Cross-cultural relationships

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A young couple pose for their wedding photo in Da Nang. Most modern Vietnamese weddings incorporate both Western and Vietnamese traditions. Photo: AFP

Relationships between men and women are complex and problematic under the best of circumstances, and when you mix cultures as different as Western and Asian it can really get muddled.

And the fact that Vietnam is still coming out of a long period of difficult circumstances, both socially and economically, further contributes to the problem.

This can be seen even in relationship situations between Vietnamese couples. For example; young women are increasingly expressing a reluctance to follow the marital patterns of their mothers and grandmothers. It used to be that a girl who was unmarried after she passed into her mid-twenties was considered too old to attract a husband and was the object of sympathy among her family and peers. No more! Girls are delaying marriage into their thirties while they pursue education and careers, and some seem not to care if they never get married if a suitable mate has not put in an appearance.

Like all cultures, Vietnam has its social levels and levels of educational attainment. Depending on the background of the expatriate this may or may not be important. At the risk of sounding snobbish, for me it was. My first Vietnamese romance was with a young woman who was half my age, had no education and spoke no English. But she was lovely and promised to learn English, so things became serious and we talked of marriage. I envisioned making a brief visit to my former town and watch the envy of my aging friends with their equally aged wives! Foolish me!

Over time it became obvious that she was not very serious about English, saw me as a way out of relatively modest circumstances and we had absolutely nothing to talk about when we did have the benefit of someone to translate"¦ in other words there was no common ground for us to meet on. In addition, I discovered that she had threatened a friend of hers that was helping her by translating for us, with physical violence, for being "too attentive to me" (a fallacy!) Not a young lady of good character, it would appear. After giving it a reasonable effort, I bade her goodbye!

I subsequently met a number of very lovely women of varied ages but none of them could speak much English, although several were engaged in a serious effort before I met them. I had determined that being married to someone with whom you cannot have a conversation is not very appealing, at least to me, and my feeble efforts at learning Vietnamese were coming to naught.

It is extremely easy for foreigners to meet attractive Vietnamese women who are looking for a relationship. The most common meeting ground is a bar, a restaurant or a hotel where the young woman is an employee. This often means some fundamental English (I do not mean to exclude other languages; French is still moderately common and Russian is fast becoming a desirable language as the Russian tourist numbers increase but I have no idea whether they are looking for mates or not).

Some of the young ladies are working their way through school and some are starting a life as "working girls," it is hard to tell initially. The apprentice working girls are just what a lot of aging Lotharios are looking for. They will find plenty! But if you are seriously in search of a "soul mate," be careful! Frequently, even the girls who are of "good character" are on the look-out for a meal ticket, not just for themselves but their whole family. I have known a number of late 50's, early 60's retirees who got seriously involved in building houses (which they can't own) and looking after numerous family members who turn up as the relationship develops and all needing one thing or another that the rich foreigner can easily provide. (Remember, to a poor Vietnamese girl, all foreigners are "rich" and compared to them, we are!)

One fellow of my acquaintances has bought several houses for different girlfriends, only to have them take a powder with deed in hand. (Now I understand that it is possible to have your name on the title to prevent its sale without your agreement.)

I have known one fellow whose fate brought him into the clutches of a habitual gambler. This poor guy bought a house, went back to the US for a visit and returned to find that the house was sold. Her story was that her daughter had been in a serious accident and money was needed quickly. Even when friends who knew the real story told him she'd lost it gambling, he refused to believe it. The last I'd heard they had moved to another ASEAN country to escape her creditors.

My experience suggests that the best way to meet a likely companion is through a mutual introduction from someone you've gotten to know and trust. Another, not always considered, is to attend one or more of the Protestant or Catholic churches which abound in the cities where you will usually find a warm welcome and people who have some common standards with you. Teaching courses in your language can also be a harmless way to get acquainted.

One more personal observation has been that Vietnamese women are, on average, far more industrious and ambitious than the men. I have several friends whose wives earn excellent incomes and/or run their own business. I have taught gratis English classes since my arrival and the people who have stayed the longest and learned the most have all been girls and women, barring a very few exceptional cases. I even know one lucky fellow who met and married the attractive heiress to a multimillion dollar fortune, who has a sizable income from her own career.

If you are lucky as I have certainly been, (I have a great Vietnamese wife but I'm not the one who married the heiress!) as have many of my acquaintances, you may find yourself in a truly wonderful and challenging relationship.

By Bob Michaels
The writer is a retired American expat who lives in the coastal resort town of Nha Trang

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