When Cultural Differences Hit a Nerve

Heather Markel, Blogger, Speaker, Adventurer

27 October 2018

Sometimes it’s hard to understand how other cultures live and what they accept.

In my last post I mentioned my delightful trek and visit to a small village outside Sapa in Vietnam. Our guide, Cu, explained how her people live, and I found myself bracing against my own feelings about what her people accept. Cu is from the village of Lao Chai, and her ancestors came from China about 800 – 1,000 years ago. They were colorful clothing, and seem to be a very happy culture.

Cu demonstrates how fabric is handmade and dyed.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2018

Education in her village is free up to roughly 16. The children learn Vietnamese and will learn English later. However when its time for high school, education costs money. Girls are expected to marry by 18 (otherwise they are considered too old!) so parents won’t pay for girls to be educated, only boys. This is because boys will get a job and take care of their family. Girls, once married, will move in with their husband and do all the housework and take care of her in laws.

“Girls older than 18 are considered to old to marry in this small village!”

The girls do all the domestic work. Since she will leave once married, her parents lose her labor. Therefore, since the in-laws gain a domestic worker, they are expected to pay the parents for their daughter. The going rate is $2,000 (which is a lot in their currency), but some charge $3,000.

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Woman carrying her baby.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2018

The woman has the right to refuse any marriage proposals she receives. If a boy sees a girl he wants to marry he can kidnap her. He solicits help from his friends and brings her, against her will, to his family’s home. She will spend four days there and decide whether to marry him. During this time, they somehow  get word to her family that she was kidnapped and will be back soon.(!!) It’s very important that the girl is a hard worker – she will need to cook, clean, take care of household chores and her in-laws. If she is lazy, then men will not want to marry her. Divorce happens only 10% of the time. If the woman leaves the man, she must repay her in laws whatever they paid for her since they lose their house worker. If the man leaves the woman there is nothing to repay.

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From what I saw, there is an abundance of children. In fact, the only people I saw outside in the village were very young. There were a lot of babies and parents. I think the oldest person I saw was 50 years old. Cu explained this is because elderly people are tired so they stay indoors. Typically they will look after their grandchildren and rest.

I look in at the grade school classroom and think about the future ahead for the girls and boys at each desk. I wonder how they feel about these roles. Cu says this life is how it is in her village, but outside in big cities, it’s very different. She currently lives in a home with her in-laws, two of her brother-in-laws, her new sister-in-law and 3 children, 2 of which are hers. Because that’s too many people in the house, Cu and her husband plan to build a house and move out within the next 2 years.

On my last day in the village I met another local woman. (They are everywhere and want you to do some “shopping” every possible minute). She told me she has a big family with many sisters and brothers. When I asked if she sees them, she told me she doesn’t because they are too far away. (Apparently one hour’s drive.) For me, I found these stories hard to accept. Watching women carry huge amounts of weight around, do all the domestic work, all the cooking, and all the cleaning, it struck a nerve. Nonetheless, everyone seems to love their children.

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