BY ALENA NGUYEN
Sometimes I feel like the Vietnamese Hannah Montana— living the best of two
Growing up as a Vietnamese American in Western culture, it’s like I have
experienced two cultures at once. On one hand, I have grown up eating phở and bún riêu
almost every week and have taken family photos in a multitude of silky áo dài. Yet on the
other hand, I am assimilated into Western culture every day at school and online, where
I speak English and eat In-N-Out. In recent years, however, I have tried to learn as
much as I can about my culture and have spent my free time reaching out to relative in
Vietnam and getting to know them.
My Saturday evenings have recently been shared with the Sunday mornings of
teenagers in Vietnam on Zoom. Our conversations have ranged from how they get two
weeks off from school to celebrate tết (Lunar New Year) to Taylor Swift’s discography, a
topic I am happy to indulge in with anyone from across the world. I have had to clarify
which football a Vietnamese teenager liked to play by asking, “do you play ‘throw the
ball’ or ‘kick the ball’ football?” Most often it was the latter, but there was the occasional
“throw the ball” Vietnamese player. Through these weekly Zoom calls, I have formed
many friendships with fellow teenagers in rural northern Vietnam.
One week, the topic of the week was gender inequality and intergenerational
disparities. I was so prepared for that topic; my mind was overflowing with my opinions
about the current state of American feminism. In our breakout room, one Vietnamese
boy said, “women are weaker than men so women have to stay home and take care of
It felt like my stomach twisted into itself. My eyebrows knitted in confusion as if
to say, “you know you’re wrong, right?” My lips pressed into a thin line, preventing my
anger-driven words from being released. I wanted to unmute myself and yell at that kid.
But I didn’t.
I reflected on not only what he said, but why he said it. Because he had
mentioned that his dad only works and his mom stays at home, I had to take into
consideration that this teen has not experienced two working parents and hearing daily
stories about sexism in his mom’s workplace. I had to take into consideration that
Vietnamese familial culture is more patriarchal than American familial culture, so it is
likely that the children have grown up learning that there is a “man of the house” that
provides for them instead of equal authority.
After processing what the boy said, I told him that in American culture, women
can do just about everything men can do. Through that Zoom meeting with Vietnamese
teenagers, I was able to learn that while feminism may be a global struggle, people’s
reactions to progressive women’s roles in society are different across the world. I took a
time of cultural conflict to not only educate myself but educate the Vietnamese
teenagers about American culture. When learning about modern feminist issues in
American culture, I often think to myself, “what would a Vietnamese teenager think
about this?” I might never know; they’re probably somewhere playing the “kick the ball”
version of football.