Intersections: Vietnamese Women: Narratives of Cross-Cultural Marriage
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 21, September 2009

Vietnamese Women:
Narratives of Cross-Cultural Marriage

Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen

  1. In a poem entitled 'He covered me with a blanket,' the Vietnamese Canadian writer Thuong Vuong-Riddick recalls:

    In Montpellier station,
    he took all my luggage
    on his back,
    put his arms around me.
    Mother said:
    'He is the one for you.'[1]

    Her words refer not only to a love story across cultures, but also to one that is embedded in a framework of diaspora and loss. In her bilingual poetry collection Two Shores/Deux Rives, Vuong-Riddick remembers and mourns her lost country. She acknowledges the disorienting effects of dislocation and the gift of a love that sheltered her when she was 'naked in the world's eyes'[2]—an apt metaphor for a woman bereft of country and compass.
  2. In one of the most substantive and visible diasporas of the late twentieth century, more than two million Vietnamese left their homeland after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and made new lives for themselves overseas. The majority resettled in the United States, Australia, Canada, and France, but Vietnamese communities were established in countries as diverse as Israel and Norway. Based on an oral history project conducted in Australia between 2005 and 2008, this article will explore the narratives of four Vietnamese women who have intermarried with non-Vietnamese men.[3] The contexts for these marriages range from Asia in the 1960s to Australia in the 1990s. The four women are differentiated in terms of generation, class, and level of education, but all are shaped by the history and legacy of their family and country. Their lives in Vietnam were conducted against a background of political unrest and war, and all have been subjected to displacement or migration, and experienced profound loss in the shape of the loss of homeland. I will explore the representation of cross-cultural relationships in Vietnamese literary culture before examining the women's narratives in detail and focusing on two central questions: firstly, what do their portrayals of cross-cultural marriage reveal about their relationship with the past and with memory? And secondly, to what extent does their choice of a non-Vietnamese partner reflect a desire to distance themselves from their past and their history, and to seek a degree of separation from circulating discourses of grief and traumatic loss in a Vietnamese environment?
  3. Women reflect on their choices, family responses to their relationship, and the particular challenges and rewards of having a partner from a different cultural background. While they dwell on the interpersonal dimension of their relationship, these women set their experiences within specific cultural and familial contexts. The narratives reveal that the circumstances surrounding their relationships vary widely, and that women have found individual means of negotiating the cultural and social aspects of their marriages. Implicit in this process of negotiation are the women's memories of their Vietnamese past, and their perceptions of Vietnam and what Vietnam signifies in their present lives.
  4. The women's narratives illustrate a significant shift in the representation of cross-cultural marriage for the Vietnamese. Historically, Vietnamese have looked askance at relationships that extend beyond ethnic boundaries, whether between themselves and the Chinese, or later the French, the Americans or the Russians. This hostility is illustrated in Toan Anh's words from 1968:

      Vietnamese girls don't like to marry a man from outside the village, let alone one from a foreign country. Vietnamese from well-behaved families look upon marrying a foreign husband as a bad thing to do, no matter what rank or status the man may have.

      When she marries a foreigner, a Vietnamese woman feels ashamed no matter what her social class The act of taking a Western husband is an act of losing one's origins; the act of going astray by someone who has severed her roots.[4]

    These words imply that women are the inheritors and transmitters of Vietnamese culture, and that marriage to a foreigner would impede or destroy this traditional role. As Neil Jamieson underlines, this level of xenophobia was exacerbated in times of colonialism and war.[5] Vietnamese literature dealt in general with the failure of cross-cultural relationships in colonial and post-colonial contexts. Novels such as Truong Dinh Tri and Albert de Teneuille's novel Bà-Dâm (The Frenchwoman) (1930) and Pham Duy Khiem's Nam et Sylvie (Nam and Sylvie) (1957) depict failed relationships between Vietnamese men and Frenchwomen, whether in colonial Indochina in the 1920s, as is the case with Bà-Dâm or in France in the 1930s, as is the case with Nam et Sylvie.[6] Published only three years after the demise of French Indochina, Nam et Sylvie 'illustrates a post-colonial process of mourning—for a lost past and a lost illusion of love.'[7] Within these literary frameworks, cross-cultural love cannot in itself overcome the pressures and stresses of colonisation.[8]
  5. Relationships between Vietnamese women and European legionnaires in colonial Vietnam are satirised in Vu Trong Phung's Ky Nghe Lay Tay (The Industry of Marrying Europeans) (1934).[9] The author's mockery, as his translator Thuy Tranviet notes, is directed not only at these women and their 'industry' but also at Vietnamese customs and traditions, and the institution of marriage.[10] As the narrator remarks to a legionnaire in conversation:

      In my country since the beginning of time, all marriages are business transactions. As you probably already know, the majority of people in my country still follow the old customs. There aren't many people who are able to marry the ones they love. It never happens in my society that a young couple is able to discuss their affairs freely with one another.[11]

    The Vietnamese French writer Kim Lefèvre chronicles her mother's story in her autobiographical novel Métisse blanche (White Métisse) (1989). Lefèvre's mother fell in love with a French officer and defied the conventions of her time by living with him until she became pregnant (at which point he left her). The context for this relationship was colonial Vietnam in the 1930s. She was ostracised by her family and community for her behaviour, and this rejection was extended to her Eurasian daughter. Lefèvre writes:

      Everything about me was deeply offensive to my relatives: my Eurasian looks, my character which they found unpredictable and difficult to understand – in short, everything about me was un-Vietnamese. My French blood was blamed for all that was bad in me. This prevented them from showing me any affection. I understood this, I even approved of it. I too hated the blood that ran through my veins. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of providential accidents that would empty me of all this accursed blood, and leave me purely Vietnamese, at peace with my surroundings and myself. For I loved this land, with its rice fields, its green bamboo hedges, the ponds where I used to splash with other children my age.

