Zoe Mendelson is traveling the world, talking to friends and strangers about the messy, wonderful business of love. Our series Love in Far Off Lands tracks her journey, highlighting the best of her encounters.
On my trip around the world, I have repeatedly found myself attempting to persuade others that America is not in fact Dreamland. I have also found myself continuously disappointed finding that globally, dating cultures differ from ours less and less. I want culture of the other; I want ritual and strangeness and a more interesting story. It took Saigon to illuminate my hypocrisy and to remind me that in an era when the virus of American culture devours and replaces almost everything it touches, we have to remember that “culture” falls all over the good-bad spectrum and so does Westernization.
In Thailand, a few friends told me I would never be able to get Vietnamese people to talk about their dating culture. They are known as a shy, proper, and generally more repressed people. But on the ground in Saigon, this could not have seemed less true. I literally had people crowded around me, elbowing each other to answer my questions. Some even stopped to ask if they had been impolite in speaking so frankly.
If you go to a public park and speak English, you’ll quickly acquire a crowd of Vietnamese children, students, and adults all eager to talk to you and pepper you with questions about America. They might also want to touch your hair. They might also say you look like Taylor Swift – even if you do not look like her and even if you have brown hair. They will definitely want to take pictures with you and friend you on Facebook. They will also ask you if you know any rich people to sponsor a visa.
I asked about dating and the courtship process and what they described fit the near universal paradigm. According to Nguyen and Trang, two first-year university students, and Ly, a 27-year-old mother, boys and girls start dating around 14 or 15. They meet “by accident! Park? School? Bar? Coffee shop?” He might go up to her and ask, “What do you study in school?” He might say “hello and [giggling] after that he will say to her, ‘You can give me your number?’ And then they text message together and start dating.”
Nguyen and Trang said kids have sex before marriage, usually starting around age 16. Ly disagreed, saying Viet Nam is still “more traditional than U.S.A.…a relationship of girlfriend and boyfriend not so common that before they marry they have sex together. I think in America much more common and also they have sex very early! They have sex 15 or 16. Here now it’s a little different, maybe they can have sex before they get married but maybe 19 or 20, not 15 or 16.” Nguyen and Trang heard Ly telling me this and gave me some silent headshakes.
The people I spoke to were conscious of the change occurring in their culture. Their responses repeatedly began with phrases like: “in the past,” “before was different,” and “nowadays.” For example, when I asked Nguyen and Trang about sex before marriage they said, “Yes, also normal nowadays; it’s okay, no problem.” And when I asked Ly about arranged marriage she said: “In the past, but now it’s not popular; we feel independent [about] who we marry.”
They all displayed a broad awareness of American culture gleaned from movies and TV. Sometimes this was obvious such as in statements like, “You know, in Viet Nam we still have the old generation. But in America, the teenagers, they are very open; they really are easy to have sex with another one.” A 24-year-old girl named Bi said this to me, and the concerned expression on her face made me laugh out loud. I tried to explain the difference between America and American Pie. This led to a discussion of American movies in which teenagers have lots of sex. They were rattling off titles I’d never heard of and others I hadn’t thought about in years.
The two phenomena connect of course, as the Vietnamese see the change in their own culture as becoming more American, more Western. They describe it as a welcome change. One first year university student eloquently explained:
In Vietnam, in our culture, the relationship between girls and boys is very traditional… But actually now, we have brought a lot of culture from Western and now it’s much more open. Once upon a time if a man wanted to date a girl he had to ask permission from her family. Like 10 to 20 years ago. The way my parents were brought up. They were 19 and 20 years old. They didn’t go out often. My dad had to come to my mom’s house and have a talk with her family but not be with her, always have a space between them… I don’t know about you and your friend and your family but I think Western culture is much more open, don’t you? Like, in that time my parents get along together, if you have sex with your lover before you get married that was a very, very bad thing. And now it’s quite normal… Now, you [don’t have to] suppress your sexuality. For god’s sake! My parents never touched each other. How could they pretend they didn’t want to do that? It’s hard actually. We are human!
