Finding my roots through an Asian beauty pageant

Miss Vietnam Canada 2017 winner Kim Dinh reflects on a pageant that helped her connect more with her culture and parents.

“Your dad just finished watching your pageant video … and he said that you look like a man.”

Those words from my mother had me shaking my head and laughing, “Like a woman, mom, you mean I look like a woman.” 

It was May 21, 2017, and I had just won the title of Miss Vietnam Canada. Never would I have thought that a Regina, Saskatchewan, degenerate — who occasionally got social anxiety and was notorious for being clumsy — could win such an incredible title. 

But, there I was, with the heat of the stage lights beaming down on me and one of my pageant sisters slung over my shoulders. We had decided to combine talents, with her singing the Mulan soundtrack song, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” while I attempted to “work out” by doing push ups and overhead barbell lifts. 

Photo of Kim Dinh Miss Vietnam Canada
Photo credit: Flying Penguin

I wanted to prove a point — that all Asian women, despite being stereotyped as small, vulnerable, and fragile, can be seen as being mentally and physically strong. It was a defining moment. And as I stood there holding her up and squatting to the beat, all I could think of was, “Please don’t fucking drop her.”

Growing up in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan was easy and very slow moving. The Asian population is exactly what you think it would be: minimal. Regardless of my parents pressuring me to do well in school and to speak Vietnamese, I never really cared. My parents wanted so much for me to hold onto my culture, but as I grew older, that started to fade away. 

One day at work, I received an Instagram message (yes, an easy slide into the DMs was all it took), asking if I was interested in joining the Miss Vietnam Canada Pageant. I eventually decided to give it a shot. 

Why? The same reason as every other Asian kid — to impress their parents and finally become their favourite All-Star child, duh!

Photo of Kim Dinh
Photo credit: Flying Penguin

First, let me address the stigma of most pageants, such as it’s all about body image, it’s beauty and no brains, and also it’s catty bitches. 

I’m not saying this is true for all pageants, but the one I competed in was, thankfully, not like that at all. I met the most intelligent, down-to-earth, kooky, and kind individuals.

There were students, software engineers, artists, and teachers — and we were different shapes, ages, and had different stories to tell. But what we had in common was that we were all second-generation women, who were there to learn about our culture and push past our comfort zones.

Photo of Kim Dinh
Photo credit: Flying Penguin

The pageant consisted of public speaking, cultural questionnaires, cat walks, and talent practice. There were a few challenges I faced — one of them being a fear of public speaking, and also having to try to ignore the background chatter of people calling me fake. 

However the biggest challenge, yet it became the most rewarding, was that I became closer to my parents. 

As part of the questionnaire, there were some very vulnerable topics, most of which my parents have never talked about with me. Their answers made me cry, as I can only understand one-tenth of the struggles they went through to get to Canada. 

It made me understand the reasons why they acted the way they did, and why they pushed so hard for me to hold onto my roots. My parents went through emotional turmoil to escape Vietnam on a boat to start over in Canada and I am thankful everyday for that. 

I now have a brand new perspective on Asian pageants. Yes, some of it can be shallow, but in my own experience, it was much more than that. 

It was those moments with your pageant sisters, sitting on the floor, and having an open discussion about culture and why our parents are the way they are. It was an opportunity to showcase our talents and successes. And it was a chance to celebrate and embrace Vietnamese culture. 

This pageant has changed my life in every possible way, making me more confident, open-hearted, and understanding;  and most importantly, it “saved” me from losing all interest in my roots. 

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