Beauty Across Borders
A Vietnamese Burn Survivor's Journey
by Kiki Vo
Growing up in a small town in Vietnam, I faced certain social and cultural norms that were expected of women. Like others, I was expected to get married, have children, and take care of the household. Physical attractiveness was an important marker of one’s chance of getting married.
My community’s expectations changed after I was injured in a house fire.
My injuries caused severe scarring on my body and parts of my face. Suddenly, I would hear phrases like, “Now no one will want to marry you.” At ten years old, their words influenced how I viewed my burn scars for many years to come.
Then, in 2002, My father took my two burn-injured sisters and me to the United States for medical treatments. My father knew that being in the United States would open doors to educational opportunities for us. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand this concept for a while.
As a burn-injured youth from Vietnam, I struggled with low-esteem and body images. It was especially hard during my adolescent years when I thought my scars made me look really ugly, and because I was ugly, nobody would want to be my friend. I didn’t join the dance team—although it was fascinating to me—because I assumed people would criticize me and focus on how “scary” I looked instead. As a way to cope with staring from classmates, I wore long sleeve shirts and let my hair fall over my face, even when the weather was over 100 degrees.
When I began attending burn camps and burn support groups, my mindset shifted. Instead of trying to be invisible from the society, I focused all of my energy on school. Education became a tool for my self-empowerment. If it was true that nobody would want to marry me because of my scars, I should focus on becoming a highly educated and kind human being.
I strive to excel because I want to prove that I’m more than just a female with burn scars. I am an educated woman who wants to make a difference in this world. I don’t need a man to validate my potential.
I also knew that in order to continue to grow and learn, I needed to find ways to challenge my own comfort with my burns. In 2015, I partnered with my good friend and photographer, Krysada Binly Phounsiri, on a photoshoot titled “Beauty Beyond Scars.” Seeing myself in those black and white photos allowed me to embrace my scars: for their unique texture and look, for how they make me who I am.
Whenever I go to a nail salon or encounter older Vietnamese folks, they tell me to cover up and wear a long sleeve shirt. Before, these types of statements would frustrate me, but now I understand that people often project their own feelings of discomfort and shock onto me. I see that I have the power to educate them. I have the choice to be patient, to explain why it is important to be aware of the challenges burn survivors face and encourage them to embrace their scars.
It has been over fifteen years since I immigrated to the United States. Getting married is not the expected “end goal” for me here. I have the opportunity to build my legacy and accomplish any goal I set my mind to. Because of this freedom, I am on my way to finishing up my Masters of Social Work program.
I wouldn’t be the survivor I am today if I was still living in Vietnam. I would not have had the support from others, who saw my inner beauty and strength.
As I stroll down the street with my short sleeve blouse and my head held high, I use the light within me to empower others so they too can see their own beauty.
Huyen "Kiki" Vo is currently finishing her Masters in Social Work at California State University, East Bay. While in her program, Kiki is a Medical Social Worker intern at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Her dream is to obtain a license in social work and work in a hospital setting, supporting burn survivors in the transition back to society. In her free time, Kiki loves to dance, cook, hike, work out, and spend quality time with her friends and loved ones. Her photoshoot, including the photo featured here, was completed by Krysada Binly Phounsiri. See more of his work at www.snappilots.com.