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Having a relationship with someone from a different cultural background is fraught with difficulty.
Can love work between couples from different language backgrounds and different cultures? If I look at the family of my older sister and of my boss, I think it can. However, it’s never easy, and making it work is far more complicated than just overcoming the issues of language and culture. For, in reality, I know that my boss and my sister have had to accept more than just their partners’ cultural traits.
They’ve had to ingratiate themselves with a whole different belief system and set of nuances that are alien to their own. And through this they’ve found a balance. However, achieving such a scenario is complicated and requires patience, an open mind and a lot of time.
One thing that is certain is that the majority of serious problems between a mixed Vietnamese-foreign couple are cultural. I am 27 years old and I have dated both Vietnamese and western men. To a certain extent I feel I understand the reasons for some of these problems.
When are we Officially a Couple?
“Vietnamese women get serious too quickly,” said one western colleague of mine once.
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“When people back home go out with each other, they’re never sure whether or not they’ll fall in love or become boyfriend and girlfriend,” he explained. “But with Vietnamese women, you go out once or twice and suddenly they treat you like you’re boyfriend and girlfriend. It really pisses me off.”
For Vietnamese women, when we go out with someone even for the first time, we have already decided that we like the person. It’s the same the other way round with men, too. They won’t go out with a girl unless they’ve already decided that there’s some sort of attraction. The reasoning is simple. If you like each other, then why not become boyfriend and girlfriend? This is why everything moves so fast, with relationships often becoming concrete after just the first date.
One fairly large contradiction between westerners and Vietnamese is the question of who pays for everything. The point of view of westerners is, in this instance, very clear. When you’re in love and in a relationship, then there are two people involved, both with an equal share, both getting benefit from being together. Both the male and female work, often with similar salary levels, so why should the man pay for everything? In general, costs are shared.
However, Binh, a close friend of mine who was recently involved with an English guy, sees it quite differently.
“If a bloke hasn’t got enough money to pay for a meal for me,” she says, “then what kind of boyfriend will he make?”
She and her potential flame quickly broke up.
Her attitude is similar to that of most Vietnamese women. Even though both the male and female in a relationship get benefit, it remains the duty of the man to pay for everything, something that in Vietnamese we call tinh phi or the cost of love. The reason is that the social status and general respect for men in Vietnam is still higher than that of women. As a result, unintentionally they are expected to be the main source of finance. This leads to an additional problem. At present, many men in Vietnam don’t have girlfriends because they don’t have enough tinh phi for the relationship. Likewise, many mixed-race relationships break up because the foreign male sees the lack of sharing to be unfair. They feel used and as if they are no more than an ATM with an endless supply of cash.
Love always goes together with sex, a big problem in the present age. The issue here between foreigners, particularly those from the west, and Vietnamese are different attitudes and outlooks on the role of sex in a relationship.
“For me, sex is like food and drink,” said Gill, a British university professor who I once studied with in Vietnam. “Sex is something normal, a part of life. If you don’t eat or drink you will starve or die of thirst. Sex is exactly the same.”
And this is it. For westerners, sex is a normal demand in any relationship, no matter how casual. Two people can come together, sleep with each other merely for satisfying certain carnal needs. No-one will be in debt to anyone else and if after sex the relationship continues or not, then this is something that will be judged later.
However, in Vietnam, virginity still remains fairly important (although today, perhaps less so). As a result, for a woman to have a sexual relationship with someone is fairly difficult if that person is not their personally designated life-long partner or at least someone they feel they’ve got a chance with. For them, having sex is like losing something important, as if the man is robbing them of something. It makes them feel used. So, for a woman to sleep with a man is like a statement of intent — they are saying that they both want and are in a serious relationship.
Like everywhere, however, there are many Vietnamese men who get to third base and then move on. For men like this, the harder or more difficult the conquest, the more they try. And then, when they finally get their way, they lose interest and find a way to move on.
Regardless, most men these days are easier when it comes to women and virginity. It’s no longer seen as a pretext to marriage, although Tuan, a friend of mine, says that “if a woman is a virgin, it’s still better.”
No matter how much the modern era has changed attitudes to sex, such a statement remains a problem for Vietnamese women. If they get in a serious relationship, have sex and then break up, then this may affect their future chance of marriage. It is for this reason that many women here, even some going out with foreigners, still maintain their virginity until they are married.
Compromise or be Doomed
In reality, the three issues discussed above don’t go nearly deep enough to explain the complexities that may arise when a foreigner and someone Vietnamese try to get into a relationship. There are many other causes and there will always be cultural differences — changing or even just altering attitudes that come as a result of one’s background is, for me at least, difficult to imagine.
The only way forward in a cross-cultural relationship is to be accepting and to alter one’s mindset so as to allow for a harmonious relationship. Conservatism — particularly on the part of the foreign male — and the superiority complex that so often accompanies the mindset of foreigners living in developing countries are a recipe for more than just disaster.
Alternatively, as a foreigner you can avoid dating a Vietnamese and as a Vietnamese you can avoid dating foreigners. Both my sister and my boss, however, chose the first solution.
Republished with the Kind Permission of Word HCMC