Daughters are the little people that women can do things with like get their nails done or shop for shoes. Mothers are the older ladies who give advice about periods and body hair removal. Lovely. In addition, daughters are the little embodiments of all a woman’s unresolved conflicts of the past and hopes for the future. While mothers are the terrifying examples of what life inevitably turns into though we are determined to not let it. Slightly more complicated. It’s the latter pair of characteristics that often turns benign questions like, “You’re wearing that?” or “Another serving of dessert?” into sticks of dynamite, tossed casually and usually from the other room. Yet, the thing that makes these relationships so explosive is also the thing that makes them indestructible.
In Vietnam, the relationship between mother and daughter is filled with its own idiosyncrasies, expectations and obligations. The country is changing fast and gender roles are evolving. Likewise, the relationship between mothers and daughters must adapt. Here and now, where the cultural landscape is quickly transforming, two generations of women’s experiences can prove to be vastly different.
If you ask Nhi, 27, lead singer of Hanoi punk band GO LIM, to describe her mother, she’ll use words like “cute” and “happy-go-lucky”. Both descriptions are easily observable in Ngoc Lan, 51, whose warm smile feels as natural as it is frequent. In addition to these characteristics, Nhi tells a story to illuminate something in her mother that is harder to describe.
The story is unfortunately a common one in Vietnam and draws on her father’s infidelity and the quarrels that echoed in her childhood home as a result. “I didn’t think she was stupid, but at an angry point I said to her, ‘It’s stupid to live a life like this.’ But she would say no. She never gave up my father. Never.”
The Hanoi mother of two’s devotion to her husband and keeping her family together is rooted in the values of her own parents, who focused on maintaining balance in turbulent times. Ngoc Lan’s father returned from the war like most other men of his generation and her mother worked in an office job for the country. “It was a very typical family life,” she says, despite being twice forced to flee bombing raids. “I never let anything stay inside of me too long. If I have a bad impression, I don’t let it stay too long and destroy me.”
Such is the attitude that has carried this 51-year-old woman through life’s upheavals and the painful tests of her marriage. As Nhi puts it, “[My mum] is not forgetful at all, but she forgets a lot of things.”
This quality of letting go is something that sets the mother and daughter apart. If you’ve ever heard GO LIM play, it’s evident from Nhi’s wailing and soulful vocals that there is a lot stored up inside. Much unlike her mum, Nhi’s sensitivity to a darker side of life fuels a lot of her creative expression.
“Nhi grew up painting,” her mother says. “Since she was small, she was painting.”
At 15, she started playing the guitar, soon forming her first band, Calahat. “It was a singing, singing screaming kind of band,” remembers her mother with a smile.
In addition to her artistic side, Nhi was also active in swimming and martial arts, even considering at one point becoming a professional athlete. “Some kids are very good in one field,” Ngoc Lan explains. “But Nhi was all over the place.”
From watching her small daughter climb out of a window when the house was locked just to play outside by herself, to watching her set off alone to Malaysia on a university scholarship, Ngoc Lan observed in Nhi a different way of approaching life.
“There were a lot of offers from family and friends to help her get a job when she was younger,” she says, “but she wanted to do it by herself. She felt this pressure to do it herself.”
Such a pressure to live independently, to carve out one’s own path in life, is one that may be unfamiliar to women of a generation ago, particularly in Vietnam. For this reason, communication and understanding often break down between different age groups.
Together and Apart
As with issues of marriage.
“It’s hard for young people like me who support the new ideas of no suffering, that a woman should have to suffer [infidelity],” says Nhi. “So many times we just say, ‘yeah, let’s divorce, let’s finish this family.’ We think it’s okay, we think that because she’s of an older generation of Vietnamese ladies, she’s scared to change her life. It’s not like that.”
The ability to see beyond one’s own experience and imagine the realities of another is something that both daughter and mother seem to possess. Both Nhi and Ngoc Lan have to come to not only an understanding, but a genuine respect for one another in their different environments.
Says Nhi: “Because we have more choices, more exposure to modern lifestyles, if someone says to me, I dare you to love truly, I don’t know if I could. But I think my mum could do it.”
“From Nhi I have learnt the character of being straightforward and independent,” adds Ngoc Lan. “I feel as she gets older, no matter what life she chooses, she will always react honestly with herself. I respect that.”