Modesty is not one of my virtues, mainly because I think I’m the shit. I pride myself on my all-around awesomeness in everything except sports, geography, science, math, technology, current events, historical events, music, the arts in general, politics, and spatial intelligence. Other than that I’m pretty awesome. I really pride myself on my work ethic and skills in the kitchen. I’ve pulled more all-nighters or near all-nighters for work than I care to remember, and an extreme foodie needs to know how to feed herself competently.
One of the reasons why I felt I needed, and deserved, a sabbatical so urgently was that I was starting to feel sorry for myself for working so hard. I honestly believe that I need more sleep than the average person and was convinced that I was getting far less than the average person, which was causing great unhappiness. My entire existence centered on work and trying to make up an ever increasing sleep deficit. I routinely chose work over sleep, and sleep over spending time with my family. At the time it felt like I was acting out of necessity rather than choice, and even though I knew I was facing the same struggles that countless other women face, my working mom martyrdom felt very lonely. I felt entitled to a break from everyday life. At the beginning of my sabbatical, witnessing how so many VN people idled their days away only reaffirmed my sense of entitlement and self-pity. Able-bodied and able-minded workers are underemployed in VN, and retired seniors like my aunt and uncle reenact the same leisurely, unvarying routine everyday: rise at dawn, take a morning stroll, eat breakfast, read the newspaper, eat lunch, take a nap, watch soccer/news/soap operas, eat dinner, take an evening stroll, wash up, early bedtime. Except for an occasional visit to or from relatives, each day was indistinguishable from another. I thought, these people have it so easy. Imagine how much our collective quality of life would improve if only the U.S. would institutionalize the afternoon siesta. Napping after lunchtime seems like such luxury but throughout many parts of Asia and Europe, it’s expected. What’s also expected in VN is the flagrant oppression of women. Women are certainly oppressed in the U.S. but usually in subtler, more insidious ways. In VN, and indeed most of Asia, women are simultaneously tasked with women’s work and men’s work and continue to be victimized by domestic abuse. Men do not do women’s work, period. A staunchly patriarchical and chauvinistic society such as this one is rife with examples of true female martyrdom. Case in point: my uncle’s eldest daughter and my oldest female cousin, Chi Ca.
Chi Ca is in her early forties but looks at least 10 years younger. She has to be one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. She’s also exceedingly helpful. If she’s in the vicinity of anyone performing a chore or doing anything remotely unfun, she jumps right in to help. It’s not unusual for the rest of the family to be sitting around chatting while she’s alone in the kitchen chopping, cooking, washing, sweeping, wiping, scrubbing and generally just always working. Right now as I type she’s mopping the spiral staircase as she makes her way down to the floors of my uncle’s palatial mansion, as she does everyday. She literally works from dawn to dusk, and often beyond, which is actually an improvement from her former married life, when she routinely went to bed after midnight and rose at 3am. Before her divorce several years ago, she worked ceaselessly to support her two children and her husband’s drinking habit. He was also in the habit of accruing mistresses and gambling debts. In addition to his infidelity and overall fecklessness, he was physically abusive. You’d think that such a scoundrel easily cinches the title of Worst Husband Of All Time, but his behavior, and Chi Ca’s experience, are all too commonplace. Time and again I hear tales of downtrodden and horribly mistreated women who persevere through unimaginable trials for the sake of their families, all the while suffering unspeakable depredations at the hands of their husbands. When I see firsthand how hard Chi Ca works, and hear about how hard she’s always worked and what she’s been through, I realize that my own work ethic and perceived sufferings don’t hold a candle to hers. As much as I whined about sleep deprivation, I certainly averaged more than three hours a night. And although I’ve always been self-motivated to work hard, I’ve never known what it’s like to be motivated by fear of bodily harm or hunger or the need to avert disastrous consequences. My children’s survival and prospects have never been seriously threatened or endangered. My husband is a loving, caring, respectful, supportive life partner, which is, in many respects, the opposite of the quintessential VN husband. I don’t have it so bad after all.
Chi Ca is also a superb cook who puts my kitchen skills to shame. It’s not that I don’t think I’m capable of achieving her level of culinary expertise (eventually, after years of practice), it’s just that the extensiveness of her repertoire of dishes and the mastery with which she executes them are awe-inspiring, and humbling. Mine pale in comparison. I won’t be bragging that I’m a bad-ass cook until I get back to the U.S. As for Chi Ca, she’s not opposed to the idea of coming to America. If you or anyone you know might be interested in an insanely hard-working, kind, competent divorcee who’s a fabulous cook, let me know.