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Thứ Hai, 30 tháng 4, 2012

A typical proposal scene, in which a man goes down on his knees, pulls out a ring box, looks up to his girlfriend and asks "will you marry me?", doesn't exist in a typical Vietnamese context. First off, Vietnamese men don't kneel down in front of a woman, except maybe his own mother. Secondly, while people in Western culture date because of interest, attraction and fun, Vietnamese people, if they date at all, it is already a scanning process. A Western girl is likely to burst into tears the moment her boyfriend presents her a ring because until then, she can't be sure if they will be together for good. A Vietnamese girl is not likely to date a man she can't visualize herself marrying him, therefore the announcement is nothing of a surprise to her.

But yesterday, I found a Vietnamese equivalence of the Western concept of proposal. It is when a man asks his girlfriend to visit his hometown. The question "Will you go to my hometown with me this Sunday?" is the Vietnamese version of "Will you be willing to spend your life with me?". Why?

First thing first, falling in love happens between two individuals, yet marriage is always more a family concern than a personal affair (of course I am talking about Vietnam here). A wedding happens between two families rather than between a man and a woman. You don't just acquire a husband, or a wife, you actually recruit a member to your family, who doesn't get the same upbringing, maybe doesn't share the same values, but nevertheless will share the responsibilities of supporting that family from now on. I still remember how at the New Year's prayer session took place in the village temple, almost everyone in my extended family on my paternal grandmother side (around 50), prayed together for one of my father's cousin to have a boyfriend because she was reaching 29. I wasn't shocked, but found it a bit amusing that collectively, the family was concerned with her personal choice. Once you reach a certain age, if you are still single, the matter will concern your whole big family because it affect the family's blessing, and people will talk about it as a very bad fortune that results from a bad sum of karma accumulated collectively.

Thus, I dare say that once a Vietnamese man introduces his girlfriend to his big family, it is a kind of commitment made public. A proposal in a romantic restaurant can be broken without much publicity, but once half of the village (it's how far an extended family goes) knows of a potential mate, nothing will go undetected.

A formal introduction, in which a girlfriend is introduced, is also a chance for everyone to judge, discuss, extract information and for the (usually nervous) young lady to show her best. It is more or less a beauty pageant, except that the criteria on which judgments are based include her look, her dressing style, her way of walking, her cooking skills, her speaking manner, her family background, and all subtle cues people can think of to judge a person. Brief information will be exchanged, such as how many siblings, how old her parents are, where they work, but this is only for show because most of the time people already try to find out everything they can about the candidate. They will discuss in whisper, cast her a glance here and now, the women will sit in a group of two or three while the men do the talking. Not to mention that neighbours and even  further related relatives will drop by occasionally, either in groups or alone, to check out someone who will potentially become a part of them, and leave again rather hurriedly.

Once a young man takes his girlfriend to his hometown, he is making a public statement: "I think I am very likely to marry this woman, and she will be a part of my family" It is a symbolic sign of commitment that holds much stronger power than a physical ring. Starting from that moment, he will be asked (sometimes by a mere acquaintance) when the expected wedding will take place, and an either mild or fierce social pressure to jump a step will doom on the couple's heads. That's when they know words have circulated to even further-related people, and the fact of a coming formation of a new family is being confirmed.

This confirmation can take place as small talks between seemingly trivial people who don't directly have any influence on the couple's decision. Maybe an exchanged gossip between two great aunts when they are on their way to the morning market, but this is truly the needed confirmation. Everything afterwards, such as talks between two families at stakes, announcement to friends, even a wedding itself, is only a matter of formality. The fact that these two people are about to get married has been widely known and accepted way before that.

The introduction, and this girlfriend will leave a permanent mark in his life, because if someday they break up, every other girls he will take to his extended-family will be compared to this one. They can be better, they can be worse, it doesn't matter. What matters is as she is now officially known to his family, she will no longer stay within the realm of his own concern. He has done a crucial step in transforming a private matter to a collective one. The relationship after becomes a topic of discussion in family gathering. A changing of role just happens. People stop viewing him as a young man only, he may be promoted to the same level of respect as his grandfather, father and uncles. He opens up a new stage of life, namely a potential mature and married man.

The same stuffs happen to a girl when she introduces her boyfriend to her extended-family, but as women are married into their husband's family, thus the impact of receiving a new member is not as great in her family, reducing the stress on the man as well as intensity of her family's judging process.

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