There’s No Such Thing as Privacy in VN

At home my favorite part of the day were those few precious hours after we put the kids to bed on the weekend. During the week those hours were often spent working but on the weekend they were reserved for luxuries like movie night with Tom or pleasure reading. It’s almost impossible to manage anything like that when you’re sharing a bedroom with your kids. In theory we could go downstairs to the living room after putting them to bed but somehow that doesn’t seem like a real option. The concentration of mosquitoes is worst on the first floor, so we don’t like to hang out there unless we have to. Due to the perennial heat, there aren’t any comfy couches or cushioned seating at all, just hard wooden chairs. The only comfortable seating for us Viet Kieu are beds. Also, by around 9pm the household pretty much shuts down and all lights are turned off. I don’t think anyone would mind or care if we ventured downstairs and turned on some lights or watched TV afterhours but since all the nuclear families withdraw to their respective bedrooms after dinner, we don’t want to be the oddball couple any more than we already are. I don’t even know if there are any English language channels worth watching; I seem to have less time for TV than ever before, which is fine by me. We also theoretically could escape to the spare bedroom on the third floor where Tom works during the day, but we don’t. It’s fairly comfortable to work there in the daytime with the windows open, armed with only our mosquito-electrocuting tennis racket and a fan, but at night any lights would be a beacon to bugs everywhere, and I don’t like the idea of being a floor above our sleeping kids and insulated by closed doors and windows. On occasion I’ll continue working for a short time on the laptop in the dim light of our bedroom’s nightlight, but for the most part when it’s lights out for our kids, it’s lights out for us too. It’s so bizarre for me, the habitual night owl, to be ready for bed by 9pm. It’s also really hard for anyone to sleep in because one person’s stirring usually wakes everyone else. Because we now go to sleep and wake up with our kids (which may be what other parents do, but it’s never been our practice), the only other way to enjoy those blissful periods of our children’s unconsciousness is to skip the afternoon siesta. My mother and I have worked out a highly informal, fluid schedule where, when she feels like it, she looks after the kids while I join Tom in the spare third floor bedroom to read or blog while he works. It’s as close to “alone time” as anyone can get in VN. Fortunately I’m always happy to hang out with Tom and he’s always so engrossed in his work that he hardly notices my presence.

Our daily craving for seclusion is something of an anomoly here. In VN people are accustomed to being around family all day long. All the time, everyday. It’s part of the reason why no one sleeps alone and kids don’t leave their parents’ beds until middle school (and the reason why our bed is the size of two queen beds pushed together, because it’s expected that nuclear families sleep together). Being alone is considered scary. Our VN relatives don’t seem to have any need or desire to escape from one another. Of course there will always be in-fighting and tension when multiple generations and branches are forced by the patriarch to live under one roof (my cousins would prefer to have separate households to prevent bickering among wives and in-laws but what could they do except acquiesce when my uncle built a mansion specifically designed for everyone to live together), but everyone gets along surprisingly well considering how they’re in each other’s faces all the time. I could spend the entire day just hanging out with various relatives, and some days I do exactly that. Family members are always milling about, congregating in the kitchen/dining room area to chat, joke around or sprawl out on the cool marble tiles of the floor to escape the heat.

My mom moved in with us last year to help out with the kids and even though she’s been a godsend, I find it hard to be as nice to her as I should be. Part of it’s cultural, part of it’s emotional baggage, part of it’s typical mother-daughter stuff, but I just need to get away from her sometimes. In America we’re conditioned from the time we’re prepubescent to seek independence from our parents, to keep secrets from them, to sneak out of the house so we can have fun behind their backs. Parental presence means parental supervision which means loss of autonomy and fun. Here, it’s unthinkable to go anywhere without inviting my uncle and my mom, along with everyone else (my aunt is summering in Australia). Outings always include parents and kids unless they have other commitments. So if we’re going out to dinner or having drinks or grabbing coffee or a snack, EVERYONE has to join. Tom and I see our kids as a nuisance in public, but my cousins don’t mind being around their kids at all; I don’t think it’s occurred to them to mind. A few days ago my youngest female cousin, the baby of the family who’s called Ut, invited us to grab an afternoon snack of banh beo (little steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp, a miniature pork rind and fish sauce), and because we didn’t want to deal with the hassle of bringing along our kids who weren’t going to eat and who were most likely going to whine or cause some other mischief, we asked my mom to stay at home with them while we went. Even though she initially agreed, she didn’t hesitate to accept Ut’s invitation. My first instinct was to be annoyed. Annoyed that she wanted to tag along, annoyed that it meant our kids were going with us. I don’t know why I was so reluctant to have them join us; the outing took less than 90 minutes and simply involved eating trays of banh beo. We weren’t gossiping or telling secrets and my Vietnamese is so poor that it’s not like I could have a profound conversation with my cousins even if I tried; besides, all of their kids were there too. I’m just so used to the idea of needing to escape from my mom and my kids to have fun. Because it’s not possible to have fun around them, because being around them is a chore or obligation. Which makes me feel like a terrible daughter and parent.

