Family bonds are stronger – they have to be because everyone counts on each other to row the boat together in the same direction – that’s how they manage to survive
We all know that people in developing countries tend to have a shorter view of the future than others – a tendency to live for today and enjoy the simple things in life. People expect less and worry less, content to savour the good moments and cope with the tough deals that life brings when they pop up. In most cases they don’t have a choice but to cope because opportunities to progress up the chain aren’t available to many.
We also know that children get extra special love and attention in societies where families have less. Family bonds are stronger – they have to be because everyone counts on each other to row the boat together in the same direction – that’s how they manage to survive. Families can’t afford to split apart in different directions with each seeking their own future wherever they choose – at least most families, that is.
Most parents aren’t fretting over buying that next fancy pair of running shoes for their kid, or that elusive top-tier university education because those things are out of reach.
Nowhere can we find these sentiments more prevalent than in Southeast Asia. I travel all over the region regularly and all the fuss over children in every country I visit never ceases to amaze me.
Each passing year I love the scene more (old age softening me up?) and seize every opportunity to join in! Not a single kid escapes without getting at least a wave from me and every one of them says ‘hello’ or waves, albeit with parents often needing to coach the tiny ones.
What’s become apparent to me is the Vietnamese are the undisputed kid-loving champions of all countries in the region. Let me qualify that by saying that it was not easy to come to that conclusion because the neighbouring countries aren’t exactly slouches in that department either, so I’m sure many of you would disagree with me.
Indeed, it was a photo finish, but I finally arrived at a champ, and here is why:
Some historic events make Vietnam stand out among its neighbours, the first being the number of wars and attempted invasions that have taken place here over the last century. Most neighbouring countries enjoyed decades of post-colonial peace especially during the second half of the 20th century, an era when Vietnam was involved in several wars and incursions on its territory.
That alone makes life here just a little dearer, a little more cherished, so what better object for all that warmth and fresh optimism than children?
The second thing that springs to mind is how much less Vietnam has been exposed to and influenced by the West relative to many other Southeast Asian countries, given that the “Doi Moi” restructuring only began just over 30 years ago and mass tourism and exposure to the West have only gained momentum in very recent years.
Those two factors result in a tighter, more cohesive society with traditional family values and a fierce sense of patriotism fueled by overcoming some big obstacles.
I’ve tested out this theory on a few locals and was quite surprised by the results. My friend Trang, the coffee shop owner and proud mother of a wonderful boy, sat down with me recently to bat this topic around.
I reminded Trang that I’d lived in Thailand for several years and there it’s a great joy for a mixed Eurasian baby to enter the world. Similar sentiments echo from other Southeast Asian countries too. So naturally I expected her to launch into a great speech about how cute mixed race kids are, just like those on the TV commercials.
Trang stopped me right in my tracks: “If I have another baby, it would only be a pure Vietnamese baby!” Brilliant, and it gave me a lot to think about.
So, who are these kids that get so much of everyone’s attention?
My favourite is the “water spinach peeling ladies’ granddaughter” although we’ve never exchanged a word. She’s about 3 or 4 years old and hangs out with her grandmothers in the early evenings. The grandmas peel and split vegetables all afternoon – mountains of “rau muống” (water spinach stems) – which I guess must go to a restaurant for the morning “bún riêu” (Vietnamese meat rice vermicelli soup) the next day.
In Vietnam, kids are generally not taught to be wary of strangers – there’s no need, they’re cherished and fussed over, passed from arm to arm up and down the neighborhood streets, loved by all. She’s young and safe from all evil, protected by everyone, including me, so the very notions of danger or mistrust are foreign to her, as they should be for such a young, innocent child.
She has seen me many times, dozens I guess, yet always starts off shy, then slowly eases her way through parked motorbikes, low tables, and tiny chairs until she’s right next to me, her eyes never leaving me for an instant. She’s really curious and comes as close as she can, then retreats to her grandmothers with a giggle.
Then there’s the “Sunday coffee sisters.” Every Sunday that I’m in Da Nang I spend an hour or so with a young student speaking English so she can practice. There are always two moms in the back corner chatting who each have a daughter present. The young girls are well-behaved for half an hour or so, then start playing around the cafe as kids are prone to do.
One of the little games they play is the older girl dares her little sister to go close to me, as close as she dares. Maybe to say something in English? Or just to touch me to prove that I’m really there in the flesh? Or maybe just check me out so they can tell their friends they saw a foreigner with light-colored eyes and it was a bit creepy?
Then there’s the “bánh tráng nướng boys” (that’s the divine evening snack consisting of a barbecued rice sheet crepe with egg, shallots, cheese, hot dog, and other goodies). Their mother, my favourite “bánh tráng nướng” lady in Da Lat, wears a wool cap with number 32 across the front for those chilly evenings.
Number 32 is my favourite because one time she was busy and I had to go to her neighbor for my fix. 32 whispered instructions over and I picked up the gist of it: don’t forget this, add a bit of that, he likes it this way, etc. 32 is a very cool lady.
I guess 32 doesn’t have anyone at home to care for so she brings them to work each evening.
It’s easy to see the boys don’t mind at all, they probably love every minute and wait to go with mom. They get to hang out with the customers who sit on tiny plastic stools waiting for that gorgeous grilled creation to come off the grill and play their games on mom’s phone.
All these children have a couple of things in common and it reminds me of my youth and how the world has changed, but not Vietnam – at least not yet for the most part.
Poor or rich, these kids are happy, safe, loved by all, and feel secure.
That’s what childhood should be, must be. I hope it never changes.