The Burden of Being Viet Kieu

One of Tom’s cousins in Phan Thiet hit us up for roughly US$200. This cousin is unemployed and had to borrow money from a friend to buy medication for his teenage daughter. At least that’s what he told Tom. Being unemployed, he has no means to repay this debt, so he’s forced to ask us for the money (to his great embarrassment). At least that’s what he told Tom. Neither of us know this cousin very well, so we don’t know how trustworthy he is. The suspicious/cynical part of me thinks, what if he’s making up this story about his daughter to take advantage of our sympathy? She doesn’t seem sick at all. Another part of me thinks, stop being such a stingy, distrusting jerk and give the poor guy a break.

Tom and I try to be as generous as we can toward our VN relatives because we know how obscenely rich we are compared to them, but we have certain limits when it comes to cash gifts. We give based on perceived need and generally draw the line at our generation. We have no problem gifting cash to our parents’ generation and older, i.e. aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. We generally don’t gift cash to our generation and younger, i.e. cousins, nieces, nephews, etc. Mainly because members of our generation and our kids’ generation should, theoretically, still have earning capacity, while members of our parents’ generation are, for the most part, retired and often barely scraping by. Many grown children continue to live with or near their parents after they get married, so it’s more efficient to give to the parents who can dole out funds to their kids and grandkids as necessary. Plus there are just way too many cousins, nieces, and nephews for us to be able to give meaningful contributions to everyone. We’re not that rich. So it’s a little disconcerting to be asked point blank for money by a cousin. In a way it’s unfair to other cousins who could have just as much or even greater need, other cousins who are too timid or ashamed to ask. And what would this cousin have done if we didn’t happen to be visiting Phan Thiet? How was he planning on repaying this debt if we had never showed up? On the other hand, (we’re hoping) he wouldn’t have asked unless he really needed the money. And even though the amount is two month’s worth of wages for the average VN worker, it wouldn’t make much of a dent in our finances. We can afford to give him the money, and he knows it. The cost of our hotel rooms easily exceeded that amount, and we chose to stay in hotels rather than staying with relatives. The fact that he knows we have the money puts us in an awkward position. We can’t really say no without seeming like cheap assholes.

My suspicious/cynical side also wonders if this cousin’s request wasn’t the result of a deliberately strategic calculation. It was as if he knew the optimal amount to ask for. The last time we were in Phan Thiet, we gave his elderly parents (Tom’s aunt and uncle) US$300 to buy an air conditioner for their bedroom. I feel like he knew not to ask for that much, because it would be inappropriate for him to receive the same as or more than his parents. He didn’t ask for a smaller amount because we would have much more readily given him $50 or $100. He asked for exactly the maximum of what we’d be willing to give. Is it a coincidence that his daughter’s medication costed that much? Am I a jerk for thinking these things?

If we honor this cousin’s request, our total cash gifts to his family would be disproportionate compared to other families we’ve visited. Ultimately, we decided to give him the money, because we could. I was swayed by something I read recently, about never regretting kindness. Even if we wind up duped, swindled, or cheated, we won’t ever feel shame for treating someone kindly. There’s a much greater risk of feeling shame or regret for not being as good to someone as you could have, when you had the chance.

I Would Never Survive in a North Korean Prison

Too many of my days have been blurring into each other and blending together in a monotonous cycle of childcare, eating, napping, dishwashing, and avoiding other chores. Some days we just putz around the mansion and don’t go outside at all. I’m philosophically opposed to doing strenuous housework during my sabbatical, but at the same time I can’t stand feeling like a freeloader. As much as I say I don’t care, it’s hard not to care. I feel like I should do more; I just don’t want to. So we decided to take off. Originally the plan was to revisit Tom’s family in Phan Thiet for a few days, but since there’s no reason to hurry back to Long Khanh, we’ll probably extend our stay until we’ve worn out our welcome in Phan Thiet. I’m willing to go to great lengths to avoid housework (or more accurately, to avoid feeling guilty about not doing housework).

Our last overnight stay in Phan Thiet was kind of a disaster and definitely not comfortable, so we booked a room at a 4 star hotel resort for our first two nights back in Phan Thiet, a very affordable splurge at US$70 per night. After spending the day with Tom’s relatives, we made our apologies and excuses and withdrew from their company — but not before getting transported to our luxury accommodations via motorbikes. We were dropped off in front of a relatively opulent lobby and welcomed with scented washcloths and flutes of dragon fruit cocktails. We checked into a comfortable room with a clean bathroom. We were in heaven. H-E-A-V-E-N. For the first time in months, we were perfectly comfortable by American standards. There wasn’t anything special about the room or the bathroom. The furnishings and decor were basic. In the U.S. this room and its amenities would be ranked probably closer to 3 stars and we’ve certainly stayed at nicer hotels. But it completely blew all of our other VN accommodations out of the water. It was a little pathetic how much we enjoyed this room, and a little shocking to realize how much we missed home. I don’t think I’ll ever again take for granted a real mattress with clean sheets that don’t have any holes in them, air conditioning at the press of a button, plush oversized bath towels that don’t stink after one use, unlimited quantities of hot water, or a sparkling white bathroom free of mildew and rust. I don’t know why these creature comforts have become indispensable to me, but they have. If I didn’t particularly care about these things before, I certainly do now, to the point that I don’t think I can be truly happy without them. I read about people who suffer real deprivations, characters who are tortured or thrown into solitary confinement, or victims of horrifically inhumane treatment. Being imprisoned in a windowless cell without access to water, sunlight, or any reasonable means to empty one’s bowels is almost as inconceivable to me as it’s appalling. I’m the type of person who can’t truly be happy without plush bath towels.

The hotel’s other perks included a fabulous breakfast buffet that offered real milk, not the sugary, reconstituted, ultra-preserved stuff that VN kids drink out of unrefrigerated cartons. After taking a sip, the girl, who’s not a fan of the VN version of milk, joyfully exclaimed “It’s real cow milk, like in North America!” We were also steps from our choice of a pristine beach or swimming pools, all of which were surrounded by comfy lounge chairs shaded by wide beach umbrellas. H-E-A-V-E-N. The only reminder that we were still in Vietnam was the presence of a cow that grazed on shrubbery near the beach, which we found to be charming. I got a little carried away with our brief taste of America because I succumbed to an ever-growing craving and ordered a Margherita pizza from the hotel restaurant. I got what tasted like a frozen cheese pizza. Served me right.

The two nights that we spent at the resort were so pleasurable that it was difficult to return to the “real” Vietnam — with its filth, mosquitoes, sweltering heat, revolting stenches, and gross bathrooms. I’m ill-equipped to deal with less than luxurious surroundings.

I Broke My Aunt’s Arm


Not intentionally of course, but from what I remember of my law school torts class I’d be liable under theories of negligence and proximate cause or something like that. I have these really crappy $3 black flip flops that I bought from Target ages ago, which are my beach flip flops. I usually hide them under other shoes on a shoe rack in the garage. If you leave flip flops lying around and easily accessible, they become communal flip flops and anyone who wants to wear them will. I have a thing about other people wearing my shoes and the tread on these particular flip flops has completely worn away, making them treacherous on any wet surfaces, so I take care to hide all my footwear in the garage or in our bedroom.

