Vietnam has been transformed over the past quarter of a century by massive industrialization and urbanization that followed macro-economic reforms introduced from the late 1980s. In a new study just published by NIAS Press, Catherine Earl explores the social consequences of this change by delving into the lives and aspirations of young women graduates who have come to Ho Chi Minh City in search of success in the city’s growing graduate labour market. They are part of Vietnam’s new middle class, an educated and affluent segment of society growing with the rapid urbanization of Vietnam’s major cities. This rich, person-centred ethnography argues that the country’s mega-urban Southeast region enables young women to realize aspirations for betterment almost unimaginable to earlier generations – so long as they remain single.
But here there is a problem, as the author recounts.
Despite their achievements in education, their careers and lifestyles, marriage and family continue to be central to middle-class Vietnamese women’s identities. Indeed marriage is virtually a universal expectation in Vietnam and most Vietnamese women are married by forty. Historically marriage offered Vietnamese middle-class girls a chance to improve their lot in life, or at least maintain their existing social position. But in twenty-first century Vietnam, marriage offers less opportunity for aspirational women to achieve mobility when compared with other strategies such as education and salaried employment.
Educated women in Vietnam face difficulties finding suitable marriage partners. This may be due to a number of reasons ranging from having a higher level of education or a higher salary than a man, being over thirty, being regarded as too independent, or having expectations that could not be met. For new middle-class women, unlike career, marriage does not necessarily provide future security but may involve a loss of newly acquired social, economic and gender status. Remaining single can provide women with relative autonomy and a high degree of economic independence even with unstable employment in a highly competitive urban job market. Even so, a woman who fails to marry or fails to produce a child in Vietnam suffers stigma. It would be rare for a stigmatized person, who experiences direct social exclusion, to successfully achieve social mobility within the zone of influence of Vietnamese cultural expectations.
The desire to marry among new middle-class women in Vietnam is strong. Despite achieving relatively higher social status through education and employment, educated young women have the lower social status of ‘perpetual minors’ because they remain unmarried.
For Vietnamese, marriage remains as an important step to adulthood. [Two respondents in the study] Hạnh and Liên were among those who felt the pressure to marry. For a single woman in Ho Chi Minh City, to remain alone and be ‘left on the shelf’ (ế chồng) did not become a serious concern until she was over thirty. After thirty, there was a risk that singlehood might become permanent. That risk created pressure on single women who made attempts to avoid exposure to family scrutiny. Some new middle-class women skipped family Tết celebrations by taking a tour of Bangkok or Singapore over the new year holiday. Others limited visits to their natal families if they had vacation time or a busy schedule at work.
At Tết, educated urbanized women like Hạnh avoided the more conservative women in their villages in order to evade their questions. During one of my visit to her village over Tết, Hạnh used me to distract her aunts and divert their attention away from herself and her unmarried status. Hạnh also invited me to join her on a customary visit to her former primary school teacher. The teacher had retired soon after teaching Hạnh, so by the time her younger sister Cúc had started school, there was a new, younger teacher. Unlike Cúc’s teacher, Hạnh’s teacher was not interested in her students’ career successes. She wagged her finger and scolded Hạnh for failing to start a family. Hạnh was made to feel the pressure to marry more acutely than Cúc as she was older. While Hạnh and other professional women have fulfilled the educational expectations of their parents, they have not been able to fulfil their own expectations for marriage and children.
Like Hạnh, Liên rarely reunited with her former classmates. I accompanied Liên the second time her entire class had met after their graduation to a wedding party held in the evening at the glamorous Hotel Continental, an icon of French colonial Saigon. The bride was a former classmate of Liên. Liên knew that some of the men in the class had already married, but she was one of those who had missed parties and other reunions because she had been abroad studying.
Entering the Hotel Continental was like entering another world. Two billboard-sized portraits of bridal couples standing on opposite sides of the lobby made it easy for Liên to recognize which banquet room her friend’s wedding party would be held in. Next to their portrait, the couple was standing with their families welcoming their guests. Although Liên did not say so, the bride’s family was obviously prosperous and relatives had returned from the US to attend the wedding.
In the banquet room, Liên and I sat with her former classmates. Having brought partners but not children, they pulled up chairs to cram the expanded group around two tables. Like the bride, the classmates were also obviously well-off: economics graduates, managers and directors. They spoke amongst themselves in a lingua franca of technological Business English and Vietnamese, comparing the latest models of mobile phone and flight times between Singapore, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.
Their conversation was briefly interrupted by the arrival of the bride at our table. She showed photographs taken that morning at the formal marriage ceremony, where she had worn the first of three hired dresses, a slim-fitting áo dài traditional dress that, instead of being the conventional red of wedding garments, was a fashionable hot pink. She circulated the room serving drinks and thanking guests, until the formalities began. The speeches and singing did not fully interrupt the conversations at the guests’ tables. After the cake was cut, Liên quietly asked me to join her outside for some fresh air. She suggested I bring my camera to appreciate how beautiful the city could be at night. I was surprised, because she knew I had seen the city at night scores of times. When the others noticed us leaving, Liên gestured towards me and the camera she was holding. She told them I wanted to take a photograph in front of the hotel. We left directly without stopping to greet people at their tables as we passed.
Outside, the warm evening air was a relief after the chill of the air-conditioning. Despite her smile, Liên was upset. We took several photographs, taking turns to pose for the camera. Liên attempted to hide what she felt. She had found out for certain that she was the last unmarried person in her class, a fact she had not expected. At the time, I failed to grasp the significance of this for Liên. She usually relied on her education and employment as an explanation for her temporarily delayed marriage. However, with all her classmates and peers having already established a career and been married, her single status now seemed to be becoming permanent, at least in their eyes. She did not regard herself in these terms; she did not want to remain alone.
Liên was feeling trapped by social pressures to conform to cultural traditions of conventional family life. I was reminded of Liên’s concerns the night I moved into her house, when our first conversation had become uncomfortable and Liên’s eyes had flashed at me as she explained the freedoms that – as a foreigner – she perceived I had, and which – as a Vietnamese – she perceived she lacked. Her present concerns were not with legal rights to gender equality in the workplace, nor with sexual harassment at work, but with issues of love. She was concerned about the freedom to choose a partner, or a series of partners, for love even against the family’s wishes and about the freedom to have a child, or many children, with or without a husband, or one permanent partner. Her time studying abroad had opened her eyes to the possibility that a woman might juggle a career, a relationship and a family. On this issue, she considered most of Vietnam – even Ho Chi Minh City – to be lagging behind.
For other educated urban women in Liên’s position, reasserted tradition in the role of a dutiful daughter can only last for so long before relatives and neighbours begin to wonder what is wrong. Was an unmarried woman in her mid-thirties too self-centred to marry? Was there some other problem? Why had she not met a man? For years, indeed since the end of high school, Liên had been introduced to potential suitors, men whom her relatives, classmates, colleagues, friends, neighbours – or whoever made the introduction – had assessed to be ideal. But none of these men had been suitable. At the time, none of them had seemed able to fulfil the right needs and this had not been a problem. Now, there was the possibility of never finding a husband and never having the joys of family life or the responsibilities of housework and childcare. Remaining single would mean not having to compromise to suit his needs or those of anyone else. Remaining single would mean being an aunt, but not a mother. Remaining single would cement her career and lifestyle as more important than family life. Remaining single would mean no longer waiting for love.