MEN, GENDER ROLES, THE ELDERLY AND FAMILIES IN VIETNAM

FAMILIES IN VIETNAM

For many Vietnamese the family is the most important thing. Respect for parents and ancestors is a key virtue in Vietnam. The oldest male in the family is the head of the family and the most important family member. His oldest son is the second leader of the family. Sometimes, related families live together in a big house and help each other. The parents chose their children's marriage partners based on who they think is best suited for their child.

Pamela LaBorde, MD wrote: "While Western culture promotes individuality, the family unit is very important in Vietnamese culture. This emphasis on collectivity includes an obligation to provide for the welfare of family members. Family members are expected to work and behave for the good of the group. Families may publicly denounce a member who is ill behaved; they may also pronounce family achievements. Each member has a designated kinship term, and these are used when addressing one another. [Source: Pamela LaBorde, MD, Ethnomed ethnomed.org/culture/vietnamese <+>]

"Even though the family is viewed as a unit, the father or an older male has the ultimate responsibility and acts as an authority leader while delegating tasks and involving others in the decision making. From a very young age the father and other family members educate the children on "filial piety," a key part of Vietnamese culture which requires that children give parents and elders respect, love, and care. <+>

"In Vietnam, the family is patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal, often with two to four generations under one roof. There is the immediate family (nha) and the extended family (ho). In Vietnam, the immediate family is the nuclear family plus the husband's parents and the grown sons' spouses and children. The extended family is the immediate family plus family members of the same name and relatives residing in close proximity. Grandparents help with childcare and children help with chores. Younger siblings are to respect and obey older siblings, and aunts and uncles are treated as parents. " <+>

In Vietnam, cell phones have helped tightly-knit friends and families become even more connected. Andrew Lam wrote in the Huffington Post, " Vietnamese are clannish, and for many, the family and extended family are all the social network they will ever have. Connecting to one another is more than just a fad -- it's a cultural imperative. Bonds are never to be broken and relationships are to be built upon continuously. [Source: Andrew Lam, Huffington Post, January 6, 2013 /|\]

Extended Families in Vietnam

Vietnamese tend to live together in extended families rather than nuclear families. Households average five to seven members but vary greatly in size. Most consist of a nuclear family, with a few close relatives living with the nuclear family. A typical large household is made of family of parents and three children and an extended family of four aunts, four uncles, grandparents, with various children coming and going, living in a single neighborhood.

A typical extended family often includes three or even four generations, and typically consisting of grandparents, father and mother, children, and grandchildren, all living under the same roof. Sometimes parents had more than one married son living with them, but this often led to such tension that it was generally held preferable for a second son to live separately. All members of the household lived under the authority of the oldest male, and all contributed to the income of the family. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987]

The extended family in Vietnam serves as a single economic unit, with the sharing of work and resources. This doesn't just means the extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins. It can included cousins as well as close family friends. Vietnamese in the U.S. are often able to finance major projects like buying a home or sending a child to an expensive college by pooling money from the entire extended family.

Family Traditions in Vietnam

In Vietnamese families, the husband is considered the head of the family. Children take the family name of their father. The eldest son is responsible for the worship of dead parents and grandparents. Each family lineage has a temple for their forefathers and the head of the family lineage handles all common affairs. Traditionally all children inheret equally, although sons, especially oldest sons, are given a perference. The oldest son—or sometimes youngest son or youngest daughter— is expected to stay at home and take care of the aging parents. After the parents die he inherits the house.[Source: Vietnamtourism. com,Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

All important family occasions such as births, betrothals, marriages, funerals, and anniversaries of the deaths of ancestors are observed by appropriate ceremonies in which members of the kin group participate. The ceremonies have both religious and social meaning, and many are very elaborate, in keeping with the wealth and social status of the family. Whenever such a celebration takes place, the family is always careful to make an offering to the god of the hearth. Prayers and sacrifices are were also made when misfortune fell upon the household. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Using the patriarchal family as the basic social institution, the Confucianists framed their societal norm in terms of the duties and obligations of a family to a father, a child to a parent, a wife to a husband, and a younger brother to an older brother; they held that the welfare and continuity of the family group were more important than the interests of any individual member. Indeed, the individual was less an independent being than a member of a family group that included not only living members but also a long line of ancestors and of those yet to be born. A family member's life was caught up in the activities of a multitude of relatives. Members of the same household lived together, worked together, and gathered together for marriages, funerals, Tet (lunar New Year) celebrations, and rituals marking the anniversary of an ancestor's death. Family members looked first to other family members for help and counsel in times of personal crisis and guarded the interests of the family in making personal or household decisions. *

In the traditional kinship system, the paternal line of descent was emphasized. Individuals were identified primarily by their connections through the father's male bloodline, and kin groups larger than the family--clans and lineages--were formed by kinspeople who traced their relationship to each other in this manner. It was through these patrilineal descent groups that both men and women inherited property and that men assumed their primary obligation for maintaining the ancestor observances. *

The patrilineal group maintained an extremely strong kin relationship. Members' ties to one another were reinforced by their shared heritage, derived from residence in the same village over many generations. Family land and tombs, located in or near the village, acted as a focus for feelings of kin loyalty, solidarity, and continuity. *