After dinner last night, Tom had a hunkering for a VN roast pork sandwich sold from a cart about a block down the street. I was too lazy to run upstairs to grab real shoes so I fished out my crappy black flip flops from the shoe rack. Both kids had burst into tears of anguish at the thought of being separated from me for three minutes, so I took a kid in each hand and headed outside. At exactly that moment it began to rain and I almost slipped before we had descended the marble stairway in front of the mansion. I hesitated, thinking this was a bad idea because I was either going to break my neck or one of my kids’ necks, and started to turn back. My kids tugged on my arms as they reassured me, “Mom, it’s going to be okay. We’ll be alright.” I don’t know why but I was reassured and decided to go for it. We made our way down the stairs ever so slowly and carefully walked to the sandwich cart and back. As we took off our shoes at the front door, I made a split second decision to leave my flip flops outside overnight to dry.

The next morning I woke to gray skies and drizzling wetness. When I walked into the kitchen, Tom was grim-faced. “Auntie broke her arm this morning. She’s so sad, she looks like she’s about to cry.” I walked over to my poor aunt, who indeed looked like she was on the verge of tears, and expressed my sympathy and dismay. She had slipped on the front stairs and fractured a wrist bone when she cushioned her fall by landing on her left hand. The lightbulb did not go off in my head until one of the cousins came up behind me while I was washing dishes and admonished me to throw away my flip flops. “If it hadn’t been Auntie it could have been you!” Oh shit! It hadn’t occurred to me that she fell because she was wearing my treacherously crappy flip flops but in hindsight it seems so obvious and 100% predictable. By leaving my worn flip flops at the entrance on a rainy night, I had practically guaranteed that someone would slip and fall. I approached my aunt again as she was being comforted by her children and explained that I never left those particular flip flops out, I always hid them in the garage because I knew how slippery they were, and it was bad luck that I happened to run out to buy roast pork sandwiches the night before, the first time I had ever done so. “So those were your slippers?” she asked mournfully. I was crushed. Up until this point, I took comfort in the belief that my presence, while not particularly beneficial to anyone, wasn’t doing any harm. Now here was affirmative proof that I was no good. My aunt was going to have a cast and lose the use of one of her arms for months because I had been foolishly thoughtless. I felt so badly for her and for myself that tears welled up and I had to run up to our bedroom to sob inconsolably for a few minutes. I later went back to my aunt and apologized for being so careless and she shook her head while patting my arm, “No child, it wasn’t your fault. No child, no.” She’s such a sweet, gentle soul that tears threatened to well up again but I was grateful and relieved to hear that she didn’t blame me. After all, it was Tom who wanted the roast pork sandwich.

I Don’t Need to Apologize

I realize I complain a lot for someone who doesn’t have real problems. They’re first world problems, which don’t count as real problems to a lot of people. I find that I often feel self-conscious and apologetic for thinking and acting the way I do; for being who I am, essentially. It’s true — I’m not a demure, deferential VN woman. I don’t lead a completely altruistic existence. I’m not a slave to family obligations and filial piety. I don’t do chores (at least not as much as I should). I’m not a morning person. I’m nothing like what a good VN girl should be. In fact, I’m as bad as a VN girl gets; I’m Americanized. An Americanized man is impressive, admirable, and desirable. An Americanized woman is the opposite of those things.

So what, I’m Americanized. I grew up in America. Of course I turned out to be an American woman, and damn proud of it. If my VN relatives had lived practically their entire lives in the U.S., they’d be Americanized too. They would think and act the way I do, maybe worse. They’d have my first world problems. They would feel entitled and superior and self-important. They would wear scandalous sleeveless tops. They would think that chores are a stupid and boring way to spend time.

In all fairness and as a disclaimer, I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect. VN isn’t the most oppressive place in the world for women, and its men aren’t all jerks. Some of them are helpful on occasion. And I’m really not so bad by VN standards; I’m actually fairly traditional, and docile enough. I’m just not a 100% traditional VN woman, and that’s okay. It’s also okay that I was worried about it and I’m no longer going to worry about it.

It’s important to have perspective, and to not be so wrapped up in yourself that you can’t see the big picture. But it’s silly to invalidate someone’s problems and feelings, including your own, because they might seem meaningless on some global, objective scale (if that even exists). Who’s to say what’s meaningful and what isn’t? My problems are real to me. My motivations and actions and reactions are a product of my upbringing and the circumstances that brought me to this point in my life. I don’t need to apologize for not thinking and behaving like a girl who was raised in VN. If I don’t feel like mopping a mansion, I’m not going to do it. And I’m not going to feel guilty or fret over not doing it. If people think I’m lazy, so what? I am lazy. Who cares if people think I’m a bad wife because I let my husband do chores so I don’t have to? So long as my husband thinks I’m a good wife — it’s his opinion that matters. And why am I obsessing about popularity and people’s opinions of me? Am I still in the seventh grade? Fuck that shit. I’m going to do what I want. I can complain if I want to. I don’t need to apologize for being me.

I Got Over It

Tom apologized and I told him I didn’t need an apology; that I was just frustrated, didn’t know how to stop being frustrated, and was unable to take out my frustration on anyone else. I explained my feelings and he explained his feelings and we reached a better understanding of each other. We’re actually really good at resolving disputes—usually. We communicate openly and calmly and maturely; listen without judgment or criticism; try to see the other person’s point of view. Usually. Once in a while, though, I’ll just go batshit crazy and then we deal with the fallout. I don’t know how to explain it other than it was a perfect storm of random events coinciding with emotional vulnerability. In retrospect I don’t know why I got so mad. The pieces of firewood that combusted into flame are so thoroughly burned that they’re nothing more than insubstantial ash now; they don’t seem to matter anymore. Maybe that’s what needed to happen. I needed to get all my petty gripes and insecurities and paranoia off my chest and set them on fire, so to speak. As much as I complain, I’m not insensible of my tremendous good fortune. I still have several months of relative freedom, freedom to do what I choose, if I can get over myself and my insecurities and doubts surrounding those choices. I have a good life. Since my mom’s been out of town on vacation I’ve been taking care of the kids by myself, and we’ve gotten into a nice routine where I’ll find scraps of time to read or blog while they play or nap. I really do love being with them. I never tire of kissing their round babyish faces. I have a good life.

My Sabbatical Is Negatively Impacting My Marriage

Tom and I haven’t spoken in over two days and if you asked me why, I’m not sure I could give a coherent explanation. It’s probably more accurate to say that I’ve been ignoring Tom’s attempts to talk to me for over two days. At this point I know I should just cut it out but I still can’t bring myself to talk to him. I’m not even mad at him anymore. I’m just frustrated and can’t figure out a way to stop being frustrated. To fully explain what happened, I’d have to explain a bunch of seemingly irrelevant contributing factors, and in the process of doing so, I’m afraid of revealing how neurotic I am. Which, of course, I am. So at the risk of sounding like a completely mental nutjob, I’ve boiled my gripes down to two fundamental gripes: #1: Tom is getting more out of my sabbatical than I am; and #2: Tom is adapting a little too well to the role of the prototypical VN man.

