I may use the word “lucky”, but I don’t actually believe in luck. I believe in prospect, opportunity, and ambition. I am a man who has been privileged with the opportunity to gather a wide range of perspective because I have had an incredible family support system since I first came into the world. Family is symbolic of collective human strength and is, in my opinion, a primary determining factor in the ethical foundation of the individual.
The characteristics of the family unit vary, both within cultural boundaries as well as across them. Teresa’s Vietnamese family immediately welcomed me into their fold as though I had been with them from the beginning, and for that, I am overwhelmingly grateful.
I know that for some, both men and women, this is not always the case. In my earlier youth, before I had met Teresa, it was not the case for me. Culture and race were a negative factor, back then. For many who have crossed racial boundaries in their relationship endeavours, it can be a confusing, frustrating, even infuriating experience. When I look at those past instances now, I see a lack of strength in the family unit and a lack of perspective from those who judged my character based on my racial background and my perceived economic standing. Because I have something to compare my current relationship to, I simply feel that much more grateful for what I have now.
In the south of Vietnam, I got to witness how a family lives together, works together, and takes care of one another. Teresa’s family owns a fishing business. Aunts, uncles, and cousins all take part in this business throughout most hours of the day. In the few days we were there, I got to see truckloads of oceanic products coming in and out of their properties.
It also meant many delicious and well-prepared meals of some of the freshest products available. In addition to seafood caught fresh from the ocean, southern Vietnam is home to spanning volumes of fish farms unlike anything I’ve seen before.
The thing about Vietnamese people, and I know for a fact that many different cultures are like this, too, is that they feel the need to feed their guests to explosive levels. Even when you look like you’re about to puke, they are still concerned that you haven’t had enough. That’s why, when a few of us took a little ride down to the coast to pick up a few dozen crabs for dinner that first night, we stopped on the side of the road for some banh xeo, or Vietnamese pancakes, one of my all-time favourite dishes. “Xeo” isn’t really a word, so much as it is supposed to represent the sizzling sound that the beer-batter makes as it is being fried up with bean sprouts and other goodness. Eaten with a variety of greens, most of which I don’t know the name of, it can also be wrapped in thin, water-dunked rice paper. It’s crunchy and salty, but also refreshing because of all of the lettuce and other greens. Later, we would only find it in one other place, way up in Hanoi, for a reasonable price (at which point we frequently indulged because we knew we wouldn’t be eating it again until we were back in Teresa’s mom’s kitchen).
Vietnam is still pretty old school when it comes to gender roles. During dinner table conversations, the men are more involved in discussion and between Teresa and myself, I was the primary concern when it came to hospitality, a theme that would prove to be recurring as we met people throughout this region of the world. From what I could gather, women speak up a lot more than they used to, even voicing frustration or contempt when addressing misogynistic comments or viewpoints. But sexism is still fairly present, something Teresa and I acknowledged and discussed amongst ourselves. It isn’t our place to judge. It’s easy to tell people their way of life is backwards, outdated, unprogressive, and so forth when you’ve grown up in a culture that seeks to be inclusive and generally equal (although I would never deny that we still have a ways to go here in the West). But I’m not going to be that person. It’s a whole lot bigger than what seems blatantly obvious to me and so long as I don’t witness outright abuse, all I’m going to do is stay true to my own values and project them outward as best I can. Men being men in the traditional sense is present here, as the insistence on an arm-wrestling bout is evidence of.
It’s more complicated than one gender outranking another, and in Teresa’s family, women have a voice as well as prominent, leading roles in the family business. Her Vietnamese family is reflective of the need for individuals of different strengths and abilities to come together and form a foundationally solid structure, supporting one another and contributing to overall growth. There is a deep respect for the women who bust their ass day in and day out alongside the men, from the labourious aspects of business, to the finances and accounting.
Holding onto “traditional values” is a complex matter, for any culture. No one wants to leave their roots behind, but certain aspects of cultural tradition ought to be severed or altered, in my opinion. Culture isn’t holy, or divine, or whatever else some think it is that prevents it from being criticized or changed. It’s human; beautiful, imperfect, complicated, and a whole lot of other things, both good and bad. Family is far more sacred. Sharing a few days of my life with the Vietnamese family, my lady love’s Vietnamese family, has further added to my (hopefully) pragmatic philosophy.
When writing about this journey, I always begin by intending to discuss what I did, what happened, etc. Often, I end up discussing what I think about things, as I’ve done here. I promise for next time: what we did. (We mostly ate.)