“If your child dates a white guy, you [as a Vietnamese parent] know the society is gonna say something, so you put that pressure of the society on your child” says Vietnamese Czech Anh-Nhat. “My friend has just started dating an American guy. She knows if her parents know, she’ll be yelled at at home. So sometimes, if the relationship is not serious, people just don’t tell their parents. They know they are gonna be judged.”
Research has shown that relationship issues are among the most common disputes between first- and second- generation Vietnamese, especially regarding their choice of partners. When a Vietnamese marry someone, he/she is married to the other’s family. It is, therefore, vital that one’s parents approve of his/her partner. An ideal couple should come from the same class, same city or at least region/country, share the same cultural, religious, educational and economic background and match each other’s zodiac signs, according to studies done on religions in South Vietnam by the US Department of the Navy in 1967.
For example, Yen Nhi, a Vietnamese-Czech girl who was sent to Czech nannies when she was six-month-old, was not allowed to have a boyfriend until her twenty-second birthday. In the traditional Vietnamese culture, a woman’s value depends on her virginity. Therefore, it is not encouraged for a Vietnamese girl to have relationships when she is still in school. After leaving school, she has around five years to find a partner and start a family before she becomes a “leftover woman” (gái ế): old and unwanted. Dating often begins after two families have approved of the couple’s relationship and concludes in a marriage. That is why many first-generation Vietnamese show concern over who their children are seeing.
A Vietnamese woman marrying a Westerner used to be seen as shameful and unpatriotic as described in the classic novel “The Industry of Marrying Europeans” (Kỹ Nghệ Lấy Tây) written by famous Vietnamese writer Vu Trong Phung under the French colonial rule.
Tuoi Tre News reported that between 2008 and 2010 there are 300,000 marriages between Vietnamese women and foreigners for economic reasons. These women marry foreigners for their husbands’ citizenships, so they can stay in their husband’s country, work and send money home. They prepare themselves for a modern and comfortable life, but not for the cultural shock or the language barrier. The brokers do not bother themselves with educating their women, either. Their job is to find a man who needs a wife and a woman who needs money and unite them under one roof. Unsurprisingly, international marriages between people who have little understanding of each other’s culture and can barely communicate have many problems.
“Many of those with foreign husbands have low educational levels, so they usually have to depend on their husband,” said Dang The Hung, deputy chairman of the State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese Affairs in the same article, published in 2013.
“Some of them have been mistreated by their husbands or their husbands’ families. […] Besides, many marriages were conducted like ‘commercial exchanges’ between foreigners and poor women who wanted to marry foreigners for financial purposes.”
What the deputy chairman says is true, but contributes to the narrative that only unattractive poor uneducated Vietnamese women marry foreigners. The stigma grows as the media covers cases of domestic violence, cultural conflicts and divorces between the above-mentioned Vietnamese wives and their foreign husbands.
When asked if she would mind her daughter dating a Westerner, Bach-Yen struggles to give a yes or no answer. “I know my children listen to me,” she says. “To be honest, every Vietnamese is afraid of losing his root (mất gốc). When they say they let their children decide for themselves, they are defending themselves. I teach my children that good trees produce good fruits. Look at the parents to choose your life partner. I don’t care what nationality that person is, where he or she comes from, Hanoi or Nam Dinh (cities in Vietnam) because you know I am from Hanoi. To me, it doesn’t matter.”
Anh-Nhat says this is a classic Vietnamese parents’ answer. Vietnamese parents say they are open-minded and support mixed marriages in general. However, if the mixed marriage takes place in their family, they have a hard time accepting it. According to the Czech Statistical Office in 2015, only 3 percent of Vietnamese households were mixed.
“They think if you marry a non-Vietnamese, your children would lose even more cultural identity,” Anh-Nhat explains. “In Cheb, many Vietnamese men married Czech women and most of them got divorced. The parents are afraid that if we marry non-Vietnamese people, we’ll also get divorced.”
Stigma towards divorce
This concern shows the stigma in the Vietnamese community against divorce, especially divorced women. In Vietnamese, the saying goes “women are better than each other thanks to their husbands” (đàn bà hơn nhau ở tấm chồng). Forty percent out of 1,400 people aged 18 across the country said divorce was “wrong” in a study by the Hanoi-based Mekong Development Research Institute published in January 2019. The study also shows that less educated people are less open-minded about divorces.
Despite the hype around rising number of divorces in Vietnamese media, the divorce rate in Vietnam is still among the lowest in the world, according to research by University of California at Irvine sociologists Cheng-Tong Lir Wang and Evan Schofer. In a country with a population of 87 million, there were 88,591 divorces or a divorce rate of 1.7 percent compared to the worldwide average of 5.5. Due to mostly financial and social pressure, many Vietnamese couples would rather remain in unhappy marriages than get divorced.
Lenny Bich Ngoc Pham, whose boyfriend is Czech, says her parents have the same fear. Their biggest concern is the opinion other Vietnamese will have about their daughter being with a Westerner.
“[My parents]’ mentality is that ‘our daughter isn’t that bad-looking, her study is also not that terrible, why can’t she find a decent Vietnamese man with a nice background?’” Lenny says, recalling various occasions when the family argue over her relationship.
“[Czech and Vietnamese] cultures are very different from each other. Family gatherings are very common in the Vietnamese culture. If two families have a meal together but cannot understand each other’s stories or jokes, it will be very uncomfortable. So, there won’t be any family reunion.”
Good Vietnamese wives
“When it comes to relationships, you can feel their expectations,” says Thang Do, a 27-year-old front-end developer whose family constantly pressure him to settle down. “Not only your parents but your aunts and uncles want you to date a Vietnamese girl.”
Although Thang’s family never explicitly forbids him from having Western partners, they repeatedly stress the benefits of endogamy (the practice of marrying within one’s social group) while making examples of failed marriages between Vietnamese and Czechs. Vietnamese wives are preferred over Western ones because the former are considered more helpful, obedient, kind and caring, while the latter are often deemed too liberal for long-term commitment.
Thang himself is naturally drawn to other second-generation Vietnamese with whom he shares the same experience and the same languages. Gwendolyn Seidman, professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department at Albright College, says this is normal. We are more likely to be attracted to people whose features or characteristics we find familiar or similar to our own.
Similarly, Lenny sees herself as an independent woman with strong opinions who would fit better with a Czech partner. “I asked my parents if they cared more about their daughter’s happiness or other people’s opinions,” says Lenny, saying that her mother now approves of her partner only on the condition that the man loves and cares about Lenny, but her father never wants to meet him.
“My parents don’t want to have mixed grandchildren who cannot speak Vietnamese. That is the same as losing your descendants to another culture (mất gốc),” Lenny says.
Lenny’s last point echoes the wish of Le Quang Dai, the Vietnamese poet, to have “authentic Vietnamese” children and not “mất gốc.”
This “mất gốc” fear is prevalent among the Vietnamese immigrants and deeply rooted in their subconsciousness. Thousands of years of invasion, colonization and war have planted a seed of doubt in the Vietnamese mind, causing them to fear foreigners. Patriotism in Vietnam, heightened during wartime and in recent years in response to globalization, also draws a clear distinction between “our people” (người mình) and “their people” (người họ) in terms of values, traditions and religions.
The term “mất gốc,” once used for national traitors, is now used to criticize anyone who does not fit the idea of a “true” Vietnamese. While first-generation Vietnamese say they are open-minded about mixed marriages, they still hold certain negative prejudices that will take time to change.
The second-generation with a liberal Czech mindset, however, are likely to follow their hearts despite their parents’ comments.