An apt metaphor might be that a collection of kindling and tinder, bits of firewood and fuel, have been accumulating for some time, awaiting any spark, small or large, to ignite the heap into a blazing inferno. The catalytic spark happened the day I returned from my spa day in Saigon. I don’t think any bit of kindling or firewood on its own would have been enough to inflame my rage. The aggravations that were weighing on my mind that day, in isolation, would not have aggravated me ordinarily.

First piece of firewood: everyone in VN likes Tom more than me. That’s a plain fact, one that I readily acknowledge and accept. Not just strangers and random people we meet, but my own blood relatives. As I was riding the bus back to Long Khanh, I was contemplating how much more lovable Tom is than me, which was something I had known for a long time but which had never bothered me until now. The reason I was thinking about it on this particular morning was because of a comment my aunt’s husband made while he was driving me to the bus stop at 3:45 A.M. When I had first arrived to Saigon, a couple of people teased me for traveling so far just to redeem a spa voucher. My aunt’s husband asked why I went through so much trouble to spend less than a day in Saigon. That made me a little self-conscious and anxious. Did he think I was a pain in the ass? After all, he had to wake up at 3:30 in the morning because I needed a ride to the bus stop. I hadn’t been concerned about inconveniencing him because, I thought to myself, he’s retired, normally wakes up at 5 every morning, and doesn’t do much other than take naps throughout the day. Suddenly I felt terribly guilty about inconveniencing him, especially considering his reputation for having a difficult personality. He never made us feel unwelcome during the many weeks that we stayed with him and my aunt at their apartment, but we were always nervous and worried about how our rowdy kids were imposing on his otherwise tranquil lifestyle. On our way to the bus stop, he told me that he and my aunt had gotten used to having our kids around and missed them now that they were gone. He also remarked that Tom had a sweet disposition. It was gratifying to hear him confirm what I had always known: that my husband and kids are irresistibly lovable. It’s no small feat to win the affection of my aunt’s husband; he’s a bit of a crotchety old man who doesn’t always enjoy being around his own kids or grandkids. Despite his reticence, he and Tom bonded during our stay in Saigon. That’s something that would never happen between my aunt’s husband and me. Our relationship will never progress beyond polite detachment. I don’t think my aunt’s husband actively dislikes me; I’m guessing his feelings toward me are somewhere between tolerance and indifference. He’s certainly not impressed by me. I wake up hours after him, don’t seem particularly productive throughout the day, can’t figure out my way around if my life depended on it, am terrible at making conversation or being remotely interesting. Tom, on the other hand, charms everyone he meets. People think he’s so clever, capable, funny, helpful, genial, the perfect husband and father. What they don’t realize is that he’s corny, fobby, ingratiating, and tells really boring stories. He’s a huge dork. And that’s what makes him so lovable. VN people eat that stuff up. Who would you like more: someone who makes an effort to put you at ease, who will always try to make conversation or get a laugh, even if it’s at his own expense, who cares deeply about the opinion of others and wants to be entertaining and well-liked, or someone who silently sits by, surly and sarcastic? It’s no wonder that all of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and even my mother, prefer Tom’s company over mine. I don’t resent it; I take pride in it. I’ve always been happy to sit back and let Tom win people over, and grateful to be able to ride on the coattails of his likeability. I just don’t have it in me to win people over (it looks exhausting). My kids are lovable without even trying. So my uncle’s comment on the way to the bus stop, intimating how much he liked Tom and my kids, my awareness of how he (and everyone else in VN) feels about me, and my anxiety about being an inconvenience, really hit home my status in my family: I’m the dispensable one. No one minds my presence, but Tom and the kids are the ones they’ll remember fondly and tell stories about after we leave. This was further confirmed at lunchtime on the day I got back to Long Khanh.

As family members were sitting down to lunch that day, my cousin’s wife told her daughter to sit next to me, referring to me as her daughter’s aunt. There are a bunch of different ways to refer to an aunt in Vietnamese, to indicate whether the relationship is on the mother’s or father’s side and whether it’s through blood or by marriage. The word she chose indicated that Tom was the blood relation and I was the in-law, when it’s actually the reverse. I hardly would have noticed such a trivial detail if I hadn’t been contemplating, that very morning, Tom’s popularity relative to my own. I was feeling insecure and being addressed that way rankled. For the first time I started to resent Tom’s popularity and how easily he ingratiated himself with my relatives. Just a few stupid jokes and a few stupid stories and he had them fawning all over him. Which brings me to my next point.

Second piece of firewood: Tom’s Vietnamese is noticeably improving while mine is mired in stagnant hopelessness. I always thought our fluency was roughly equal, even though Tom told people mine was better because he’s always overestimating and over-praising me. I knew some words he didn’t and he knew some words I didn’t but on the whole I think his vocabulary was slightly better and my pronunciation was slightly better. At least a few people now consider Tom more fluent, which kills me because he sounds like an idiot when he talks. And that’s the difference between Tom and me. He’s willing to talk even if he sounds like an idiot. He’s always trying to engage someone in conversation or participate in the larger conversation. He tells jokes and doesn’t mind being the butt of them. He makes observations and narrates anecdotes that I would never attempt. If I don’t know enough words to describe something, I give up or won’t try. Tom will find a way to describe what he’s trying to say; he’ll simplify and get his point across. As often as not he ends up saying something that sounds really simplistic and dumb, like “When we were driving around town, I saw many banks. A lot and a lot of banks” or “My son gets mad when he can’t put on his shirt. He tries very hard and he gets so mad. Then I help him put on his shirt.” Someone meeting Tom for the first time might think, What’s wrong with this guy? But after a while I think people appreciate that he’s making an effort to communicate in their native language and eventually find him and his stories endearing. Tom’s stories are boring in any language but that doesn’t stop him from telling them. I used to roll my eyes when he did, but now I see that his approach is far more successful than mine. He gets a lot of practice speaking and if he makes a mistake, he gets corrected or learns a new vocabulary word. And he sounds funny and cute, like a little kid, which enhances his lovability. In case you haven’t noticed, I way overthink things, which only serves to make me self-conscious and nervous. When I’m nervous I tend to rush (I do this when speaking English too) and inevitably stop short when I hit on a concept I don’t know the word for. Sometimes in my nervousness I’ll mispronounce an accent and the word comes out wrong, even though it’s a word I know well and use all the time. Because Vietnamese is a tonal language with six different accents for each sound and a ton of synonyms, it’s easy to mess up if you’re nervous and rushing. I hear myself sounding like an idiot and it only makes me more flustered. My speech is very halting; rushing and stopping, stumbling over words. And unlike Tom, I’m not comfortable using a new word until I see how it’s spelled and practice its pronunciation over and over. In the beginning I told myself that my self-consciousness was making me sound worse than I was, and that Tom wasn’t any more fluent than me, but now I have to concede that he’s made a lot more progress than I have. He speaks slowly but with an easy confidence that I envy. And that’s an entirely new sensation for me: feeling jealous of my husband. Which brings me to my next point.