      I have no memories of my early childhood, apart from the sensation of being everywhere displaced and a stranger. I suffered greatly as a result of this. I did not see it as an injustice but as an existential flaw.[12]

    The experience of Lefèvre's mother illustrates the negative perception of cross-cultural relationships asserted in Toan Anh's words. While Lefèvre's writing reveals the unhappy fate of many Eurasian children and their mothers during colonial times, the travails of Amerasian children and their mothers in post-war Vietnam are powerfully conveyed in oral histories and memoirs such as Kien Nguyen's The Unwanted (2001).[13] Both Lefèvre and Nguyen were marginalised by their society and culture and had to bear the stigma of their mixed blood against a background of Vietnamese nationalism and xenophobia.[14] Both eventually left Vietnam and reconstructed their lives overseas.
  6. Post-war Vietnamese society and the relationships between Vietnamese and Russians on the other hand are the subject of Duyên Anh's 1983 novel Mot Nguoi Nga o Saigon (A Russian in Saigon). A well-known writer in South Vietnam before 1975, Duyên Anh was imprisoned for six years by the communist regime after the end of the war, during which he was incarcerated in three separate prisons and two re-education camps.[15] Freed through the efforts of PEN Club and Amnesty International in 1981, he escaped Vietnam by boat in 1983, and wrote Mot Nguoi Nga o Saigon in the refugee camp of Pulau Bidong in Malaysia.[16] His novel concerns an ultimately tragic love story between a Soviet engineer and a South Vietnamese woman in 1980, and was published in France as Un Russe à Saigon in 1986.[17] As the novel points out, Vietnam and the Soviet Union may have been socialist friends but theirs was 'a friendship between peoples, not between individuals.'[18]
  7. However, not all exogamous relationships are delineated in such a negative light in Vietnamese literary culture. Ly Thu Ho's novel Au Milieu du Carrefour (In the Middle of the Crossroads) (1969) features the story of Xinh, a young Vietnamese woman who falls in love with John, an American soldier, during the Vietnam War. Their courtship is portrayed as an attraction of opposites and differs considerably from earlier literary renditions of doomed love affairs between Vietnamese men and French women. After John is badly wounded in an engagement, Xinh proposes marriage to him and both eventually leave Vietnam.[19] Ly Thu Ho's novel is contemporaneous with Toan An's work but depicts a radically different approach to cross-cultural love. But then Ly Thu Ho was a female writer and had spent a considerable part of her life overseas. Her work displays an open-minded attitude towards cross-cultural relationships,[20] an attitude that is reflected in recent autobiographical narratives and memoirs by Vietnamese women of the diaspora.[21] I will now explore cross-cultural love through the lens of the four following narratives.

    Cosmopolitan lives
  8. The first narrative is that of Kieu, born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1942, the daughter and granddaughter of Vietnamese administrators who served in Cambodia during colonial times. Kieu remembers a vibrant and cosmopolitan upbringing in Phnom Penh in the 1940s and 1950s. As she relates:

      My paternal grandfather was sent to Cambodia to work in the Post Office for the French colonial administration and as a result my father was born there. My father worked in the Treasury. When Cambodia became independent in 1954, he was transferred to the Royal Cambodian Public Service. He remained there until his retirement as Inspecteur de Trésorerie. Father and mother had five children. I was the only girl. We had a happy childhood and went to the only French lycée (high school) in Phnom Penh, Lycée Descartes. It was a selective co-ed and multiracial school. There were Cambodians of course, as well as Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, French, English and American students. Right from a young age, we were placed in this very cosmopolitan environment and I took it for granted but now, in retrospect, it was something unique. To foster integration, we were forbidden to speak our mother tongue while inside the lycée. Needless to say, we all learnt French very quickly! I formed lasting friendships there. It was only in the later years, during the Vietnam War, that latent nationalistic tensions came to the surface.

    Kieu met her husband in Phnom Penh in 1967. After obtaining a law degree in Phnom Penh, she went to France and completed a post-graduate degree at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Institute of Political Science), better known as 'Sciences-Po.' She obtained a job with UTA, a French airline, and it was while she was waiting for a new exit visa from Cambodia that she met Claude through some mutual friends. She remembers:

      He was an Australian diplomat of French origin. At first, I didn't want to marry him, I was still hoping to get my visa and go back to Paris but this took a few months, and by then I'd learned to know Claude better. He was bicultural, like me. I found that he was a bit like my father, he was very kind and very honest so I said yes, and wrote a letter to the director of UTA to explain the situation. We were married in December 1967 and had a big party at the Royal Cambodian Yacht Club with a multinational crowd of relatives and friends.

    She states that the fact that Claude was not Vietnamese was not an issue for her family. The first cross-cultural marriage had taken place thirty years earlier in the previous generation, when one of her aunts had married a French administrator. She ascribes her affinity with Claude to their joint experience of biculturality:

      White people who marry Asians do so because they are attracted to that culture. Claude is halfway Vietnamese and I'm halfway French, so we understand each other. He knew what marriage to a Vietnamese girl would entail. He knew that when you marry into a Vietnamese family you have to accept the whole family.

