On being a loser

I entered a writing contest a couple of months ago. The topic was to write about the wedding dress you wore on your wedding day and tell why it was so significant to you. I didn’t have an amazing story – like, I didn’t find my dress in a dumpster or the dress wasn’t passed on from my mother who received it from her mother who received it from her mother – but I felt I had one thing on my side: my writing skills. Aside from several typos that I consistently make (to this day, whenever I write the name “Gloria,” I always start out spelling “Glorida”), I consider myself an above-average writer. Writing professionally for nearly 10 years now, I’ve been hacked, beaten, embarrassed, demoralized, waterboarded, quarantined, humiliated and made to walk the plank by several top editors who wanted to get my writing in pristine condition. After all that, if I’m not a decent writer, then I just suck.

Contestants got the results last week. I lost. I didn’t even place. Apparently I suck.

Instead, the top three winners (who earned cash prizes, by the way) wrote about finding a dress in the dumpster or how one dress was worn multiple times. Ouch. That hurt.

Besides looking up each of the top three winners’ home addresses and purchasing my airfare with hopes of cornering them in their neighborhoods and belittling them about their stories, as well as fighting the urge to drive to each of the judges’ homes and roughing them up like a crazed Colombia soccer fan would do to a ref who called a PK against his team, I’m not bitter. Not at all.

Anyhoos, my losing essay is below. See for yourself why I’m such a loser and why I suck as a writer.

––––––

Title: A banana in red

My friends used to call me a banana. You know, yellow on the outside and white inside. I used to laugh at that nickname and admittedly owned up to it. But one day I stopped laughing, and I started grasping how true the moniker was. A first-generation Vietnamese-American, it didn’t hit me until my late teens how much more of the latter I had become, and conversely how much less of the former.

At 27, I became engaged. Growing up in the States, I had always dreamed of parading down the aisle in a white gown toward my all-American husband-to-be. But slowly that idea shifted. First change: my fiance’s no blond, blue-eyed gringo, but instead a Filipino-American who prefers rice over potatoes any day. Second change: I no longer wanted that white dress. It was a shock to everyone, especially my mom, when I announced I wanted to take my vows in a traditional Vietnamese ao dai. A long-sleeved tunic that hangs mid-calf and is paired with silk trousers, an ao dai is to Vietnam what a Vera Wang dress is to America. And that’s what I wanted.

Sure, the decision was an homage to my family and culture. But deeper, it was a tone I wanted to set for myself: I am Vietnamese – and no one can take that away from me.

I tried on my first ao dai this summer. It was stiff, uncomfortable and hot. I looked as relaxed in it as an MMA fighter in a tutu. The sales associate must have thought I lost a bet or something. But then came the moment every bride, regardless of culture, dreams of. From the rows of ao dais, I found a red silk tunic with beautiful gold swirl accents. A far cry from the white ball gown I had dreamed of as a girl, I knew I found my match in red.

I put the dress on, and I felt transformed. As I stood in front of the mirror looking at this banana staring back, no longer was I remembering the past trick or treats, or Fourth of July parties; instead a wave of memories from all the mid-autumn festivals and Tet celebrations our family went to washed over me. And I remember heavily breathing five words: “I can’t believe that’s me.”

My mom didn’t wear a traditional Vietnamese gown for her wedding. She’s never said anything to me, but I imagine the white lace gown she married my father in was not her childhood vision. They married soon after arriving to the States. Both “boat people,” my parents assimilated quickly in American society at the height of the Vietnam War. Hence the white dress. Still, she looked radiant in that dress. But as she fastened the ao dai on me, this banana in red silk, in the fitting room that day, I began to understand I was wearing the ao dai for both of us. And I couldn’t have been more proud.

Trying on my ao dai

16 responses to “On being a loser

  1. Judges like sentimental stories…stories, they will say, touched them. In that way, stories about a dress recovered from a dumpster or a dress passed down generations is more enticing. It has nothing to do with the quality of *your* writing

  2. Nila,

    Your story was beautiful. It made me tear up. Forget about those judges. You are an amazing writer and I love reading your blogs. You will be a vision in red on your wedding day.

    Beth

  3. Screw those stupid judges. They know nothing.
    Your story is beautiful. Well-written. Inspiring. Heartfelt. And… real!
    Keep on rockin’, Nila. You’re brill.

    • Viv!!! What nice things you said. Seriously, my ego was bruised after I found out I didn’t place, but your words really picked me up. I heart you.

    • Debra: I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comment. That’s something I’ll always take with me… And I’ll try not to write too many uninteresting things in the future!

  4. Nila! Those judges suck! I second what someone earlier said about sentimental, Hallmark-y writing – just ’cause it’s sappy doesn’t mean it’s any good.

    I don’t mean for this to come off as a sycophantic-former-intern speech, but ever since I discovered your writing (when I was a rising sophomore), I’ve been alternately envious and awed. When you assigned me my first feature last summer, I was totally lost. I was scared of failing and didn’t know where to start. So I started reading your feature articles.

    That was the best lesson I ever gave myself. After reading your stuff, my writing improved immensely. Don’t underestimate how truly great your work is, and its potential to influence younger writers, like me. I learned from the best!

    Also, I can totally relate the banana syndrome. I dislike rice (blasphemy) and I can’t speak Tagalog or Ilocano, but am totally fluent in Filipino desserts (does that count?).

    • Jen: Coolest. Comment. Ever. Now while I hope your writing has not regressed while reading my writing, I am so flattered by your non-sycophantic comment. Thank you for your kind words, and I think you’re doing pretty damn good with your own writing.

  5. Nila, You look beautiful in your ao dai! Your essay was beautifully written and heartfelt. I don’t know what those judges were thinking, you are no loser in my book!!

  6. Pingback: On Being A Winner « slightlyunedited·

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