Third piece of firewood: men are treated like gods in VN. It’s just not fair. I get no brownie points for washing dishes or sweeping the floor. Doing those things are as natural and expected of me as brushing my teeth. If I didn’t, no one would force me to, but it would be unbecoming and people would look down on me. When Tom washes dishes or sweeps the floor he practically gets a standing ovation. People find it shocking, like the sky is falling or something. He inspires so much awe and admiration that I bet people wonder how I landed such a gem. I bet people think I’m the lucky one. Which does not please me in the least. It’s okay for me to feel lucky to have Tom, but I generally expect other people to think he’s the lucky one. Maybe in the U.S. he is, but analyzed under VN’s double standards, Tom is the perfect husband of a rather mediocre wife.

If you had a long-term guest staying in your home, it would be pretty rude if the guest didn’t at least try to help out with household chores, right? In VN that’s only true for women. It’s perfectly acceptable, even expected, for male guests to do absolutely nothing but eat and drink and sit around bullshitting with each other. Tom could live in my uncle’s mansion for a year and never lift a finger and no one would think any less of him. I do enough to be polite, but I could certainly do more. If I did any less, people would definitely think less of me. I think they already do. I cringe when I think about how much Uyen, the wife of the baby boy, is criticized for not doing more, because I think she does plenty and I do even less than her. I’m probably doing the bare minimum of what’s considered socially acceptable. It’s not like I’m the laziest person of all time, I’m just fairly lazy most of the time. Cleaning isn’t my favorite activity but I’ll do it when it needs to be done. The problem is, women are expected to toil like slaves, so even if I busted my ass, I wouldn’t get any credit for it because I’d simply be fulfilling my womanly duties. In order to get brownie points for domestic chores a woman would have to go way above and beyond the call of duty, like by cleaning the mansion from top to bottom. Anything short of that wouldn’t be considered “above and beyond”; it’d be merely “normal.” I could try to emulate Chi Ca and start polishing furniture, dusting towers of shelves, mopping each of the four floors, scrubbing bathrooms, etc. But this mansion is fucking huge which means I’d be working from dawn to dusk the way Chi Ca does, and I did not take a year off from work to fucking reenact Cinderella. I feel like the only way a woman gets any respect around here is by martyring herself. Everyone admires and respects Chi Ca because she works and suffers more than most people. I want to be respected for being a smart, independent-minded woman. I don’t want to be respected because I’m willing to wring a filthy mop with my bare hands as I’m scrubbing the floors everyday (apparently mops that come with wringers are really shoddy and can’t withstand mopping a 20,000 square foot mansion more than a few times, so the mops used at my uncle’s mansion have to be manually hand-wrung, which is disgusting).
I’m not willing to do that; I don’t need that kind of respect. Accruing brownie points is not the purpose of my sabbatical. Tom, on the other hand, scores brownie points each time he washes a dish or feeds his child, because he’s doing more than what’s expected of him, which is nothing. I know I have an awesome husband, I’ll be the first person to say it, but here his godliness is approaching legendary status. He’s put on such an impossibly high pedestal that I can’t compete, especially handicapped as I am by these double standards. I guess what I’m trying to say is that he’s making me look bad. It’s a problem without a solution. I want him to do chores because I don’t want to do that shit. But when he does chores, I look bad for not doing them. It’s also a problem to which I contribute, because I praise Tom all the time, sometimes to my own detriment. I’ll say things like, “Tom takes care of everything at home. I don’t do anything.” I’m his biggest fan, so of course I want him to look good. He deserves to look good. Except now he looks too good. And talking him up has backfired because I look really bad.

A revealing illustration would be to contrast Uyen with Anh Nghiep, my uncle’s second oldest son who’s a bit of a ne’er-do-well. Anh Nghiep lives with his parents in the mansion and is the only cousin who’s never been married and probably will never get married or have kids, the reason being he’s worried that having a wife would get in the way of hanging out with his friends all the time, which is what he currently does. Anh Nghiep has no occupation to speak of other than eating and drinking with his buddies on a daily basis (he also invests a substantial part of each day figuring out what to eat and drink). That’s all he does. His parents bankroll his leisurely lifestyle and expect nothing in return. And yet Uyen is the black sheep of the family because she isn’t doing enough of the communal cooking and cleaning, in addition to being responsible for all chores for her nuclear family, working in the pharmacy, and caring for her two young children. If those aren’t double standards I don’t know what are. It’s starting to get to me how much these double standards work in Tom’s favor and against me, and how he’s so highly regarded and I’m not.

I’ve honestly never felt jealous of Tom before. Our interests and occupations and pursuits are so different that there’s no opportunity to be competitive with each other. We inhabit very distinct spheres of competency. He has strengths that make him impressive, as do I. Except in VN I’m not impressive at all. I wake up late (getting up at 7 or 8 might as well be the same as getting up at noon) and hang out with my kids all day (I might as well be an indolent trophy wife). Taking care of children is so time-consuming and yet there’s absolutely zero respect for stay-at-home moms. If anything, I’m probably viewed as a moocher. Tom works full-time to support our family and does housework. He doesn’t have to do very much, only what he chooses to do. If he doesn’t feel like sticking around after meals to help feed the kids, no problem. I’ve got it covered. If he’s not in the mood to sweep or wash dishes, he can just run back up to his office. If he doesn’t want to vacuum or mop, someone else will take care of it. Domestic duties, including childcare, are completely optional for him. It’s not unusual for him to stay away all day, only showing up at bedtime after the kids have been freshly bathed, their teeth brushed, to kiss them goodnight. Fortunately for me he’s a neat freak and a helpful husband, but he’s in a win-win situation. If and when he chooses to do chores, he’s a saint. For me, there’s no real upside, only downside if I don’t do what I’m supposed to. When I compare our current lives to our former lives, I feel like Tom is the real winner. He works as much as he wants to and does fewer chores. My current life is also a net improvement over my former life, but I’m a lot more conflicted about it. I’m more rested and spend all day with my kids. That’s what I wanted, right? Yet somehow I feel like I exchanged one time-consuming job for another. I enjoy my kids but caring for them involves a lot of drudgery, and I’m doing more chores. I don’t have as much free time as I thought I would. Maybe that’s a pipe dream at this stage in my life. Maybe I have unrealistic expectations. In any event, Tom has an enviable knack for finding happiness and fulfillment wherever he goes, while I always find something to complain about. Is this what it all boils down to? That I’m jealous of Tom?

The spark: Tom comes home drunk.