Veneration of Ancestors in Vietnam

Special reverence was accorded a family's ancestors. This practice, known as the family cult or cult of the ancestors, derived from the belief that after death the spirits of the departed continued to influence the world of the living. The soul was believed to become restless and likely to exert an unfavorable influence on the living, unless it was venerated in the expected manner. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Veneration of ancestors was also regarded as a means through which an individual could assure his or her own immortality. Children were valued because they could provide for the spirits of their parents after death. Family members who remained together and venerated their forebears with strict adherence to prescribed ritual found comfort in the belief that the souls of their ancestors were receiving proper spiritual nourishment and that they were insuring their own soul's nourishment after death. *

The cult required an ancestral home or patrimony, a piece of land legally designated as a place devoted to the support of venerated ancestors. Ownership of land that could be dedicated to the support of the cult was, however, only a dream for most landless farmers. The cult also required a senior male of direct descent to oversee preparations for obligatory celebrations and offerings. *

On the anniversary of an ancestor's death, rites were performed before the family altar to the god of the house, and sacrificial offerings were made to both the god and the ancestor. The lavishness of the offering depended on the income of the family and on the rank of the deceased within the family. A representative of each family in the lineage was expected to be present, even if this meant traveling great distances. Whenever there was an occasion of family joy or sorrow, such as a wedding, an anniversary, success in an examination, a promotion, or a funeral, the ancestors were informed through sacrificial offerings. *

When people die, their families honor their ancestors on the day of their death by performing special ceremonies at home or at temples and by burning incense and fake money for the one who died. The Vietnamese believed that by burning incense, their ancestors could protect them and their family from danger and harm. Days before the ceremony starts, the family has to get ready, because they won't have enough time to get ready when the guests arrive and the ceremony starts. Usually the women cook and prepare many special kinds of food, like chicken, ham, pork, rice, and many more including desserts. [Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ^^]

While the women are busy cooking, the men are busy fixing up and cleaning up the house, so it won't be messy and dirty because of all the relatives of the person that died will come for the ceremony and show honor and respect to that person. Families venerated their ancestors with special religious rituals. The houses of the wealthy were constructed of brick, with tile roofs. Those of the poor were bamboo and thatch. Rice was staple food for the vast majority, garnished with vegetables and, for those who could afford it, meat and fish. ^^

Concepts of Family in Vietnam

Each individual is taught his exact position in society. There is little confusion about place, and few decisions to be made. A part of the family, the individual is neither superior nor inferior, but is an integral part of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His life is bound by the family/clan/community--by those who lived before him, by those who live with him, and by those who will live after him. The individual feels secure because of his accepted role. This role does not require efficiency and productivity as much as loyalty and conformity to prescribed roles. Old age is respected by virtue of being a father, grandfather, or great grandfather in the community rather than because of acquired wisdom, skill, or wealth. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel,Chaplains Division, 1967 ++]

Thus even grown people must consult grandmothers, parents, elder brothers, departed ancestors, etc., before making decisions. Business transactions take time because the whole community--living and dead--is involved. Embarrassment or shame is due more to violations of the socially accepted code than to a sense of moral wrongness. All proposed actions must be preceded by consideration of what consequences they will have on the total family. This is why even deceased ancestors are consulted. ++

The belief in ancestor veneration encourages early marriage and many children. It would be wrong to deprive ancestors of worship and lessen their estate in the spirit-world due to lack of descendents. The more respect shown for the spirits of the dead, the greater opportunity for them to be "good spirits", who will help the living members of the family. Because one's estate in the spirit world is dependent upon worship given to the deceased, planned marriages by the family help promote and protect this veneration. Spirits not venerated may become "wandering spirits", and can do harm. These are feared by one and all. ++

According to Vietnam-culture.com; "Vietnamese life is profoundly influenced by ancestor worship. Children learn at a very early age that they owe everything to their parents and their ancestors. Doing well in school and working hard honours one's parents and the family name. Respect for parents and ancestors is extended to all elders, whose life experiences are valued. Marriage and family are very important in Vietnam. In the countryside, parents often arrange marriages; divorce remains uncommon, though is more frequent in cities. In traditional Vietnamese families, roles are rigid. The man of the house is primarily responsible for the family's economic well-being and takes pride in his role as provider. Women are expected to submit to their husbands or to their eldest sons when widowed, and girls to their fathers. Older children help to look after younger siblings. Discipline is viewed as a parental duty, and spanking is common once children are past early childhood. [Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ]

Vietnamese Traditional Family Values

Influenced by Buddhist theology and Confucian philosophy, the traditional Vietnamese family is patriarchal, patrilineal and patrilocal. Traditionally, children lived with their parents until marriage, then the couple moved to the husband’s father’s household. After marriage, a woman would usually become a housewife and a mother. She would be expected to depend upon her husband, to care for the children and often the grandchildren, as well as perform all the household duties. [Source: Vietnamese Cultural Profile, Diversicare, March 2009 **]

Based on Confucian tenets, men have a higher status than women, and sons are valued more highly than daughters. Each member of the family has a designated kinship term and these are used when addressing one another. Obedience and respect are the traditional values which Vietnamese children are taught to exhibit in their family. Discipline and physical punishment are acceptable remedies for disobedience. When parents grow old, children are expected to take care of them to compensate for the gift of birth and upbringing. The father or eldest son is the family spokesperson. They have ultimate responsibility and act as an authority/leader while delegating tasks and involving others in decision making. The father also leads the family in ancestor worship. **

