Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bad Vietnamese wife

It’s hard to be a good Vietnamese wife, they set the standard pretty high. Me, for instance, I’m French, but I live here in Vietnam and I am a wife, which unfortunately makes me, to all my Vietnamese friends and neighbours anyway, a Vietnamese wife by default.

Let me give you a few examples.

I’ve been trying to cook more. I mainly cook for Dan as I myself am ultra careful with what I eat and can you really call making white rice with green vegetables broth ‘cooking’? hmm… not really. But I make stir fries, meats in sauce, all kinds of pastas and braised vegetables for Dan. I find cooking almost therapeutical, it calms my own cravings and allows me to handle all kinds of food even though I won’t be able to eat it (Ok, I always have a taste).
Anyway, because I am in no way considered a Vietnamese wife by the sellers at the market (meat price is doubled as soon as I approach the stalls), I’ve asked our cleaning lady Hien to buy me half a kilo of meat everyweek. I explained why I was asking her, that it would make it much cheaper for me etc… I asked her to buy chicken one week, beef one week, pork one week and at any time she could just buy whatever she liked best that week, it didn’t matter.
She didn’t seem to follow. I was quite confused, I mean she speaks English and we usually understand each other very well. But it’s not the form she didn’t get, it’s the content of my request. She explained that it would be unthinkable to buy only one kind of meat per week for my husband and what kind of wife would I be?? How could such a thought even cross my mind??, “poor Dan!!” she lamented.
“No, but… Hien…” I objected, “the meat is not only for Dan you know, it’s for both of us, and I cook it in different ways everytime, with different sauces and vegetables on the side, so you know it won’t be always the same, don’t worry”
But the truth is that I had lost her at “different ways”. She believes in cooking each meat the same way every day, with soy sauce in a saucepan. She raised her eyebrows again and informed me she would buy me a bit of beef, pork AND chicken every week, because any other option would be crazy. Then she went her way, muttering something sounding a lot like “poor Dan”.
I was left with having to abandon most of my meats-in-sauce and steak ideas, as she now dices the meat for me in ways I don’t quite know what to do with, freezes it that way and sometimes she even cooks it without my ever asking her to do so, and when she cooks it, it’s with soy sauce and Vietnamese herbs. It’s very nice and all, but still ruins my plans for a stew, you see.
Once, she saw Dan cooking for me and told him how much of a good, good good boy he was, while glaring at me a little, unworthy wife me working on my computer while the man of the house is making pasta.
Once, she practically threw me out of bed and made me go help Dan who was busy fixing the door. She called me a lazy wife, which only made me laugh I mean, what are you going to do? In her world, I AM a lazy wife, and she’s 50 years old, I’m not about to question her whole world and set of values to try and explain ours, am I? So I went and helped Dan, who kicked me out for trying to give advice on things I don’t understand, such as fixing a door. Well, I know I don’t understand that, don’t I? I’m trying to keep peace in my house here, but not giving Hien a panick attack, that’s all.

I don’t mean to rant about Hien, I love Hien. What I’m ranting about, is being mistaken for a Vietnamese wife all the time… I could never reach THAT standard, believe me. I don’t clean well enough, cook well enough or make babies on time. I’m also not a 48 kilos bombshell with a perfect tiny body and big black eyes. Most young wives are, here. Talk about standards.

The neighbours regulary pat my tummy, always when I’m busy handling the bike or carrying 1000 things so I can’t slip away, and are all very disappointed that they never feel a baby bump. I’m clearly a bad wife with that, too. I get pity looks, sorry comments and even advice on how to make it happen. In fact, I've been given everything short of traditional medicine concoctions to help me get pregnant, which by the way is not yet in our projects but I definitly can’t explain that one here. It must be said though that one of our neighbours, a funny grandma, always gives DAN advice on how to perform better in the baby making department, so I love her, because with her it seems that DAN is the bad husband, ooh relief for me. Plus, her advice usually make us laugh a lot, so it’s all good.
Life can be tough for some real Vietnamese wives. As soon as they get married, they have to move in with their husband’s family (not always though, it depends of whether the husband is the first son). I understand that once there, they hold the last position in the family hierarchy, and more than one conversation with young wives have given me a pretty good idea of how small their place is in the new household. For instance, I hear that their mother in law makes them cook and clean and boss them around. In return, the grandparents look after the baby while the wife is at work. Also, they are expected to produce a baby within a year, or at least to get pregnant within a year, or women from both families gather to discuss the problem and produce medicines to help. My neighbour Hanh told me that if a new couple was not pregnant within a year, the whole neighbourhood would be talking about it and worry together.
Talk about culture clash. We westerners live together before we get married, or at least most couples do, which is very rare here and not at all looked kindly upon, and after marriage most of us wait a few years to have kids (if we even do get married… or if we ever do have kids…).
Please understand me: this kind of cutlure shock does not shock ME, I go and live in a foreign country, far from me the idea the judge their ways. But where it becomes difficult is when my own life is judged using these criterias, criterias that were never mine to start with. That’s when I find myself living and thinking in a way that can not be reconciled with anything around me and I am pretty much shocking anyone who takes an interest in me, because I don’t follow the vietnamese family common law inside my marriage. I don’t cook the right meats, I don’t help my husband when he’s fixing the door, I don’t make babies… I’m a terrible Vietnamese wife, I’m a disapointment to my neighbours, to my Vietnamese friends and definitly to my cleaning lady.
Tough crowd….


