Last week, I had a chat with a friend about my favorite topic, the Vietnamese family. The “traditional Vietnamese ideal family”, we both agreed, was one where the husband worked more to support the family and had a lot of say in big matters whereby the woman would take care of household issues and childrearing. Each person has a well-defined role (by the contract they made among themselves and by social expectation).
Nothing new here. This ideal version says a lot about our cultural values: unity and harmony above all else. If most husbands and wives are happy with this “ideal”, society will be cohesive. There will be some outliers, but most families would hope to become the ideal.
My friend then mentioned that such ideal might not be the ideal after all. The husband can feel too much entitled for his contribution (is that what a lot of men feel? I’m somewhat disappointed of my own race… I understand that males need to have big egos to survive and thrive and procreate from evolutionary perspective, but that’s a bit too much. Big ego is the nemesis of unity).
This isn’t too new either, for I have lived overseas for several years. In the West, invididual right is at the core of how people think about living; consequently, the division of labor in the family is less pronounced because every member of the family should be treated and contribute to the family on roughly equal terms.
I was raised by a widowed mother, so these points weren’t immediately applicable. However, I thought about the host parents I was living with in Saigon. The division of labor was clear: My aunt would do all the housework; my uncle would spend time on business. My aunt often came back home earlier, had dinner and enjoyed TV programs while my uncle came home late after hanging out with his friends and went upstairs to read online news or play computer games. Ok, so what do all these observations mean?
Living with other people and seeing their different lifestyles have two distinct benefits on me. First, I became a lot more accepting. It’s no surprise that as we meet more people, we withhold our judgments more readily because everyone is different! My aunt and uncle chose to live that life, so it must be something they both prefer. How can I know I am better to judge that it’s not as good? If a drug addict tells me he’s enjoying his life, what can I do? Live and let live, right?
Thinking this way requires two assumptions: first, people know what they like. Second, they are telling us what they really think. We can examine these assumptions, but that’s for another philosophical essay. For now, pointing out these two assumptions should help us see that there are ways to counter this argument.
The second benefit, which is more important for me, is that as I had more exposure to different lifestyles, I understood much better what made me tick. I personally would not want to live this way, having too little interaction with my future spouse. Admittedly, there must be personal time and space. But part of the social contract of marriage includes time together. Conversation is not always necessary, but at least one must feel the presence of each other in everyday life (literally). I believe that “Quality of a relationship = Time spent together x Depth of each interaction.”, as mentioned in my previous post on friendship.
I appreciate the value of such division of labor in the family. It frees up the husband to earn enough money to support their needs. It also lets the traditional wife perform what she’s good at: taking care of household issues. It’s great if the goal is to maximize efficiency in dealing with money and household matters. But that may not be the only goal, especially up to the point where the family has sufficient financial support. The goal now maybe to spend more quality time together and rejoice, not get bored, in each other’s presence. In the end, how can love and mutual understanding, the most important factors of marital satisfaction, grow without interaction?
How much is “enough interaction”? Our preferences keep changing over time, let alone the fact that we have to compromise that with our partner’s too. That takes a lot of planning and constant re-evaluation of our plans. A few of my friends told me “Khuyen are you crazy? This is not a project!” To which I replied “What does “a project” mean for you? For me, it’s a series of steps to achieve a goal”. Building a family, getting fit or finding a job are all projects in that sense, and to do a project well I need to start with a design recipe. That’s learning in real life.
I’ve seen a number of unsuccessful marriages, divorce or worse – still staying together yet already divorced in hearts. While I’m no counselor, have no experience or even know the full circumstances to judge, these stories still pain me: Why do we make bad choices in such a big matter? (and it’s not one single choice but rather a series of choices, each leading up to the next one in a slippery slope). I need to know the Whys before I can help.
Some people worried for me that I was thinking too much, “You still had the entire young adult life in front of you to explore the world, why bother thinking about this, Mr Old-n-Wise?”
I appreciate their concerns. I don’t think I’m spending too much time on this; it’s only one blog post, a few hours of thinking here and there. Maybe a few hours less from Facebook (still surfing too many random feeds anyway). Plus, for something of this big, it doesn’t harm to think in advance. Learning from both positive and negative examples is never wasted. And isn’t seeing the lives of people part of this great exploration?
As usual, after writing a blogpost I end up with more questions than before. How can I and my host parents think so different? Is there really a better version of the “ideal family”? What if they haven’t tried living a different lifestyle and thus not having enough information to choose? If so, what is my role?
I recalled another friend’s favorite quote: “You can’t change the way people live, but you can live the way that will make people change.” Perhaps that’s the answer for me now.
p/s: Perhaps I have been thinking about this topic since my brother is getting married soon. Can you believe that my 3-year-older brother who used to play pranks with me around the neighborhood is marrying in less than a month!?
p/s2: I initially planned to write a looooong reflection from these two months living in Saigon, but with this rate of writing I probably won’t have time before school to clear up all my notes to publish. At least I recorded all of them down.