To backtrack, that fateful day unravels as follows: I wake up at 3 A.M. to catch a 4 A.M. bus from Saigon to Long Khanh. I ponder Tom’s popularity during the bus ride. I get back to my uncle’s mansion by 6:30 A.M., and am surprised to find Tom and the kids already up. The boy has a fever and Tom says he gave him some Children’s Tylenol last night after taking his temperature. He also tells me how his day went, since he had to take care of the kids by himself while my mom and I were in Saigon. (By his own account, it was a breeze because he got so much help from the female cousins. He drank beer with the male cousins during lunch while the women prepared food and fed his children. After lunch he passed out for over three hours in a drunken stupor and woke to find that the girl had already been fed her dinner. The boy developed a fever later that night so Tom gave him medicine. After both kids were fed and bathed, he put them to bed and started working, from about 9 P.M. to 2 A.M. The kids woke up unusually early at 5:30 A.M., maybe due to the boy’s fever. I came home an hour after that.)

I decide to feed the kids breakfast on the fourth floor because there are fewer mosquitoes up there. Unfortunately, it’s rained and my uncle’s doors and windows aren’t secure, so rainwater has partially flooded the fourth floor, leaving a residue of dirt and dead bugs. While the kids are eating I decide to sweep and mop so they can have a clean play space. Because VN’s short straw brooms require you to hunch over as you sweep, and sweeping a floor of my uncle’s mansion is like sweeping a museum, I break into a sweat almost immediately. I’m tired and hot and crave iced coffee in an air-conditioned ca. No sooner than I get the idea to tell Tom that we should go to a ca after breakfast, Tom yells from the lower floor that he’s running out to grab coffee with Anh Nghiep. I give a growl of displeasure and yell back, “But I want to go too!” Tom responds, ok, but we have leave now. I look over at the kids, who are still eating their breakfast, have second thoughts about the boy’s fever, and realize I’m not even halfway done sweeping. “Forget it!” I yell down, “Just go by yourself.” Tom offers to bring back a cup of coffee for me but I refuse. It takes me over an hour to sweep and do a cursory mop and the entire time I’m thinking to myself, This is bullshit. I don’t even do this in my own home. I also remember thinking it was a pointless waste of time because it looks like it might rain again so the fourth floor is just going to get flooded again and no one would even know I had cleaned up.

After breakfast the boy’s acting especially clingy because he’s not feeling well. He sits placidly on my lap so I don’t mind cuddling with him all morning. I get a little nervous by lunchtime because I find him asleep on our bed with the girl playing quietly next to him. Definitely not normal behavior. I decide to feed the kids in our bedroom after I have lunch with the family downstairs. As I’m setting the table and sitting down, my cousin’s wife refers to me as the wrong kind of aunt. I take offense at being considered an in-law, an outcast. Family members inquire after Tom when he doesn’t show up, and I tell them that he went out to get coffee with Anh Nghiep before eight this morning and hasn’t returned yet. Predictably, Anh Nghiep has taken him out somewhere and I don’t expect him back for awhile. I wash the lunch dishes and then bring bowls of food up to our bedroom but I’m unable to feed the boy more than a couple of bites because he’s crying that his mouth hurts and he wants to go to sleep. I give him more Children’s Tylenol and let him sleep. I rummage through our cabinets and drawers for the thermometer but can’t find it anywhere. After their naps the boy’s fever has gone down but the girl is now feverish and sluggish, so I give her Children’s Tylenol too. The medicine works to reduce their temperatures, and they act normal for a short time, but then their fevers keep returning a few hours after each dose. Family members start to worry and advise me to take the kids to the doctor if their temperatures exceed 38 degrees Celsius (which I later figure out is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit). There’s some concern about mosquito-related diseases and I become slightly panicked at the thought of malaria. I’m also wondering when Tom is going to come home and tell myself he’s entitled to a day of fun since he had to watch the kids while I had a spa day. But then I think, wait, I actually had only 4.5 hours of fun and he’s been gone much longer than that. Then I feel petty for making these calculations and comparisons and for begrudging him a good time. He’s in the midst of his busiest season and he sacrificed a day of work so I could go to the spa. But then I think, am I supposed to be grateful? Did he do me a favor that I need to repay? Aren’t I just as entitled to have fun as he is? Was it really so much of a sacrifice on his part when he’s sacrificing a second consecutive workday to go drinking with Anh Nghiep? And how much credit should he get for taking care of the kids when he got so much help and spent a substantial portion of the day getting drunk and then sleeping off his drunkenness? I don’t get the same kind of help when I take care of my kids because I do it everyday, and I’m expected to. These are the thoughts that keep swirling in my head, and by dinnertime I’m not sure how I’ll react to Tom when I see him. I don’t have any luck feeding the boy his dinner and realize he hasn’t eaten since breakfast. He complains of a pain from his mouth down to his right leg. Part of me is trying to remain calm and part of me is slightly frantic because I still can’t find the thermometer after looking for it again. Where the hell did Tom hide it after he took the boy’s temperature last night? I give the kids their medicine and send them to bed while I eat dinner. Tom doesn’t make an appearance but as I finish eating I think I see from the corner of my eye someone entering our bedroom upstairs. It’s hard to describe exactly how I feel — a mixture of relief and resentment, but something else too. I carry up the kids’ bowls of food and enter the bedroom to find the three of them asleep on the bed. At that moment something comes over me and I slam the door shut, startling the kids awake. Tom doesn’t stir. The feeling that overcomes me gets stronger and I slam the bowls down on the nightstand. Tom remains lifeless. I walk over and grab a pillow and smash it as hard as I can over his head. “Are you drunk?” I hiss at him. One eye cracks open a slit and he mumbles, “A little.” He falls unconscious again and the kids are sitting up looking at me curiously, thinking I’m playing a game with daddy and a pillow. “Where is the thermometer?” I demand. No answer. “Where is the thermometer?” I want to curse at him but I can’t because my kids are watching me. “WHERE IS THE THERMOMETER?!?!?!?!!!” Finally he makes a slight wiggling motion with his index finger and without opening his eyes he mumbles, “Over there.”

“Where? Where?? WHERE?!?!?!?!” I’m screaming at him but all he does is continue to point feebly in the direction of the wardrobe. I pull a chair to the wardrobe, climb up and start searching through all of the shelves I had already searched earlier in the day. I finally understand what I’m feeling: blind, furious rage. It’s burning hotter and hotter with each passing second.

The top two shelves of the wardrobe house our toiletries and supplies that we brought from the U.S.: soap, medicine, vitamins, packages of floss, lotion, creams, etc. It’s hard to see through clutter and rage so I grab some supplies and toss them on the floor. They land with a satisfying thud. So I grab some more stuff and throw it down. At this point a ferocious madness consumes me and I start grabbing anything I can get my hands on and viciously hurl it to the ground. Assorted containers and bottles and packages explode across the floor.

I’m not a thrower. My dad was; he would destroy dishes, furniture, anything in his vicinity when he was fighting with my mom. As I kid I hated his uncontrollable, violent temper, and my siblings and I would plug our ears as we cried and waited for our parents to stop fighting. I think throwing things is a pretty immature and melodramatic way to express anger. But as I’m doing it, I feel such a thrilling sense of gratification, it’s almost cathartic. Almost but not quite. I feel myself becoming more infuriated, not less. In the back of my mind I’m also thinking, with spiteful satisfaction, that Tom is going to clean up this mess. I’m causing so much commotion that my kids pipe up in their childish voices, “Momma! Why are you making a mess? Momma! Why are you throwing things? Momma! You’re making a mess, you’re being bad! Momma! Why are you doing that?”