    Kieu's narrative is punctuated by a vocabulary that underlines her awareness of her multicultural childhood and upbringing. The words 'bicultural,' 'multicultural,' 'multiracial,' and 'cosmopolitan' feature repeatedly in her account. They highlight her exposure to different cultures and countries, and her willingness to adjust her life to these varied contexts. Her life story is structured around an overarching theme of the positive blending of cultures. Her narrative of cross-cultural love illustrates a confluence of cosmopolitanism and class. Her memory of growing up in Phnom Penh, her education in Cambodia and in France, her marriage, and her later work and life, all reflect this multiplicity of experiences, peoples, and cultures. Kieu's marriage to Claude led to life in Australia, the Congo (where they went in 1969 and worked for two years as teachers), Vietnam, Indonesia, and France. They were in Saigon from 1972 until 1975.
  9. Kieu's assertion of Claude's biculturality and his understanding and acceptance of the consequences of marriage into a Vietnamese family, is borne out by events that occurred in 1975. Kieu and Claude took over the care of three Cambodian children—the children of a Vietnamese mother (Kieu's youngest aunt on her mother's side), and a Cambodian father. Kieu relates:

      Lycée Descartes was partially destroyed in the bombing, so my aunty, the one who had married a high-ranking Cambodian (her husband was Chief of Air Cambodge), said: 'Look, the kids are twelve, ten and eight and there's no school for them so either they could go to Lycée Marie Curie in Saigon or I'll have to send them to France to boarding school.' I told her: 'Don't be silly, they are too young to go to boarding school. Send them to me.' When the situation in Vietnam deteriorated and in Cambodia it was even worse, my aunty rang me and said: 'I can't come and see the children now. I'll try to.' I didn't pay much attention to events because by that stage I had four kids with me [Kieu's and Claude's daughter was born in Saigon]. When Claude told me in early April, 'You have to expect to be evacuated', I rang her and said to her to come grab the kids and go to France, and she said, 'We'll try. If you have to evacuate, please take the kids with you and I'll try to rejoin you.' I said, 'No problem.' I never thought it [the Khmer Rouge genocide] would happen. I know the reason she didn't try was because her husband was [Norodom] Sihanouk's cousin and nobody thought that the Khmer Rouge would trick Sihanouk, imprison him and kill his subjects. Nobody knew, so they stayed behind. When the time for the evacuation came I had to grab the three kids with me and fly to Bangkok. From there, we were airlifted with all the orphans to Australia.

      They [her aunt and uncle] were killed, you know. The French embassy remained there for a while and some of the French people that we knew said that they thought—they were not quite sure—that they saw my aunty and her husband being wrist-bound and marched to the stadium. The prisoners passed in front of the embassy. You know that the first few days the Khmer Rouge had a big pogrom, a big purge so they marched everybody to the stadium and clobbered them. I knew they had died, because when I married Claude, every time my family wanted to reach me, they would write a letter to us care of the Department of Foreign Affairs, but since the liberation of Cambodia they've never written any letter, so we knew they were dead.

    This episode of Kieu's and Claude's married life saw them witness the collapse of two countries to communist regimes, the rupture of a transnational family, the disappearance of family members, and a personal and familial legacy of loss in the form of the three Cambodian children whose guardians they became. Even in this instance of lives intersected with war and traumatic loss, Kieu's narrative stresses the positive aspects of biculturality. The family's traits of cultural openness were instrumental in saving her brother's life. She recounts:

      He was the Chief Medical Officer in the province of Vinh Binh, and when Saigon surrendered on the 31st of April, he went into the military hospital and said 'I'm the Chief Medical Officer. We will all fight, we will not surrender.' They fought for two days and they killed a lot of communists, and when they ran out of ammunition, he had to surrender and my father was there staying with him, so they condemned him to death for resisting. Vinh Binh was a South Vietnamese province full of Cambodians because it used to be part of Cambodian territory. My brother could speak Cambodian, so he helped a lot of the monks in the pagoda when they were sick, and when people were sick he treated them for free. So as soon as he was sentenced to death, all the monks rallied, and the Cambodian population rallied for a big demonstration for my brother. The communists had just conquered the South and had enough problems on their hands. They didn't want to further antagonize the population and after that big rally, they commuted his sentence to hard labour for life.

      Being Buddhist I could see that what goes around comes around. All those years my brother was Chief Medical Officer he did everything for the poor, for the Cambodians, many of whom were downtrodden. Cambodians were often seen as second-class citizens, but he didn't see them as such because we were Cambodian-born. They repaid him by saving his life.

    Her brother's familiarity with Cambodian language and culture, and his care for the welfare of Cambodians in the province, contributed to saving him from a communist firing squad.[22] For Kieu's family, biculturality not only proved to be a desirable characteristic, but also a matter of life or death.
  10. The second narrative I will explore, that of Lan, also reflects on a positive intersection of cosmopolitanism and class between a Vietnamese woman and her Western partner. Lan was born in Go Cong, southern Vietnam, in 1944. Her father was a politician and her parents separated when she was very young. She states that she was largely brought up by her paternal aunt. Lan joined the South Vietnamese Foreign Service in 1968 after completing a university degree in Dalat. There were few women in her position. She remembers only ten women who ranked as Foreign Service Officers (as opposed to those who worked in support roles). She recollects:

      After two years in Saigon with the Foreign Service, I was posted to London. I covered London, The Hague and Vienna. So it was very interesting and I was absolutely in my element, loved every moment of it. To start with, you're Third Secretary and then I went up to Second Secretary and then I met Michael and that was the end of my career [laughs].

