(the day post-celebration)
There was a boy in my elementary school. He enjoyed singing, and loved acting out like a pop star when he performed; his hand gestures stroking brushes on invisible canvases and his facial expressions twisted like a thousand loose threads.
People, my parents and I included, used to call him “ái”, from “ái nam ái nữ”, literally translated to “love men and love women” in the Sino-Vietnamese language. Even until now, this word “love” has become synonymous to “homo”. To love, regardless of gender, is a pejorative.
From the same elementary school, there was a girl, who was featured on a children’s magazine for saying she wanted to be a boy, because her girlhood came with disadvantages. The article was a tacit attempt to portray the deep-rooted gender disparity that was still pervasive in our doi-moi communist institution, not a jab at her gender preference.
I imagined an article about a boy wanting to be a girl, so he can enjoy a girl’s privileges, would digress the conversation.
What makes a Vietnamese man a man? I am asking, because I already know the answer to the equivalent question for women. The four virtues: Ethics, Visage, Speech, Morality. Every girl has learned about these principles for femininity, sometimes from a male politician on TV, but most of the times, from the female figures in their life. She carries their weight in her heart, especially if she makes the conscious choice to reject their ideologies.
I, as an unborn fetus, was meant to be a boy because a fortune teller said so. I, as a baby, with the lack of a penis, devastated my parents in the first wee hours, because my family wants a primogeniture . I, as a teenager, tried too hard to obliterate the boundaries, to curate the frustration. I, as an adult, saw the reflections of toxic masculinity through my father, my uncles, my friends’ fathers, bounced off my mother, my aunts, my friends’ mothers. We use these moral codes as our destination, which we can choose to inch closer to or further from. Let’s not lose our sight, so we could measure how far we are, or reassure we are not astray yet. One thing for sure: we are never getting away.
Growing up, what milestones have our fathers installed for their boys?
That you have to impregnate your wife with some Y-dominated sperm. That, or, your genuine desire for a daughter deserves to be broadcasted and your special love for her celebrated.
That “respecting” means “not being able to refuse” when your “brothers” force the next drink on you.
That Gambling, alcoholism, philandering and addition a broken home make, and the absence of all is sufficient to put you on a pedestal.
That it is emasculating for a man to help a woman, unless it is something she couldn’t allegedly do well. Picking up heavy things. Driving. Bringing home the pork belly (sorry for the localization; we Vietnamese don’t really eat cured meat).
That you – a man, a son, a father, a husband – are free to be helpless with house chores, because these vibrant TV ads allow you to. Mom will always have the magic of consumerism in her hands.
That your virility is fueled by dead pangolin, elephants, rhinos, pythons, bears, tigers. That poaching is a national crisis versus an personal shame.
That the things you do for your woman – her sexual satisfaction, her house, her comfort – is not really about her. It is about how you handle these gender-assigned pressures society has put on you. That the alphabetic numbers in the unwritten punny “bro goal” – 1 wife, 2 kids, 3-floor home, 4-wheel car – are more burdened and solemn than they sounded. It is the scale to your man-ness.
We always say our sons are to continue the family’s legacy. But have we decided what kind of legacy that would be?
Vietnam is a pro-life country, so let’s pretend we are all pro-life here for the sake of argument. An embryo take 6 weeks to develop sexual organs, meaning it is a human before it is a gender. After all, what makes us human is not our reproductive system, but our human-ness – our logic and reasoning, our emotions and the factorial outlets we use to channel our feelings. Maybe we could just teach our sons to be kind and respectful, to be vulnerable and courageous. We should just teach them to take responsibility, not like a man, but to the best they could – like knowing when to say “no”, to overcome temptations, to do whatever they deem right, to be equal.
We might not be born equal, but at the inception, we were created the same way. That, we don’t need to pretend.