Messy Break-Ups


When cross-cultural marriages fall apart, in Vietnam the whole world seems to know about it. Words by Nick Ross. Photo by Kyle Phanroy


Dave (name changed) doesn’t live in Vietnam any more. He was lucky. Not because this fine country treated him with contempt or disdain. Far from it. But if he had stayed he would have lost his marriage. With two young kids playing at being toddlers and a business started and run together with his wife, the break-up would have been messy.


Moving to the UK took his wife away from the annual Tet moratorium on gambling. In the first year she lost VND600 million at tien len, a popular card game. 12 months later she gambled away the couple’s apartment. So, after some messy, tearful nights out on the booze, Mike chose make or break. He went back to the country of his birth, wife and kids in tow. Two years later the couple are selling their business in Vietnam to make the move permanent.


Brian (name also changed) wasn’t so lucky. Not only did he lose his house, he lost his family. His better or perhaps more spendthrift half had a gambling problem. She card-gamed away the house the couple had worked so hard for. When they split, Brian took the elder son to live with him in Saigon. His ex took the younger boy to the countryside. Father and son finally reunited a year later, but they couldn’t communicate. The boy could only speak Vietnamese. In his time in this country, Canadian-born Brian had picked up only a few words of the lingo.


There are many stories like these floating around Vietnam, but rarely do you hear both sides. If you’re a foreigner, you will know of the pain Dave and Brian went through as their wives brought on disaster. You will hear about how terrible the Vietnamese wife is, about all the horrendous things she did in the name of money.


If you’re Vietnamese, you will hear about the personality of Dave and Brian, how difficult or stubborn or arrogant they are, their obsessions, their possessiveness, their jealousy. You will hear about their stinginess with money and their lack of compassion for the wife’s family.


But never will you hear both sides. They don’t communicate.


Relationships and marriage are difficult. You have to work at them. But when they are cross-cultural, they are doubly so.


Communicate, My Friend


The biggest challenge when you go cross-cultural is language, or so says Singaporean social work consultant and university professor, Michael Ong.


The owner of Tea Talk, a Cau Giay-located café in Hanoi that offers free formal and informal counseling to both Vietnamese and foreigners, Michael also wrote the country’s university curriculum for social work.


“Both [partners] may be equally proficient in the language, e.g. English, but languages are socially constructed,” he explains. “As such, the same word use may have a very different meaning considering the context of each person’s culture and upbringing.”


As we talk, an example comes up — the English phrase ‘such a shame’.


There are two words for shame in Vietnamese — nhuc, which is connected to the word dia nhuc, which means hell (or more literally, the place of shame).


The other word is xau ho, which means anything from shy to embarrassed. It’s the kind of word you say about a shy child, or about someone who has done something a little bit silly and feels embarrassed about it. It’s a light version, a very light version of the word ashamed.


So, translate ‘such a shame’ directly into Vietnamese, and you just don’t get the right meaning.


‘What a pity’, however, which has the same meaning as ‘such a shame’, translates directly — rat tiec or toi nghiep. Use this phrase and everyone will understand perfectly.


In cross-cultural marriages, misunderstandings due to language are a frequent cause of friction.


The Cultural Angle


Another key issue, says Michael, is behaviour. Social behaviour peculiar to each culture. In Vietnam, for example, care and concern can often come across to Westerners as ‘mothering’.


“I counseled a Westerner on the verge of breaking up with his Asian girlfriend,” he recalls. “She was ‘mothering’ him, asking him to eat, go wash his hands and so on. At one point he got mad with her. He came to me for some help. I framed the ‘mothering’ behaviour in the context of the family situation of the Asian girlfriend. That was her ‘love language’. The couple is now happily married.”


The simple fact, says Michael, is you must learn to communicate. A lack of communication and bad listening are the two other key causes of friction.

“[Friction] can start from very minor or even trivial issues,” he explains. “We hold assumptions based on our cultural context. So in cross-cultural marriages, such assumptions should be clarified.”


We expect people to behave in certain ways based on our cultural background. In the UK, you assume people will queue, in Vietnam you don’t. In Vietnam, babies are the realm of women. Men don’t get involved — they’re not even supposed to change nappies. In the West, men are expected to take an equal role.


The problem, adds Michael, is that if these “assumptions” are not dealt with, or are “kept under the carpet”, then they can grow into “unmanageable ‘fights’ and ‘huge blow ups’ that result in breakups.”


Holding it Together


We don’t know the full story. But my guess is that there was a huge communication issue between Brian and his wife. Despite the losing-the-house disaster, they could have kept both the marriage and the family together. They didn’t.


Dave, however, got it right. He didn’t seek out counseling — that’s not his way — but on those drunken nights out after his wife’s misdemeanours he poured out his heart. His friends gave him advice and he listened.


“For the sake of your kids,” said one, “try and keep the family together. If you move to the UK and it still doesn’t work, then at least you can walk away knowing that you tried.”


Added another: “You need to try and forgive. She knows she’s screwed up. But if you constantly hold that against her, then it will affect your relationship.”


Says Michael, the only way to make a cross-cultural relationship work is through good communication, to find a way to overcome all the differences created by culture.


This means you need to “clarify, clarify and clarify. Don’t make assumptions when communicating. You should have good listening skills. Ask ‘What do you mean?’ when you don’t understand. Seek to understand and be understood.”


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