In my defense and as an aside, my cousins don’t spend all day with their kids. In VN those who can afford it send their infants off to daycare as soon as possible (which to me is the reverse of how daycare is viewed in the U.S., not as an amenity but a necessity because neither parent can afford to stay at home or hire a nanny). Daycare and school hours extend much longer in VN than in the U.S. After kindergarten, it’s customary for children to have 12 hour school days!!! On top of the mandatory curriculum, parents pay for additional hours of schooling in the evenings and on weekends. Even if you don’t want to force extra schooling on your kids, teachers and your own kids will pressure you to pay for extra schooling so they don’t fall behind their peers.

In any event, I need to take a lesson from my cousins who not only tolerate their parents’ and children’s company, they prefer it because they don’t want to exclude anyone from the fun. That’s why outings are always so family-friendly. It’s endearing how innocent my cousins are. When they want to go out for drinks, they don’t mean cocktails; they mean blended smoothies that are consumed with strange snack concoctions like this one:
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I keep having to remind myself that one of my goals this year is to strengthen relationships that are meaningful to me. My mom is definitely someone I need to reconnect with, and both she and my kids deserve to be cherished. Isn’t that why I stopped working in the first place? I just need to get over my baggage with my mom. It’s easy to see why my cousins love her. Around them she’s perfectly charming; the jovial aunt who’s teased and teases affectionately. Around me, she’s hyper-sensitive and easily offended, I guess because she has her own baggage when it comes to me. She constantly nags and treats me like a twelve year old. Is that compulsory behavior for all mothers? Am I destined to become like her? I shudder to think how much like my mother I already am: impatient, judgmental, a know-it-all. Maybe that’s why we clash, though less so than before. I need to make a point of being kinder toward her, to appreciate my time with her. I’m sure our interactions would be more enjoyable if I wasn’t always trying to distance myself from her.

As for our kids, honestly, who doesn’t need a break from their kids? Young children are inherently annoying. They’re capricious, temperamental, irrational, have short attention spans, interrupt every conversation to badger you with inane questions like “Momma why do flies fly? Why? Why? Why? WHY???” And if I’m ever sitting down, one of them inevitably tries to worm their way onto my lap. Ordinarily this would be a sweet gesture and I must sound like a heartless mother for complaining, but it’s unbearable because it’s a million degrees outside and neither of them is capable of sitting still. I’m already sweating like a pig just sitting there by myself so imagine the discomfort generated by another hot, sweaty body squirming on your lap. It’s times like these that I need to invoke Buddhist mindfulness techniques. As soon as I stop perceiving their presence as a distraction, as soon as my focus shifts entirely to them and I notice their adorable smiling faces and remember how unconditionally they love me, how if I lost them I would be forever filled with despair and longing and wish that they would climb into my lap and badger me with their innocent questions, I’m suddenly aware of how brief and precious my time with them is. Of course, it’s not practical to apply Buddhist mindfulness to my kids all the time. It wouldn’t be healthy for anyone if I catered to them every time they demanded my attention, and I would probably look like a freak if I were fixated on my kids all day along. But I need to practice mindfulness more than I do. I need to resist the urge to escape from the present. Sometimes privacy and isolation can be good, therapeutic, restorative. Given the chance, being around your loved ones can be too.

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