Public Displays of Wealth and Asian American Upper-Middle Class Lifestyles

In Hyphen Magazine, I found the blog article “Real Vietnamese American Housewives of Orange County a.k.a. My Mom and Her Friends” by Vy Ta particularly interesting. The article makes observations about the very social and luxurious lifestyles of upper-middle class Vietnamese American housewives, her mother included, and reflects on how despite such an active social life, at the end of the day, these women have balanced being mothers and socialites beautifully. By observing this very balance as well as the nature of where these women came from and how they have settled into their own communities in America, we can realize the weight of social perceptions and public appearance. Through this, we can make observations about the pressures of social class and wealth. Perhaps most interesting, is the very manner in which these women have been able to weave together two different forms of popular culture and social practices.

Ta discusses how her mother belongs to a group of women and housewives who are very active in their Vietnamese American social circles in the largest Vietnamese American community in the United States and live very lavish lifestyles. These women attend banquets, parties, and social events quite frequently, often partying alongside Vietnamese American pseudo-celebrities of singers and entertainers – the same ones I see on my Vietnamese grandmother’s television set. As Ta points out, “they party often, shop heavily, and gossip a lot. Plastic surgery, fashion shows, and social alcoholism are casual subjects over Sunday morning dim sum…”

Vy Ta's parents at a party hosted by Ky Duyen (center in red), the celebrity emcee of Paris By Night
Vy Ta’s parents at a party hosted by Ky Duyen (center in red), the celebrity emcee of Paris By Night

The very combination and merging of two cultures is perhaps one of the most interesting relations. These women spend their days shopping at Asian American shopping centers for food and designer apparel and accessories to wear to Vietnamese community events and parties, bringing together aspects of their Vietnamese identity and facets of what they believe is of the upper-middle class American life. The combination of traditional identities and American wealth shows an interesting look at the discourses of maintaining old culture and indulging in new ones. Festivities and events give us a chance to see the most publicly appealing parts of both identities and discourses and how these women may have chosen which parts of keep and adopt and which parts to leave behind.

Vy Ta's mother and her friends attend a Lunar New Year party in traditional Vietnamese áo dài dresses
Vy Ta’s mother and her friends attend a Lunar New Year party in traditional Vietnamese áo dài dresses

The comments at the end of the article shine a light on how these women may look like to outside observers and what that says about dominant societal values and hegemonic ideologies. As one commenter brutally put, if he/she were the child of these women, he/she would be “ashamed” at their mothers’ ostentatious and lavish lifestyles and inappropriate looks, implying that they are wannabe “Nouveau Riche” when all they need to have to get through the door is to be married to someone with a title of doctor, engineer, or dentist, etc. A few other commenters echoed similar sentiments to pass judgment on these women. Some insinuated these women were selfish for wasting their wealth on these parties and maintenance on outer appearance instead of community service. As a response, the son of one these women fired back that “Yes, I agree it can get a little pretentious at times and I myself would prefer for them to practice a little more modesty. But you have to understand that these people came from the pits of Vietnam and have built wonderful lives for their families despite their circumstances. So yea, maybe they want to be a little flashy but don’t you think they have every right to be?”

In my opinion, that son’s comment captures the very mentality and ideologies behind the nature of these lavish lifestyles. Public displays of wealth and social status give people a sense of hegemonic power. Being able to party alongside celebrities gives people a sense of influence and a sense of feeling important. Realizing the historical context that led this community to come to America gives us an even better understanding. The Vietnam War left people stricken with poverty and desolation. Property was confiscated and lost; people felt their life and dignity taken away. As Ta mentions, these women mostly fled to the United States as refugees in their teens. They had educational and professional opportunities and prospects in this new land. They built good lives despite the circumstances of where they came from. As the son makes a point of, there is nothing wrong with wanting to flash just how far they have come.

A scene in the fourth episode of the ABC television show Fresh Off the Boat has a scene that humorously captures this mentality.

The “success perms” are this couple’s public displays of success, something to physically show their peers their accomplishments, a sense of pride. Just like how these women attend “elite” and selective parties while wearing expensive, tight clothing and getting plastic surgery and Botox, these material things allow the rest of the world and community to see just how much one has achieved. Like the narrator Eddie Huang in Fresh Off the Boat puts, the perms were a symbolic way of wearing “dollar signs.”

In these observations, we are able to see how people can see that public appearance and displays of wealth can perceptively put us in a higher relation to power and influence. Even more importantly, historical context and realizing the stories and circumstances of how these Asian American individuals came to America and their value of being able to build themselves back up, remake themselves and succeed reveal the importance of the ideologies behind these lifestyles as well as the want to maintain one’s traditional identity while benefitting from gains of this new home and life. The comments however, reveal another side – one of judgment and enforcing dominant social values.


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