Tom, my mom, my uncle and I got into discussion about gender roles and disparities. My mom mostly facilitated the conversation by acting as translator. My uncle is in his sixties and is about as old-school VN as you can get, without being a jerk about it. Respectability and social formalities are important to him. Before you partake in any meal at his table you have to invite all of your elders and superiors to partake.
Tom and I were explaining to my uncle that parenting our Vietnamese American children is a complicated balancing act. There are qualities and characteristics from both cultures that we want them to embrace, though they are sometimes at odds with one another. We want our kids to be obedient and respectful, but not too deferential and timid. We want them to be confident and aggressive when pursuing their goals, without being obnoxious or arrogant. To illustrate our point, I described how women’s salaries in the U.S. were consistently lower than men’s salaries for comparable work and experience. When the discourse started trending toward feminist themes, my uncle posed a question: why were women treated as unequal to men, in the U.S. and throughout the world? I listed a host of socio-political factors: women were less opportunistic when negotiating on their own behalf, were less vocal about their accomplishments, were often punished rather than rewarded for aggressive behavior. He interrupted by putting up his hand. I had it all wrong. Men are the sun, upon which all things in nature and on earth depend for life and sustenance. By reason of its power and magnitude, the sun compels everything to revolve around it. Women are the moon: smaller, weaker, and fated by its insignificance to follow the trajectory dictated by the sun, utterly incapable of forging its own path. At night the moon reflects a shadowy version of the light that radiates from the daytime sun. As the moon absorbs the sun’s light to cast a weak moonlight under which nothing can thrive, a woman merely shadows her husband’s ability to think, plan, decide, and act. She cannot exist without him and cannot hope to reverse the course of nature. In short, women are treated as unequal to men because they are unequal to men. I wasn’t sure how to counter his circular and conclusory reasoning and decided not to try. Tom was laughing at the look on my face, which I can only guess is the look I wear when confronted with inordinate quantities of bullshit, but I honestly wasn’t offended or even incredulous. My uncle’s generation, especially in light of his upbringing in VN, gets a free pass when it comes to sexism. I find it amusing and quaint. And to be fair, considering his staggering success and ability to amass more wealth than we could possibly hope to, he has grounds for being a little smug in his masculine judgment.
I sometimes find it hard to adapt to the gender roles and expectations that confront me in VN. For example, when my uncle launched into his “men are the sun, women are the moon” rhetoric, he wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I was looking directly at his face like I normally do when anyone is speaking to me. After a while it occurred to me that my direct gaze was making him uncomfortable so I averted my eyes and cast them downwards. In my peripheral vision I saw that he at that point looked at me as he spoke, and realized that direct eye contact was too confrontational under the circumstances, not deferentially demure enough for a niece being addressed by her uncle.
Later at dinner, I sat at the table after I finished eating to hang out as others continued eating and talking. Mosquitoes love to feast on ankles under the dinner table and I was already scratching a few bites so I lifted my foot to my chair to keep my ankle off of the floor and to gain better access to the itchy hives. My uncle motioned for me to lower my knee and leg off of the chair. I was mortified, for being perceived as acting inappropriately or unladylike and especially for being corrected in front of everyone. I don’t worry about crossing boundaries or acting unladylike in the U.S. because I at least know that I’m doing it. In VN I’m sure there are things I do that are overlooked because I’m Viet Kieu (like taking swigs from Tom’s beer can) but I’m in constant fear of crossing some unknown social or gender boundary. I’m not one to obsess about manners or decorous behavior so this is new, and uncomfortable, for me.