Thursday, 23 January 2014

Why Madame Tây?

In Vietnamese, Tây literally means west, but the term has been liberally applied to describe any foreigner you might come across. Having lived in Vietnam for almost three years, being Tây continues to be inextricably tied to my identity. You carry the label with you where ever you go: from getting passport photos printed, where the storekeeper will jot down Tây in the blank space next to name; to weekend trips in the countryside where kids will run after you shouting Miss Tây or Uncle Tây. I won't go into this in more detail, since my friend Tabitha has already described it far more eloquently than I ever could in her blog here. When I started visiting the tailors, I noticed that many of our pieces would come back with a piece of paper labelled Tây sewn into the fabric to indicate that they were for me. Of course, having grown up as a second generation Chinese girl in Australia - where almost half the population has at least one parent who was born overseas the broad application of the term Tây sat for me somewhere between amusement and bewilderment. I remember the security guard for our small alley asking one day whether Sarah - my Jewish-American housemate - and I were sisters.

As we started this clothing project, we ended up producing clothes in Senegal and Vietnam by chance. Cara and I were skyping one day when she raised the idea. I live in Vietnam and Cara was planning to go to Senegal. One of the first questions we had was how to bring together clothing under our project which would inevitably be of two very different styles that reflect each countries own history, culture and fabrics. One small thing which ties together these two vastly different countries is their history of french colonialism for more or less a hundred years. The influence of the French differs greatly between the two countries. In Senegal, where French remains the official language the influence of French colonialism is very visible. It is important to note however that Senegalese society, whilst greatly influenced by the rule of the French, remains uniquely Senegalese - the top university in Dakar bares the name of Senegalese intellectual Cheikh Anta Diop who developed the notion of négritude - the promotion of a common black identity as a rejection of French colonialism, and although French is the official language, most Senegalese prefer to converse in their first language. Despite this strong Senegalese cultural identity, the influence of the period of French colonialism is undeniable and is present on institutional levels (the Senegalese educational and legal systems mirror the French systems) as well as more informally - all street signs and shop names are French, and you'll hear the French greeting 'ça va?' everywhere you go in Senegal. In Vietnam, french influences remain more subtle - but can still be found in the baguettes for sale every afternoon on the pavements in the old quarter, the french style seating in cafes - arranged for people watching - and the occasional use of Madame when addressing foreigners.

So we chose the name Madame Tây to serve as a reminder for a few things. The importance of adaptation (which would haunt us throughout the whole production process) - you may not understand how or why something works, but still need to trust that it does. The  magnitude of roots and origins - despite how desperate you may be to fit in - our roots, for good or for bad, mold the food we eat, the books we like and the clothes we wear and deserve due respect.  And finally that the world is a much smaller and more interconnected than it first seems.

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