The Tale of Kieu is a famous Vietnamese poem that tells the story of a woman who enters prostitution to save her family from debt. It tells us a story of sacrifice, family devotion and love. As one of the most popular poems in Vietnam, this tale is telling of the conditions of the lives of Vietnamese women.
In Vietnamese culture, women make sacrifices for their family by swallowing their silences. As a Vietnamese woman, I cannot be granted permission to queer culture, but my gay cousin can. Non-cis-male pleasure is constantly contested and this merely indicates the pervasiveness of patriarchy in Vietnamese culture. My Vietnamese ‘womanly’ body then undertakes a set of bodily experiences that are predescribed for me.
The most common question I am asked at my family gatherings is, “Have you got a boyfriend yet?”. This question summarises my experience as a Vietnamese woman; the expectation of finding my ‘man’ and setting up a family. I’ve learnt to deflect the question and have chosen not to tell them that I’m queer because right now it isn’t as important as family. Asking me if I have a boyfriend isn’t just about being with a man, it is also tied up in their hopes for me: to carry on the Phạm tradition. Shifting outside of these experiences raises issues for my family and myself. It raises internal conflicts for me because I must find a way to harmonize my loyalty to family and tradition and my queer self.
Living in a western country I see the silences that grapple myself and my fellow queers. There is a kind of policing around your queer identity in queer spaces that is premised on who you hold hands with or have sex with. This negates the existence of other forms of intimacy that are not physical and narrows the possibilities of self-expression. It erases the experience of people who are asexual and less-abled then most bodies.
When we talk about intimacy, sex and sexuality is often entwined with relationships. Here intimacy is presumed as a physical practice, but I see that intimate relationships do not need to be purely based on sex. Rather, intimacy can take the form of a stimulating conversation, trust building and an awareness of one’s physical and emotional boundaries. In a place where I’m learning to reconnect with my body after many years of neglect, I need a lot of physical space from the people I love. I ask them to listen to me and in return I will listen to them. This has cultivated both honest and kind relationships.
For four years I learnt to swallow my silence without chewing it down into digestible pieces. I learnt to inspire someone, but not inspire myself. I did not know of my capabilities, my strengths, and I did not believe that I could also create, and not just be the support of someone else’s creativity. Swallowing silence had an impact on my mental and physical wellbeing. Now it’s time to confront and unload the pain that has accumulated over the last four years.
The impact of both the silencing in Vietnamese culture and LGBTIQ culture has shaped the way I feel about sexuality and relationships. Moreover, it has changed the way I relate to myself. At first, I saw silence as a heavy weight on my body; I was scared. I internalized this silence, but it has not debilitated me. Rather, I have confronted and harnessed it to explore the depth of my material and emotional body. No words are powerful enough to explain how my body feels, so I resort to dancing for self-expression. Witnessing this silence allows me to reflect on how I navigate across the terrains of my body. I witness this silence that attempts to weaken me and decide that I weave my own bodily narrative.
Vietnamese women suffer the most, and often we suffer in silence, but this does not mean that we are weak. Rather most of the Vietnamese women in my life, my aunties, my mẹ and my bà nội are the most resilient people that I know. It is Vietnamese women who cope best with suffering because we carry the weight of the family. We are the ones who nurture the traditions that have been passed onto us by our mothers and grandmothers. We may carry our father’s last name, but it is women who bind the family line from past to present.
Just like my mẹ and my bà nội, I suffer in silence. Silence has engulfed parts of my body and the only way to live with that is to accept it. Learning to be okay with silence means learning to be okay with suffering. This is not an easy task but it is worth its depth: going deep within, finding the things that unsettle my skin, and learning to accept and not erase because erasing means erasing a part of myself.
Swallowing silence is a perilous act but it has been necessary for me to understand the depth of my body. It has been, and will continue to be, a necessary passage for me to remember my strength within: a strength that is affirmed by the love for my family and the love for myself.
This piece was originally published in Hoax Zine issue 10 Feminisms and Embodiments. Hoax is a bi-annual queer feminist compilation zine that aims to create a space to analyze the feminisms of our everyday lives. http://hoaxzine.tumblr.com/