Tradition for thee, but not for me

November 15, 2007

Tradition for thee, but not for me

14 Nov 2007 12:05 pm

We went to visit a high school today; one that aims to prepare elite Vietnamese students for the post-WTO world by ditching the passive rote style favored by many Asian educational institutions for a more interactive, American style of teaching.

I do not venture to say whether or not this will be successful, though the students were extraordinarily bright and engaging and nice; one shudders to think what would have happened had a gaggle of Asian journalists who spoke no English invaded a posh suburban high school in America. But one, completely unrelated thing stuck out:

The girls have three uniforms.

They have ordinary uniforms that look much like American school unifroms of an earlier era: blue skirt and white middy shirt with blue ties.

They have dress uniforms, consisting of a white skirt and white middy shirt with red trim and a red tie, and a fairly snazzy red beret to rest on top.

Then they have traditional white ao dais. What are those for, I asked.

Those are for Mondays, I was told. Mondays, apparently, are when the school salutes the flag and sings the national anthem.

And do the boys have a special uniform for Mondays?

Giggles. Nooooooooooooo. The boys always wear the same short-sleeved shirt, blue pants, and tie.

This is a really common pattern in almost every non-western country; the girls wear traditional clothes, while the men wear western suits and ties. It is not universal, but it is nearly universal enough to make me ask what integral part of the human psyche this stands in for, the men wearing the garb of the economically successful, while the women remain mannequins for the past.

I think the ao dais are much more attractive than western school uniforms (and don’t get me started on the dress policies of the Riverdale Country School. But surely the men would look equally fetching in whatever the Vietnamese elite males wore 200 years ago?

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Men can partake of culture, they can lead it, they can transform it but they do not get to be arbitrators of what is and is not to be valued and preserved. That role is reserved to women. It’s an aspect of child rearing, early childhood education and being an arbitor of what is and is not acceptable pulic male bahavior. This repesents an enromous power of women over the behavior of men. Whould sparta have been sparta without mothers telling their sons the return with thier shields or on them?

Men are free to experiment in the wolrd of work precicly because the culture is preserved in the home.

This is not necessarily true of Chinese immigrants to the United States. However, it does appear from my viewing of older (pre-1960) photographs that it is the Chinese men who are adopting suits before women adopting other Western dress. Maybe all women prefer a sharp-dressed man?

I’ve noticed Megan’s phenomenon on the streets of LA’s Indian enclaves.

But surely the men would look equally fetching in whatever the Vietnamese elite males wore 200 years ago?

Based on my quick googling, that would be the ao dais cut more appropriately for male figures.

” (and don’t get me started on the dress policies of the Riverdale Country School.”

Whoa…you went to school with “The Archies”?

This is a really common pattern in almost every non-western country; the girls wear traditional clothes, while the men wear western suits and ties.

The girls were wearing “western” clothing on non-Mondays, so it would seem more accurate to say that the girls sometimes wore traditional clothing, but that the men never did.

I think the ao dais are much more attractive than western school uniforms

Perhaps the men are less interested in wearing pretty clothing?

I’ve often thought that, in the US, men simply had less variety and fewer options in terms of clothing. Teaching in a business school, I sometimes hear my male colleagues ask each other whether they wear ties to teach. It’s a stark choice – with tie or without. For women, there’s more of a continuum and more variation.

As ad pointed out, the girls in Vietnam are wearing ‘western’ clothes, they just also wear other things. Men get one uniform, and little choice.

Hi Megan:

As a East Asian myself, I think I have an explanation you might enjoy. It is long, but I believe it completely.

While you’re in Vietnam, find a Vietnamese world history textbook, and ask a friend to explain it. You should find that 80% of the text focuses a few topics – the Greek and Roman empires, the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of America. Topics such as Egypt and the Middle Ages are entirely ignored. My guess is probably 50% focuses on Europe, post 1800. Why? Because to the East Asian, the only relevant question in world history is how and why we came to be so comprehensively outclassed by Europeans.

For most East Asian nations, Westernization is viewed as a necessary evil. Modernization was forced upon us, and in a response to this external foreign force, we must gain economic power parity to survive. Most of us take the example of the Meiji restoration to heart – to fight fire with fire, although hopefully without the excesses of prewar Japan.

