When USC student Jennifer Do gracefully crossed the stage of the Miss Vietnam of Southern California Pageant, her confidence and natural elegance suggested the qualities of a seasoned contestant.
But before the January pageant, modeling evening gowns and addressing a panel of judges was entirely foreign to the biology major.
“We were told that this was going to change our lives, and it really did,” said Do, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences sophomore. “Participating in the pageant gave me a great opportunity to continue learning about my culture and made me realize how important it is to learn Vietnamese.”
Her aspiration to compete in the pageant arose last fall when she began researching a Southern California Vietnamese community for an assignment in her “Language, Society and Culture” class.
Taught by Andrew Simpson, professor of linguistics and East Asian languages and cultures at USC Dornsife, the assignment required students to create a profile of an ethno-linguistic minority group in the Los Angeles county or Orange County area, describing how the heritage language of the group continues to be used in everyday activities.
A website promoting the Miss Vietnam event emboldened Do to enter the world of pageantry and get in touch with her cultural roots.
“I’ve always been interested in pageants, but I never had the time,” she said. “I just thought now was a good time and that it would be a way to help spread awareness of the Vietnamese culture.”
The Irvine native grew up 15 miles from Westminster, home of Little Saigon, but she was not familiar with the city’s history. In talking to her parents, she discovered that they had immigrated to the United States from Vietnam the same year Westminster had an influx of Southeast Asian refugees in the 1980s. Since then the Vietnamese population has flourished in the Orange Country community, making it the city’s largest demographic, which stood at 47.5 percent in 2010. Little Saigon boasts numerous Vietnamese-owned stores, markets and restaurants.
The more Do learned, the deeper she immersed herself in her cultural heritage.
Simpson was pleased to hear that the assignment helped Do reconnect with her cultural background and understand more about her family’s heritage.
“The course is focused on increasing student awareness of language-related issues which challenge and enrich the lives of American residents who have different heritages and backgrounds,” Simpson said. “Many students taking this class try to find out more about their own heritage language group, while others choose to study and learn about some other language group present in Los Angeles.”
Do was among 20 participants selected to compete in the pageant held during this year’s 31st annual Tết Festival of Southern California in Garden Grove. Spanning more than a decade, the pageant accepts women between the ages 17 to 26 who compete for scholarships and a trip to Southeast Asia.
Do’s transition into pageantry was seamless as she bonded with fellow contestants and enjoyed participating in the community outreach activities required of all participants. The women volunteered at Grandma’s House of Hope, an organization that provides transitional care for Orange County women and children in crisis. She also posed for a calendar, which was sold at the festival with all proceeds benefitting Project MotiVATe, a mentorship program for Vietnamese youth.
However, when participants conversed in Vietnamese, Do realized that knowing that language could do more than help her connect with fellow contestants – it would be an advantage in all aspects of her life. The realization was made stronger during a class discussion on the loss of language.
“Everything professor Simpson said about the loss of language was so true to me,” said Do, whose parents often speak Vietnamese at home. “I regret that I didn’t embrace my culture enough or take Vietnamese school seriously when my mom gave me the chance. I didn’t see how important learning Vietnamese was until I was in the pageant.”
For Do, the pageant heightened her passion to get back in touch with her Vietnamese heritage, beginning with the language. Preceding the competition, she spent each weekend at home, where her mother, KieuLien Nguyen, and father, Quyen Do, helped prepare her for the competition’s speaking portion.
When it was her time to recite a Vietnamese proverb, Do was ready.
She recited the famous phrase “Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today” in Vietnamese and explained that the proverb extends to many aspects of her life, from telling her parents she loves them to her determination to learn Vietnamese – a language she believes will be helpful in her future.
“I will be dealing with people on a daily basis, and chances are I am going to encounter someone who speaks Vietnamese,” said the aspiring pharmacist.
The pageant consisted of an opening dance routine in which the women wore traditional Vietnamese dresses (áo dài), a speaking portion and a formal wear segment. Judges picked the top 10 contestants, then the top five.
Though she did not place in the top 10, the experience was worth the time commitments, including four-hour rehearsals.
And it’s something she plans to do again.
“It was such an enlightening experience,” Do said. “I didn’t realize the impact the course and the pageant would have on my life. It’s definitely made me want to learn more about my Vietnamese heritage and has encouraged me to continue practicing my language.”