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Valentine’s Day in Vietnam: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

Monday, February 20, 2017, 16:40 GMT+7

As the Year of the Rooster continues to surprise us all, Valentine’s Day has quietly crept up on us.

Given the Vietnamese obsession with romance and marriage, each year I write something for Valentine’s Day to make it an interesting topic; but what to write? I’ve written about teenage romance, Vietnamese romance, Western romance and a complete lack of romance!

The title of this year’s chicken flavored love story comes from William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, which a lot of Vietnamese teenagers and young adults know. When Juliet finds out that Romeo is from a family at war with her family, she loves him despite the differences between them.

Let me tell you a true story. One of my first jobs was working for the Australian government in a fairly boring position. Government jobs at that time were plentiful and it didn’t matter so much about your looks, personality or general ability. That meant there was more than a few strange staff around the place. 

When I was young I was heavily bullied about my deafness and partial blindness which had happened before I was born. As a result I made a point to befriend some of the stranger staff in the office.

There was one very tall, skinny guy in his late twenties who looked like something from a zombie movie with pale, almost gray skin pulled tight around his face. He hardly spoke to anyone. His girlfriend was also painfully shy, and tiny, barely reaching the height of his chest. In addition she looked very plain, meaning that people would say behind her back that she was the most boring person at work.

The constant gossip became quite nasty and the couple knew about it, as I found out much later. People couldn’t understand what those two saw inside each other and often said that their relationship was doomed.

About five years later when I was no longer working in that office I ran into the supposed odd-couple walking down the street. With them was their daughter, the most beautiful little girl who had long, soft brown hair in ponytails, and they swung their child between them and smiled quietly. Together they glowed an inner sunshine and it surrounded them. They looked totally different; confident and quiet but very proud.

Although the rest of the world had thought only of their differences, those two fine people knew a love deeper than most, a love which became stronger because of the need to protect it, working with people who they knew detested them.

It goes to show that even if you try to call someone out, it makes no difference if there is real love beneath the surface.

For the young nowadays, the media creates false expectations. You gotta have someone handsome or beautiful. They have to look cool and have money. They must be someone your friends will accept.

The part I find funny is breakfast commercials where lovers look like movie stars and their houses are perfect. Imagine the shock for people with such expectations... they’ll get quite the surprise when their partner comes to the breakfast table looking like roadkill!

Reality is harsh when it comes to love yet millions of just ordinary people with no great personality or fabulous wealth get married. They may live in a plain house, have little money but forge a life together.

In my neighborhood there are no movie stars, no one owns a car except the tour operator down the end of the street and everyone, wives and kids too, uses a shovel on a daily basis. Most of the couples met at the insistence of someone in the family and almost everyone knew each other since school.

Romance? Well, you do see it around the place as husband and wife joke around while building a fence or tending fruit trees, giggling as they water them, but they’re mostly a solid bunch of hard-working country folks, deeply imbedded with the traditional ways, and unlikely to show much public affection. 

One time, I asked my gardener, Mrs D, how she met her husband. One of the younger girls in the street translated for me. Mrs D stopped and paused, stared up into the sky, standing on the ladder in my garden. Slowly she grinned and said something very long.

My teenage translator giggled and said, “He was a terrible farmer but he’s a great carpenter!”

So this Valentine’s Day, it’s not about the differences between us – but what we see under the surface of someone that makes a perfect love.

Happy Valentine’s Day everybody!

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