Just the other day I sat in one of my regular joints where I grab a bite, escape the oppressive Saigon heat and ponder life. I sat in my usual area at the back wall where I usually camp out for a few hours, eating lunch, having a cappuccino, and using my laptop. I couldn’t help, but overhear a group of women on the far end of the room. The head of the group was a middle-aged woman who unmistakably spoke in a firm American professorial style at a level the dining crowd could easily hear her annunciate as if she were giving an important commencement speech, Dear class of 2009 it’s with great pleasure and pride that I say, “please order anything on me, there’s a wide selection of menu items ..American, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese; you’ll find the selections have funny names like the Elvis or Halle Berry.” Great marketing pitch I thought.
After finishing my Romeo sandwich and catching up on some office emails, I paid attention to the professor again now talking about inequality for women artists starting with China as the example. Her statement was that while women’s art work is better and more detailed, it is the men who get the attention and are paid more time and again. Based on this statement, she made a forceful vow to not let this happen to her students, the Vietnamese female artists, and to be their voice. A group discussion mixed in English and Vietnamese then ensued of which I didn’t catch everything and went back to my laptop to see what world riveting events occurred in the last 15 minutes on Facebook.
“WHO ARE YOU?!” errupted through the room. The professor exclaimed rather than asked. It came across in the way I remember Dana Carvey doing his best McLaughlin impersonation where whatever you might answer the response would be an emphatic “WRONG!” Maybe they understood the professor’s question, maybe it was not a simple answer, but their reaction was respectful silence which led the professor to prod them with multiple choice answers, 1. You are an artist 2. You are a wife or girlfriend 3. You are a daughter. From what everyone in the room heard, the professor was urging them to pick answer #1.
For me this was a moment of reverse culture shock and I was instantly transported from Saigon back to any classroom-USA. I reflected upon how much individual identity and success are stressed. According to the professor’s tone of voice you must hold who you are high in the air like flag and don’t wane or women will be never be equal. She continued by breaking it down for the lunch group discussion “Who are you” can have priorities where 1. You are an artist 2. You are a wife or girlfriend and 3. You are a daughter. Her words were delivered with such force and conviction you might have expected a group huddle and chant 1-2-3 Let's go Team!
But, there was the calm after the storm. A moment of silence. I couldn’t help but think that the professor might have discovered a fault in the American view as the students then calmly, politely, and collectively commented 'who they are' depends who they answer this question to. Of course they strive to be successful artists, but they equally strive to be good wives/girlfriends, and daughters to their parents. Whether this is a hindrance to beating male artists time will tell, nonetheless these women are very ambitious.