Traditional values of Vietnamese lifestyle were deeply affected by Confucian ethics. During thousand years the Chinese invaded and maintained control Vietnam, Vietnamese culture was permeated by their Confucian philosophical beliefs. This philosophy based for the existence of and extended family structure through 2,000 years of Vietnamese history (Lam). It was believed that: ..."in order to achieve human perfection, one must follow the established codes of behavior of Confucianism which include reverence for ancestors and respect for elders...The importance is not upon the individual's accomplishments but upon his duty to family and society" (Muzny). [Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ^^]

"The Vietnamese household traditionally followed the extended multi-generational pattern. The parents, their sons and their wives, their children, and unmarried siblings usually constituted a Vietnamese household. In this structure, frequent contacts were maintained, and this constant closeness to family was emphasized from childhood and continued to be important to Vietnamese throughout their lifetime (Lynell). "Most Vietnamese placed more emphasis on their roles, privileges and obligations within this group than on their own individual desires"(Muzny). In this extended family, the most important expectation was respect for the elders. The family decisions were made by the parents and grandparents. The traditional Vietnamese worshipped ancestors as a source of their lives, fortunes, and civilization. The spirits were honored on various holidays and the anniversary of their death (Tran). ^^

"For centuries in Vietnam, traditional family values were accomplished by the fulfillment of traditional roles: the role of man and woman as parents. Vietnamese valued their traditional ideal of male superiority. Since the highest status in Vietnamese families is given to the man (father), he had absolute authority in the household. His position as provider for the family was unchallenged. Because he provided the main source of income for the household, he was never expected to work in the kitchen or to cook. After work he returned home and relaxed. As a head of household he had the final decision in all matters, although he might consult his wife or children. In her report, Phung cited that the father, however, had the duty to exercise restraint and wisdom in running his family in order to deserve his respected position. Having a boy in family was a "must" because the eldest son would assume the duties of his father when he died. A family which had no son to continue the process was superstitiously thought to have disappeared forever. ^^

History of Family and Social Culture in Vietnam

Before the late 1980s, nearly all Vietnamese people lived in villages, and the cultivation of wet rice was the principal economic activity. The French introduced Western values of individual freedom and sexual quality, which undermined and the traditional Vietnamese social system. In urban areas, Western patterns of social behavior became increasingly common, especially among educated and wealthy Vietnamese attended French schools, read French books, replaced traditional attire with Western-style clothing, and drank French wines instead of the traditional wine distilled from rice. Adolescents began to resist the tradition of arranged marriages, and women chafed under social mores that demanded obedience to their fathers and husbands. In the countryside, however, traditional Vietnamese family values remained strong.[Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ^^]

In the first decade after World War II, the vast majority of North and South Vietnamese clung tenaciously to traditional customs and practices. After the 1950s, however, some traditions were questioned, especially in the North. The timeless notion that the family was the primary focus of individual loyalty was disparaged as feudal by the communists, who also criticized the traditional concept of the family as a self-contained socioeconomic unit. [Source: Library of Congress]

The trend toward adopting Western values continues in South Vietnam after the division of the country in 1954. Many young people embraced sexual freedom and the movies, clothing styles, and rock music from Western cultures became popular. But in the North, social ethnics were defined by Vietnam Communist Party’s principles. The government officially recognized equality of the sexes, and women began to obtain employment in professions previously dominated by men. At the same time, the government began enforcing a more puritanical lifestyle as a means to counter the so-called decadent practices of Western society. Traditional values continued to hold sway in rural areas and countryside, where the concept of male superiority remained common. ^^

Family Reform in Vietnam in the 1950s and 60s

Major family reform was initiated under a new law enacted in 1959 and put into effect in 1960. The law's intent was to protect the rights of women and children by prohibiting polygyny forced marriage, concubinage, and abuse. It was designed to equalize the rights and obligations of women and men within the family and to enable women to enjoy equal status with men in social and work-related activities. Young women were encouraged to join the party as well as the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth League and the Vietnam Women's Union, and they were trained as cadres and assigned as leaders to production teams. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In conjunction with the law, a mass campaign was launched to discourage, as wasteful, the dowries and lavish wedding feasts of an earlier era. Large families were also discouraged. Parents who felt themselves blessed by heaven and secure in their old age because they had many children were labeled bourgeois and reactionary. Young people were advised not to marry before the age of twenty for males and eighteen for females and to have no more than two children per household. Lectures on birth control were commonplace in the public meeting rooms of cooperatives and factories. *

The first attempt to reform the family system in the South occurred in 1959, when the Catholic Diem regime passed a family code to outlaw polygyny and concubinage. The code also made legal separation extremely difficult and divorce almost impossible. Under provisions equalizing the rights and obligations of spouses, a system of community property was established so that all property and incomes of husband and wife would be jointly owned and administered. The code reinforced the role of parents, grandparents, and the head of the lineage as the formal validators of marriage, divorce, or adoption, and supported the tradition of ancestor cults. The consent of parents or grandparents was required in the marriage or the adoption of a minor, and they or the head of the lineage had the right to oppose the marriage of a descendant. *

In 1964 after the Diem regime had been toppled in a coup, a revised family law was promulgated. It was similar to the previous one except that separation and divorce were permitted after two years of marriage on grounds of adultery, cruelty, abandonment, or a criminal act on the part of a spouse. Concubinage, which had been expressly forbidden previously, was not mentioned, and adultery was no longer punishable by fines or imprisonment. *

