The GoGlobal Blog

If I Were A Boy

If I Were A Boy

“Three and a half months is just enough time to make observations of the culture here, not judgments”. A hard line to draw, this wisdom came at the beginning of the semester from our assistant director when talking about what we’ll experience throughout our time here. After the honeymoon phase of Vietnam wore off, it became easy to just make judgments of the culture. Simple things that once blended in with the surrounding aura of Vietnam greatly stood out and became aggravating to a point that it could make or break a day. Once I was able to get to the point of seeing Vietnam for what it is, both positively and critically, I feel that I got to a point of being able to just make observations, rather than imposing my own judgments on the culture. Something that hits close to my heart, and to many people’s, is gender equality. Vietnam has an interesting history with gender equality, from the Trung Sisters and Lady Trieu early in Vietnam’s history who led rebellions from the front lines to women being used to fill roles in the wars to an era of crushing gender inequality in family and social roles to a modern view of women that is somewhat less unequal role of women but still not at a level that promotes true gender equality. Throughout this blog I want to lay out a few observations that I’ve made that points to a lack of gender equality as well as point out customs of traditional Vietnamese society that reinforces a paternalistic culture. I am by no means suggesting ways to change, although in conversation with Vietnamese women there is definitely a desire for change present. All in all, these are just a few moments dispersed throughout the semester I’ve been here in Vietnam.


Imagine you want to buy a smoothie on the bust streets of Vietnam. You’re talking with your Vietnamese partner, who happens to be a guy, and you’re talking about your families and hometowns. You walk up to a smoothie lady (not THE smoothie lady that everyone usually goes to, but a different one), and you ask in broken Vietnamese for a mango smoothie and go to hand her your money. She shakes her head and hands at you and continues talking to your Vietnamese partner. Confused, you stand there for a second before she has your Vietnamese partner take your money from you and give it to her. Thinking it maybe just had to do with the language barrier, you think nothing of it. She then hands your smoothie and change back to your partner who he then hands both to you. He later explained to me that in traditional Vietnamese society, shopkeepers wouldn’t take money from women unless it was a close friend or relative, but that men had to do all of the exchange of money and women were not allowed to. There are many small interactions like this one that reinforce male power that could be mistaken for something else if not observed closely. While this moment did not necessarily affect me as an individual, it’s easy to see how a culture of this leads to a greater level of repression of women.


Much of the gender inequality comes from how children are raised by their parents. While the past couple of generations of Vietnamese youth have had less strict expectations from their parents to stay home and allow their parents to make big decisions for their lives, like marriage or vocation, there are still these little moments where you can see how boys and girls are raised to lean in to different expectations, not unlike the US. For example, motorbikes are a huge thing here. Everyone rides and drives them, regardless of gender, but I’ve found it interesting that I’ve had all male uberbike and grabbike drivers. The Vietnamese are also incredibly skilled at stacking any number of objects on their motorbikes, and I’ve seen it all from mattresses to wheelbarrows to families of five. I saw a boy riding his tricycle down the street with two large boxes strapped to the back, just like his father would have on the back of his motorbike. This child seemed to be about three or four years old. Next to him was a girl who by the standards of the society she lives in, will be raised to be a good wife first and a professional second.


In the traditional standards, women are expected to take care of the home while men are supposed to take care of his parents and his family, being the breadwinner for them all. If families only have daughters, it is seen as having a sense of “karmic misfortune”. However, families that only have daughters are still happy and parents growing in age don’t have to worry about not having any sons to take care of them as the daughters have been said to do an even better job than the sons would. Sometimes, the sons will even abandon their duties of taking care of their parents to their sisters, who end up helping take care of their own parents and their husband’s parents. Even still, they are given none of the respect that sons are given.


Something that is just as present in Vietnam as in many other countries is cat-calling. Because of the notion of exoticness and just the roles that men and women hold, this has happened a ton since being here. 30 years ago, it would not have been uncommon to find men with several partners, with whom the wife had to accept and deal with. Due to the unfavorable male attention, one Loyola student decided to try an experiment where she only responds to and converses with the females on the street. When we first got here, everyone would say hello wherever we went, mostly males, and we were unsure whether that was just because that’s what everyone did here or if it was unwanted attention. The more that we were here, the more we realized that it was very much tied to the gender roles here. Even in talking about self-expression with some of the Vietnamese students, I was told that it used to be that anyone with tattoos were associated with the mafia, especially women who chose to get tattoos. I have so many more stories and little moments where I’ve been made aware of my gender here, but not enough time to share them all here. On the other hand, I’ve chosen to study the role that art is playing in the fight for gender equality in Vietnam for my final research paper for one of my classes and what I’ve found is truly inspiring as art and gender come together.

All in all, at the end of the day these are just observations of a select group of people in the southern part of Vietnam, although the North has historically held on to the traditional views of women for longer. Whatever these observations say about Vietnam, what is true is that Vietnamese women are strong and put up with a lot. My hope is that you have learned something about Vietnamese history and culture as well as illustrating how the problems in the US are just as real in Vietnam, if not more so, and that fighting for gender equality needs to be a worldwide effort.


The last group bus ride for the semester – it’s been real Vietnam Fam!
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