“Adversity is the mother of wisdom.”
For Jenny Do, a woman born from a Vietnamese mother and American father at the height of tension between to the two nations, a twist to this Vietnamese proverb would be: “adversity is also a catalyst for strength.” A stranger in her homeland, Do who was not considered a citizen of Vietnam due to her heritage, was subject to poor treatment from her peers, including daily demands that she “go home,” while being denied civil liberties such as purchasing food and clothes by the government. The boiling point occurring when a physical altercation propelled her to march into the office of an official at her school echoing the sentiments of her peers and declaring, “I want to go home.” An act Do, now realizes was the equivalent of an immigrant currently living in this country without the proper documentation confronting immigration officials.
Unbeknownst to her, while she was making her declaration, the government decided to participate in a pilot project spearheaded by the veterans who advocated to bring the children they had in Vietnam to America. Instead of being punished, she was given the paperwork that would secure her arrival in America exactly a year later on her 18th birthday. Her journey inspired her to pledge to return to Vietnam to help other children who were subject to abuse. Her inaugural return, seven years later, where she traveled from the north to the south of Vietnam visiting orphanages would be the beginning of her advocacy, activism, philanthropy, and creation of the Ao Dai Festival.
Though the living standards improved as relations between Americans and Vietnam improved, a “social illness” as Do describes it, began to develop, giving way to the business of selling women and children. She visited camps where victims who managed to run away resided, and listened to their stories, sponsored their recovery, and advocated for their rights. With the stories haunting her after returning to the States, she decided that these stories had to be shared. She presented an exhibition called “Humans for Sale” held at Do’s Greenrice Art Gallery which invited artists to raise awareness about child abuse, human trafficking, and women’s rights through their work. Though it garnered awareness, the feeling of helplessness remained and was now shared amongst those who were exposed to the story. But despite the discomfort that others felt from hearing the stories, she persisted, allowing the issue to garner a larger audience and action in the form of some sex trafficking victims being released.
Do’s work includes the Friends of Hue Foundation, the only American foundation in central Vietnam, where she shelters children who have been abused in various situations from sex trafficking to unstable home environments. Intervening in their lives has spared them suffering from serious injuries and in some cases death. There are some orphans who are supported financially but do not live in the home under the condition that they strive in school. The difference between her shelter and many others is the fusion of tech. Being from Silicon Valley, Do ensures that the children develop skills in tech and other modern skills, as well as pursue higher education as opposed to just learning domestic skills.
When these children grow and succeed, they are required to mentor the younger children who are being groomed to follow in their footsteps. They also provide services in the community such as aiding victims of the yearly floods, and elderly people in the community. Their work encourages an exchange of service. The elderly, share their life stories, and flood victims who are able to regain their land and raise animals, donate goods back to the foundation to assist other victims the following years.
Stories from many survivors, especially those who experienced sexual abuse, shared the same theme of shame and loss of their womanhood. Wanting so much to restore their sense of beauty and inner strength, Do asked what would give them that feeling. One of the survivors replied, “the Ao Dai.” That statement along with Jenny’s vision of continuing awareness gave life to the Ao Dai Festival. The Ao Dai Festival became the vehicle to spread awareness by shedding a positive light on the strength of the survivors.
Ao Dai translates to “Long Dress.” Throughout history it has been a symbol of beauty and pride for Vietnamese people, worn by courtiers, political advisors, and beauty pageant queens. Though traditionally, the Ao Dai garment, depicted in art and culture as a symbol of a women’s virtue and the expectations of a woman to be beautiful yet submissive, Do flips that narrative. “I want women wearing the Ao Dai to be looked at as warriors who combine beauty and strength,” says Do. The festival embraces the virtue that’s already ingrained in Vietnamese women without accepting the treatment that limits their ability, controls them with economic pressure, or takes away their power. “Putting on the Ao Dai is putting on the strength of 4000 years of our ancestors. It crowns (the victims) once again and gives them that inner strength that’s needed to deal with whatever is going on in their life.” Do also describes the Ao Dai as “a symbol to unite the culture that changes the character and mannerisms of the wearer and commands respect from onlookers.”
The themes of each Ao Dai festival focuses on cultural stories of women who uphold the warrior-like image. These stories passed down for generations are a reflection of a society where the women constantly carried the burden of their families until their death. They show the spirit of women, the inner strength, and the outer beauty. The festival which takes place in San Jose California has also spread to Toronto, Canada, alternating locations each year. The celebration in a colorful display of the Vietnamese culture through, music, fashion, and art.
May 15th has been declared Ao Dai Day in California. Regardless of where anyone is they are encouraged to wear the Ao Dai on that day to further share awareness and celebrate the strength of women everywhere. Though the festival was created as a celebration of Vietnamese culture, Jenny will be formally inviting other cultures with traditional attire that enhances the power and beauty of women to participate including women from Indian, Cambodian, and African communities for future festivals. The next festival will occur on May 12, 2018 in California, and in Toronto in 2019.
Updates will soon be available about the upcoming festival at http://aodaifestival.com