn. For me, this included:
1. Making most, if not all, my purchases from small businesses.
While in Saigon, I knew that some of the clothing pieces I bought may or may not have been sourced from the best or most ethical conditions, but I was still able to support the few out of the many working-class people of color who made a living from selling these clothes. From the options I had at this level of being a consumer, I made sure that I bought from small and local shops rather than large retailers or malls. I also made sure that what I bought was versatile and valuable to me, so that I could wear it for a long time.
In these moments, I don’t forget how exploitative the fashion industry can be, but I remember that it’s not always easy or possible to demand working-class folks to readily change their lifestyle choices (e.g., buy from more ethical companies) or ways of making a living (e.g., only sell clothes that are ethically sourced and produced). There are multiple players in the fashion industry and some have more access to financial power and decision-making than others (note: organizing for labor rights and equitable policies can be powerful too - there’s no doubt about that!). While I wholeheartedly support buying from slow and sustainable brands, I also support working-class folks when the options for the former are difficult to access. Buying locally produced products from small shops and artisans are great choices.
2. Taking photos when it is appropriate and consent is given.
It’s very important to me that I don’t take photos of people’s faces when I don’t have their permission, especially when I plan to post these photos on social media with my own perspectives. I’m not perfect at this because people sometimes show up in the background and I haven’t followed these guidelines in the past, but I do my best to stay critical of the ways I portray certain communities and the people who live, work, and exist there.
There are also certain spaces that I stay cognizant of whether or not it’s appropriate to take photos. For example, my family and I visited many Buddhist temples, which are part of our faith, but I never felt it was appropriate for me to take photos of the shrines or statues. I breathed, prayed, and took time to be mindful while I was in these spaces.
Stitching. Floral ruffles. Comments of “đẹp (pretty)!” When I tried on the dress and romper the aunties at the small shop sewed for me, I was in awe at how beautiful they were. I loved everything they created for me and now have something to remind me of my time in Vietnam.
3. Learn more about the communities I visit.
This has meant reading literature, listening to music, and looking at art created by people connected to these very communities, whether that means they currently live there, are first-generation immigrants, or are their children. I’ve been grateful to be able to learn about Vietnam, the many narratives, and various histories through my Asian American Studies classes and conversations with my parents. I’m still learning.
4. Appreciate the time and labor that working-class folks put into cooking, telling stories, working, everything!
And when I can show this appreciation monetarily, I do. Many things were much more inexpensive compared to what I was used to where I’m from in the United States. It felt unsettling to pay so little for things I felt were worth so much more given the labor and care people put in. My family always felt it was important to tip when it was appropriate (especially to all the people working on tours!) and I found it important for me to not haggle.
Frances is a second-generation Chinese Vietnamese
American based in Los Angeles.
She's passionate about social justice, slow fashion,
green beauty, and community health.
She loves writing and storytelling, so feel free to say hi!
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