Vietnamese women are beautiful.
Small, delicate, graceful, they move through the chaos of Vietnam like exquisite underdogs.
Physically, they are a generally flawless specimen. Thin, well-groomed, hair hanging long and straight like shiny black silk with unblemished skin protected from the sun as if its rays are toxic.
Culturally and traditionally, they are perfection in a man’s world.
To be a woman here is to carry it on your shoulders, to do it all, and to never boast, never take the full credit, never overtly question why yours breasts and uterus make you last best.
To be a daughter is a responsibility that never ceases. To obey and pay homage to your elders, to live with your mother and father and to take care of them until you become a wife and then to take care of your husband’s mother and father, too.
To be a wife is to give yourself to your husband and his family at a tender age. It is to give up your mind, body, ambitions to marital obligations. To cook, to clean, to raise children, to love your man in quiet, unquestioning ways. To not marry is to subject yourself to the constant query of when? When? When?
To be a poor woman is to work backbreaking jobs in rice fields or chasing after tourists with cheap trinkets whispering: “you buy from me,” in a soft, sing-song voice that is too often ignored or balked at.
It is, above all, about duty. Duty to everyone but yourself. To a selfish world, Vietnamese women are the best kind of women.
I understand why there are so many foreign men living and loving the Vietnamese.
I also understand why the local men here are not interested in foreign, Western born women. And why I was so often a source of frustration to my father.
At 5’4”, I tower over most women here.
Vietnam is the only place where I feel big, clumsy, lazy – where I feel, at times, an acute guilt for what I’ve done and what I am doing now.
As a mixed, American-born girl, I was not graceful nor dutiful.
When I was sixteen, I cut off my long brown hair that my father loved so much just to spite him. I drank too much, kissed boys, stayed out late, yelled back when I was shouted at.
Now, as a mixed, American-born woman, I still drink too much. Still stay out late. Yell back, most definitely. I quit jobs like it is my job. I live across the world from my family and I’m lucky if I see my mother once a year. I am scared of marriage, of kids, of what I might have to give up to grow up.
To be here is to witness what could have been for me if I had been born here and not there. How different would I have been? Assuredly, completely. What of the role I would have had to fill? The one my father, no matter how long he had lived in America, had in some ways expected from me. It’s not his fault. It’s not mine either. I am not a Vietnamese woman. Nor do I want to be.
But there are lessons to be learned from these women. Especially for me. Mostly, it is to appreciate all I was born with. But it also gives me reason to recognize that life isn’t much if it’s lived for nobody but myself. Maybe to be mixed comes with the ability to straddle both parts, take the best out of both of them, and to make it whole and new and better. A woman of two worlds.
Postscript: this post is based on my observations and conversations with Vietnamese women on the traditional idea of womanhood in Vietnam. They are not facts or absolutes. I have met many women in Vietnam who do not subscribe to traditions and, although they may feel social pressures at times (or all the time), they are not physically punished for doing so. This is a country of traditions, not overt misogyny.