CLASH OF CULTURES

Making a mixed relationship work in Vietnam involves an understanding on both sides of what the other ‘naturally’ expects.

By Le Diem on December 26,2016 10:40 AM

CLASH OF CULTURES

Photos: JON MYERS , PHUONG LAN

‘You’re dating a foreigner? That must be cool,’ is a common enough response to a Vietnamese woman going out with a foreigner. The reality, though, is that it can be ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ before being ‘cool’, given the differences in Vietnamese and Western dating culture.

Traditional views …

A foreigner, especially Caucasian, usually means good-looking, well-educated and moneyed in the traditional view of Vietnamese.

Interestingly, many of these handsome, blue-eyed and white skinned foreigners are more interested in women with a petite figure, dark skin, full lips, and high cheekbones, who are not appealing in the eyes of Vietnamese men, who prefer a woman who is tall, light-skinned and has a heart-shaped (V-line) face. A Western boyfriend then seems like a ‘saviour’ for women who have ‘no hope’ with local guys.

Besides, the possibility of having cute mixed-race kids and a foreign passport after marriage are also quite alluring for some but this gives Vietnamese and other Asian women who hunt for a Western boyfriend a bad name.

In modern times, however, as the number of foreigners living and working in Vietnam increases there are more and more mixed-race couples for whom these ‘traditional ideas’ mean nothing.

… becomes outdated

Once when hanging out with friends in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Thuy Linh, a 27-year-old employee of a real estate company, began talking to a group of foreigners sitting nearby. They exchanged numbers and she helped one find a house for rent a few months later. They became friends but she never thought love was on the cards. ‘I didn’t have any special feelings when we first met though he had a nice smile,’ she said. ‘I’m open to everyone and am willing to make new friends.’

CLASH OF CULTURES

But when Linh’s relationship did move towards love, her family and friends gave her little or no support. The guy, who was younger than her and still studying while working part-time as an English teacher, didn’t meet their expectations of a foreigner and his age, they believed, made him unsuitable. But she followed her heart. ‘He doesn’t have a stable job and he’s not rich, but this is common among expats in Vietnam now,’ she said. ‘It’s more difficult to get a good job in a developed country today so many come to other countries and they’re not as rich as people assume. I love him not because we are soul mates. I dated other guys before but never enjoyed being together as much as with him. So I don’t care about other things. We are both young so I believe there are opportunities for him.’

Also in love with a foreigner, who went from an English teacher to a startup entrepreneur, Thu Ha, a 29-year-old marketing executive, has always supported him, particularly when he had financial difficulties and in his plans to settle down in Vietnam. ‘I’m happy as this is what he wants,’ she said. ‘I want to live in Vietnam, where I have a good job and family, friends and my favourite food.’ The idea that she’s only interested in getting a green card is outdated, as she doesn’t need a foreign husband to improve her life. ‘Modern, well-educated women think differently. They want a stimulating job with a good income, which is difficult to find in a developed country where unemployment is increasing and there are problems for immigrants,’ she said, ‘I don’t want to move to a strange country and get a manual job or just be a housewife. There are more opportunities to live and work in Asia in general and in Vietnam in particular.’

New experiences

Together with getting over old-fashioned perceptions about dating foreigners, local women also discover new things, both interesting and uncomfortable, from their exposure to a different culture.

Dating a Westerner includes many of the same stages as dating a Vietnamese but the differences can make local women confused.

Having dated both Vietnamese and foreigners, Linh compared the early stages to shopping for fruit. A Vietnamese guy will select one from the bunch that he feels looks the best. Marriage and kids remain important in Vietnamese culture, and with 25 or 27 considered the ‘best age’ to marry there’s a feeling that there’s no time to waste on fruit that you’re not sure about. So when a Vietnamese guy approaches a woman, he usually views her as a potential wife. If he has feelings for her, he will spend a lot of time and money on winning her heart before really getting to know her, contacting her every day (sometimes every hour), buying her flowers and gifts, and taking her out to good restaurants or the cinema. It requires much time and energy and he can’t usually afford to do it with different women at the same time.

Western guys, Linh went on, usually like different types of fruit and would like to try a few of each before buying more. Many Vietnamese women are therefore confused early on, thinking he’s just looking for some fun, is not sure he will stay in Vietnam for a long time, is perhaps dating other women as well, or truly likes her but doesn’t spend as much time and effort on pursuing her as she’s used to. ‘Westerners don’t have the targets Vietnamese guys do,’ said Linh. ‘They are more open and want to get to know you. They just let things happen rather than making them happen. Respecting the independence and freedom of each other is important to them so they don’t get too involved in your life before the relationship moves to a certain level.’ She was also confused at first, but after gaining a better understanding of her Western boyfriend she can see it’s a more practical way of approaching a potential relationship.

Ha also prefers the Western way. She’s dated both local and foreign guys and believes that many times Vietnamese women like a Vietnamese guy’s care and attention and the idea of being pursued but don’t allow for their own feelings. They may think they’re in love with him, but they’ve only seen him doing what’s necessary to win her over. Many eventually realise they’re not suitable or a disappointed upon seeing him change after he’s gotten what he wanted. Sometimes it’s too late, and reality hits home after the wedding and not before. Ha had the chance to really understand and develop the natural feelings when dating her foreign boyfriend, as he was just himself and showed interest in her. ‘After a while, when we became a couple, he became sweeter and more caring,’ she said. ‘It’s been four years and he’s still like that.’

Not all local women can adapt to the Western way, though, and prefer the royal treatment from the outset and aren’t prepared to wait for it. Huong Giang, after dating a Westerner a while, ended the relationship because he didn’t text her every day, pick her up when they went out, buy her sticky rice when she was hungry late at night, or always pay the bill, like Vietnamese guys do. ‘He said he liked me but he didn’t really show it,’ she said.

Intimacy is another thing that makes many Vietnamese women uneasy. They are used to just ‘hanging out’ with a guy for a while, be it weeks or months. Only when he expresses his love for and asks her to be his girlfriend do they take things further. ‘If a woman agrees to do what the man wants too early she is considered to be “easy”,’ said Ha. ‘She needs some “official title” for the relationship before she’s willing to go further.’ And that explains the readiness of some people to say ‘I love you’, she explained, even when they don’t really feel it.

Moving in together - a milestone in a relationship in the West - is met by negative judgements in Vietnamese society that few women can handle. One of the biggest concerns for local women is where this then places the wedding in the scheme of things. ‘Even if everything is okay you can’t be sure he’ll marry you,’ Giang said. ‘You might be ready for it but if he says “No” then you’ve wasted a lot of time and are single again and a little bit older, while all your friends are married.’

Vietnamese guys are usually willing to get married after dating for a while, depending on their age. It might be a few years if they meet when they’ve under 25 or maybe just a few months if they are both over 30 and feeling pressure from family and friends.

The differences in language and culture to can see their point of view and behaviour create barriers between them, which easily leads to arguments and misunderstandings, they agree. However, whether dating a local man or a foreigner, the women also agree it’s a bit like gambling - some luck is needed. ‘If you’re fortunate enough you can meet a nice guy,’ said Linh. ‘But there must be understanding and an adaptation to a new culture on both sides. My boyfriend “waited” three months for me to be ready for our “first time” and I no longer care about what people say about moving in with him. You might discover that is actually “cool” to date a foreigner, who have a reputation for respecting women and being sweet and caring, more so than a lot of patriarchal Vietnamese guys who never share the housework or take care of the kids and instead spend their time drinking. But nothing that is good is easy.’

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