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.

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A former corporate attorney who is now happily retired and does whatever she wants.

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