Observations of Viet Nam: Gender (Part I)
It is impossible to understand gender in Viet Nam without understanding class. Viet Nam’s rather small middle class has a very different self-conception from the rest of the nation, one that extends to gender roles. Rylan Higgins, an anthropologist and study abroad director for CET, spoke to my class about his research on the middle class in HCMC. I draw my comments in this section primarily from that lecture as well as my own observations.
The middle class is almost exclusively urban, though there is a mythology about how rural Viet Nam is the heart of the nation. “Oh, it’s good you’re going to visit the rural areas,” my language instructor said. “That’s where the real Viet Nam is.” I asked my home-stay sister about this, asking, “So, then, this city is just fake Viet Nam?” She laughed, but agreed. Many other people across the country agreed or independently asserted the exclusive virtue of the country over the city.
The middle class (as, perhaps, it does everywhere) nevertheless looks down on lower class “country bumpkins.” The middle class refuses to do certain things in public which they think are undignified, such as squat. All Vietnamese people can squat for a really long time, and most do when they are waiting for something or doing something on the ground. However, if you go by an office building you will only see people standing as they wait. The middle class takes care to dress nicely. Mr. Higgins said that Vietnamese women are frankly horrified by the way foreign tourists dress, saying that if they went out in public like that, people would think they were poor. Women go out of their way to act shyly with strangers, as is proper, though once one gains their trust their manners can completely change. (This is not a difficult thing to do for the friendly Vietnamese; sometimes being merely introduced by a friend is enough to get a Vietnamese woman to interact casually.) But lower class women generally have no problem shouting in public, or impatiently tugging at a stranger’s clothing, or generally drawing attention to themselves. My perception of what a middle class woman is, in fact, is tied to her location. She spends her time inside buildings, inside proper and modest relationships, and inside her own mind. She does not go out except to change locations, and when she does she maintains her middle class demeanor. But lower class women are located outside. Whether or not they work on the street, they have far more of a place in public than middle class women do, because frankly a lower class woman has too much to do to deal with appearances. Where she needs to be is where she belongs, whether or not that place has anything to do with middle class feminine modesty. There are many kinds of femininity in Viet Nam, and the middle class version – the version that Westerners default to when they think of (possibly repressed) femininity – is only one, and not the most important. In fact, at times it seems that middle class women try to repress the good feminine traits of the Vietnamese in their effort to show their class. Namely, they try to feign helplessness and weakness. If poverty requires a lower class woman to know her mind and to be strong, then a middle class woman doesn’t want strangers to know she has those traits.
The middle class is generally anxious about being perceived as middle class. Instead of sitting on their motorbikes, they perch. They do not grab the handlebars “with authority” – they bend their wrists and delicately hold them. Vietnamese women often wear long gloves and huge wrap-around face masks to protect their skin from the sun. (Many people wear face masks to protect them from pollution, but the vanity masks are obvious.) Middle class people never wear conical hats, except ironically or in some sort of public ceremony. (It’s a communist country, so symbolism-laden empty ceremonies are common.) Ao dais, the national dress, are acceptable for everyone to wear, though wearing them is in itself a special privilege. They are difficult to sew and close-fitting, so secondhand ao dais are obvious. Sometimes men will grow their fingernails long to show that they are not manual laborers. I noticed this most often with men in the service industry or other low paying jobs. It seemed to me that their long fingernails were a defiant statement of how far they had come, but also of their insecure positions. After all, it doesn’t take much financial upset to send a small business owner into the construction labor pool. Probably the most distinctive feature of the middle class is anxiety. It sure isn’t political engagement; while farmers and laborers have no trouble complaining to the government, the middle class is generally checked out.
Mr. Higgins identified spaces as another form of middle class differentiation. Some spaces, such as business or restaurants, are exclusively middle class. But it is not money that keeps out those with lower income: it is the atmosphere. For not very much money more, office workers can pay to sit on Western-style chairs and eat bad food. (I have done a survey, and I know this: the places which exclusively cater to the middle class do not care about food at all.) On the other hand, there is not atmospheric exclusion from the bottom up. It is not rare to see motorbike drivers and office workers sitting on tiny stools at street stalls or “humble” restaurants (a direct translation describing those places in Vietnamese, which does not have the negative connotation that “humble” has in English). Even I was welcome at such places, and the fact foreigners prefer more upscale places is probably due to a language barrier than it is due to feeling unwelcome. Patrons interact with each other much more than they do in middle class restaurants. Humble restaurants and middle class coffeeshops both cater to late-night groups of socializing males. Humble coffeeshops tend to close at night, though they cater to small groups of relaxing men (of all ages and classes) throughout the day. Viet Nam lacks public parks and public spaces generally, but those that it does have seem to be easily shared among the classes.
The middle class is more private than the lower class, in part because they share most of the public spaces, and in part because they can afford it. In their private homes, they may eat the same things, wear the same clothes, and act the same as lower class people, but only when family is around. In the rural areas, everyone’s house is open, and auditory privacy nonexistent. This has huge implications for gender roles, especially domestic violence. The middle class has a screen to hide behind in conflict, while the lower class has an image to keep up.