Asian nations had and continue to have an existential dilemma. We could not survive without modernization, lest we be cut up and parceled out like Africa or South America. Yet Westernization would kill us as well. Capitalism has always been with us, but Western contract capitalism, that puts litigation before human relationships, that pits juniors against seniors, that cleanly separates the public from the personal, is deeply contradictory to our natural inclinations.

So we are either damned to be consumed by the West, or to join it.

So this brings us to the clothes. We follow the Japanese example – to absorb Western knowledge, but retain our culture. This is an awkward compromise, but it is our only choice. The metropolitan cities will be sacrificed to the West, filled with glittering Western skyscrapers, Starbucks, and the branch offices of Standard Chartered, staffed by suited men who will compete with West. But they will return to homes and rural areas, maintained by women who continue in the traditional way, raising their children to perpetuate and replenish the culture.

We must have both – men who will wear suits to fight in the global competition, and women who will make sure that the men are not themselves consumed.

Um, this is blindingly simple, and any feminist ought to be able to figure out. altoids has it, but unintentionally:

The metropolitan cities will be sacrificed to the West, filled with glittering Western skyscrapers, Starbucks, and the branch offices of Standard Chartered, staffed by suited men who will compete with West. But they will return to homes and rural areas, maintained by women who continue in the traditional way, raising their children to perpetuate and replenish the culture.We must have both – men who will wear suits to fight in the global competition, and women who will make sure that the men are not themselves consumed.

This is simply sex discrimination: men for the office, women for the home. It exists for the same reason that Hmong men today wear Western clothing while women all wear traditional clothing; that Muslim women wear veils; that Turkish men living in Berlin send home to Anatolia for a traditional village bride.

Vietnamese society has extremely rigid sex-role assignations for women. Women are to be married by 28 at the latest; otherwise they start to smell “like an old fish”, as the Vietnamese expression has it. They will have a child within 1 year after marriage. If their husband is the oldest child in his branch of the family and thus expected to carry on the lineage, then they will continue having children until they produce a son. They will if necessary use ultrasound and selective abortion to ensure this. (Vietnam has what is sometimes estimated as the world’s highest abortion rate, and the male-female birth ratio has climbed to over 110 to 100 in some urban areas according to a recent UNICEF study.) After marriage, they move to their husband’s house, where they will live with their mother-in-law for at least a year. They are expected to keep house and to follow their mother-in-law’s instructions on how to do so.

Vietnamese women participate in the workforce and have considerable fiscal autonomy, especially as small business owners and traders; this is a traditional characteristic which makes Vietnamese women less insecure and more autonomous than women in many other societies. In many marriages, women are the breadwinners, and they often have practical if not legal control over family finances. But they almost never reach managerial level in large businesses and organizations. There are plenty of female members of the National Assembly, as this is largely a showcase body; there are no female members of the Politburo.

Note that as is usual in things like these, the “traditiona” Ao Dai is actually a recent, modernizing outfit. The first outfits which one would recognize as an “ao dai” date to the 1930s and were intended to fuse the traditional imperial Vietnamese “ao ngu than” with French fashion.

I’m very glad you noticed this. I think few male writers would have even picked it up.

It’s not about the men getting all the success while the girls become mannequins. It’s about the women being stewards of tradition and the culture’s values. I’m not judging, but I am saying: since the dawn of time, women have had this special role in society.

In Japan, women wear kimonos during ceremonies. But they wear business suits when they work.

Note, also, that I don’t think many girls would choose NOT to wear the ao dai on Mondays. Within the cultural context, it’s true that assigning the role of symbolic cultural/national preservation to women does give them a kind of power. Similarly, there is a kind of social power embodied in the cheerleader’s uniform in a traditional US high school. I know of grassroots women’s groups here where there is nothing the women consider more empowering than putting on ao dais to appear at a public event: it signals that they are respected, legitimate members of society.

But it’s an absolute giveaway that women are required to don ao dais on the day everyone salutes the flag. They instantiate the nation’s idea of its own tradition. And God forbid you should want to be a non-traditional woman in such a society — to wait until after 28 to get married, to divorce your husband, to stop having kids after one or two girls, or to go for a managerial position at PetroVietnam. The women who go for that stuff tend to be either hard-core Communists with their commitment to serious equality, or the offspring of ancient Mandarin/royal families, or raised in the West, or (like Mme. Ton Nu Thi Ninh) all three. Though as the country modernizes, women’s traditional roles are becoming increasingly untenable, and more and more women are pushing to change the boundaries.

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