Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Modernity and My Mum: A Literary Exploration into the (Extra)ordinary Sacrifices and Everyday Resistance of a Vietnamese Woman

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Modernity and My Mum: A Literary Exploration into the (Extra)ordinary Sacrifices and Everyday Resistance of a Vietnamese Woman

Article excerpt


For some years I tried to liberate my mother, Van, from centuries of misogyny and oppression. Perhaps not surprisingly, I had little if any success, and to make matters worse, Mum was less than appreciative.

The paltry results of my efforts became clear to me each evening at dinner-time. The problem was that Mum toiled over every evening meal, preparing several lavish dishes with great artistry, effort, and love. So while my palate and stomach grew accustomed to being pampered, Mum's cooking tended to upset my liberal disposition and New-Age sensitivities. Whenever I asked Mum to teach me how to make beef noodle soup, Vietnamese spring rolls, a ragout or one of her other specialties, she shooed me away. "Go set the table and sit down. I don't need any help from you." After many heated kitchen confrontations, I grudgingly accepted the three pillars of seemingly regressive reasoning upon which my mother based her culinary hegemony: First, that she viewed her cooking with great pride as a critical contribution to the household's well-being that only she could make; second, that it was not for young men (like me) to know how to cook; and third, that "real" cooking cannot be measured and emulated like a scientific experiment but rather must be implanted into girls from a very young age and developed over time into something that resembles both a trait and an art-form.

About a year ago I determined that if I couldn't liberate Mum from the kitchen, I should at least show her appropriate deference at the dinner table. And so, I let my chopsticks rest and glared disapprovingly at my father, brother, and cousins as they devoured their meals before Mum could even sit down. "Why are you holding back?" Dad asked between mouthfuls. "Not hungry?" I coolly explained that since Mum went to a great deal of trouble to make our dinner, I thought it disrespectful of us to start eating before her. No one took much notice; no one that is, except for Mum.

Consciously or otherwise, she frustrated my ravenous appetite and modern-day morality by placing dinner on the table and then rushing off to wash her hands or change her shirt, to force me to start eating. Stubbornly, I always waited until she sat down. "You first, Mum," I said through clenched teeth. "Thank you, Son," she sardonically responded before feigning compliance by picking up a small piece of pickled cabbage from a side dish and then waiting for me to tuck in to the main course.

"How could she be so obstinately attached to her backwardness?" I wondered. "It's as if she's embracing her own oppression." There were times at the dinner table when I could empathize with the French and American colonialists; they, too, had tried to force their programs for emancipation and grand civilizing missions onto the Vietnamese, only to be driven away utterly dejected.


One night, after a meal spiced with conflict and subversion, I was left to wash the dishes and took it upon myself to empathize with Mum. Between warm suds and the clinking of cups, I wondered why it was vital for her to start eating after me. I strongly suspected that it had something to do with her propensity for self-sacrifice, which was perhaps more deserving of admiration than frustration. Suddenly, I felt ashamed, knowing how much my mother had sacrificed not only for me, but also for her entire family.

I contemplated how Van had cared and looked out for her family ever since she was a young girl. Probably her sense of duty had something to do with the fact that her parents desperately wanted her to be a boy, as they already had two daughters and Van's two older brothers had died in their infancy. Sadly, it was generally accepted in 1944 when Van was born in a town just outside of Sai Gon that "One hundred women are not worth one testicle. …

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