Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Women of the Mekong


By Mattie Lehman

As I look out over my breakfast at the river in Can Tho, the sun creates a striking silhouette of a woman in a rice paddy hat standing at the motor of her boat. Chances are she spent the morning at the floating market selling or stocking up on fruits and vegetables for a small business. Our experience in Vietnam so far suggests this entrepreneurial mystery woman is not unique.

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After reading one article, I came to Vietnam falsely expecting to find women primarily fulfilling duties of the home. I do not want to make the same mistake in writing this. The unique history of communism, female soldiers, agrarian lifestyles, and modernization make the role of women in Vietnam more nuanced than I can understand in a few weeks. Rather than generalizing about an entire population from limited experience, I would like to profile a few of the women I have met and let them stand on their own.

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In our first week in Can Tho I had the privilege of spending an evening dinner in conversation with Dua, a remarkable woman in a very similar life stage as my own. We talked of romantic relationships, education, and our families.

In our mid-twenties and single, we both try to navigate the complications of modern dating. We must determine if that really nice guy we met is interested and straight or friendly and gay. We become frustrated by cultural stigmas about “over-educated” women. We struggle with the idea of online dating to meet people. While many of our concerns are the same, we differ in one key area. The female teaching assistants on our trip have claimed that in Vietnam, people expect that women will settle by age 30. This cultural norm adds a whole other layer of pressure to Dua’s dating life than my own.

Dua surprised me with another major difference when I complimented her motorbike. She told me it was a gift from her mother, but clarified with a laugh, “Well, a gift from my mother with my money.” Very much unlike myself, at the age of 26, Dua’s income helps support her family who farm shrimp in the south western region of Vietnam.

Dua has earned her Masters degree in Biology and teaches at Can Tho University. She is currently in the process of applying to attend school in Japan in pursuit of a PhD.

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Son Island Farmer

When traveling to Son Island to observe ecotourism development, a female farmer led us around the island. We talked with her about the impacts of climate change on farm production and the switch to supplementing her income through tourism. While looking at her crops, someone commented on how good the fruit looked. Within a few moments we turned to see her barefoot, in a tree pulling down pomelos for our lunch. We sat down tired and hungry to a wonderful meal cooked by family members and served by her and her husband. The pomelos were my favorite part of the meal.

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Ms. Lan with Mattie and Emma

Four times a day six days a week Ms. Lan runs an English school out of her front room. All her students treat her with the utmost respect, and she talks of attending their weddings and other important life events. She keeps herself busy between classes and taking care of her household of husband, daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild. Last weekend she hosted myself and Emma Kiefer—learning to cook vegetarian food just for our visit. Every evening after classes she takes some time to herself to go for a walk around the park.

Ms. Lan’s daughter, Thuy, is a chemical engineering professor at Can Tho University. She keeps herself busy balancing work life and taking care of her 3 year old son. Thuy talked with me at length about the state of women in academia. She praised the sixth month maternity leave she expects when her second child is born, but also explained how, similar to the United States, the demands of home life can cause women to miss out on promotions and leadership opportunities. Thuy feels grateful for her family but concerned for fellow PhD holding friends who want families. Female academics often have trouble finding partners who are comfortable dating a more powerful and educated woman. Contrarily, those qualities make a man more desirable.

These four represent only a few of the roles women play in Vietnam. We have also met shopkeepers, scantily clad beer girls, rice and shrimp farmers, tour guides, bankers, traffic officers, national park experts, hotel maids, receptionists, and mothers.

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