Comments from an expert on intercultural communication shed new light on the author’s relationship questions.
Among the most memorable books I have read are a 1996 science-fiction novel, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, and its 1998 sequel, Children of God.
The story: A faith-questioning Jesuit priest leads an exploration party into the first interstellar encounter with an alien species. In spite of both sides seeking a meaningful, peaceful rapport, and with both doing everything right according to their best understanding, their meetings are mutually disastrous.
I’m not suggesting that intercultural dating must necessarily end catastrophically. What I am saying is that even in our best efforts to do everything right, and in our counterpart’s best efforts to do the same, there will inevitably be things about which we just cannot agree.
Nor, perhaps, should we even try to agree. We must only learn to accept without judgment.
I love getting mail, especially when it challenges me. Following my blog last week, I got a wonderful response from Carol Dinh, a teacher of Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City with a university degree in English.
Carol is well-traveled internationally and has an enlightened perception of both local and Western cultures. She stepped to the defense of Lan Anh, my partner of six months.
“I don’t completely agree with you,” she wrote. “I’d like to share a bit about our culture.” And in doing so, I feel, she inadvertently confirmed much of what I wrote. Following is a part of our dialogue.
ME: Love is not about romance. It is perhaps never about romance. It’s about what is practical.
CAROL: It’s actually both, not either, and romance comes first.
ME: Certainly, no one (I suspect) will begin a serious relationship without some spark of attraction. But I have spoken to many Vietnamese women between their mid-30s and mid-50s who have lamented succumbing to parental pressure to marry their first boyfriend. After a few years, they are single mothers or in loveless couplings.
CAROL: That’s one of the reasons they are more practical. In older generations, especially in the countryside, not losing “face” was extremely important. If a girl was not married before 25ish, people would think she was unwanted (for many reasons: Not skillful enough to be a housewife? No longer a virgin?).
So the girls usually got married at all costs and ended up getting divorced or putting up with the unhappy marriage so the children could have both parents under one roof … or to keep “face” for herself, her children and her parents. So there’s love or no love, but it’s better to have some money (or the equivalent) just in case. This “face” thing still exists nowadays, just less so than before.
On a woman’s role:
ME: There is an enduring perspective that a woman’s job is to serve a man.
CAROL: We don’t serve; we take care of men. That’s how we show our love to them, not by a romantic response. If she takes care of you very much, she loves you very much, though she may never [show affection when she is caring for you].
ME: Isn’t that just semantics? Maybe that’s what Vietnamese men are looking for, but Western men, not so much. Most of us value affection over being “taken care of,” even if that is the less practical approach. I’m very independent. That’s why I’m here. I am grateful for everything she does, but I can “take care of” myself.
CAROL: This is the culture gap that you need to overcome. It’s why more open-minded younger generations don’t want to date or get married to Viet men.
ME: She says she doesn’t understand why sex is such a big deal — in fact, she doesn’t really like it.
CAROL: People at her age grew up from such a conservative culture that sex is considered dỉrty to talk about, especially by a woman. All they learned was now a baby is made, in a biology lesson at school, if she was lucky. Nothing else, so that’s the reason why.
ME: I suspected as much, from the conservative cultural standpoint. Before we ever became intimate, she volunteered her lack of interest in sex. But it’s not something she is comfortable discussing. After six months, she is finally showing an occasional flash of desire.
CAROL: “Romance” means different things to Viet women depending upon their age. It’s more spiritual when they are younger or dating, but the older they are, the more practical they become.
On giving attention:
CAROL: In general, a woman needs to feel like a priority in every little thing. Does he take care of me as much as I do for him? Does he care about my feelings? Give her more attention (in both words and actions).
ME: Give her more attention? What do you suggest? I can say, “I love you,” but she offers no response. When I say “thank you,” and tell her how much I appreciate her, she grunts. She isn’t impressed when I bring home flowers. She doesn’t know how to accept a compliment.
CAROL: She seems to be a practical one, so I think you should give her something more material, not spiritual. But we don’t say “thank you” on a daily basis. We seldom do, no matter how much we appreciate people/things. We show our appreciation via facial expression (a smile) or actions such as giving care or gifts. Don’t be surprised if you hold the door for someone and she doesn’t even give you a glance.
Most of us [Viet women] have the same practical way to “calculate” the love of men. But some of this might make you feel you have no “space” left: Can I touch his phone or wallet any time I want, and do whatever I want with it, without having to ask? [ME: Yes, she can.] Does he stop drinking with friends to go home with me if I am tired, or will he stay and let me go home alone? [This isn’t an issue for us.]
On expressing emotion:
ME: How is emotion expressed in this culture? I observe very little emotiveness. Is it held inside, or even felt?
CAROL: As I said, the “face” thing is still important in our culture, so negative emotion is usually hidden. You can only see the positive.
ME: But how do you normally express yourself? A simple smile doesn’t say all that much.
CAROL: Facial expressions. Body language.
ME: In my culture, that is nice, but insufficient. And those things can be misinterpreted. Words cannot.
CAROL: That’s the difference. We say thanks in many ways, but just not words.
ME: But it’s very ambiguous.
CAROL: Yes, because we are not as direct as in Western countries.
ME: My expat friends and I feel that our Viet girlfriends keep a lot of secrets from us. We are much more open with them.
CAROL: Not secrets. Just less direct.
ME: Avoiding questions is being less direct?
CAROL: Yes, not to cause argument or misunderstanding, or lose face.
ME: Ah, back to “face.” To us, it creates more misunderstanding when they avoid answers. Another cultural gap.
CAROL: Yes. Here, you need to feel it. People need to interpret everything from one another.
ME: And Westerners are not used to having to interpret.
CAROL: And not good at it at all!
ME: Just over a year ago, I had a relationship end because I didn’t read the secret clues. And then she just left. How can we interpret when we lack the cultural foundation to do so?
CAROL: You need to find the correct hidden messages.
ME: But where is the special secret-agent decoder ring? It is inevitable that we will take things out of context.
So here I am, back at Square One. What a fantastic learning experience this is! For anyone who wonders why I travel, this is it! Feed me knowledge. I can’t get enough.
But, oh, yeah, the relationship.
Could it be that Anh is showing her love in the best way she knows possible? By “taking care of” me, as she learned from her late mother and her older sister? And in spite of appearances to the Western mind, although she is unable to articulate it in my language or hers, she really loves me?
If so, is a compromise even possible? And what would it look like? What can I accept without judgment, and what can I not accept?
Clearly, affection and communication are huge issues. But are they issues only with Anh? Although every individual is different, from what I am learning, I think they would be obstacles to a relationship with anyone in the Vietnamese culture.