Why am I doing this? Why am I acting like a crazy person? It’s not like it’s the first time Tom’s come home drunk. But the sight of him laying there completely shit-faced enrages me to the point that sanity and reason are obliterated from my mind. I want to kill him. I want to bludgeon him to death. I want to scream, “Because your father is a FUCKING ASSHOLE!!! He thinks he’s God’s gift to women but he is a USELESS PIECE OF SHIT!!!!! He thinks I should worship the ground he walks on because he’s SUCH a WONDERFUL husband compared to other men and it was SO GENEROUS of him to let me have a day to myself. He thinks he’s entitled to get drunk whenever he wants and I should be GRATEFUL because he has a job AND takes care of his children once in awhile AND cleans up after himself. He thinks I need him! Well I DON’T! I DON’T NEED A FUCKING USELESS VIETNAMESE ASSHOLE WHO CAN’T EVEN ROUSE HIMSELF TO GET A FUCKING THERMOMETER!!!!!!!!!!!” Of course, I don’t say these things because I don’t swear in front of my kids. Instead I say, “I’m mad at your father because he’s being selfish.” Which elicits from them, “Dadda, stop being selfish!”

Tom might as well be a corpse, and I have half a mind to make him one. I turn on all the lights and the television and blast the volume. I let the kids run around and play as I try to feed them. They’re acting more like themselves after their last dose of medicine and soon they’re yelling and laughing boisterously. I’m not about to let Tom sleep in peace and comfort. It makes no difference, he’s out cold for the next 12 hours.

The next day I won’t look at him and don’t respond when he talks to me. He thinks it’s because he came home drunk but that was just the spark, the catalyst. I’m focused on the kids, who have been steadily deteriorating. Their fevers are hotter than ever and the boy freaks out when he has his first nosebleed. My rage has subsided and morphed into frustration and resentment; a little bit of shame, too, when I see the mass of products and supplies scattered on the floor. I tell myself I’ll pick it up by the end of the day if Tom refuses to, but thankfully he puts everything away before lunchtime. I keep thinking about the events of the prior day and wonder if I’m justified for feeling the way I do. It’s so many things, so many bits of firewood, and none of them are Tom’s fault. The spark, coming home piss drunk, that was his fault, yes. But on another day it wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. If he had come home earlier it might not have been as big of a deal. I’m not one of those wives who can’t stand the idea of her husband having a good time without her. At least I like to think so. All the other stuff that was making me feel bitter and insecure that day — the fact that everyone likes Tom more than me, his improving fluency, how he benefits from VN double standards, how I feel pressured to do more housework, how Tom seems to be getting more out of this sabbatical than I am — those are not his issues, those are mine. And each individually really does not bother me. It was all of it together, and the circumstances surrounding his drinking spree, including his absence, which gave my negative feelings plenty of time to stew and incubate, that unhinged me. I was doing chores that I didn’t want to be doing. I was jealous that he got invited out to coffee and I didn’t. I was keenly aware of my outsider status. I was paranoid that all of the adulation was getting to his head, that maybe he was starting to believe in his own hype and think that he was too cool for school. In essence, I was worried that he was starting to think like a typical VN man. Maybe I was more on edge than usual because I had gotten up so early. A small part of me resented that even during his busiest season, Tom wasn’t working as hard as I did when my job was busy, which is a petty resentment. I shouldn’t want him to suffer more just because I did; I hate it when people tout their suffering like it’s a badge of honor. Smart people try to avoid suffering if they can help it. And even though it wasn’t Tom’s fault that the kids got sick, another small part of me thought, I left you with two healthy children who you barely took care of, and when I returned, you left me to care for two sick children by myself while you went off drinking.

My spa day was the first time in the entire three months that we’ve been here that I’ve been away from both Tom and my kids, and the only time I’ve done anything recreational without Tom. In contrast, at least a couple of times a month Tom gets to go out without me and the kids. Part of the reason is that he’s a man and the other part is that he’s better liked. It’s perfectly natural for him to leave us at home but it would be really weird for me to leave the kids with him to go have fun on my own. Which is why the spa day was a big deal. I don’t like the idea of me going out being considered a special treat for which I should be grateful and appreciative. Tom doesn’t feel the need to be grateful and appreciative each time he goes out. No doubt he feels entitled. I’m entitled too, goddammit!

Tom has hung out with Anh Nghiep before and has come home drunk before, and it was never a big deal. I just happened to be an emotional landmine this time. I don’t have anything against Anh Nghiep; he was my favorite cousin in Long Khanh the first time I visited VN over 13 years ago. But he’s not exactly the model of VN maleness that I want Tom to emulate. Drinking for 10 hours and then sleeping for 12 hours immediately afterwards is not my idea of a productive day. Thinking highly of yourself for doing things that you should be doing anyway is not my idea of the perfect man.

My silent treatment towards Tom continues not out of anger, but out of confusion. I don’t know what to say to him. What can I say that doesn’t sound completely ridiculous? Stop being so lovable? Stop upstaging me at every turn? Stop enjoying yourself so much? Stop co-opting my sabbatical and hijacking it for your own? One lingering notion continues to plague my thoughts, one that I’m not sure I want to give voice to: do I want to go home? For some reason I feel like admitting it would be admitting defeat, would be tantamount to failure. Failure at what, I’m not sure. Maybe failure at fulfilling the purpose of my sabbatical. Or finding a purpose for my sabbatical.

Until I figure out what I want and how to articulate it, it’s hard to figure out what to say to Tom. I don’t think I’m prepared to tell him I want to go home, partially because I know he doesn’t want to. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the limited advantages of not being on speaking terms with my husband. He’s scared of me when I won’t talk to him, which motivates him to be on his best behavior. He’s been vacuuming and mopping and feeding the kids like his life depends on it. Funny how that’s an unintended side effect of the silent treatment. Makes me think I should do it more often.

Spa Day and Reflections on the Fourth of July

As oxymoronic as it sounds, I figure if you’re willing to suffer for work, you should be willing to suffer for fun. I also believe a cost-benefit analysis can be applied to almost any situation. My belief systems sometimes end up contradicting one another. For example, because I was usually sleep-deprived due to work, I was usually willing to forego sleep for the sake of a good time. Tom and I always used to book the latest returning flight to prolong our vacation as much as possible, even if it meant getting home at 2 A.M. and having to go to work the next day. If we had done a cost-benefit analysis we might have realized we were being dumb.

I jumped at the opportunity to have a spa day even though the hoops I jumped through were rather ridiculous. My cousin SW had vouchers for 120 minutes of spa treatments that were going to expire in mid-July. Only problem was, SW was in Saigon and we were already stationed back in Long Khanh. My mom had to travel back to Saigon on July 4th to embark on another trip, and Tom encouraged me to go with her so I could take advantage of the spa vouchers and make a day of it. The distance between Long Khanh and Saigon would probably be an hour-long car ride on a U.S. highway, but VN roads, traffic, and transportation being what they are, it takes between two to three hours. We boarded a non-air conditioned bus at 8:30 on the morning of July 4th and, due to traffic, didn’t arrive to Saigon until 11:30. I was sweating profusely by the time we climbed off the bus, and the 15 minute walk from the bus stop to my aunt’s apartment under the glaring midday sun with a backpack on my back didn’t help matters. After lunch, I passed out from the heat until SW called to let me know she was leaving work to pick me up in time to make our 4:00 massage appointments.

