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Get to Know Vietnam's 54 Ethnic Groups via These Adorable Emojis

If only these adorable emojis existed back when we were toiling over our geography homework years ago.

The public geography syllabus has drilled into the mind of young Vietnamese the fact that the country has 63 provinces and cities and comprises 54 ethnic groups, but one would be hard-pressed to find someone who can list the entirety of the provinces and ethnicities. The reality is, for Vietnamese citizens living in regions without other ethnic minorities, a lack of knowledge regarding the rest of the country's ethnic groups is rampant.

This is a shortcoming that troubled graphic designer Nguyễn Minh Ngọc prior to completing the “Nhỏ To Việt Nam” project. Ngọc, a Kinh Vietnamese from Hanoi but working in Singapore, admits in the project’s foreword that, despite the official term “54 brotherly ethnic groups,” many Vietnamese don’t know a lot about our own proverbial siblings.

“Before embarking on the project, I was very ignorant myself, despite having interacted with people from other ethnic groups,” he writes. “In a way, I felt angry and fed up with myself. That determination kicked my ass to get started on the first images.”

Ngọc shared that the idea for the project has been brewing since last December, but it was only until this April, when the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated a work-from-home order in Singapore, that he was able to seriously dedicate time to it. Instead of the initial estimate of one month, “Nhỏ To Việt Nam” took four months to reach a state of relative completion to go online.

“Other creative projects were a way to explore and express my own identity, but with [Nhỏ To Việt Nam], I do it with the hopes that it would benefit the community in some ways. So I pressed on and on,” Ngọc explains.

The result was a set of 108 emojis representing the costumes of male and female members of 54 of Vietnam’s ethnic groups — a very contemporary marriage between millennial cyberculture and anthropology. From headdresses and patterned textiles to color palettes and embroidery, the depth of Vietnam’s cultural diversity is interwoven with the cheery cartoon figures in a very accessible form for viewers. On the project’s official Instagram page, Ngọc also includes additional information on the ethnic groups’ geographical presence and other relevant terminologies.

The collection of emojis was published at the beginning of August to rapturous responses by Vietnamese netizens. Most reacted with enthusiasm and curiosity, but what lends the project gravitas is how these tiny illustrated human figures have sparked conversations surrounding the many ethnicities of Vietnam and how they’re represented in current media products.

Apart from casual praise and readers tagging their friends, the project’s social media pages have also garnered a number of responses from members of the featured ethnicities. Some express excitement seeing a piece of themselves in the collection, but others also provide valuable insights into traditional costumes, or even point out details that are incorrect.

In the entry for Chăm people, a few Instagram users left recommendations in the form of Chăm texts and writers for further readings into their religious practice and culture. One commented on how the emoji shouldn’t feature hair, as Chăm women usually cover it up entirely with their veil. A H’Mông commenter, on the other hand, tells the story of how her family identifies more with the name “Mèo” in casual conversations.

Ngọc admitted himself that the one-man design project is neither complete nor perfect, and he welcomes feedback. The subject of ethnic representation itself is also rife with inaccuracies and misrepresentation.

“While searching for information, I come across many gross errors (most commonly matching the images of one ethnic group with another’s name),” he writes. “But those that make me grab my head in frustration are the ethnic minority ‘cosplay’ pieces made by Kinh people — completely wrong and hideous.” An online article about the Chứt people, for example, is instead filled with images of Dao people, Ngọc told Zing in an interview.

According to Ngọc, he has plans to expand the scope of the project into Vietnamese landmarks, traditional dishes and musical instruments, but the ideas might take months to come to fruition.

Follow the project on Instagram here and check out more projects by Nguyễn Minh Ngọc on his Behance page here.

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