Families in Wartime Vietnam

Communism in the 1960's brought big changes for women, who were suddenly given equal economic and political rights, as well as the right to choose their own husband. Years of warfare and dislocation in camps have also altered family roles. With so many men away at war, women took on many traditionally male duties, including managing factories and co-operatives. In the northern areas controlled by the non-Communist side prior to 1975, the authorities did not carry out a policy systematically hostile to Confucianism. But disruption of the old social framework because of war, which forced people to abandon their villages for urban areas, as well as the impact of new living conditions and broader contact with Western civilization, also loosened traditional family ties. Children became more independent from their parents and the former strict obedience to the elders diminished. [Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ^^]

In the North, family life was affected by the demands of the war for the liberation of the South, or the Second Indochina War, on the society and by the policies of a regime doctrinally committed to a major overhaul of its socioeconomic organization. Sources of stress on the family in the North in the 1960s and the 1970s included the trend toward nuclear families, rural collectivization, population redistribution from the Red River Delta region to the highlands, prolonged mobilization of a large part of the male work force for the war effort, and the consequent movement of women into the economic sector. By 1975 women accounted for more than 60 percent of the total labor force. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the South, despite the hardships brought on by the First Indochina War and Second Indochina War, the traditional family system endured. Family lineage remained the source of an individual's identity, and nearly all southerners believed that the family had first claim on their loyalties, before that of extrafamilial individuals or institutions, including the state. The years of military conflicts and refugee movements tended in many parts of the South to break up the extended family units and to reinforce the bonds uniting the nuclear family. The major preoccupation of the ordinary villager and urbanite alike was to earn a livelihood and to protect his immediate family, holding his household together at any cost.

During the war years, family life was seriously disrupted as family members were separated and often resettled in different areas. If the distance from one another was too great, they could not assemble for the rites and celebrations that traditionally reinforced kinship solidarity. Family ties were further torn by deaths and separations caused by the war and by political loyalties, which in some instances set one kinsperson against another. In those areas where hostilities occurred, the war was a family affair, extending to the children. Few Vietnamese children had the opportunity simply to be children. From birth they were participants in the war as well as its victims. They matured in an environment where death and suffering inflicted by war were commomplace and seemingly unavoidable. *

Families and Family Reform After Reunification of Vietnam in 1975

After the mid-1970s, the North and South faced the task of social reconstruction. For the South, the communist conquest and ensuing relocation and collectivization policies created an uncertain social milieu. While the return of peace reunited families, communist policies forced fathers or sons into reeducation camps or entire families into new economic zones for resettlement. For those who saw no future in a socialist Vietnam, the only alternatives were to escape by boat or escape by land. As the pace of rural collectivization accelerated in 1987, and as the people became more receptive to family planning, it seemed likely that families in the South would gradually take on the characteristics of those in the North. This conjecture was reinforced by Hanoi's decision in 1977 to apply its own 1959 family law to the South. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to an official 1979 survey of rural families in the Red River Delta commune of An Binh near Hanoi, a typical family was nuclear, averaging four persons (parents and two children). The An Binh study, confirmed by other studies, also showed the family to be heavily dependent on outsiders for the satisfaction of its essential needs and confirmed that the family planning drive had had some success in changing traditional desires for a large family. Seventy-five percent of those interviewed nonetheless continued to believe three or four children per family to be the most desirable number and to prefer a son to a daughter. *

The An Binh study revealed in addition that almost all the parents interviewed preferred their children not to be farmers, a preference that reflected the popular conviction that farming was not the promising route to high-status occupations. Such thinking, however, was alarming to officials who nevertheless considered the promotion of agriculture as essential to the regime's scheme for successful transition to a socialist economy. *

According to Ha Thi Que, president of the Vietnam Women's Union in the early 1980s, popularizing family reform was extremely difficult, even in 1980, because women lacked a feminist consciousness and men resisted passively. To promote equality of the sexes, members of the women's union took an active part in a consciousness-raising campaign under the slogan, "As good in running society as running the home, women must be the equals of men." Such campaigns resulted in a fairer division of labor between husbands and wives and in the decline of customs and practices based on belief in women's inferiority. *

In 1980 some old habits remained. Change reportedly was slower in the mountain areas and in the countryside than in the towns. According to Ha Thi Que, in areas where state control and supervision were lax, old-fashioned habits reemerged not only among the working people but also among state employees. She also pointed out that many young people misinterpreted the notion of free marriage, or the right of individuals to select their own marriage partners, and were engaging in love affairs without seriously intending to marry. Marriages were also being concluded for money or for status, and in the cities the divorce rate was rising. *

Families After the Economic Reforms in the 1980s

In the 1980s, the Vietnamese government adopted an economic reform program that freely from free market principles and encouraged foreign investment and tourism development. As a result, the Vietnamese people have become increasingly acquainted with and influenced by the lifestyles in developed countries of South East Asia and the West.