We arrived to the beauty salon exactly on time. It was primarily a hair salon that had branched out into the massage business, so it didn’t really have proper spa facilities or amenities. The sauna was steaming hot but tiny and unscented. It might sound spoiled but I really enjoy steam rooms when they’re scented with eucalyptus mint or lavender or some other fancy fragrance that signals you’re being pampered. SW had asked her co-worker to join us and the sauna was barely large enough to accommodate the three of us. The masseuses that were initially assigned to us were two females and one male, but SW demanded all female masseuses and refused to let any male touch us (even if he was blind, as the salon employees assured us he was). It’s funny that SW was so adamant about guarding our virtue, almost to the point of seeming prudish, when she wasn’t shy about her body at all. In the sauna she stripped off her towel and told me to do the same to get the most out of the steam. I was kind of shocked at the sight of her nakedness and tried to avoid looking in her general direction. She kept encouraging me to get rid of my towel but I wasn’t eager to flaunt what my children and an unhealthy lifestyle have done to my body. It’s also funny how you feel pressured to be naked when you’re sitting next to a naked person, or is that just me? I seriously felt obligated to show her my boobs so I let my towel drop a little, to prove that I wasn’t prudish. As soon as her co-worker walked in I instantly covered up again, proving that I’m actually prudish after all. After a stint in the sauna, the salon employees invited us to take a shower together, as there was only one bathroom on that floor. I declined and headed downstairs to shower by myself, leaving SW and her co-worker to bask in each other’s nakedness as much as they wanted. Once again, the distinctly VN bathroom left much to be desired. I showered facing a dirty mop, next to several dirty buckets (amusing side note — nowadays when we take our kids to an unfamiliar bathroom, they’ll ask if it’s going to be clean or dirty, because in VN it’s a total craps shoot — no pun intended).

It’s a good thing SW insisted on having all female masseuses because part of the treatment entailed massaging a large portion of my butt. I must admit the butt massage was pretty enjoyable. It sounds so wrong but feels so right. The entire massage was pretty enjoyable, though it felt too short, like most massages do, and there were some oddities. The masseuse often climbed up on the table with me to perform parts of the massage, and used her feet in addition to her hands. At one point SW giggled; in pain, I realized, when I looked up to see her masseuse walking on her back. Fortunately my masseuse decided not to walk on my back; because I was too skinny, she explained. I was grateful to escape spinal injury and gratified to hear that someone thought I was skinny. There were minor drawbacks as well: the masseuses didn’t use any scented massage oils, just baby oil. The massage tables were ordinary cots that didn’t have headrests so you had to lay with your head craned to one side, which ironically resulted in a sore neck by the end of the massage. And the cots were lined up next to each other, separated by curtains (like what you might find in a hospital emergency room), so we only had to lift our heads to see each other. The only concession to ornamentation was a plastic vine with green leaves that had been wound around the curtain poles. After our massages we received hair treatments which seemed to me to be an over-complicated process of shampooing and conditioning. I gladly would have traded the hair treatment for an extended massage. Overall the experience was fine; definitely not the best but neither was it worst I’ve ever had. We left the salon by 7 P.M. and SW and I met up with my favorite cousin from my dad’s side of the family for a quick dinner of goat curry. I got back to my aunt’s apartment by 8:30 and immediately started getting ready for bed. For a variety of reasons, the most practical means for me to get back to Long Khanh was to take a 4 A.M. bus, which meant I had to wake up at 3 A.M. My aunt’s husband dropped me off at the bus stop at 3:45, it took off promptly at 4, and I arrived in Long Khanh about quarter after 6. After a ten minute walk from the bus stop to my uncle’s house, I was holding my children in my arms again. I was away from them for less than 24 hours, and in that span of time I rode an un-air conditioned bus for over 5 hours, enjoyed a 2 hour spa treatment, and slept for about 7 hours (including naps). All told, my “fun time” amounted to no more than 4.5 hours — SW picked me up for a 4:00 massage appointment and delivered me back home by 8:30. From a “work hard, play hard” perspective, was it worth it? I love spa treatments and lord knows they are few and far between for me. I got my first massage in Hong Kong during our SARS Vacation, after my first year of law school; since then I probably average one to two spa treatments a year (usually at a firm-sponsored retreat). They’re such a rare luxury that I like them more than I should, and apparently will jump through quite a few hoops to redeem a spa voucher. From a cost-benefit perspective, it almost certainly was not worth it to make a 5.5 hour round trip for 4.5 hours of fun. I could have just gotten a massage in Long Khanh, if I weren’t being dumb. I wanted to spend some quality girl time with my cousins, and I was unaware of the state of the spa facilities. Which leads me to my next semi-related but not-really-related point: how much I love the U.S. and how proud I am to be American.

Women cleaving raw meat at the morning market as bus departs at 4 A.M. You don’t see this in the U.S.

Throughout my spa experience I couldn’t help but think how much more enjoyable it would be if I were in the U.S. Back home I wouldn’t wonder if the towels on the massage tables had been changed in between customers or if the masseuse’s feet were clean. I would just assume that all was as it should be. Part of the reason why I wanted to live in a foreign country for a period of time was to force myself out of my comfort zone. Now I’m questioning what’s so bad about being comfortable? More and more I appreciate the things that make the U.S. so awesome and how lucky I am to be its citizen and call it home. I’m not only referring to modern conveniences, though central air, clean bathrooms, and reliable sources of potable water are nice perks. There’s so much I took for granted that I miss so much now. I love the orderliness and logical predictability of the U.S. I love how U.S. regulations deter pollution and littering and promote the health and safety of the general population. I love how Americans are (usually) courteous and polite to one another, and allow people to get out of elevators before getting on, and let passengers in the rows ahead exit into the aisle instead of pushing past them, and don’t steal taxicabs from people who have been waiting in line first. I love how Americans frown upon public smoking, especially around children. I love how the American sense of entitlement produces exacting standards of customer service. I miss being able to put on make-up without it melting off my face or wearing a sleeveless dress in broad daylight without being considered scandalous. I miss recycling and my Prius. I miss charcuterie and good wine. I miss grocery shopping and comfy couches and making pasta and salad at home. I miss book club with girlfriends where we would talk about anything and everything except the book. I miss weekend movie nights or donning a cute dress and heels to enjoy cocktails and people-watching at the Cosmopolitan. I miss Häagen-Dazs and thin-crust pizza. I miss refrigerators that don’t smell like durian. Basically I miss my former life. It’s what I’m used to and I find the familiar comforting. Having a spa day in Vietnam on the Fourth of July got me thinking about all the other little luxuries that I find familiar and comforting, like gender equality and free speech. There are subjects I refrain from blogging about and won’t blog about until I’m safely back in the U.S. because I don’t want to risk getting arrested or detained. I don’t think any U.S. citizen believes the U.S. is perfect or even close, but I do think most Americans, myself included, have faith in our country’s capacity to evolve and change for the better; we’re grateful for the incredible privileges and freedoms we enjoy; and we’re cautiously optimistic about the future. The political pendulum swings to extremes at times but the net effect is that we’re inching toward a more enlightened, compassionate, and civilized society; maybe it’s not happening fast enough for some people, but we’re not doomed. I love my country for being in a constant state of self-improvement (albeit through a painful and painfully slow process of trial and error), and I’m thankful it’s where I get to raise my children. Certainly there are things the U.S. is really, really bad at — disgraceful even. But there are also things the U.S. is extraordinarily good at. Like spas.