Although I’m glad horny Vietnamese kids can hook up before marriage now—I mean, it seems like a good thing—I have to admit that during these interviews I found myself disappointed to hear about vanishing tradition. I wondered how many waste-of-time boys an initial visit with my family could have weeded out. But I also wanted to know what aspects of Vietnamese culture remained more traditional – different than American culture. I got my answer right away: “Husband-wife!”
Phuk, a 40-year-old social worker who had been skeptically hanging back, cut in as if for pre-emptive damage control: “[Vietnamese men]… are… more serious;” he said, “they always take care if the female is sick. But a bad thing about them is that they’re always… They should respect female’s rights… Western girls have more opportunity to promote themselves.”
I looked to Nguyen to see his reaction, “Yes, that’s my culture. The husband in family can do everything without cooking or washing or something like that. The men earn money and take care of the family,” he explained. “But of course, they have sex with other women.” Trang agreed, “Yes, normally the men always have another girl.”
“Especially in the South, the men treat their women not well… they always hit their women,” Trang said. So I asked her, “How is it different in the North?” She replied, “Strict, very strict. In the South, not so strict than in the North. They hit their women but they’re not strict. They also hit their women in the North. In the family the man has to decide to buy anything. In the South, it’s a little more relaxed.”
Then she and Nguyen began conferring in Vietnamese about the topic. They said there was a word they couldn’t translate into English about Vietnamese husbands. Trang pulled out her phone and translated “Gia trưởng”, which came out to mean chief/breadwinner/householder/head of the family/patriarchal behavior:” the sum of all of their previous explanations. Below are the four first images in a Google image search for “Gia trưởng.” That Vietnamese contains a word specifically for this broad phenomenon shows its deep place in Vietnamese culture.
When I looked into the matter, I wished I hadn’t. A National Study on Domestic Violence against Women in Viet Nam showed that “34 percent of ever-married women reported that they had suffered physical or sexual violence from their husbands at some time in their lives…and more than half (58 percent) of Vietnamese women reported experiencing at least one type of domestic violence in their lifetime… There is a gap between the theory and the practical implementation at all levels.” The study offered as explanation that domestic violence is considered “a private family matter in which society should not interfere” and that “violence is considered normal behavior.”
I hopefully asked my interviewees if they thought this aspect of their culture was changing, but I didn’t get much of a straight answer. They had to think before answering. The general consensus: yes, no, not really, we don’t know. I noticed that the younger students, especially Nguyen and Trang, spoke more willingly than the older people present. Phuk and Ly seemed as though they wanted to cup their hands over one of their mouths if they said too much. Perhaps their adult anxiety displayed evidence of change. As for me, I loved picturing the days when some young boy sat stiffly, wide eyed in the home his crush’s parents. Despite his sexual frustration, there’s something romantic in imagining his awkward nervousness. But the domestic violence that Trang described so casually cannot be romanticized.
At this point, Phuk abruptly changed the subject and began singing the praises of American capitalism, “Thank you for coming here and bringing your culture to us. Your presence here is really tremendous.” He kept saying “tremendous.” I winced. Not much time has passed since the Viet Nam War, so I found this Vietnamese celebration of American culture especially puzzling if not troubling.
But by feeling puzzled by the Vietnamese’s blind fondness for America, I fell into the same trap, only in reverse. I romanticized their culture while they romanticized mine. America is cool, but the hope of upward mobility is nothing like the streets-paved-with-gold that many foreigners still imagine. Traditionalism is cool too but may include practices like domestic violence or other values that—with a healthy dose of some values we hold as truth with a capital T— we can firmly reject. That conversation in the park in Saigon served as a reminder to tread lightly on the line between relativism that glorifies and excuses and universalism that blinds.