[The characters and incidences in this story are fictional, drawing from stories based on real occurrences in the Vietnamese community. However, the phenomena illustrated by the story are very real. More on that later.]
It happened again. Lan’s breath shortened as that old familiar feeling of imagined prison walls closing in crept up on her. Here we go again, she thought. Her mother-in-law Dao was launching yet another attack on her by obliquely accusing Lan of neglecting her wifely duties when she went out to meet some girlfriends the week before.
“Fun-chasing,” Dao said snidely.
Lan stayed silent as the poisonous flame of anger flickered within her. Snappy comebacks flashed across her mind and the internal battle to keep them from spouting out of her mouth spent her reserve of self-control.
Lan’s mind flashed back to that night last week, when she had asked her husband to baby-sit for the night as she went to dinner to catch up with some friends she had neglected since marrying him.
Fifteen minutes into the dinner, her cell phone rang. Exhaling shortly, Lan picked up to hear Duc say “Are you going to be home soon? The kids are making a mess!”
“I just got here,” whined Lan. “Give me some time, I’ll be home soon.”
“Okay, hurry up. They are driving me nuts,” Duc ordered.
Lan hung up and continued her dinner, uneasiness forming a pit in her stomach. I’m gonna have a bunch of things to do when I come home, she sighed inwardly.
About another 15 minutes later, Duc called again. “They are really making a mess now, and fighting with each other…They miss their mommy! Phuoc, come here and talk to your mother. Say ‘Mommy, I miss you!’ See? He misses you,” Duc claimed pathetically.
“What? Okay, I’ll come home soon,” Lan capitulated, her heart stricken with guilt. She hurried through the rest of dinner in order to rush home, once gain distancing herself from her already alienated friends.
Once home, Lan warily opened the front door to find puddles of water and wads of paper towels on the ground. Her peripheral vision took in the toys strewn about the house and her heart fell down to her stomach in its usual fashion.
“Ugh, I’m so tired from watching them all night. Little pirates! You clean up. I’ll go shower—did you have fun?” spouted Duc.
“Of course not, you kept calling!” Lan complained, hearing herself play her usual tape.
“They are just so rambunctious, those kids!” exclaimed Duc.
Vaguely aware of her heart hardening into something heavy as it weighed down on her stomach, Lan said nothing and dutifully cleaned up the mess. Well, at least my life is not as bad as before, she thought as she meekly attempted to comfort herself.
“…when I was your age, I had six kids, and we lived in rural Vietnam. Life was hard, but I sacrificed everything for my children to make sure they succeeded…”
Lan heard the voice faintly as she was slowly pulled back into the present. “I can’t believe it. Just two kids and she still can’t do it properly,” Dao critiqued.
Internally pulling back the daggers from shooting out of her eyes, Lan recalled the many times her mother-in-law had nagged and tried to sabotage her—the biggest impression of which was around the time she was pregnant with her second son one year ago. Lan was running around in circles then, looking for affordable childcare while trying to climb out of the debt incurred during Duc’s unemployment some time ago. With her own mother still living in Vietnam, and Duc not wanting her mother to come, Lan stood backed up to a corner and hesitantly asked Dao to take care of the baby so that she could return to work in order to speed up payments to the credit card company. Dao agreed after some coaxing.
But as the delivery date neared, Dao pronounced: “I need to get away. I’ve been stuck in the states forever, and I need a break.”
Lan snickered inwardly at the remark as she recalled that the last time Dao had visited Vietnam was one year ago, and the imaginary stone hanging over Lan’s head finally dropped as her anticipated disappointment settled in.
Lan expended much of her already depleted energy in persuading Dao to stay and help her out. But Dao insisted on her trip, and even extracted some money from Duc to help her pay for the trip expenses. With her despondency reaching the bottom of its pits, Lan had no choice but to ask her boss for an extension on her maternity leave. She had secretly wanted to get back to work as soon as possible to escape those dreary walls built of ancient territorial traditions and obligations that sometimes overwhelmed her as she returned from work each night. Her financial stability was only secondary to her desire for escape.
Lan had told herself not to care what Dao thought, but her resistance lost to the ever pervading question in the back of her mind: How can she do this to me knowing how hurtful it is—when she had been put through that same gauntlet? As charred as she had been from the attacks on her contentment, Lan’s curiosity still caused her to ponder why Dao would subject her to the same hostility that her own mother in law had thrown at her. She had remembered Dao crying to her about it several times as Dao weirdly tried to bond with her.