God I love you, America. Happy belated birthday from overseas!

VN Hierarchies

When a woman marries into a traditional VN family, she assumes her husband’s status in the family. If she marries the eldest son, then she gets to be addressed as eldest sister by all of her husband’s younger siblings. If she marries somewhere in the middle, then she outranks all of her husband’s younger siblings and their spouses, but all of her husband’s older siblings and their spouses outrank her. The worst thing a woman can do is marry the baby boy of the family. That basically makes her everyone’s bitch. She has to address all of her siblings-in-law as “older brother” or “older sister” and is expected to defer to them, in addition to her husband’s parents, which means that all of her in-laws can tell her what to do and she’s supposed to obey them. It doesn’t always work out like that in reality, especially in these modern times, but I definitely don’t envy VN women who marry the baby of the family. It doesn’t matter as much what rank a woman is born into because once she marries out of her own family and into her husband’s family, she assumes her husband’s rank in his family. Therefore a woman who’s the baby of her family can marry the eldest son of another family and become eldest sister in her husband’s family. It’s probably preferable for a woman to be born the baby of her family because the higher “ranked” a woman is in her own family, the more responsibility she has (at least until she gets married). This hierarchical structure creates a weird inversion: it’s advantageous to be eldest sister in your husband’s family but not in your own family. A man’s rank in his own family or in his wife’s family doesn’t really matter because all men in VN are spoiled. In conclusion, it’s great to be a man and sucks to be a woman in VN.

In my uncle’s family, the baby of the family is a girl whom I call Chi Ut (“Chi” means “older sister” and “Ut” is just a generic term for the baby or youngest in the family). Even though she’s “Ut” and younger than me, I have to address her as “Chi” because she outranks me (because her dad is my mom’s older brother). I swear this stuff totally makes sense in Vietnamese. Everyone teases Chi Ut because she was pampered growing up and will continue to be pampered for the rest of her life because she married an eldest son and gave birth to a son. She’s got it made. The second youngest in my uncle’s family is a boy named Thu who’s also called “Ut” but he’s “ut trai” (baby boy). Not only is there an “Ut” who’s the baby of the family, there’s the baby boy (ut trai) and the baby girl (ut gai). I address Thu as “Anh Thu” (“Anh” means “older brother”) because he also outranks me (all of my uncle’s kids and their spouses — i.e. all of my cousins in Long Khanh — outrank me because my uncle is older than my mom).

Anh Thu’s wife, Uyen, is the unfortunate woman who married the baby boy of the family, and I feel sorry for her. At first I liked Uyen because she seemed so sweet and shy. Then I wasn’t sure how to feel because I overheard some of the older cousins talking shit about her. She’s kind of the black sheep of the family. The older cousins don’t like her because they think she’s lazy and incompetent. As the wife of the baby boy of the family, Uyen traditionally would be expected to do the most and work the hardest. For whatever reasons, the brunt of the household chores fall to my uncle’s eldest daughter, Chi Ca (probably due to personality, competency, and the fact that Chi Ca’s divorced).

Uyen washes dishes on a regular basis but doesn’t cook and rarely does other communal chores. One cousin confided that Anh Thu used to vacuum and mop floors until my uncle and aunt put a stop to it. They thought Uyen should be doing those things, not letting her husband do them. Allegedly, Uyen would just hang out in their bedroom while Anh Thu mopped and cleaned. A man should do housework only if his wife is sick or busy with some important errand. I nodded in agreement as I heard all this and pretended to be horrified by Uyen’s laziness, but in my head I was thinking, “Oh shit, I sit back and watch Tom do chores all the time. What does everyone think of me?”

After further observation, I’ve decided that I like Uyen and pity her. She tries to be as helpful as she can but it’s hard to take initiative when everyone has an established routine. That’s been my experience as well. The two eldest female cousins handle all of the cooking and it’s intimidating to try to disrupt the status quo. Their resentment towards Uyen is understandable but unfair. By all rights, as the wife of the baby boy, Uyen should be cooking for them. The fact that they have to cook for her all the time makes them feel demeaned and leads to all sorts of tension. Their expectations of Uyen are a little unreasonable because, in addition to working in her father-in-law’s (my uncle’s) pharmacy, Uyen has a three-year-old and a one-year-old. And I suspect she might have been pregnant for some period of time before that. Her kids are the youngest of the house and nowhere near as self-sufficient as the older kids of her in-laws. When is she supposed find time to be slaving away in the kitchen and cleaning the mansion?

Another strike against Uyen is the fact that she bore two girls and no boys. If you’re going to have only one child, it had better be a boy. Ideally you would have one of each, but two boys are good too. Birthing two girls means you’ve failed as a wife and daughter-in-law. Not everyone thinks that way anymore but old school VN people still do. It doesn’t help that Uyen’s three-year-old is a monumental brat. Uyen is so meek and Anh Thu is such a passive parent that their kids terrorize them. It’s hard to tell who’s more unpopular, Uyen or her kids.

Witnessing family interactions for several weeks has led me to conclude that Uyen’s perceived shortcomings as the wife of the baby boy are at the root of all her strife with the family. It’s why she doesn’t get any kind of a break for having young kids. It’s why, even if it’s unreasonable and unfair to expect her to do all of the cooking and cleaning, she’s still penalized for not doing it. If other family members are late to a meal, food and rice are set aside so any latecomers have something to eat when they arrive. Tom and I often find food reserved for us and our kids. Sometimes food is prepared especially for our kids. If Uyen is late to a meal, all she can do is hope that the food hasn’t run out yet. Nothing is ever set aside for her or her kids. Sometimes it seems like Uyen’s family isn’t even factored in, and there isn’t enough for them. Everything runs out before Uyen has had a chance to feed her daughters and she has to rummage around to find something for them to eat, or forego eating herself in order to have something to feed them. It’s bittersweet to see how our kids are so much more beloved than Uyen’s kids. If I were Uyen, I’d be pretty hurt and offended to see the kids of some visiting relatives favored by my husband’s family over my own kids who have lived their entire lives with his family. I’d expect Uyen to resent us, but she’s been nothing but kind toward us. If she feels any resentment or indignation or sadness, she hides it well. I would not be able to cope as patiently as she does in her circumstances.