Thoughts on Traditional Marriage vs. Modern Saigon

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the trouble my co-worker has taken on as a young housewife. She is maybe only twenty-two and married into a family that traditionally expects her to do all the housework. She wakes up at 5 A.M. to clean all the floors of her husband’s families home. Then she cooks three meals for the day and arrives at work by eight. Just after the wedding she moved from a single room just next to the house to living inside the in-laws’ home. After the morning work session at the school, she goes home from 11:30 to 4:00 to clean and take a one-hour nap. Even after work ends at eight, she goes home to the family to clean the dishes. Her wedding was just on Sunday and already she was at the wife-grind by Monday without a day to rest. Her plight is even heavier because her husband isn’t wealthy. Her father in-law is suffering from cancer and that puts a strain on the family and on her. The father’s advancing cancer was a factor in why she and her husband felt pressured to marry quickly.

I’m a bit surprised because even in comparison to Japan, which also levies traditional expectations on married women, this particular marriage seems like an end to her independent life. The situation is likely exacerbated by the father in-law’s illness, but those expectations are heavy for anyone to carry even whilst carrying a job. All these troubles is even before any babies are born.

One of the reasons that these heavy expectations are so daunting is because my co-worker is from the Mekong Delta. Her society is still bound by their heartland traditions. Although she moved to the city, the traditional ethos remains in her social circle. My previous co-workers were middle-class urbanites, who had university educations and Honda motorbikes provided by their parents. They weren’t working to survive, but to advance and even pass time. One of my co-teachers said aloud at the wedding that she wouldn’t marry until after thirty. The notion of delaying marriage is aspiring to become a new norm in Saigon, but that norm is controversial across Vietnam’s enormous generation gap.

Vietnam’s generation gap is actually a canyon. On one side you have a society with a collective memory of war, starvation, mistrust, traditional values, community, and loyalty. On the other side, you have a generation of young women with university educations, skyscrapers going up in the major cities, the Internet and its Cult of Me, and the pursuit of happiness $. While young urban women study business, marketing, and design. The countryside is still steeped in the traditional values and expectations, women’s higher education and career are not priorities. Those values, that place a woman at home, can’t co-exist with Saigon’s relative modernity and opportunity for women in the workplace.

Saigon and its uniquely cosmopolitan denizens, still have traditional Vietnamese expectations for newly wed couples, however because of their relative wealth the middle class and above are able to afford delaying marriage until later. For a country that is changing as rapidly as Vietnam, five-year delay could amount to indistinguishable cultural transformations.

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