Lan shouldn’t be surprised, because scholars have found that many women hold sexist beliefs, even though these women may deny it, even to themselves. Phyllis Chesler explored this phenomenon in her book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman in which she cites many sources, including a study done by Gloria Cowan, an American psychologist.
One of Cowan’s studies was on women’s hostility to other women, in which she used cross cultural subjects that included Asians and found that such hostility is correlated inversely with the aggressor’s own level of satisfaction with herself.
“The data indicate that women who are hostile toward other women don’t feel good about themselves. They have lower personal self-esteem, optimism, sense of self-efficacy, life satisfaction, and higher objectified body consciousness compared to women who are not hostile toward women.”
Looking through the lenses of Cowan’s study, we begin to understand why Dao would subject Lan to the same hostility that she herself suffered at the hands of her own mother-in-law.
In many Vietnamese households where family ties are placed above all else, an offspring’s marriage was often rife with conflicts as the newly formed couple struggled to form a separate identity of “us” not involving their families of origin. The effort to form this separate identity often failed due to the guilt many sons and daughters felt when faced with having to stand up to their parents, who had sacrificed so much for them. For these people, marriage happened between not two people, but two families—to a much greater degree than in families that didn’t have such devoted filial ties—and daughter-in-laws had to interact with mother-in-laws much more frequently.
Since divorce was not a real option for traditionally conservative couples, it is not hard to imagine Dao’s self-esteem, life satisfaction, and sense of control over her own life eroding with each day as she lived trapped in an existence of having to interact with her persecutor so recurrently.
Chesler also found that most women unconsciously expect other women to mother them and feel betrayed when a woman fails to meet their ideal standards. This could add to the feeling of betrayal when Dao is being disparaged by her mother-in-law, furthering the shock to her psyche. With such a damaged self-image, Dao was primed to carry on the vices of her attacker.
Furthermore, traditional Vietnamese women were often trapped in unsuitable marriages often accompanied by domestic abuse. Not finding satisfaction in their marriage, and not being able to escape its bonds, most of these women lived their lives through their children, pouring all their hopes, dreams, and affection onto their brood—especially their sons—often at the expense of their own identity and well-being.
Imagine how this affected Dao as her son grew up and suddenly, another woman appeared, trying to put a claim on his heart, on his devotion, which previously was directed solely towards Dao. The feelings of envy and competition that many Vietnamese daughter-in-laws felt from their in-laws can be explained in this light.
Does this mean that women are solely to blame for the current discrimination toward them? No. Chesler was quick to point out that we must differentiate between naming a behavior to start changing it versus putting blame on women since she also found that women were more likely to blame women than they blame men.
We have explored the conflicts that some traditional Vietnamese mother-in-laws perpetuated within their son’s marriages and gave some possible explanations. But this is not to say that misogyny is largely the fault of women nor is it to give them an excuse to continue persecuting other women.
As Chesler mentioned, prejudice must first be acknowledged before it can be resisted or overcome. Many Vietnamese children have felt the ripple effects of the war through the actions and behaviors of their elders, and have seen how bitterly some of their elders have spoken about communist oppression.
But oppression does not have to be institutionalized in order for its wrath to be felt. In the words of author bell hooks [no capital letters intentional], we all have “the capacity to oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized),” and it is the “potential oppressor within that we must resist.”
Chesler herself admitted that 10,000 years of human behavior is something too powerful to change within a single lifetime. But just as we have advanced from slavery in the U.S., there is hope for Vietnamese women to rise above that destructive cycle of women hating. That hope begins by looking within and finding the will to practice just behavior toward other women despite our ingrained tendencies.
In honor of August as What Will Be Your Legacy month, I encourage readers to ask “What will be my legacy?” Will it be that of one who looked within to identify and thwart destructive behavior? Or will it be one of denial and blame?
[This post is the first in a series exploring issues within the Vietnamese community through the story of Lan. The next story in this series will discuss Lan’s background within some psychological frameworks that helps us understand her better and some possible solutions based upon the same frameworks that may trap us in a cycle of destructive behavior. Stay tuned!]