The Story of Mai

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To provide a more detailed case study of the seemingly contradictory ways youth in Vietnam reject and yet reaffirm the traditions of national history, I return to Mai, who along with her friends at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum visited this public space to connect not to a revolutionary past but to an anticipated global future. After I met Mai in fall 1999, we began to meet regularly and still maintain a friendship. I mention her story here because I have been witness to the dramatic changes in her life over the past decade and because she is a typical example of a young woman from Hanoi whose actions exemplify the messages and principles taught in history, though she rejects the form and style through which they are conveyed. For example, Mai refused to go to a museum with me. When I asked why, she laughed: “I don’t like museums. It’s always war history, war history. I’m fed up. I’ve heard enough. I’m more interested in the development of the economy, than in politics and war” (Schwenkel 2009:150).

Mai was born in 1980. When we met in 1999 she lived in a poor, three- generation household of five on the outskirts of Hanoi in a dark and dank two-room cement house with a detached cooking area and toilet. There was little income flowing into the family; her father was a retired factory worker, her mother unemployed, and her grandmother earned petty cash by selling candy and other snacks close to the main thoroughfare. When I asked Mai about her most vivid memories of childhood, she answered bluntly: “Hunger, illness, and a lack of money for medicine.” Like most of her classmates, as a child Mai participated in Youth Pioneer activities, including collective charity and volunteer work for veterans and “heroic mothers” who had lost their families to the war. She went on to join the Communist Youth Union, a social organization (not political for her, she said) in which most of her friends took part. In interviews and conversations, Mai rarely discussed her family’s poverty directly, though she consistently emphasized the need to study hard to improve their lives. As the eldest daughter, the burden fell upon Mai to secure a better future for her parents, younger brother, and grandmother. In this way, she exemplified “traditional” family values, such as filial piety exhibited through moral acts of obedience, love, respect, and care for one’s parents and ancestors (Rydstrøm 2003). Mai went on to study English and international finance at Hanoi National University, earning two bachelor’s degrees by the time she was twenty-two. In her free time she studied Chinese and hung out with friends at Truc Bach Lake, not far from the McCain historical marker. She enjoyed Korean pop stars, Chinese soap operas, and Hollywood Vietnam War films—“more realistic than Vietnamese ones,” she told me.

Four years later, Mai’s life had changed significantly. At twenty-six, with two degrees and a working knowledge of Chinese, Mai had secured a full- time job at a domestic commercial bank, earning a monthly salary of three million Vietnamese dong (approximately $180). On Saturdays she regularly worked overtime to earn an extra one million dong, for a total monthly income of approximately $250, roughly $3,000 per year, only slightly more than the country’s per capita GDP of $2,700 (2007 estimate). In late 2007, it was even harder to find time to meet with Mai. In addition to her fifty-hour work week, she had enrolled in evening courses at the university, studying international banking so she could obtain a higher position at her bank. “I’ll get promoted through my hard work and education, not from doing favors and socializing with the managers,” she told me confidently, revealing a strong belief in a capitalist work ethic. Sunday was also a work day— she taught Vietnamese to foreigners to further supplement her salary. “Do you think they would be interested in home stays?” she asked, passing me a classified ad she had taken out in an English-language newspaper. Mai had a reason to be concerned about her earnings: she had recently built a spacious four-�story house for her family. In September 2006, she took out a loan—seen by many as a new and risky financial practice—and hired construction workers to demolish her previous residence and build the new structure quickly before the lunar new year. The house was bright and airy, with indoor plumbing and a kitchen, along with a private room or area for each family member. At the time of my visit, Mai’s bedroom was outfitted with a TV, a DVD player, and a karaoke machine. The modest yet comfortable home cost Mai $6,250, which she paid for with a low-�interest loan of 1 percent for bank employees. Her monthly mortgage came to one million dong, leaving another three million for family necessities. Her aged grandmother, who was lounging in the kitchen when I arrived, no longer went out to sell candy.

Mai is now twenty-eight and not yet married, which makes her “old,” according to popular belief in Vietnam. She continues to attend classes and take care of her family, while also providing financial support for her younger brother’s studies, perhaps one day overseas, she confides. Mai is continually working to improve her English, brush up on her Chinese, and read new books about the international banking industry. She is an example of how industrious young people in Vietnam have taken advantage of new opportunities not simply to spend and consume frivolously, but also to support their families and contribute to “modernizing” their country. I share Mai’s story not as a success narrative about Vietnam’s global market integration. Compared to members of an emerging urban middle class, Mai is relatively poor, and her ability to consume is fairly limited. But as she shut the door to her bedroom and turned up the karaoke, she reminded me of how postwar generations, although seemingly indifferent to the state and its project of national history, still tend to emulate its moral values and traditions, and embrace its vision of an ideal and progressive modernity, even though Mai still will not accompany me to the museum. 

 

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