home, Hanoi, society
Leila, my close French friend of Bahraini origin, always asked me this particular question in Arabic, even though we talked to each other in French. For her, translating ‘Kayf haal-ik?’ simply into ‘how are you’ does not do justice to the Arabic sentence by any means. When she asked me this, which literally means “How is your heart doing at the moment?”, she did not mean the superficial and super short “ça va?” that we often heard in France but expected a detailed catch-up. Leila called me the day when the Vietnamese government imposed a partial nationwide lockdown in early April including in Hanoi, which for months had been seen as a “national enemy”, to prevent further community transmission of COVID. “It must be very hard for you”, she said, knowing that I was already back in Hanoi. Little did she know that I had locked myself up before the lockdown was put in place.
COVID has made me stay home, in the truest sense of the word. I was in Quito for the UN Youth Conference, on migration, when I was told by my university in Beijing in late January (also the start of the Lunar New Year), without rhyme or reason, to cancel my ticket back to campus. Back then I had not been aware of the virus outbreak because of my previous eventful trips. From start to finish, my university was quite vague about the gravity and magnitude of the outbreak. I had no choice but to reroute my flight back to Hanoi and start staying with my parents for the first time after 6 years of living abroad. The news was both a boon and a bane. I was in a high-mobility mode previously, due to both my study and activism. Many of my assignments and papers had been completed at the airport or even on the airplane. The absence of mobility allowed me to concentrate fully on my thesis, even though it would also mean doing digital fieldwork at home. I have been fortunate enough to stay in the safest country in the world as Vietnam has emerged as a success story with zero deaths (at the time of writing).
Unfortunately, it was also the first time I have observed how my acquired “foreign” values clash robustly with traditional Vietnamese mindset, as I was switched to a Vietnamese life.
I did expect a joyful Tet holiday[i] after a long stay abroad. While my Chinese friends could not enjoy chunjie (春节) or the Lunar New Year this year, COVID did not affect the festive atmosphere in Hanoi. Hanoians were nimble to equip themselves with some precautionary measures yet remained largely nonchalant. Yet, I retreated to my room after the first few days. Relatives bombarded me with intrusive and judgmental comments and questions: “How come you look so slim in reality but fat on picture?” Most often showered me with default advice before saying goodbye, “You should get married, otherwise your parents will suffer a lot. You have to be responsible!” They said it with a serious tone as if I had been living irresponsibly for the past few years, even when I told them that I had been working, volunteering and joining various anti-racist movements in parallel with my full-time study. Paradoxically, I was derogatorily called a “lông bông” or a vagabond as I hopped from country to country, even though it was indeed a privilege.
“Whom should I be responsible for?” If I were in Europe, I would talk back without hesitation. But in Vietnam, I am supposed to keep silent and force a smile because I am duty-bound to avoid humiliation for them and my own parents. “Whatever your senior relatives say, you have to treat it with respect. If it is wrong, you tell us and we shall communicate with them. You are not equal to talking to seniors”, said my father, who takes a zero-tolerance approach to children talking back. Of course, this rule also applies to my parents, who still believe in the Vietnamese saying, “fish without salting will go rotten, children who disregard parental advice will inevitably go astray”, despite my almost 30 years of age. There was no room for open and equal discussion among the young and the elder, which I repeatedly asked for during my talk on youth participation in Europe. Ironically, at the Forum in Quito, I was selected to speak about how to shape narratives on migrants. Back home, I feel powerless to change the ages-old narratives on personhood and womanhood of my own family members. While I often talked about inclusive policy elsewhere, I could not do anything as I was left out of the conversations within my own family with seniors.
Since my return to Hanoi, I have been treated not as an individual, but rather a child of my parents.
Local police officers gave my parents a call to inquire about my whereabouts and current health condition before COVID, instead of asking me when they had my contact details. Representatives of my neighbourhood (the smallest administrative unit in Vietnam) warned my parents to stay away from foreign values, without defining what they really are. Every now and then, my parents were reminded of the danger of going to China as the virus is still raging, even though the reminders came from people who had not been to China and do not speak any Chinese. Colleagues of my mother, a retired civil servant, called her to warn me against hostile forces. Relatives told my parents to urge me to settle down, as if I were the real “undetonated bomb”[ii]. Some even suggested that my parents see a medium to help me regain the “balance” that I was clueless about. Many times, I was included in their sino-phobic comments, either by chance or by choice.
I reunited with my former classmates of primary school, secondary school, high school and university. Some were reluctant to talk to me because I had been in China prior to COVID. Some were inquisitive about my journey to the West and also to the Northern giant neighbour. Some were questioning how I had been Westernized or Sinicized, or whether I made a lot of money abroad.
The National Library staff member looked at my affiliation with a Chinese university as if I were part of the virus, even though I could prove to them that I had left China way before the pandemic.
By studying abroad, and even having been to 40 countries on full funding, I lived the dreams of my parents, who have never crossed the Vietnamese border. Yet, I am often accused of being whimsically Westernized, though most of the accusers have never been to the West and have little idea of what they mean by “the West”.
I restrained myself from going out, not because I thought I had to put other people or the society or any imagined community above self, as it was instructed on an hourly basis in newspapers, TV or in the SMS sent to us every day by the Ministry of Health. I was terrified as the community named and shamed a COVID victim publicly on all digital platforms because she had travelled to Europe and spread the virus to dozens of people. What if I really contracted the virus and became the black sheep of the whole country? To be honest, I care more about a potential public assault on my own privacy than a powerful virus attack on my body.
Staying at home, I lack the “zone of suspense” (Martin, 2018) to distance myself from social expectations and cultural burdens. I felt cut adrift from my own city. COVID made me cotton on my struggle between my international activism for equality and adherence to Vietnamese values. I am proud of Vietnam’s fight against COVID but not pleased. I cannot wait to move again, to wherever I feel truly myself. Home should be fluid and not fixed. Home is where the heart is.“I am not feeling home at home. I need dépaysement[iii]. I am full of fernweh[iv],” I said to Leila.
^Tracy Mondo (pen name) graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and had an Advanced Diploma in Italian culture from the University of Perugia, Italy. A firm believer in gender equality, Tracy has worked and volunteered for multiple UN projects on gender and civic engagement. In 2015, she embarked on a multi-university MA program on European studies in France, Germany and Sweden on Erasmus Mundus scholarship. Upon graduation, she worked for UNICEF projects in Germany on social integration. Tracy finished her 2nd MA on Chinese society at Peking University and served as Director of Delegates at the Yenching Global Symposium in Beijing 2019.
[i] The Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or the Vietnamese version of the Chinese New Year
[ii] In Vietnamese: quả bom nổ chậm, referring to unmarried daughters.
[iii] A French concept, which means “being away from home and to a foreign land”.
[iv] A German concept, indicating a desire to be somewhere else.