In December 1986, the government enacted a new family law that incorporated the 1959 law and added some new provisions. The goal of the new legislation was "to develop and consolidate the socialist marriage and family system, shape a new type of man, and promote a new socialist way of life eliminating the vestiges of feudalism, backward customs, and bad or bourgeois thoughts about marriage and family." The law explicitly defined the "socialist family" as one in which "the wife and husband are equals who love each other, who help each other to make progress, who actively participate in building socialism and defending the fatherland and work together to raise their children to be productive citizens for society." [Source: Library of Congress *]

Reflecting the government's sense of urgency about population control, the 1986 law stipulated a new parental "obligation" to practice family planning, a provision that was absent from the 1959 text. The new law was notable also for its stronger wording regarding the recommended marriage age: it specified that "only males twenty years of age or older and females eighteen years of age or older may marry." The 1959 text had stated only that such persons were "eligible for marriage." Other noteworthy provisions concerned adoption, guardianship, and marriage between Vietnamese and foreigners. Foreigners married to Vietnamese were to comply with the provisions of the 1986 law except in matters relating to separation, divorce, adoption, and guardianship, which were to be regulated separately. The new code also called on various mass organizations to play an active role in "teaching and campaigning among the people for the strict implementation" of the law. *

Since 1986, the same changes were occurring in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam because of the influence of the official policy of a free-market economy. The ideals of consuming and having fun through buying goods are especially attractive to the younger generation, which is also the vast majority of the Vietnamese, 80 percent of whom are under 40 years of age. Pelzer White (1993) concluded that the beauty contests and calendars now sanctioned by the Communist state as a signal to the international business community that Vietnam is open for business, also convey a visual message supporting social change. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology ]

Communism and the Family in Vietnam

According to Encyclopedia of Sexuality: "Communist ideology expects all men to behave according to the principles of a "new society" founded on a Marxist-Leninist base. Regarding gender issues, it implies equality of men and women. Because Engels depicted traditional child-rearing practices as the main impediment for achieving gender equality, communist societies tended to socialize childcare and education to enable women to work for the society as men do. The institutions of marriage and the family were considered to be the key to the reproduction of social inequality, because the practices that evolve within these institutions obviously preserved the underlying system of private property and its inheritance. Thus, communist thought was suspicious of devotion to family and treated this as "unsocialist" in a man, especially a Party member. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

In its first two decades, the Communist government in Vietnam made specific efforts to destroy all Confucian traces in Vietnamese society. To break the strong ties binding members of Vietnamese families that had been molded by Confucian principles, the Communists even encouraged betrayal among family members. Over the years, the anti-Confucian policy has changed Vietnamese family structure considerably. The government has acquired most of the authority and influence attributed to Confucian scholars, especially regarding questions of sexual morality and behavior. \*/

Interestingly, communist gender ideas changed dramatically during the war with the South and after the reunification. The typical functionary now clearly resembled the ideal authoritarian Confucian gentlemen. Women are supposed to care for the family and especially the husband. The few state-honored female revolutionists and freedom fighters fell into oblivion. At the same time, it was the Communist government, which set up the Central Committee for Mother and Infant Welfare in 1971. The committee’s responsibility was to guide and unify the organization of crèches (day nurseries). About one third of all children were raised in such facilities. Further support was given to women to separate themselves from domestic duties according to the 1980 State Constitution Article 63, requiring the state and society to ensure the development of maternity homes, crèches, kindergartens, community dining halls, and other social amenities to create favorable conditions for women to work, study, and rest. Even men were asked to share household tasks. But these efforts remained rather at cultural and ideological levels. Vietnamese Communists were keen to maintain the family as a social, but not necessarily an economic unit. For that reason, they argued that it was necessary for women to handle both employment and domestic duties. \*/

Vietnamese Gender Roles

Pamela LaBorde, MD wrote: "In Vietnam, tasks were divided along gender lines: fathers typically worked outside the home while mothers were responsible for domestic duties such as homemaking and raising children. Vietnamese culture is based on a patriarchal system, meaning the husband acts as the head of the family. His responsibilities include managing money and supporting the family. The male dominancy trait is also apparent socially among older generations of Vietnamese. Men will answer questions for their wives. For example, if someone asks his wife, "How are you today?" the husband might respond, "She’s OK". While Western culture promotes individuality, the family unit is very important in Vietnamese culture. This emphasis on collectivity includes an obligation to provide for the welfare of family members. Family members are expected to work and behave for the good of the group. Families may publicly denounce a member who is ill behaved; they may also pronounce family achievements. Each member has a designated kinship term, and these are used when addressing one another. [Source: Pamela LaBorde, MD, Ethnomed ethnomed.org/culture/vietnamese <+>]

"However, the gender gap between men and women became closer during the Vietnam War, when many men were absent from the home and women took on more independence out of necessity. This trend has continued with migration to the U.S. Many of the jobs available in the U.S. were of lower status and fit the expectations of refugee women, but not of refugee men. Refugee men have been forced to take lower status jobs than they would have taken in Vietnam. This has created a situation where many families are dependent on the income of the mother, causing readjustment of family roles and expectations. Due to the effect of migration and Western influence, traditional gender roles are changing, and Seattle families display varying degrees of traditionalism. In general, Vietnamese men and women working outside the home in the Seattle area share domestic duties. <+>

"Previously men had more education than women. The gap is closing, and now everyone has an equal opportunity to receive an education, especially in the U.S. This higher educational attainment means that more women are now working outside of the home. Women who have emigrated from Vietnam tend to extend the absence from work after giving birth in order to raise children. It is likely that they will remain at home until the children are ready to start school. But if both parents were raised in the U.S. it is more likely that they will place their children in childcare so both parents are able to work. <+>

