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My visit to Vietnam

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Vietnam is a complicated country –even more so to those of us who lived through the Vietnam War. When I arrived for a 10-day visit, I hardly knew what to expect. The names of places we would explore brought back such strong memories – Danang, Hanoi, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

What did I learn?

That intense and continuous oppression makes people rise up and fight for freedom beyond even their own expectations. The Americans completely underestimated the national resistance they would face, the losses our enemy was willing to suffer. This is a lesson to be remembered today in other parts of the world. Oppressing to the point of desolation is never a winning strategy.

I learned that there is sense of excitement for the future sprouting from the feudal conditions that permeate most of Vietnam. Building is everywhere, from major highways that cut huge swaths through the poorest neighborhoods to high-rise buildings in the major cities transforming the skyline, to huge developments springing up along the best beaches. Even in the countryside, factories are swallowing up the farmland that villagers sell to take jobs in the factories and build another story on their multi-generational homes. Too bad the locals are losing their access to their beaches and losing their jobs at the factories – this is the price of progress.

That consumerism is alive and well. We stood at the wholesale markets and watched truck after truck back up and unload huge bundles of goods. In turn each of the bundles were broken into smaller bundles and loaded onto motorbikes, the main transportation in Vietnam, in such volume that our eyes bulged at the sheer madness. Believe me, watching 40 dozen eggs, or 20 live ducks, being driven down the highway on the back of a motorcycle is a sight worth seeing.

That progress is, like many countries, not equal. Women appear to do most of the work in Vietnam. It’s unsettling to see the women doing many of the construction jobs, most of the clean up jobs (garbage collection, street sweeping), and most of the sales jobs in the markets – all while the men play board games on the side of the streets or take naps lying expertly on the length of their parked motorbike.

I met two 30-something young women in Vietnam, my gauge of the future welfare of this world, who are definitely caught squarely, and not comfortably, between the old and the new. The first is a Vietnamese American. Her mother worked for the CIA and her father for the American Embassy. They were lucky to escape and settled in the United States where they raised two daughters. Now their oldest has chosen to come back to Vietnam to ride the tide of what she hopes will be an exciting future for her parents’ former country. She returned with her American husband and has had to suffer the constant concern of her cousins who never left Vietnam that she doesn’t treat him well enough, doesn’t wait on him to a sufficient level. She struggled with these old ideas for quite a while before realizing that what she has to contribute are her new ideas which will more quickly add to her newly adopted country’s progress.

Her struggle was nothing compared to that of the other 30-something - a native born Vietnamese woman. I met her in the North where she was our local guide. She spoke impeccable English and was a well-informed and very personable young woman. She exemplified the worldwide adage of ‘women need to be twice as good to be paid half as much’.

As we got to know each other better, she began to share the details of her ‘other’ life – the life that the vast majority of young women in Vietnam live and many generations before them. The day she got married, she left her own family and moved into the house of her husband’s family. She became the unpaid servant of the family, isolated from her friends and family. This is where she will stay until the day she dies. Because her husband is the only son, there is no exit possible. Luckily, her mother-in-law is kind to her - maybe because she has successfully met the first test of a Vietnamese woman– she has given birth to a son. The next test is to have a daughter. And then, according to Vietnamese law, there will be no more children. She worries, as beautiful and talented as she is, that her husband will abandon her because, as she told me, “When a woman gets married and has babies, she gets old and then her husband takes on concubines.” She told me, “At work I feel empowered, but not at home – it’s the way we lived life 100 years ago.” She mentioned many times what a big problem domestic violence is in Vietnam, so much so that I worry still that she was caught in a bad situation with no means to set it straight.

The pull of the old and the new is real and personal in Vietnam. Women are being torn apart. Men are still enjoying privileged lives with their mother complicit in the swindle. Let’s hope this is the generation that rises up and calls a halt to this charade, led by these two brave young women and millions more like them. I, and millions of women like me, stand ready to listen, encourage and coach.

Comments

JaniceW's picture

Foot in two ponds

I loved reading this, Gillian. You have a great way of weaving a story together that makes one feel as if they are there. I can only imagine the sight of the women toiling away while the men sit idly by with nary a care.

Your comments about the two women you met struck me as I grew up with this idea of my siblings and I having one foot each in two ponds. That is, we grew up in a (somewhat) traditional Chinese household but outside our door was a very westernized society. We learnt to adapt to both, being quiet and respectful of our elders in the home, while being engaged and chatty outside. I can empathize with the second woman as realistically, no matter how wonderful she is, she'll probably never be good enough for their only son. Though having given birth to a son obviously weighed heavily in her favour. Alas, sometimes this is not enough to sustain good favour and she will always be judged by her husband's condition i.e. is he well-fed, are his needs taken care of, has she taught her children well, is she respectful of the in-laws, etc... I have seen that even when the husband is "at fault", perhaps loses his job, the wife is still blamed. She was not supportive enough, she did not take care of the household sufficiently enough so that he could concentrate on his work, etc..

But this is the life we have and so we adapt as best as possible. Ironically, it is usually the mothers-in-law who cause the most strife for the wife, critiquing her every move. Ironic in that the mother-in-law was a wife once and surely would be the first to empathize and understand the wife's predicament. But alas, the cycle perpetuates and mothers soon forget their challenges as wives, and impose their own will upon the next generation.

gillianpar's picture

thanks for the feedback

Your feedback is so great...so personal...and really validates what i sensed but have no personal knowledge of...how can we make the next round of mother-in-laws break the cycle??

jadefrank's picture

Life in Vietnam

Hi Gillian,

So great to hear your voice in the community again! Thank you for sharing your deep insight into today's Vietnam and the reality women face as second class citizens. I too had the privilege to travel to Vietnam and spent about a month wandering the coastline, being humbled by such beautiful, generous and hardworking people. And you made an excellent point - it is the women that you see doing most of the manual and well as domestic work while their husbands seem to enjoy more luxuries.

Another issue Vietnamese women face is the temptation of foreign men looking for beautiful wives. I've read that it's especially a problem with Korean men who cannot find a wife due to the unbalanced ration of men to women in their own country. Korean businessmen take short bride finding trips to Hanoi or Saigon to find suitable women to take home as their wives. For a poor, rural woman - the idea of living poverty to enjoy "better" life is sometimes far too great for them and their families to pass up. Problem is, they arrive in Korea and are completely isolated, living with a man they hardly know, under a mother-in law who resents her for being different among other things, and far from their families with no support systems. Not to mention the frequency in domestic violence cases that result. Or what about the frequency of older, western men there - prominent outside brothels and bars.

And I too noticed this cycle of mother in-laws making life so difficult for their daughter in-laws. Both in Vietnam, and in as Janice mentioned, in China. And while it is their cultural tradition, it is a tradition worth re-examining as it pits women against women and acts as a stumbling block in the women's movement. You pose an excellent question - how can we break this cycle? When traditions have been around for thousands of years, it is difficult to alter mind-sets. But I don't think its impossible.

Warm regards,
Jade

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