    Lan assisted a friend with an exhibition of furniture from Vietnam and this is how she remembers her meeting with Michael:

      We invited all the people in charge of organising furniture at the various department stores to come to the exhibition and Michael came along, looked around and said: 'Are they for sale now?' I said: 'Yes, and I can take further orders, advance orders.' And then he bought the whole lot [laughs], even before we had any canapés or anything. So that's how it started. And I looked at him and said to myself: 'This fellow is quite nice and quite handsome but probably happily married with two children, with a country house somewhere, and a London pad. In which case, it was best to keep away. Anyway let's see what he is going to do, whether he succumbs to the charm. Is he going to make a pass?' He didn't for two weeks and then the beginning of the third week I received a little note with a bunch of flowers saying thank you very much for your help, would you care to have dinner? [laughs] I said all right, so that's how it started and then we got married in '73.

    In marrying an Englishman, Lan had to resign from her position. She states that it was regulations at the time: Foreign Service officers who married non-Vietnamese had to resign. She was then re-employed as a locally engaged staff. When I asked her whether the same rules applied to male employees, her response was:

      I think so. At the London Embassy there was a man, he was a Foreign Service Officer, he married a French lady and he had to resign. When I arrived, he was working as a local employee. Yes, it applies to both, because you have to ask for permission to have a foreign spouse and normally it would not be granted.

    Because she knew the regulations at the time, she did not ask for permission to marry Michael. Neither did she seek her father's permission:

      By that time, I was totally emancipated, I said: 'Sure, you are my father and I respect you but it has nothing to do with you.' As for my aunt I did write to her. I said: 'Look! We are in love and he is a good person and I think that I can have a life with him.' My aunty had a typical Vietnamese reaction and wrote me a long letter: 'Oh you know, there are so many Vietnamese young men who would not dream of even asking for your hand but I have lots of them ready. If you just let me know, I will find you one. You don't need to marry anybody non-Vietnamese.' And she added, 'Ta ve ta tam ao ta, du trong du duc ao nha van hon,' that means that we'd rather go back to our pond and swim in it even if the pond is troubled and murky, it's still our own pond, you know, my daughter.' That's what she wrote to me. I said: 'Well, I've been swimming in a big swimming pool Mum.' [laughs] So she came to my wedding in London, and of course, she loves Michael, Michael loves her, there's no problem.

  11. Lan and her husband moved to Australia within a few years of their marriage, and their daughter was born in Melbourne. As a migrant and the wife of a successful English businessman, she was spared much of the hardship and dislocation experienced by Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 1980s. She ascribes the success of her cross-cultural marriage to two factors: first, a cosmopolitan education; and second, geographical distance from her Vietnamese relatives. She specifies:

      I was brought up with the French influence. The Anglo-Saxon influence is slightly different and that's the only thing that I find sometimes could have been better, had I had some Anglo-Saxon influence or on the other hand had I married a Frenchman. But I never had any qualms about marrying out of the family, out of the country, out of the citizenship or anything. For me what matters is that the person is a good person. And also I consider that if you are good with each other, it doesn't matter what country you are from, you can still make a good marriage. However, if two people are not compatible it doesn't matter whether you're born in the same village, you still can't have a good marriage. Michael's side of the family is very Anglo-Saxon, they all keep to themselves. That's the good thing about the Anglo-Saxons, they don't interfere, you know, that's wonderful. The Vietnamese always say: 'The English are so cold, you know, so keep away,' but in a way it's very good because they never interfere. If you select somebody, that's your life, they leave you alone. That's one thing I didn't have when I was growing up. You know how it is in a large Vietnamese family, you have aunties and uncles who always let you know their opinion even when you don't ask for it. I found that there was a lot of interference when I was young. And I said to myself: 'When I grow up, I would never interfere like that because it makes things more difficult. There are too many cooks in the kitchen.'

    Lan's narrative is structured around the theme of independence. She was a well-educated and successful public servant in a male-dominated field. She was living an independent life overseas, and made her choice of partner without needing the approval of her immediate or extended family. She evinces a clear appreciation of the freedom afforded by her removal from an extended kinship network in Vietnam. The fashioning of a life away from Vietnam and from her family, however, was not without cost. She admits to 'a visceral longing for a Vietnamese environment' during her first year in London, but avers that her sense of emotional attachment to Vietnam is 'long gone.' Her marriage to an Englishman displays the conjunction of education, career interests, and class that Kieu's story reveals. The only drawback to the relationship that she acknowledges is the cultural gap between the French influence in her life, and her husband's Anglo-Saxon background, but she also stresses that this latter aspect enables her to enjoy a marriage free of what she terms 'interference' from relatives (his as well as hers).

    Post-war lives
  12. The third narrative, Tuyet's, differs considerably from Kieu's and Lan's. Born in 1956 in Saigon, Tuyet experienced great hardship and privation in Vietnam after 1975, and married later in life. She introduces herself in the following terms:

      I am the wife of a veteran. I'm fifty years old. I was born in Saigon, South Vietnam. My parents had to escape the communists in 1954, they ran from the North to the South. They settled down in South Vietnam, and after nearly two years I was born. I was the first child to be born there. And my father settled down very quickly because he had a good education and worked for the government. And my mum, she ran a small business and looked after us. My family had seven children, two boys and five girls, so it was a big family and it was very hard for our parents to look after us. My parents' intention was to invest all their money in the children's education. My elder sister won a Colombo scholarship to Australia in, I think it was in 1970 or 1972. Growing up, I was very good because I wanted to follow my sister's example. I studied very hard, I wanted to go overseas, but I was unlucky. In 1975 I hadn't finished high school yet when the communists came. I didn't want to escape because I was frightened; I was too young and had never left the house on my own. In 1975, my family lost everything.