Traditional Views Gender Roles in Vietnam

According to Encyclopedia of Sexuality: "The character of Vietnamese gender roles reflects the over two-thousand-year influence of Confucianism, which is still the most important single influence on gender roles. Vietnamese women were comparably less degraded by the "three submissions" (to father, husband, and eldest son) and the four virtues (skill with her hands, an agreeable appearance, prudence in speech, and exemplary conduct) than women in China (see Section 2, Religious and Ethnic Factors Affecting Sexuality). Gender roles in Vietnam are changing rapidly, though with different speeds in different social layers. Although men are still more visible in society, it is not necessarily a sign of their also having more power. Far from a clear picture, the one sure statement is that Vietnamese gender roles are loaded with contradictions. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

There is still a continuity of Vietnamese ideas of the power of women within the household ("the general of the interior"), and the way in which state socialism splits men and women. For example, the Peasant Union represents men and the Women’s Union only women, thereby encouraging a popular public view that women are not farmers and need not be directly involved in economic change, although up to 80 percent of the field work is done by them. Also, the psychological dimensions of male-female relationships within the family and community are unrepresented and unidentified in the State bureaucracy, and new contradictions begin to emerge between the power of women in family and culture and their empowerment by the state. As Wazir Jahan Karim observed in 1995, "This seems to be a repeat of a typical Southeast Asian model of change and development: that women continue to experience contradictory statements of their usefulness and power, and that the public view usually contradicts the popular." \*/

Unlike the prevalence of male domination in neighboring cultures, the earliest legend about the founding of Vietnam claims equality among the spouses. The mythic founders of Vietnam were a couple, Au Co, the wife, and Lac Long Quan, the husband. The husband was a dragon, suited to live on the coastal plains; the wife was a fairy who wanted to live in the mountains. As they agreed to part, fifty sons followed their mother and governed the northern part of Vietnam, while fifty sons followed their father and reigned over the kingdom bordering the South China Sea. Before separating, they pledged mutual respect and aid in time of crisis. \*/

Vietnamese folklore, female buddhas, goddesses, and proverbs seem to show that Vietnamese women have some influence in society. Goddesses commonly presided over the cultivation of rice and other food crops. Streets and districts are named after female cult heroes, such as the Trung sisters (40 C.E.), who led a revolt of independence, and Trieu Thi Trinh, who took up a similar warrior role in the third century. She is described as nine feet tall, with three-foot-long breasts and a voice like a temple bell, able to eat a bushel of rice and walk 1,500 miles in a single day. Vietnamese nationalists have also resurrected the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, a female poet who was critical of gender inequality more than fifty years before French colonization. \*/

Concept of "Phuc Duc" in Vietnam

According to Encyclopedia of Sexuality: "The single most specific Vietnamese concept that exerts influence on the gender roles of men and women seems to be the concept of phuc duc or "merit-virtue," a kind of karma concept. It refers to the merit that, in a former life, oneself and/or an ancestor acquired through virtuous deeds that is then passed on to succeeding generations, and the merit that a member of the present generation passes to future generations as yet unborn. It is "quantifiable," as in "a lot of phuc duc." [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

Based on the manner in which one lives one’s life, it can be an evil force (vo phuc) as well as a benevolent one. It is considered influential over a span of five generations. Thus, the nature of one’s phuc duc, together with the horoscope and geomancy, which reads the composition of am (yin) and dong (yang) in the earth, determines the course of life. The individual can exert only a limited personal influence. The definition of what is regarded as a virtuous life follows the Buddhist-Confucian code. The specific Vietnamese interpretation goes back at least to the fifteenth century and can be found in the poem, Gia Huan Ca. It is interesting to note that the primary determinant is not the act itself but the motivation beneath the act. \*/

Slote (1998) presented an example of how phuc duc works with Kieu, the hero in the epic poem, Kim Van Kieu: She is a girl of particular charm, beauty, accomplishment, and morality, who sells herself as a minor wife to an unscrupulous scholar in order to redeem her father who has been beset by ill fortune. The scholar, a man devoid of virtue, turns out to be the husband of the madame of a brothel and Kieu is forced into prostitution. Under these circumstances, Kieu’s sacrificial act brings much phuc duc. On the other hand, were she to have become a prostitute for profit alone, she would have been condemned, her family would have suffered, and future generations would have borne the penalties. In a parallel sense Kieu’s misfortune inasmuch as her life had been thoroughly virtuous, could be ascribed to bad phuc duc visited upon her because of transgressions of some ancestor. \*/

Coupled with the nature of the motivation that serves to precipitate the act is the issue of sacrifice. An act that is performed easily brings far less reward than an equivalent action that is difficult and involves suffering. Since it was very difficult to bear the life in a brothel for Kieu, she was finally reunited with the man she loved, to whom she had originally been betrothed. Based on the belief that "merit virtue is caused by the maternal," women can create destiny. Deserving women of good conduct bring felicity to their descendants, just as tragedy, poverty, and other incidents of bad fortune can be blamed on one’s wife, mother, or grandmother. So important was (and still is) this concept, that although the wealth and status of a bride’s family matters, it is secondary to her phuc duc. A poor but virtuous woman of good heritage and blessed at birth by the heavens, who would increase the family’s fortune and ultimate destiny, would be a most desirable bride. And when a marriage is arranged between a poor but virtuous girl and the son of a wealthy family, the girl’s family also usually benefits. To a great extent, phuc duc has been influential in making the class system less stringent than in other cultures. \*/

