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  • Carolyn Lê

Pretty Girls Get Married and Boys Need to Provide: Patriarchy in Vietnamese Culture

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

Illustration by David Hargrove

When I was a kid, I played outside every day. Often I came home with scrapes and bruises. "You are going to get a scar and nobody will want to marry you," my mom would scold me. "Con gái phải xinh đẹp. Girls have to be pretty. Stop playing outside."

Her words terrified me. Playing so hard that I occasionally hurt myself could decrease my marriage value, and I would be considered a creature unworthy of matrimony—a failure. For a long time, I wanted badly to be a boy, so I could play as fearlessly as I wanted.

But the allure of playing with the neighborhood kids always surpassed my fear of not being able to succeed to wifely status. One day, after coming home from a rollerblading fall, my mom repeated her lecture, “You are going to get a scar, and nobody will marry you…”

“Why do girls have to be pretty and not boys?” I asked.

“Because it doesn’t matter if boys are pretty. It only matters if girls are pretty.”

I sure as heck don’t want to marry an ugly boy, I thought to my 8-year-old self.

Not until later did I recognize the patriarchy that infused moments like this so insidiously that I didn’t notice at first. And yes, women, like my beloved Vietnamese American mother in this moment, are just as complicit in perpetuating these harmful ideas as men.

Based on traditional Confucian values, Vietnamese and Vietnamese American families are typically deeply patriarchal. A Confucianist Vietnamese proverb says, “A son means you have everything; but ten daughters mean you have nothing.” Sons are expected to carry on their father’s legacy with families of their own. But when a culture devalues women and forces men to conform to hyper-masculine expectations, the society that it produces limits human potential and is very uncomfortable for those who don’t naturally conform.

In Vietnamese culture the eldest son assumes the duties of his father when his father dies. A family without a son is pitied and thought to disappear forever. San Francisco Bay Area native Noel Diep, a 28-year-old Vietnamese American educator, remembers when her father learned that her brother, her father’s only son, is gay. “He was upset and asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this earlier? I could have had more sons to carry on the family name!’” Her father immigrated to America from Vietnam in 1979, her mother in 1975.

Sometimes my dad, who has no sons, calls me his “son.” I was in elementary school when my dad chuckled to me, “Linh-by, con trai của Ba! Little Linh, my son!” We were playing, perhaps pretending to be flying martial artists dueling each other with plastic white swords. I took it as compliment. As his favorite child, he considers me his son—even though I was born female and identify as female.

“You and your sisters…” he trailed off. “I wish I had a son to carry on my family name.” I wanted so badly to be my father’s son so that I could carry on his last name. Of course as I got older, I realized I could even as a woman.

Daughters are expected to stay in the home and help their mothers. They can’t earn money for their family or themselves. Their only options are to depend on their father or a husband. Under Confucianism, to uphold filial piety and respect for the patriarch, daughters must learn how to be good daughters and good wives. From their mothers, they learn how to rear children, cook for the family and help with other domestic chores. When they marry, they must obey their husbands. If they become widows, they must obey their eldest son.

Men, no matter their age, are considered the head of household and are able to exert control and dominance over women. This is especially interesting because Vietnamese culture strongly believes in respecting one’s elders—but if the eldest people are women, then the eldest man retains the power. Even if a man doesn’t want to be the head of household, he is obligated. If a man is unable to subjugate his women, if a woman isn’t willing to be subjugated, both are considered faulty.

Most young Vietnamese and Vietnamese American women teeter between two worlds: the domestic space and the public space. Inside the home, they aim to act the dutiful daughter: to obey their parents (specifically, the patriarch); to look after their siblings; to cook, clean and refrain from talking about boys or men until their parents think it’s time for them to marry. They are much more silent in the home than in the larger world. Outside of the home, young Vietnamese and Vietnamese American women have more freedom to be themselves. Both in Vietnam and the United States, Vietnamese girls are exposed to far more schooling and potential careers than their elders were at their age. They earn enough money to support their lifestyles. They date whomever they please, do whatever they enjoy, and talk about whatever they want.

“I am a completely different person when I’m at home,” said Van Do, a 28-year-old second-generation Vietnamese American woman who lives in the Bay Area. “It’s too much work to be myself at home. I’m not a bad person, daughter, or girlfriend. But my parents would think I’m defiant, and it would just cause a lot of problems. So I stay silent.” She avoids meaningful conversation with her parents. “They don’t need to know who I am and what I do when I’m not around them. It’s better that way,” she said. She has her own income and was able to move out of her parents’ house. “I had to get my own place. I’m an adult and they wouldn’t even let me go out past 11 with my boyfriend of four years.”

Vietnamese American men struggle with their own form of liberation. Men are expected to provide for a family; they are not expected to work in the kitchen or to cook. Danny Doan, a 27-year-old Vietnamese American who lives in San Jose, California, recalls telling his parents he was interested in attending culinary school. “My dad laughed and said, ‘You shouldn’t do it. It’s a lot of hard work… You shouldn’t be in the kitchen. You can do other things. Why would you want to cook? That’s something your mom does.’ My mom laughed too, then said in a serious tone, ‘Cực khổ. It’s terrible conditions. You don’t get paid a lot.’”

Danny’s parents shared their experience working in the restaurant industry when they first arrived in America from Vietnam in 1982. They had no other family members in the United States and were only 18-years-old.

Danny’s parents didn’t take him or his career choice seriously, so he didn’t either. He went into the tech industry and had a stable, high-paying job for a couple of years but didn’t feel satisfied. “I couldn’t take it anymore, so I quit and enrolled in culinary school,” he said. When he told his parents, “They kind of laughed and seemed to brush it off.” But they have been unable to give their full emotional support though they have come to terms with his decision.

Within this patriarchal system, feminism as a political and social movement in Vietnamese and Vietnamese American culture is largely absent, especially in family life. The project of feminism aims to dismantle patriarchy that perpetuates harmful notions of masculinity and femininity. While patriarchy does not always include misogyny, sometimes they go hand in hand. However, family values such as filial duty and piety based on gender discrimination and prejudice are so deeply embedded in Vietnamese culture that people have a difficult time recognizing them as problems.

“It’s just the way it is,” said my mom, a 61-year-old first-generation Vietnamese American divorcée who left Vietnam with my dad in 1977 and arrived in the United States in 1982. “Do you think [patriarchy] is wrong?” I ask her.

I get the feeling she doesn’t want to have this conversation—a conversation about why her culture, in many ways, kept her at a disadvantage and how the project of feminism aims to liberate people from the rigid frame of mind. Vietnamese elders become uncomfortable when their assumptions and the traditional ways that people have behaved and believed are challenged, especially by young people. Vietnamese culture emphasizes respect for one’s elders; questioning their logic and the elders’ logic before them is taboo.

“I don’t know,” she replies, and looks away.

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Carolyn Lê

Literature Editor

A San José native and a recent graduate from University of Santa Cruz with honors in Literature, Carolyn has a deep appreciation for Vietnamese American literature and the Vietnamese American community. She is excited to be a part of an organization such as Chopsticks Alley, one that celebrates Vietnamese American culture and encourages positive self-identification. Driven by her educational background in literary criticism, she seeks to empower those who are historically marginalized, underrepresented, and underserved through literature and writing. She is also a dog-lover and has been a professional Dog Training Instructor for over 7 years!

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