  1. This is not a post, but an article from best journalism! Very well written, Celine!

    best regards and big kiss, un petò molt gran per a tu! & Dan!


  2. hilarious! Love this piece :) It reminds me so much of the month we spent in Vietnam this year.

  3. After read your post, I really understand your feeling and thinking and I hope you will pass by all and the happiness will find you. Try your best then people around you will understand you and they will help you more. Cheer yourself up, don't be upset, life some times not easy, some times we have to accept it. That's is life. Wish you all the best.

  4. I am completely curious as to what the advice dispensed to Dan is! Please share :)

    Wonderful read, keep writing.

  5. Juan: thank you for your comment, it's nice to hear from you :) I appreciate the Catalan touch, too!
    Thank you Craig, also, for your funny comment.
    Anonymous: Thank you and don't worry, I'm in no way depressed about the whole thing, only sorry to be unable to fit in properly.
    Uggclogs: lol, the advice in mostly a gesture the woman makes, symbolising man's virility. She does it everytime she sees Dan and throws him curious looks meaning 'are you doing it probably, in that way I'm showing you??'.
    Good times.

  6. Hi Celine. What a great post. You captured the expectations, roles and mores of two diverse cultures so well while bringing a constant smile at the circumstances and people you describe. If you would like any advice, I would suggest you keep this theme and build on it - it could become a great book as your travels continue and it is written so well. Congrats. From what Nok tells me the situation for new wives is very similar in Thailand where they often act as junior servants to the husband's family. For my 20 cents worth I think you are a wonderful wife and co-adventurer for my eldest son so no need to fear early morning chores expectations here. I am a firm believer in your approach to housework etc (hey it always waits). What does have me a bit puzzled about this whole post is Dan competently fixing a door - perhaps more information required as I remember his post re attempts to mozzie proof the door. Has he developed new and wondrous skills? :)Suey

  7. it's so hard for me not to laugh while reading this post,u know :)) actually,different countries have different people as well as culture,right ^^ ??!especially,a 50-year-old VNmese woman's mind is sometimes difficult to other VNmese women to adapt with ^^ so,just appreciate that as the care they give u ^^ there's no need to depressed at all,just be a wife as u r ^^
    and,well,there r many kind open-mind mother-in-law in our country nowadays,i hope so :))
    ---regard :D----

  8. certes tu n'es pas une parfaite épouse vietnamienne, mais tu es une AUTHENTIQUE FEMME FRANCAISE... et surtout reste toujours la même !!!et si tu continue d'écrire aussi bien, tu feras carrière ....

  9. Bonjour,
    Je suis une fille finlandaise, et je suis très intrèsse sur le culture francaise et vietnamese, donc c´est blog est super pour moi. I can understand the pressure you are feeling there, but don´t give up sister, you seem like a wonderful person and a wife.

    I wish all the good for u, kisses from Finland.

  10. I'm a Vietnamese guy living abroad. I can't stop laughing when reading you and your helper 'fighting' about cooking meat. Yes, she was right, and you were right too. When I was in Vietnam I will never 'have to' eat the same kind of meat from one meal to another (but now I'm used to eat 1 kind of meal, not just meat, the whole week). Vietnamese (and Chinese) has an old saying: "Join the family, follow the tradition". Hope you two can 'escape' to France sometimes to release yourself from all these :).

    It has been two years from your post, so wish everything has been going well for you.

  11. Mark a 50's Australian. Hi Celine, I fall into the group of divorced Aussie wanting another family and with a, ran into a brick wall type of looks I don't have much hope in Aus. after 4 years of looking. I have been to Nam in Feb. 2010 for my 50th and fell in love with the people and culture. Even with there poverty I agree, a higher quality race. Even now 13 months on I dream of marring such a woman and living in Nam. I have done a fair bit of counciling in my life and look for the deeper side of people. This I found prevelant in their very existence, and culture and due to the fact of their numbers packed tight together. My solo travels lead me to open up to strangers and in turn received blessing after blessing. The food prepared and offered was varied and healthy and delicious. Equality of attitude is the biggest point that gets a good response. This I found in Hanoi and among the ethnic groups. I spent 8 months texting a lady in Hanoi only to get angry with her over our lack of simularities and gave up. But your openness has also helped me to pull my own head in somewhat and try and fathom the culture differences. Your cultural simulation must be harder than a mans' as we can play stupid easlier. I am still planing on moving over there this year and hopefully within the next 3 months. No wife yet but that is the best part of living in another country. What discovery, it has to be enormous. Communication to a depth is what I will be seeking but the quietly spoken lady only gets me frustrated. Life will never stop teaching us leasons and looks like I am in for a lot more. Good luck to your relationship and strength to you. Cheers