With the responsibility of acquiring phuc duc, a double standard has been created: Men, if they chose, were relatively free to act in ways that are scarcely designed to build phuc duc. Examples are gambling, cheating, and whoring. On the other hand, there were also the elderly men referred to as living saints, a position that carried great esteem because it contributes to the building of phuc duc for the family. As Slote (1998) observed, the very concept of phuc duc may lead to manipulation, because it can be used as a metaphor in the service of many emotions: hostility, competitiveness, defiance, self-sacrifice, guilt, and control. It is also a justification when all else fails, when the children misbehave, or when one is beset by misfortune. \*/

Gender and Economic Roles in Vietnam

The wife is the family treasurer and keeper of the family gold. The father and the children often help their mother in the kitchen. Often the wife is the business-head of the family and operates any financial endeavor which it undertakes. Such a business may be a small store, a mobile sidewalk cafeteria, etc. She is not normally a pedicab operator or a fisherman at sea, although she is often a fishmonger or peddler.

According to Encyclopedia of Sexuality: "Nearly all the country’s market stalls today are run by women. Though they are more often small merchants, it is interesting that the richest private capitalist in Vietnam today is also a woman. Not only do women form the overwhelming majority of all active merchants in the country, they constitute the majority of the customers as well. As O’Harrow (1995) points out, in spite of the male role of provider, which is implicit in the Confucian paradigm, Vietnamese mothers raise their daughters to understand, if not explicitly, then by example, that they should always have their own money and cannot depend on men. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

"The most commonly acquired commodity for this kind of female protective investment is jewelry, preferably in unalloyed gold or with recognizable gems. Young girls quietly watch their mother’s elaborate systems of boxes, jars, purses, hidden floor boards, and furtive containers of every kind and dimension, never opened in the father’s presence. They observe and learn. The extraordinary interest Vietnamese women appear to take in jewelry is commonly misunderstood by outsiders as simple vanity. But in fact the precious contents are considered the mother’s property and will stay with her should she leave." \*/

Vietnamese Men

Traditionally Vietnamese men have dominated the family, decided how money was spent, determined the size of a family and possessed property in their name. They have also traditionally men dominated public affairs, the professions and agriculture. In the old days Vietnam men often did hard labor, such as carrying 140-pound baskets of crushed stones, in other counties. There many stories of men drinking too much, gambling and cheating on their wives.

According to Encyclopedia of Sexuality: "That Vietnamese men are as imbued with the work ethic as are the women can be attested to by any observer of the economic activity of the Vietnamese refugee communities in the West, where Vietnamese men commonly hold two or sometimes three jobs at a time to support their families. But the popular notion persists, commonly abetted by male authors, such as the nineteenth-century libertine and poet, Tran Te Xoung (1890), that the height of machismo is not some Mediterranean predilection to physical abuse of women, but rather a gentlemanly idleness at their expense: "Drink and gamble ’til you’re in over your head, but even if you are out of money, your kid’s mother is still out there selling her wares." [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

Proschan (1998) observed that traditional Vietnamese society was strongly shaped by Neo-Confucian conceptions and practices of ancestral veneration and filial responsibility (hieu): A man’s most important duty is to reproduce a male child to carry on the ancestral line: "The Annamite* loathes dying without being assured of male dependants. One can say that there exists a veritable obligation, of the religious or at least mystical order, to give birth as early as possible to the cult’s heir" (Khèrian 1937:29). Ethnologist Nguyen Van Huyen noted in 1939 that "male celibacy is always in complete disfavor. It continues to be considered as an act of filial impiety," with bachelors prohibited from participating in certain family and village rituals (Nguyen Van Huyen, 1944/1939:41). The tenacity of this traditional stricture is evident from current census data: of Vietnamese males over the age of 40, barely 1 percent has never married (Vietnam Population Census, 1989). \*/

"It is interesting to note that during the Vietnam War, men envied the American soldiers. Vietnamese men have little or no body hair, but hairiness is regarded as a strong symbol of masculinity. It seems to have put men into a state of constant humiliation to watch hairy GIs being admired by Vietnamese women. The body image of men was changing a lot in the 1990s. The bodybuilding industry began to boom. Today, street posters of bodybuilders, often with Western faces, advertise gymnasiums; national competitions are held; and magazines are available for those who wish to know more. The body shape acquired by bodybuilders is significantly different from that of the majority of Vietnamese men, and there appears to be no precedent for such a practice. As to how Vietnamese men will be *Annamite(s) is the term used for the Vietnamese during the periods of the Kingdom and French Protectorate. able to deal with this strong influence, and how it will change their attitudes toward their bodies are important questions. \*/

Elderly in Vietnam

The General Office for Population and Family Planning estimates the country’s elderly population over 60 has increased from 8.7 percent in 2009 to 10.1 in 2011, with the possibility of hitting 15 million people in the next 10-15 years.

In Vietnam, elders are the leaders in families, have the strongest influence in decision making, and are respected and sought after for advice. Traditionally family members (especially daughters and daughters-in-law) took care of older family members.

One elderly Vietnamese man, who told Smithsonian he’d been a Communist since 1937, said, "People like us, who've spent all our lives in revolutionary struggle, are happy, no, overjoyed, with the reunification of our country. For me, there's very little I require—a shirt and trousers, a pair of sandals; rice and vegetables and an occasional piece of meat or fish; enough living space for a bed and some books. What else do I need? But my children...they don't share my revolutionary fervor."

