Sunday, May 9, 2010

Vietnam and Gender Issues


One of my favorite jokes is about the Vietnam War. A young American soldier is patroling the roads in Binh Duong Province when he comes across a farmer walking down the road. The farmer knows some English, and they begin conversing. After awhile he notices that there is a Vietnamese woman following them, with two dogs, about 100 meters to the rear. The American soldier asks, "Who's that?" and the farmer answers, "Oh, that is my wife!"

That the wife must always walk in the rear upsets the soldier, and he gives a lecture to the farmer on how to treat women, The farmer smiles condescendingly as he listens.

The soldier left Vietnam a few years later, with the end of the war, there, but he returns to Vietnam 20 years later, as so many Vietnam vets have done, and catches a bus to Binh Duong Province.

He is glad to see that the roads which he used to patrol had not changed much. Suddenly, ahead of him, he sees the same farmer he had talked with that day 20 years before. This time, however, the wife is walking 50 meters ahead of the farmer.

Delighted to see such a change, the American runs up to the farmer, greets him in the Vietnamese tongue, and then he begins to compliment the farmer for having grown so much, emotionally and philosophically, that he had begun to let his wife walk in front of him.

The farmer smiles and says, "Land mines."

As I came to know the Vietnamese over the years, I saw that this joke parodying the Vietnamese attitude toward women is not wide of the mark.

My first encounter with that attitude occurred as follows.

One blistering hot day, I was invited by my Vietnamese neighbors to an afternoon of cold drinks in their air conditioned living room. When I got there, I saw that about 10 Vietnamese men were in attendance. I said to the husband, "Thanh, where's Trang and little Nhu?"

"It's okay, Peter," he answered. "Trang is shopping. She took Nhu with her." I thought to myself, "Well, at least she is doing something she would like to do, in an air conditioned mall."

About 10 minutes later, the front door exploded open. There was Trang, soaked with sweat, with a heavy bag of groceries in her left arm, a baby of one of the other men in her right arm. The baby's diaper was soiled, and feces was overflowing out of the diaper onto Trang's right arm. Little Nhu, hot and tired and cranky, was pulling on Trang's left arm, crying, making demands, despite the groceries. None of the men even looked Trang's way. They continued drinking, laughing and talking.

I watched Trang put the groceries on the table, lay the baby on a towel on the kitchen floor. I heard her wash off her arm in the kitchen sink. Then, with little Nhu still pulling on her arm and crying and begging in Vietnamese, Trang rushed out the door to get more groceries.

My foolish American conscience was too big for all of this. When Trang came back in, this time carrying two bags of groceries, and Nhu still pulling on her arm, crying, and the men continued ignoring her, I stood up and loudly said, "TRANG!"

Trang stopped dead in her tracks and the room fell silent and all turned toward me. I said, "Trang, there's an empty seat here in the air conditioned living rom. I know, because I just got out of it. I will take Nhu and find out what she wants and make her happy. Thanh will fix you a cold drink while you sit in my seat here in the air conditioned living rom. The baby's father will clean the baby and change his diaper. The other men here will bring in the rest of the groceries and put them away."

All stood frozen, for about 10 seconds. Finally, Trang said, "Mr. Peter, I know what you are trying to do, but it will do no good."

Receiving these words as affirmation that Trang had reassumed her low place vis-a-vis men, and forgiving me for being a stupid foreigner, the Vietnamese men suddenly went back to laughing and talking and ignoring Trang. Figuring that I had caused enough revolution for the day, I self-consciously went back to bonding with the men.

That's Vietnam.

Happy Mother's Day!


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