    This downturn in her family's fortunes, their eviction from their home, and the harassment and discrimination to which she was subjected because her brother and uncles had served in the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces, are subject matters that still distress her. Her narrative shifts back and forth between her individual experiences and those of her family. The loss of South Vietnam was particularly difficult for her father because he had already been a refugee once before in his life, when he escaped from North to South Vietnam in 1954. He had worked hard to shape a new life for himself and his family in the South only to lose everything again in 1975. This time, however, he was too old to rebuild his life. Tuyet's life in post-war Vietnam became a relentless struggle to obtain education and employment. She underwent several interrogations at the hands of Vietnamese authorities, and as a schoolteacher, she was pressured to join the Communist Party and follow state directives relating to children's education.
  13. She met her Australian husband through a friend. It was a cross-border relationship that was initiated by an exchange of letters and evolved through correspondence. Terry was a veteran of the Vietnam War and had met a Vietnamese girl during the war, however, because he was married with children at the time, they had become only friends. After his divorce in Australia in the 1980s, he sought to find her. He failed in this. Instead, Tuyet's friend introduced him to Tuyet and the two began corresponding at the end of 1991. Tuyet recollects:

      My husband was Vice-President of the Vietnam Veterans' Association in Australia. My friend told him: 'Maybe you need to meet Tuyet,' and from the letters my husband wanted to know some of the truth about what had happened in Vietnam. I have good English and we wrote letters to each other and after that he liked me and said: 'I want to marry you. Maybe you can help me a lot in my job,' and he loved the way I talked to him. After that I had to struggle to get all the documents ready. After we were married, we signed all the documents with the government in 1992.

    Terry's service in the Vietnam War was the factor that drew them towards each other. Tuyet refers to common elements in their post-war lives:

      At that time I was thirty-six, I had struggled hard in my life and I was old enough to know where I wanted to go. I knew how to be independent. I thought: 'If I can survive the communists, why can't I survive in Australia? I can survive anywhere, and that's it.' When you become the wife of a veteran, you have to share everything with them, you have to understand that. Some people who have married Vietnamese, American or Australian veterans, divorce easily. But because of what I lived through, I have flashbacks of the war, a lot of flashbacks of what the communists made me suffer, and my husband gets flashbacks a lot because he served on the frontline.

    She provides advice to the wives of war veterans and relates how hard it can be to live with a Vietnam veteran. Marriage, however, also led in her case to the unexpected happiness of a child:

      In my life in Vietnam, I never thought I'd have a child because life for me was very hard, and I didn't want my child to grow up and have a hard life like mine. I said enough is enough, I didn't want another person to be unhappy like me. I now try to help my husband and to look after my daughter, because she is my future. She's eleven now.

    Tuyet's narrative is marked by grief and by the personal and familial aspects of loss. She positions herself as the 'wife of a veteran' from the beginning of her narrative. Marriage to an Australian Vietnam veteran has provided her with a new identity and a new life after the years of adversity and privation in post-war Vietnamese society. She discourses on her family history, and the ways in which the events of 1975 impacted on her life, before engaging in observations of the challenges of marriage to a war veteran. Her own experience of war and of the travails of life in the aftermath of war have sensitised her to the experiences of her husband and other veterans of the Vietnam War, a war that proved to be the connecting factor that led to their meeting and marrying and the mutual understanding and support that they provide each other.

    Cross-cultural romance
  14. The last narrative I will refer to here is that of Hanh, and hers is an unusual story of cross-cultural romance in contemporary Australia. It is unusual because her husband is Egyptian.[23] Like her, he was a migrant and they met while they were in English class. Hanh remembers a slowly burgeoning romance and a partner who had to woo not only her but her family as well since the latter initially disapproved of the relationship. He did so with patience and tact, and their marriage is a testament to the sturdiness of that love and that relationship.
  15. Hanh was twenty-five years old when she migrated to Australia with her parents in 1992. The family had been sponsored by one of Hanh's older sisters, who had escaped from Vietnam by boat in 1984. Hanh relates:

      Sammy was better in English than I was. We were in the same class for one term; because he was better, he was promoted to a higher class. Sammy had to go to another school but he did not want to. After some time at the other school he returned to our school pretending that the level at that school was too high for him. He asked to be in the same class with me. We became friends but my family did not agree. We were five daughters in the family, three of us married foreigners.

      When Sammy and I began to know each other, my father had already passed away so there was only my mother. My mother did not like Sammy at first because she could not communicate with him. Then she discovered that she had cancer and she had to go to the hospital every day. All of us were busy studying or working and none of us could stay home with her. At that time Sammy was working the afternoon shift and he lived in a flat close to my home. He came to my house every day because my mother had to go to the Peter McCallum Hospital that specialised in the treatment of cancer. The treatment lasted two to three hours, sometimes more, but Sammy was always there to drive my mother to and from the hospital.

      We were engaged for almost a year. We could accomplish it thanks to Sammy's patience; he loved me and he did not flinch from any hardship to please me. At that time he worked the evening shift; in the morning he took me to school, because I only went to work some time after our wedding. Then he drove my mother to the hospital; at noon, he had to take my mother shopping because my sister-in-law had given birth to her child and my mother cared for her. In the afternoon he went to fetch me from school before going to work. He was the chauffeur of our family.

