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Starting to understand Vietnam 25 August 2008

Posted by uggclogs in Life.
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Originally posted on 25 August 2008 (edited)

And here it is, blog no. 2 from Vietnam.

As I told you in my last blog, I was intending to learn a bit of Vietnamese while in Vietnam (what better place to do so, right?) and I am about to finish my second month of tuition.  It is a very difficult language, but luckily I am starting to pick it up a little.  I do 2 hours a day, 4 days a week, and we are just about to finish book number one.  But I had a bit of a fright on Thursday last week when I tried to suggest to my teacher that I would like to revise some of the stuff that we’ve learnt, because I do not feel like I know it very well, and she turned around and said, “yes, when we finish the book, we will test you!”

Hang on a minute! That’s not what I meant! I am learning this language for fun and for me, not for anyone else, and certainly not for a grade at the end of it.  So I have managed to (gently) put my view across to my other teacher.

It is funny, by the way, how the dynamics between and my two teachers differ significantly.  Miss Huong treats me as a pupil, sometimes even as a child.  I always have to call her “co” (it means miss or female teacher), and she always refers to me as “em” (younger sibling, child, pupil). She always gives me homework, no matter how busy I am, and she expects me to always do my homework as well.  She always tells me that I do not study hard enough.

This may be true, but as I said, who am I doing this for again?  Miss Hao is completely different in her approach.  She always tells me I am hard working, how good my understanding is, and how pleased she is with my progress.  She calls me “chi” (older sister, woman of same age and social standing), and I call her the same.  She only gives me homework when I ask for it (which I always do, in case I will have time to do it) and she doesn’t mind if I have not got around to doing it.  She is currently helping me doing more listening exercises, which is one of the things I need more practice in.  I love having two different teachers, and it is great to have these two different approaches, but I do sense that I am no longer as patient with the former teacher as I used to be.

But learning Vietnamese has its downsides as well, especially when you understand that the taxi driver asks you to marry him, even though he is already married and has 2 children already.

Here in Vietnam, there are some questions that are asked very early on in conversation which I am not used to answering at all, since most of my exposure has been to Western cultures.  I’ll give you some examples:

1) How old are you/ when were you born? (This question is normally asked to establish what they should call you.  A female can be addressed as (amongst others) chau, em, chi, bac, co, ba or cu for example (roughly translated as child, younger sister, older sister, older sister of father, miss (or female teacher or younger sister of father) grandmother (or mrs) and revered person of more than 90 years old).

2) Are you married? If yes – how long, how many children do you have? If no – why not?

3) How long have you been in Vietnam? How long will you stay? Do you like it?

4) Do you work? Where? What do you do? (Sometimes: How much do you earn?)

And all of these, when fired off in rapid succession within the first five minutes of conversation makes me go through my Vietnamese knowledge very fast!  After that, I tend to just sit there and have nothing else to say, as there is nothing else that I CAN say…  Common, people, space it out a bit.

Funnily enough, I have never really been a feminist (to the great horror of my mother), but after only two months in Vietnam, I have come to feel differently.  Even though Vietnam has intellectually been very progressive for a long time (hundreds of years of feminist thought and poetry), society reflects but little of those ideals.  Yes, there are women in Public Service and the Military, and there are women here that do everything they want to and they do it well.  They study, and they work, they have careers, and they earn good money.  But then there is the complete opposite side of the coin here as well.  Men are renowned to be sweet and caring to you as long as you are not married.  They will do anything for you, shower you with gifts and compliments, make you feel like a million bucks.  But apparently, once you are married, all the housework and all the childrearing mostly falls to the woman.  (And I am generalising here, of course this is not always the case).  A lot of the hard labour in this country (carrying dirt at building sites, pushing the stinky rubbish collection bins rain or shine through the streets, the cooking, the cleaning) is all done by women.

To have a son is often still the only goal in life.  A western friend of mine once told me that while she was here in Hanoi, her Vietnamese (male) boss once told her that having a daughter was ok, having two daughters was misfortune, and having three daughters was the end of the world. What the men do do is drink beer (if you go to the local bia hoi (beer outlet) after working hours, you might see ten women and two hundred men), drive motorbikes and cars and trucks, sit on motorbikes and try to hail customers (sort of like a motorbike taxi).  Sitting on a motorbike like that all day means, by the way, that you are employed.  Whether you get any customers at all or not.  You might sit there all day and talk to your mate on the motorbike next to you, yet you are employed, meaning that the total unemployment rate for Vietnam is strikingly low (around 2%, I think).

A woman will move in with the man’s family at the time of marriage, and become a part of that family.  To be unmarried with no children is regarded as a great misfortune.  Unfortunately, being married does not mean that you have the sole right to your husband.  The latest numbers I heard was that 30% of married men regularly visit sex workers.  I assume that the amount of men that have been with someone else during a marriage is therefore much higher, as some men will keep mistresses or might not go “regularly” (whatever that means).  HIV/AIDS is a big problem in this country, even though there are hardly any statistics on it.  Having either comes with a very serious stigma as well.  Yet it is almost as if being promiscuous is not only accepted, but expected of men.

I have finally come to understand why some women (of Vietnamese descent) told me that I had to marry my partner before going to Vietnam.  It was not about stopping him from cheating, as I initially presumed, it was all about stopping him from leaving.  In Vietnam, most men will stay with their wives.  So if you are married, you will be ‘safe’, at least financially.  No matter how many girlfriends he might have, you will always be his wife, type of thing.

So, as you understand, after only two months here I am starting to understand this country a little better.  Or at least, I think I do.  I don’t claim to ever be able to understand everything fully about the culture, and I certainly do not think that I will ever come to terms with all aspects of the culture, but I am slowly starting to build up a picture of the country through my experiences, friends’ experiences, and the language training.  It is incredibly interesting and complex, and there are of course amazing aspects to this country that I have not got to in this post, due to my massive rant.  But in my next few posts, I will try to tell you a little more about the amazing things I have seen and done here.

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