I’m sitting here, on the other side of the globe from my home, boiling on the outside and the inside.
It’s hot here. We’ve been over this. It’s not really worth saying, but even the Vietnamese are talking about it, maybe because they see my red cheeks and notice me dripping with sweat. Whatever. My place is air conditioned and has a shower. The solutions are clear.
I’m boiling on the inside because I’m angry. This problem is not as easily resolved.
I’m mad about what’s been happening in my country, thousands of miles away. I’m frustrated by much of the tenor of the conversation taking place online about recent incidents, both among my compatriots and the local expat community.
As Dr. Roxane Gay wrote (and I posted to my Facebook page) in an article for The New York Times: “…anger is not an inherently bad thing. Most of the time, it is a normal and even healthy human emotion. Anger allows us to express dissatisfaction. It allows us to say something is wrong. The challenge is knowing the difference between useful anger, the kind that can stir revolutions, and the useless kind that can tear us down."
In an attempt to channel this anger, I’m going to get organized about it. Using subheadings.
Struggles with Feminism in a Selfie State
I read Bad Feminist by the above-mentioned Roxane Gay a few weeks ago and may or may not have begun blowing steam out of my nostrils in the process.
Bad Feminist is a collection of essays. It’s a slightly higher brow version of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs meeting modern day feminism. I didn’t love it, but I definitely didn’t hate it, and it made me think, for which I’m thankful.
However, the anger that arose in me during the process wasn’t the most productive. I found myself frequently shooting daggers at unknowing victims from behind my sunglasses.
The thing is, patriarchy is alive and well in Vietnam. It is in America, too, but I feel comfortable questioning the society and the structure that I was born into.
Here I mostly observe and feel frustrated or angry and then guilty for that emotion, because it implies judgment. And then the cycle begins again.
In Da Nang, I see women working on construction projects alongside men with more frequency than I do in America. I also rarely see groups of women out after dark—they get dressed to the nines and meet at cafes during the day. At night, it’s mostly co-ed groups, families, or large groups of men drinking together. I have to imagine that most of the women are at home.
Many Vietnamese women don’t drink. For Vietnamese men, drinking is practically a competitive sport.
One inebriated Vietnamese man, a stranger, asked me how many beers I could drink before I absolutely had to stop. I told him that’s not my goal when I drink. He pressed. I said, “I’m not sure…it depends over what period of time.” He stared at me with glassy eyes. “Maybe 6?” I ventured.
He laughed. “That’s nothing!”
It’s highly likely I weighed more than this man. And if he was being honest, his true max number of beers was whatever number he was on at that point.
Vietnamese women run businesses and manage restaurants. They also take so many photos I don’t know how their devices have room for them all. Perhaps that’s their competitive sport. How many selfies can you post in a day?
At first I stared when a table full of young Vietnamese women were ignoring one another, favoring the company of their own faces reflected back to them in their screens, peace signs out, chins down, duck faces ready, smirks, winks, attempts to be cute. Mostly I ignore it now. But the other day I tried not to laugh when women wearing their work uniforms, white ao dai, took turns posing next to some wall art—actual cameras hanging in a grid formation— in one of my go-to cafes. Did they not recognize the irony?
And what does this selfie culture say about a society? That someone’s filtered face is their most important representation, or should I say iteration? That this is the way for women to form an identity?
I’m not above the occasional selfie, I admit it. I want to document things and sometimes a selfie is the easiest (or only) way—though I usually have someone else in the frame with me. It’s more the need to document every waking second, through photos of your own face, that I have a problem with. What about turning the camera around and paying attention to what’s in front you?
At a more serious level, there are all the stories of massage places that offer “happy endings” and other shady establishments that employ some form of sex workers. It’s real, folks. The expats I know only frequent legitimate spas that have big, open lobbies and/or online presences and/or have been vetted by friends. It’s easy to avoid thoughts about young women being exploited because of an exchange rate that works in the favor of many in the Western world—and equally as easy to feel sick imagining the circumstances that would lead to a woman doing this type of work.
There’s an analogy in Vietnamese culture that compares women to food: rice is a man’s loyal wife, and noodles are his sexy mistress. This (informative) article on the history of pho makes light of it—but trivializing affairs, and presuming that only men have them, also says something about the culture, does it not?
I can’t say with any sort of authority. It’s just an observation. But I do feel comfortable with a commentary on the expat community.
I’m not sure why, but I’ve noticed a certain type of self-important, middle-aged-and-older white man, usually while out on the town, who has chosen to live in Da Nang. Service standards and etiquette are different here—for example, in Vietnam it IS appropriate to shout across an establishment to ask for your server’s attention—but some people, often within the previously mentioned demographic group, take it too far. They’re condescending. They belittle the staff with zeal. Servers walk up to the table with a smile initially and by the end of the meal their eyes are on the ground and they’re shuffling around.
These men complain loudly about being charged for butter with their pancakes even though they live in a country where butter is never used, it’s just an option for the foreigners that the place is trying to serve, and the menu lists the surcharge. They attribute any service error to the staff’s supposed lack of intelligence. They post a photo of female servers’ asses—who knows if these women actually knew the photo was being taken—in a photo album that is intended to document a stone skimming competition. This competition had both adult and child participants. They create X-rated bar trivia nights featuring riddles such as “What does a man have that’s in his pants, is approximately 8 inches long, and his wife always wants?” with the “correct” answer being “his wallet”. Because of course the man controls the money in every heterosexual marriage, right? Maybe the woman is the breadwinner and what she really wants is her husband’s dick. But that’s not the correct answer, get your mind out of the gutter, women don’t think about sex! This same bar owner pulls up YouTube and types “sexy women surfing bikinis” just to be sure that the images on the screens in his bar go with his overall theme of objectification.
I want to shout, to call these people out, to tear them to pieces. But I never do. Would it do some good? Maybe. I’m not sure. Perhaps I’ll try it sometime. I’m usually too busy fuming, unable to construct an appropriate response through the red rush of adrenaline. Or maybe I’m scared of their reaction, of being called out as an angry feminist, so I’m resorting to writing my feelings rather than speaking them.
People who are sexist are embarrassing themselves, whether they know it or not. That’s the little comfort I warm myself with when I’m angry with them and frustrated with myself, imagining digs I should have tossed out there while I’m lying in bed, unable to fall asleep.
I’m trying to think of this boiling as a good thing. I just need to decide whether to make a soup or cook some potatoes or do something else with the pot on the stove before it boils over. How can I channel this rage into something productive? I’m really asking, and I don’t want answers like “take a kickboxing class”. If the answer is to speak up next time I see behavior like this, then I need to work on it, but I accept the challenge.
If you’ve dealt with me for this long, any tips in the comments are appreciated!
That’s enough verbal spewing for now. I’ll get to politics and current events as viewed through the “lens from abroad” at some point later on. Sorry for the plural “subheadings” promised above. Maybe I can be more organized next time around.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.