    Hanh was thirty years old when they married. She and her husband are not only from different cultural backgrounds but also of different religions, and her account is leavened with humour when she speaks of the ways in which they have handled this issue within the family:

      Sammy is Christian. All my sisters married Christians and became Christian. When it was my turn, my mother asked me keep the faith of our ancestors; we had to agree that we would each keep our own faith. We did not celebrate our wedding in the church. Sammy was placed in a very awkward situation but since he loved me very much he had to comply. Before I gave birth to our children, his mother came to visit; he told me that in his country they do not know about Buddha, so, if his mother asked about the picture of Buddha I had to tell her that it was the picture of my 'smiling grandparent.' He said that if I loved him I had to say so because the faith of his mother is very strong. If she ever knew that he had not married according to the rites of his religion she would be sad until she died. When she came, he introduced my 'grandparent' and my mother to her and he told her that I had converted to his religion.

  16. Hanh ascribes the success of her marriage to her husband's easy temperament and flexibility in adapting to life in a Vietnamese household. She points to similarities between their two cultures:

      There are many similar points between the two cultures: for example, in Vietnam we have a high regard for teachers. It is the same in Egypt: over there, people respect their parents and elderly people exactly like us. Sammy said he loves me because of the way I love people in my family.

    The one handicap that she acknowledges is that of language, and that is a source of some pain for her. English is a second language for her (as it is for her husband), and she believes that she will never be able to fully express herself, her thoughts or her feelings, because she does not have access to that vocabulary:

      Sometimes you can't express all that you feel deep down. Many times, I've wanted to use sweeter or more romantic words to express my love for him, but I could only express myself in Vietnamese. I did not know the equivalent words in English. I think that if he were Vietnamese, we would be much happier. I told him that if he were Vietnamese, he would understand me better and love me more.

    Hanh's narrative is framed and buttressed by the multicultural context of contemporary Australia. Her experience of migration and displacement took place with her family, and her romance with Sammy is positioned within this setting. Her mother and her sisters in particular, expressed clear resistance to her relationship initially. They believed that she and Sammy would never be happy because they would never overcome the language barrier. Although Hanh's narrative does convey her concerns relating to language, it also reveals her ability to negotiate these family pressures and balance them with her own needs. Sammy's patience and persistence, and their love, sufficed to overcome differences in race, culture, and even religion.

    Marriage across cultures
  17. Although these narratives may reflect the gendered nature of transnational marriage-scapes, in which marriage migrants are largely women,[24] they reveal the highly individual choices these women have made and the different contexts of their marriages. Writing on the subject of cross-cultural marriage, William Klausner notes that,

      Few would deny that communicating, sharing and understanding in a marriage is difficult enough even among those with similar cultural backgrounds. How much more difficult it is when, as in the case of East and West, the husband and wife come from different religious, philosophical, linguistic and historical traditions with all the baggage of quite marked dissimilarities in values, attitudes, perspectives and customs. But therein lies the challenge.

      While accommodation, adaptation, conciliation and compromise are dual responsibilities in any marriage, they are especially crucial in a cross-cultural one. And the burden of such responsibilities will naturally tend to fall more on the one foreign to the environment in which the couple is living.[25]

    These four narratives illustrate the evolution of cross-cultural relationships for Vietnamese women. Their memories, even in lives that have been marked by war and loss, are of largely positive and transformative relationships. These women have taken different paths from that of most of their contemporaries by choosing a partner from another cultural background. If this choice was easier for some than for others—marriages indicative of a confluence of cosmopolitanism and class appear to have been the least problematic—it still represents an unusual option, and is a clear indicator of women's agency. 'Memories,' as Stephen Rose notes, 'are living processes, which become transformed, imbued with new meanings, each time we recall them.'[26] The women's narratives not only illustrate their perceptions and experiences of cross-cultural marriages, they also serve to justify their decisions to engage in non-traditional forms of marriage. Arranged marriages in Vietnam were common forty years ago and 'remain common, although they are more common in villages than in urban areas.'[27] These women were prepared to resist cultural stereotypes and not only choose foreign partners but also do so in cross-cultural contexts. As Rosemary Breger and Rosanna Hill suggest,

      Living in a mixed marriage can be an intimate performance of juggling identities and the ideologies associated with them, a dance sometimes threatening to perform as well as to behold. It is sometimes enriching, but always calls into question deeply held assumptions about the nature of one's own identities, and those of one's reference groups.[28]

