Thursday, July 23, 2009

On being white and gender roles

All my life I have known that I am white. However, white identity tends to not be marked by any uniting cultural factors, and thus lends itself more as simply a broad category. Yet, during my time in Mo cay so far I have become acutely aware of my race. While here many reporters and government officials have approached us. Whenever we are at an important ceremony the camera invariably pans in on the faces of the four white girls in the group. As we ride along the streets people yell hello to us. Several times people have rubbed my skin, often people I am simply passing by. The most startling incident was when I was walking through the market and a woman grabbed my wrist.

In the delta, the division between gender roles in Vietnam has become more apparent. One example of this is in the manual labor we are doing. Many of the men seem to believe that women shouldn't perform manual labor. The women in our group have had to fight to be able to help with manual labor tasks that are honestly not entirely arduous, be this with the other vietnamese roommates or the contractors who help us with the jobs. One day we were mixing cement at the school. The males were taking all of the "harder" tasks involved with the cement making. At one point I became frustrated and simply picked up a bucket of rocks. The bucket was not very heavy, yet one of the vietnamese males made a sound of astonishment once I picked up the bucket of rocks.

The feelings of frustration were tempered by a discussion I had later with my roommate. It turns out that the vietnamese females were actually a bit upset about the day's work as well. They were not pleased that many of the American males were helping clean rather than helping do the manual labor. The American males were doing this because they knew that the American females wanted to help with the cement mixing and were being considerate by letting us pitch in. In contrast, the vietnamese students believed that we are working to complete a task as quickly as possible and that everyone should do the task they are most suited for. ie they believe that females are better at more fine detail tasks such as painting details on walls, whereas the males are better suited for heavy lifting.

This conversation led to much deep reflection on my part. On the one hand, given that we are ultimately trying to complete as much for the community as possible, it might make sense to put aside more principle based debates and do the work each person is best suited for. Yet, it is always possible to find an excuse not to stand up for gender equality. If you never make an issue of it, things will never change. Furthermore, the issue I had with this incident is that everyone was assuming that the males were stronger than the females. Just given that I am taller than the vietnamese males, it is certainly possible that I'm stronger than some of them. This incident was simply an interesting facette to examine gender relations in Vietnam, especially since while in Saigon I was surprised that I didn't experience much gender discrimination.

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