Vietnamese woman warrior
I dream that Saigon runs out of flowers for my grandmother’s wedding. Every corner of her family home is in bloom, the fragrant scent overpowering the smell of the incense or the feast or her fear, but perhaps she wasn’t fearful in her red ao dai, which swished to and fro around her ankles and that, with her gold slippers, made her look like she was either burning or on fire.
The ancient Vietnamese equivalent of Joan of Arc is named Trieu Thi Trinh, an orphan who fled her abusive brother and his wife. In the countryside, Lady Trieu raised an army of a thousand men and women to fight against the Chinese, who were occupying Vietnam. To battle she rode, on an elephant, dressed in golden armor.
My mother got a degree in Computer Engineering at an American university while speaking broken English. Years down the road, she gave up her job to stay home and take care of me and my sister. I thought this was admirable but someone said to me, you can only walk away from a career if you had a career in the first place. My blood boiled.
My grandmother found out she was going to get married after coming home from school. She was eighteen, a prime age for getting ready to settle down, and her mother ushered her into the house for the good news. I’ve found this man for you, her mother said, and he will be a good husband. It was for the best. Duoc had traveled to Saigon alone for military duties and was without his family, and it was common knowledge that the worst part of being a wife was being a daughter-in-law.
Eighteen was the year I had my first kiss.
The heroines in Vietnamese fables do not possess the gentile nature of those in Western culture. In the Vietnamese iteration of Cinderella, the story ends with Tam, the heroine, tricking her stepsister into boiling herself alive, then feeding the body to her stepmother.
Ever since I can remember, my mother has been telling me this: Never let a man make you cry.
It is said that when it comes to pain, men ignore and women endure. I wonder whether my grandmother ignored or endured the premature loss of her two eldest brothers, two boys who were at the wrong place at the wrong time during a time of political strife and never came home.
My mother fled Vietnam and immigrated to America along with her eldest brother. As her father was detained at the re-education camp, her elder brother was the oldest male around, traditionally responsible for taking care of the family. Yet it was my mother, instead, who sponsored her family’s voyage to America.
My dream of my grandmother’s wedding ends in two ways. In the first, she gets married to a man she has known all her life, a nice, respectable shop owner who lived next door.
Lady Trieu is quoted as saying this: I’d like to ride storms, kill sharks in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, reconquer the country, undo the ties of serfdom, and never bend my back to be the concubine of whatever man.
The traditional Vietnamese formal dress is called an ao dai. It is a two-piece dress, a traditional gown with two slits on the side paired with silk pants. If fitted well, the dress is not constricting and easy to move in. This makes me think that Vietnamese women were always meant to run, jump, and exhibit the strength and agency that their male counterparts could.
Before my mother escaped Vietnam, she was captured and jailed two times, for every failed attempt. In the jail, she was tortured as the guards pressed to reveal details of where her brothers were. My mother is not a quiet woman by any stretch of the imagination, but in those moments she remained silent.
My grandmother has never given very well rounded advice. She feeds me, asks how I am doing, and tells me to study, even when school isn’t in session. Education can set you free, she says. If you study well enough no one can stop you from doing anything. My grandma never finished high school.
I was in third grade, having a verbal altercation with the boy on the bus home when he says At least my mom speaks English! I am furious. When I arrive home in tears and tell my mom what happened. She cries too.
Lady Trieu was also known for having very large breasts, one indication among many that I am not related to Lady Trieu.
Ancient Vietnam was matriarchal. Our history is riddled with fearless heroines who drove away invaders and women ruled the villages and clans. The spread of Chinese Confucianism came with patriarchy, which trickled through the streets next to the homes of my ancestors, but even that could not dislodge the resilience of the Vietnamese women who continued to exercise the strength of their matriarchs in different ways.
Eighteen was the year I first experienced heartbreak. As I lay on my extra-long twin bed in my dorm, my tears seeped into the mattress and I thought less about the heartbreak and more about how my mother would be so ashamed of me if she knew.
It is said that when it comes to pain, men ignore and women endure. I wonder whether my mother ignores or endures the memories of watching men, women, and children die on her trip fleeing Vietnam.
What was Ong Ngoai like? I asked my grandmother. I was 18, the age she was when she got engaged. She was seventy-something. My grandfather had been dead for 10 years. He was a good man, she said. A very good man. I was unsatisfied. Did you love him? She hesitated. I did, after a while. After about a year. I realized that he was a good man and I fell in love. But you don’t have to get married. You can be unmarried and still very happy. Wives and mothers inevitably suffer.
Woman warriors in Vietnamese fables, despite their strength in valor, often commit suicide.
It is said that when it comes to pain, men ignore and women endure. Or, perhaps, women are just ignored.
My dream of my grandmother’s wedding ends in two ways. In the second, as she kneels at the alter of her ancestors with her groom, the incense stick brushes against her gown which goes up in flames as my grandmother turns into a phoenix and flies out the window and far away.
This article first appeared here and is republished at Matador Network with permission from the author.