    These narratives reveal that women were able to successfully negotiate and reconfigure cultural identities, practices and lifestyles. For three of the women, Kieu, Lan, and Hanh, their reconstruction of marriage follows romantic plots of initial resistance or obstruction (either in the form of their own inhibitions or resistance from their immediate family), followed by resolution, and the evaluation of their marriage as a successful confluence of cultures and expectations. For the most grief-filled narrative, that of Tuyet, marriage brings not only companionship and joy, but also an accepted and shared burden of post-traumatic stress disorder.
  18. In the first two narratives explored here, Kieu's in the 1960s and Lan's in the 1970s, marriage to Westerners appears to be a logical consequence of the women's educational and career choices. Their narratives reveal 'cartographies…or sites of desire'[29] in which each partner is attracted to the culture of the other. These marriage-scapes, suggests Nicola Constable, 'are formed by confluences of culture, border crossings, exchanges, and fluid terrain, rather than simple unidirectional flows of power or desire. [They] both reflect and are propelled by fantasies and imaginings about gender, sexuality, tradition, and modernity.'[30] Both women identify and articulate the multicultural influences in their lives that have contributed to the enduring nature of their marriages.
  19. On another level however, their stories reveal underlying factors that may serve to explain their impetus to marry outside their country and culture. As a second-generation Vietnamese Cambodian, and a French-educated member of the elite, Kieu formed part of a minority in her society and culture. Her narrative reveals that she is aware of how unusual her multicultural upbringing was. She was, in many ways, an anomaly. This freedom from cultural confines meant that she was less likely to be bound by the traditional expectations of marriage for Vietnamese or Cambodian women of her generation. She was therefore at greater liberty to form an attraction for a man outside these cultural confines. As a French-born Australian diplomat, her husband Claude, like her, is also in many ways an anomaly. Their marriage seems to reflect an acknowledgement of this common feature in their backgrounds.
  20. Lan's narrative on the other hand, evinces a clear imperative to distance herself from her Vietnamese family and culture. Her life story reveals a family history of unhappy marriages and ruptured relationships, and the intrusion of Vietnamese politics into this history. Rather than remaining within this context, Lan opted for life with a partner on another continent. By this means, she was able to separate herself geographically, socially, and emotionally from her relatives in Vietnam and the constraints, pressures and obligations of kinship. Her marriage attests to a yearning for space and freedom, and for a degree of distance from her Vietnamese past.
  21. Tuyet's narrative, in contrast, details the lasting negative impact of the post-war years on her life and family. It chronicles the failures of her early hopes, from her dreams of following in her sister's footsteps and studying overseas, to her efforts to forge a teaching career for herself in the post-war years. Hers is a trauma narrative, in which her memory of the collective tragedy of the South includes personal tragedies in the form of her father's mental breakdown and her younger sister's suicide in 1994. Although she married an Australian and remade a life for herself away from her homeland, her marriage to a Vietnam veteran means that she is never far removed from her past and from traumatic memories of that past. Both she and her husband carry psychological injuries as a result of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Her narrative is suffused with a sense of loss, and reveals the traumatic intrusion of memories of the past in the present—hers of state repression after 1975, his of war from a soldier's perspective. Instead of seeking to distance herself from that past, Tuyet in fact embraces it, and uses that knowledge to help herself and to help others. She acknowledges that her husband's ill health in his later years represents yet another postscript to the Vietnam War, the war that was the cause of much mutual suffering but that ultimately led them towards each other.
  22. For Hanh, the youngest of the four, marriage reflects a process of acculturation in the aftermath of dislocation. She made an unexpected match and one that was purely made possible by migration—hers from Vietnam with her family, and his from Egypt on his own. Both found love, unexpectedly, as migrants in a strange land. Their meeting in an English class (one of the first points of contact in the experience of migrants) and their romance reveal a gradual opening up of perspectives, concessions and acceptance on the part of her family. Hanh's insistence on keeping her Buddhist faith, maintaining a Vietnamese home, and remaining close to her family indicate the continuing importance of Vietnamese culture for her.
  23. In their study Intermarriage, Janet Penny and Siew-Ean Khoo write that,

      Popular perceptions associate intermarriage with the assimilation of migrants, that is, it is supposed to enhance the migrant's chances of becoming part of the established community. In turn, many ethnic communities see intermarriage as a threat to the cohesion and strength of the community group. Both these views are oversimplifications.[31]

    Their observations are borne out by the varied and enriching experiences of the four women whose narratives are explored here. Contrary to historical expectations, these women have successfully overridden the traditional Vietnamese cultural hostility towards exogamous relationships. Framed as they are by the women's communal experience of loss at a number of different levels, their relationships are positively formulated as both enabled by and enabling cultural adaptability and a broadening of perspectives. Within the context of their marriages, women have shaped their own vision of Vietnam and what Vietnam means, and how much of that past to bring into their relationship. While their narratives of cross-cultural marriage remain a minority voice in the Vietnamese diaspora, it is one that will surely evolve and expand in the coming years.[32]


    [1] Thuong Vuong-Riddick, Two Shores/Deux Rives, Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 1995, p. 158.

    [2] Vuong-Riddick, Two Shores, p. 158.

    [3] These interviews form part of a five-year project on 'Vietnamese Women: Voices and Narratives of the Diaspora' funded by the Australian Research Council. A total of forty-two Vietnamese women were interviewed in Australia between 2005 and 2008. Half the interviews were conducted in Vietnamese. I conducted interviews with twenty-one women over three years. The remainder were interviewed by Boitran Huynh-Beattie and Thao Ha. The material in this article is based on the following interviews: Interview with Kieu recorded by Nathalie Nguyen in Melbourne on 9 May 2007; Interview with Lan recorded by Nathalie Nguyen in Melbourne on 20 October 2006; Interview with Hanh recorded by Thao Ha in Melbourne on 10 November 2006; Interview with Tuyet recorded by Nathalie Nguyen in Sydney on 7 December 2006.

    [4] Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 339–40.

    [5] Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, p. 339.

    [6] See Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, Vietnamese Voices: Gender and Cultural Identity in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel, DeKalb: Southeast Asia Publications, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University, 2003, pp. 104–29.

    [7] Nguyen, Vietnamese Voices, p. 123.

    [8] Nguyen, Vietnamese Voices, p. 129.

    [9] See Vu Trong Phung, The Industry of Marrying Vietnamese, trans. Thuy Tranviet Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Cornell University, 2006.