According to Vietnam-Culture.com: "Each passing year in a person’s life brings esteem and respect to their family and neighborhood. Formerly, at the age of 40 one was honored for being an old man or woman. During the Tran Dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, the 40 year old emperor gave up his throne to his son to become a Buddhist monk According to village customs, a man of 50 is to be honored as an old man. Old men stop working and are no longer village officials; however, they are still invited to festivals and to sears in the communal house. Here, they are seated honorably on red-bordered mats. [Source: Vietnam-Culture.com vietnam-culture.com|-|]

Showing respect and esteem for the elderly is a tradition that remains today. Nowadays, when grandparents or parents reach the ages of 70, 80 or 90, their children and grandchild organize ceremonies for longevity which are generally held on birthdays or during the spring days during Tet. Such celebrations are occasions to show devotion and respect to grandparents and parents. Celebrations for longevity, either large or small, manifest the family’s joy in having a relative who has been able to lead a long life. Today, in almost every village or urban district, there is an association of longevity for the elderly. When reaching the ages of 70 or 80, old women are offered red dresses and other gifts and are invited to be photographed. |-|

Nursing Care in Vietnam

There are few nursing homes in Vietnam. If elderly relatives need care they will live with the younger generation. Only in rare situations will a senior citizen reside in a nursing home, such as when they do not have a family to support them. According to the Vietnamese Cultural Profile by Diversicare, "Some Vietnamese people may feel they have ‘lost face’ in their community if they accept outside help with caring for their ageing parents, or permit their parents to move to alternative accommodation. They can be regarded as lacking filial respect, or as being self-centered and cold- hearted. Older people who move away from living with their families might feel shame for ‘being abandoned’ by their children, or guilt for being considered ‘bad parents’ and deserving this treatment. It becomes very difficult for elderly Vietnamese to accept residential facilities. Generally residential facilities are not accepted by older people with Vietnamese background. Most Vietnamese elderly prefer to stay with their families so separation should be the last resort. [Source: Vietnamese Cultural Profile, Diversicare, March 2009]

Thu Huong Le wrote in the Viet Nam News, "At 70, Nguyen Thi Chung has spent the last 10 years at a private care center in Dong Ngac Village, Tu Liem District. Her husband died years ago and her only daughter became married. Using a wheelchair due to semi-paralysis, Chung said her daughter’s home was ill-equipped to provide her with the care she needed. "There are other elders here whom I can make friends with," she said. "During the weekend, we occasionally have musical performances. I like it here."For generations, Vietnamese elders have had few alternatives when no longer capable of caring for themselves, traditionally staying with their families. The choices include hospital-like residences run by monks at pagodas or public social welfare centers for those without relatives, homes or money. According to the Viet Nam Association of the Elderly, there are only about 400 appropriate health care facilities nationwide. [Source: Thu Huong Le, Viet Nam News, February 28, 2012 =+=]

"Now, even in tight-knit families, many working adult children are unable to care for their weakening parents, making private care centers, or "nursing homes," a growing option in Viet Nam. Nguyen Tuan Ngoc, director of the private care center in Dong Ngac Village, where Chung is staying, said he first noticed the demand when setting up the first center in Minh Khai Village in 2001. At the time, Ngoc said he had to persuade people to come and live at the center. Thirty elder residents came during the first three years. In 2009, the facility moved to Dong Ngac Village, expanding to offer 250 beds across 4,000-sq.m area divided into intensive care, special care and places for those in good health. An additional five-ha center will soon be put into operation in Soc Son Village. =+=

"However, unlike nursing homes abroad where even healthy seniors prefer living, most elders at local private care centers suffer from chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular problems, diabetes and arthritis. At the Dong Ngac center, 70 percent of residents are in "weak" health conditions while 10 percent are categorised as "extremely weak." Ngoc admitted that elders who still enjoyed good health preferred living at home where they help adult children take care of the grandkids. =+=

"Tran Viet Huong, from Hanoi, said her family had tried everything in taking care of her semi-paralysed father, who had suffered several strokes and a traffic accident. Besides paying medical fees of up to VND15 million ($US715) per month, the family had to overcome criticisms from relatives for sending the father to the Dong Ngac center. "My father, similar to all other adults at the center, receives qualified treatment and care," she said. "Residents can also participate in various activities in addition to receiving massages and exercise on a daily basis." =+=

Dang Vu Canh Linh, deputy director of the Hanoi-based Institute of Tradition and Development Research, having spent years researching living patterns among the elderly, said the demand for private nursing homes would increase in the next 10-15 years. "During our research, we noticed that many elderly people chose nursing homes, not because their children didn’t care for them, but because they wanted to retain their independence and make new friends," Linh said. =+=

Le Tieu Binh, owner of two home-styled nursing homes in northern Linh Dam, Hoang Mai District, said this model allowed staff to provide closer care to the elderly and make them feel at home. Established in 2006, Binh’s two care centers currently house about 50 seniors, most suffering from chronic diseases. "We have one staff member living in each room housing the elderly," she said. "In this way our residents have someone to talk to and feel less lonely." However, such private nursing homes are only affordable to the minority. =+=

A report released by the United Nations Population Fund in Viet Nam in July 2011, titled The Aging Population in Viet Nam, suggested that the development of private elderly care centers has been difficult partly due to "minimal consensus" from society and "no specific support from the Government." Giang Thanh Long, vice dean of the School of Public Policy and Management of the National Economics University and UNFPA expert on ageing, said private nursing homes cannot currently meet demand due to high fees. =+=

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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