A young Vietnamese woman gave me a pedicure at our local Golden Nails shop the other day. She commented at one point that her father’s feet were like mine. I asked Kim (not her real name) whether she trimmed her father’s old feet here in this shop. “No,” she replied, “I do them for him at home.” Trying to be funny, I asked whether she charged him for the service. “Certainly not,” she responded seriously, “I want to do it for him. My father took care of me when I was a little girl and now as an adult I am in his debt. It’s my obligation to care for my parents because they cared for me. My father is 81. Whenever my siblings and I can, we do many things for our folks. We clean for them, help and love them in any way possible. When we go out for dinner, for example, I always pick up the check. I try to repay them in small ways for my early life in their care.”
The Vietnamese value system centers firmly in the family. Children are taught to be grateful to their parents for the debt of their birth, upbringing, and education. They are to love, care, respect, and sacrifice for them well into their old age and after their death. Many stories exist of myriad ways filial piety has been practiced for parents. The fundamental debt to parents is virtually impossible to repay.
Vietnamese children, no matter how old they are, have to listen to and obey their parents when they are getting old. When parents and grandparents grow old, they can be looked after by the younger generation instead of going to a nursing home, as we often see in this country. Everything can change, but whoever you are, the relationship between you and the people who gave birth to you will always be primary in your life.
This may sound like Old Testament scripture:
Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. Exodus 20:12
One who curses father or mother, on the other hand, shall be put to death. Exodus 21:15
On closer look, however, the promise in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the supporting Vietnamese reasoning are oriented differently. The promise connected with the fifth commandment looks to the future — in honoring one’s parents, one’s own existence will be long and good in God’s creation. In the Vietnamese case, veneration and respect are compensations for what has already been received.
Since the Vietnamese diaspora after the fall of Saigon on April 29, 1975, the old values have been to some extent replaced or set in new contexts. Author Andrew Lam describes these value conflicts in his recent book of essays, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. He tells of the ways older people who exited Vietnam as adults tended to retain the traditional ways. They continue to speak Vietnamese rather than the language of their new cultures. Buddha shrines, like the one as you enter the Golden Nails shop, are tended and important. Around a central seated Buddha figure are clumps of small bananas, lotus flowers, glasses of water, and other images. Confucian and Catholic backgrounds also may surround these traditional values.
Eleven-year-old Andrew Lam, son of a defeated general, exited Vietnam by U.S. Army helicopter for Guam with some of his family. After witnessing the fall of Saigon and experiencing a hasty departure from their home, his life became sad and impermanent. For Lam, a privileged Vietnamese lad who attended a French school and lived in a villa with servants and chauffeurs, it was a shock to come to a U.S. Army base and then to a lower-class California neighborhood. He absorbed American culture well, graduating in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley and doing graduate work in creative writing at San Francisco State University. “Old enough to remember Vietnam, I was also young enough to embrace America, and to be shaped by it,” he writes.
A central theme in Lam’s book focuses on the generational differences between those who in their flight from Vietnam continued to own their past and the more versatile, younger group who bridge old and new values. Lam and his military father personalize this point. Though Lam respects and honors his father for the education and democratic insights he taught him while growing up, he says he disagrees with him all the time. His father corrects him for speaking English. Old and new values are in constant tension.
At the Golden Nails shop, the underlying generational piety assimilates to a new cultural setting. Western octogenarians coming here experience careful handling and respect for their years. Though Vietnamese is spoken, greetings and conversations with customers are in English. Kim’s work was done well, the foot bath pleasant, the offered Coke cold, the magazines fairly recent. With an exotic, walking-on-air feeling, I emerged trimmed and ready to put a few more miles on the old dogs.