    [10] Thuy Tranviet, 'Introduction,' in Vu Trong Phung, The Industry of Marrying Vietnamese, trans. Thuy Tranviet, Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Cornell University, 2006, 9–21, p. 14.

    [11] Vu Trong Phung, The Industry, p. 56.

    [12] Kim Lefèvre, Métisse blanche, Paris: Bernard Barrault, 1989, pp. 14–15. My translation.

    [13] See Steven DeBonis, Children of the Enemy: Oral Histories of Vietnamese Amerasians and Their Mothers, Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1995; Robert McKelvey, The Dust of Life: America's Children Abandoned in Vietnam, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999; Kien Nguyen, The Unwanted, Sydney: Macmillan, 2001; Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, 'Eurasian/Amerasian Perspectives: Kim Lefèvre's Métisse blanche White Métisse and Kien Nguyen's The Unwanted,' Asian Studies Review vol. 29, no. 2 (2005): pp. 107–22, and Kieu-Linh Caroline Valverde, 'From Dust to Gold: The Vietnamese Amerasian Experience,' in Racially Mixed People in America, ed. P.P. Maria Root, Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1992, pp. 144–61.

    [14] Nguyen, 'Eurasian/Amerasian Perspectives,' p. 107.

    [15] Ghislain Ripault, 'Pour présenter Duyên Anh,' in Duyên Anh, Un Russe à Saigon, trans. Jean Maïs and Ghislain Ripault, Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1986, 9–17, pp. 13–14.

    [16] Ripault, 'Duyên Anh,' pp. 14–15.

    [17] Duyên Anh, Un Russe à Saigon, trans. Jean Maïs and Ghislain Ripault, Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1986.

    [18] Duyên Anh, Un Russe à Saigon, p. 142. My translation.

    [19] Ly Thu Ho, Au milieu du carrefour, Paris: Editions Peyronnet, 1969, p. 119.

    [20] See Nguyen, Vietnamese Voices, pp. 58–64.

    [21] See, for example, Yung Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling: The True Story of a Vietnamese Family Torn Apart by War, Communism, and the CIA, Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1995. Krall fell in love with an American navy pilot during the war and they were married in the United States in 1968. He was instrumental in ensuring that her family would be safely evacuated from Vietnam in April 1975.

    [22] Kieu's brother survived hard labour in a camp close to the Chinese border (largely because he was a skilled surgeon and the camp commander made use of his services) and was released after six years, after repeated bribes on the part of his family.

    [23] A recent article by Siew-Ean Khoo, Bob Birrell and Genevieve Heard reveals for example that second-generation Vietnamese in Australia do not have spouses of Middle Eastern ancestry. See Table 4: Second-generation partnered men and women who have a spouse of a different ancestry, percentage distribution by spouse's ancestry, 2006 in Siew-Ean Khoo, Bob Birrell and Genevieve Heard, 'Intermarriage by birthplace and ancestry in Australia,' People and Place, vol. 17, no. 1 (2009): 15–28, p. 22.

    [24] Nicole Constable, 'Introduction: Cross-Border Marriages, Gendered Mobility, and Global Hypergamy,' in Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia, ed. Nicole Constable, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005, 1–16, p. 4.

    [25] William J. Klausner, 'Valuing cross-cultural marriage,' The Nation, June 24, 2004, p. 12A.

    [26] Stephen Rose, The Making of Memory, London: Bantam Books, 1993, p. 2.

    [27] Hung Cam Thai, 'Clashing dreams in the Vietnamese diaspora: highly educated overseas brides and low-wage U.S. husbands,' in Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia, ed. Nicole Constable, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005, 145–65, p. 152.

    [28] Rosemary Breger and Rosanna Hill, 'Introducing mixed marriages,' in Cross-Cultural Marriage: Identity and Choice, ed. Rosemary Breger and Rosanna Hill, Oxford: Berg, 1998, 1–32, p. 28.

    [29] Constable, 'Introduction,' p. 7. Constable is citing Gregory M. Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600–1950, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, and Lenore Manderson and Margaret Jolly (eds), Sites of Desire/Economies of Pleasure: Sexualities in Asia and the Pacific, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    [30] Constable, 'Introduction,' p. 7.

    [31] Janet Penny and Siew-Ean Khoo, Intermarriage: A Study of Migration and Integration, Canberra: Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, 1996, p. 209.

    [32] Khoo, Birrell and Heard write that the rate of intermarriage in the Vietnamese community in Australia (based on the 2006 Australian Census) is very low for the first generation and still relatively low for the second generation. Vietnamese women of the first generation, however, have a higher rate of intermarriage than Vietnamese men. See Siew-Ean Khoo, Bob Birrell and Genevieve Heard, 'Intermarriage by birthplace and ancestry in Australia,' pp. 15–28.

    In Intermarriage (p. 201), Penny and Khoo note that,

      As nearly a sixth of all couple families in Australia are married to people born in other countries, the intermarriages we have described illustrate an important influence in Australian life. Statistically at least, intermarried couples occupy a mid-point between the traditions of many of the migrant societies and the modern trends in family life seen in Australia as a whole, as illustrated by the divorce rate. Overall, the divorce rate of birthplace intermarriages is lower than for Australian couples generally, but higher than the rate for in-married couples born overseas. What these unions contribute then, is actually a combination of value systems that work better in the present climate to preserve intact families than if there were no intermarriages. Statistically at least, intermarried couples have contributed to family stability in Australia.

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