A recent survey revealed that two thirds of Vietnamese living in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City believe it’s acceptable for foreigners and locals to get married. While this demonstrates a marked change from the more conservative attitudes of the past, there are clearly still a number of challenges facing cross-cultural relationships.
For one, the family unit in Vietnam is much more extensive and closely knit than that of the West. Familial traditions play a huge role and regardless of religion, ancestor worship remains sacred.
Scott, an Englishman who first visited Vietnam 10 years ago, married Hien eight months ago and recalls, “I went to the family to ask permission to marry Hien and was sat down by both her mother and father who explained what they expected of me.”
According to Scott, Hien’s mother told him about how the family should be treated and how in Vietnam you should act towards your elders with respect. “She said she wasn’t bothered about religion,” he continues, “but that the only thing she expected of me was to partake in the ancestral worship.”
This doesn’t pose a problem for Scott because he enjoys seeing an aspect of Vietnamese life that is different to anything he’s used to.
Tuyen and Hank tell a different story. At first, both their families disapproved of the marriage.
“I remember when I first approached Tuyen’s father to ask for her hand in marriage,” recalls Hank. “He refused point blank. I was so devastated because I knew that the family played such a vital role in Vietnamese life. If we didn’t have their blessing, things would be a lot more difficult.”
“I was so worried about her,” explains Tuyen’s father. “I didn’t know what Hank’s intentions were. I was scared that he would take what he wanted from her and then leave her high and dry. I also didn’t want her to leave Vietnam.”
“My father tried to tell me that Hank didn’t love me,” says Tuyen, “and that he would leave me when he was bored with me. I was so angry that I decided to get married anyway out of spite.”
It wasn’t just Tuyen’s family that caused problems, either.
“Hank comes from a wealthy English family,” she explains, “and they were scared that I was marrying him to get my hands on their money. I had met them and didn’t get along with his mother at all. She didn’t respect me and then wouldn’t let me marry Hank without signing a pre-nuptial agreement. I was horrified but what could I do? I ended up signing it.”
Thirteen years later, they are happy and have two sons. Furthermore, both families have accepted their relationship.
Patrick, an Australian married to Van, sometimes finds the closeness of Vietnamese families a little claustrophobic, but accepts that they are very much a part of his life.
“The family was forever turning up on our doorstep with no notice and with suitcases in hand expecting to be put up for a night which invariably turned into a week,” he explains. “Then, one day, just before we set off for the airport to go back to Australia for a month, about eight of them turned up to see us off. This was the last straw – I lost it! Now, they usually phone before they come.”
Traditionally, the role of a Vietnamese wife is to stay at home and look after the house and the children. Although this attitude is changing, there still remains a large segment of Vietnamese society that believes the wife should be subservient. Sarah is well aware of this but insists that if her and long-term boyfriend Hung were to get married, she would not adhere to these traditions.
“I’m my own person and no one is going to change that,” she says. “I’m willing to conform to some things, but I want to maintain my values and way of doing things. I like my freedom and independence and no-one is going to take them away from me.”
She believes it’s harder for a western woman than it is for a man in a cross-cultural relationship in Vietnam. Traditionally the woman is expected to stay at home “whereas the man can do pretty much what he wants.”
Fortunately, Hung and Sarah both lead very separate lives and Hung has few problems with Laura not being a conventional Vietnamese girlfriend. The only thing that bothered him once was when Sarah drove him home on the bike one night.
“I didn’t think twice about it. I had driven him home on numerous occasions and it had never bothered him before,” she says. “But, this one night, we had an argument about it.” However, this doesn’t just apply to Vietnamese men. It seems that men the world over have issues with women driving them places. Hung’s excuse was “It looks nicer when I drive”.
Van is of a completely different opinion.
“Patrick does not help around the house as much as a Vietnamese man would,” she says. “I was horrified when, after I gave birth to our son, Patrick went out to drink a few beers to celebrate with his friends. A Vietnamese man just wouldn’t do that – he’d stay at his wife’s side and take care of her.”
“I was completely oblivious to this,” responds Patrick. “I mean, to go out and drink a few beers with friends after the birth of a child is something that is completely normal in Australia. Many other countries are the same.”
There’s no doubt about it — European languages and Vietnamese are about as far apart as you can get. You would think, therefore, that there would be a massive language barrier that would have to be overcome in a cross-cultural relationship. Where would you start when trying to express your emotions and deepest thoughts?
However, for the couples interviewed, language has never been a problem. Take the story of Patrick and Van.
“When I first met Van, she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Vietnamese,” he explains. “I had Google translate which we used to get our messages across. Then when I went back to Australia, we used Zalo and somehow we managed to communicate.”
It’s obviously worked. They’ve now been married for a year and he speaks fluent Vietnamese without having really taken any formal classes.
“Pronunciation and the tones are key aspects of being able to be understood here,” he explains, “and they are the hardest things for English-speakers to grasp. I don’t know how, but Van always understood what I was trying to say, without me having to repeat everything over and over again, when others didn’t.”
Meanwhile, Sarah and Hung communicate in English.
“Hung’s English is excellent, and it’s only occasionally that he’ll ask me what some word or expression means,” she says. “In fact, there’s only been one time when we misunderstood each other. We were chatting on Zalo one day while I was on holiday in England, when he asked me what I was doing. I said I was in bed with my two best friends Ben and Jerry to which he replied ‘WHAT? WHO?’ Any Westerner would have realized that I was talking about eating ice cream!”
Sarah realizes that she’s in Vietnam and in a serious relationship with a local man. So, learning Vietnamese has become a necessity.
“I’m fully aware that my Vietnamese should be a lot better than it is especially considering how long I’ve been here,” she admits. “I’m now taking Vietnamese lessons three times a week.”
Hung says he would love for Sarah to be able to communicate with his family and friends in Vietnamese. His family has also made it quite clear that they want her to learn the language.
“Every time I go see them, they comment on how my Vietnamese hasn’t improved since the last time,” she says.
Relationships are tough — you have to work at them. Every one faces problems and marrying someone from a different culture will add new obstacles. But, they are not insurmountable. Quite the opposite. People who marry across cultures and marry for the right reasons tend to be open to new ideas. They enjoy rather than resent the challenges thrown at them.
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