Nguyen Thi Hoa, 60, could not hide her surprise when her son told her he would be marrying an American woman.
“Vietnam has over 90 million people, why don’t you choose someone local instead of marrying a Westerner?” Hoa, residing in central Nghe An Province’s Quynh Luu District, asked her son Nguyen Huy Hoang, 32.
“Westerners and Vietnamese are not different, Mom. You ask her to pass you the fish sauce but instead you get salt, which is good enough,” Hoang, who met his future partner while studying in the U.S., joked.
A smiling Hoa agreed, aware her future daughter-in-law would live with her son, and not with her.
Hoang and Jenny tied the knot in 2018 with two weddings, one in Vietnam and another in America.
Their wedding stirred up the whole neighborhood in coastal Quynh Luu District.
“Some said we were lucky to have a Western daughter-in-law, and that my grandchild would speak fluent English,” Hoa recalled.
At the hitching ceremony, Jenny hugged and kissed Hoa after receving a gold necklace.
“You complained you didn’t have a daughter, now you have a loving daughter-in-law,” Hoa’s sisters told her after witnessing her hesitation.
Hoang and Jenny lived and worked in Hanoi until their first child was born, then moved to Nghe An.
Several days later, the Vietnamese grandmother came home with a lot of horseshoe crab shells, which she burned “to prevent toxic winds.”
Jenny, thinking the house was on fire, ran to pour water onto the bucket of crab shells.
“She is afraid of fire – the smell of smoke makes her nervous,” Hoang explained to his mother.
Three days later, seeing Jenny taking her newborn out wearing a tank top, a panicked Hoa hurriedly ran after.
“Baby, let’s go home, the boy is a newborn and cannot stand the wind,” she told Jenny, who simply shook her head and smiled, barely understanding Vietnamese.
Turning to her son, Hoa was told it is normal for children to go out and sunbathe in America and that postpartum mothers do not have to follow the same routines as in Vietnam.
“Don’t be sad Mom, let Jenny decide how to bring him up,” he assured her.
After two sleepless nights, Hoa told her children they should do what they feel is best.
When their maternity leave came to an end, Hoang and Jenny returned to Hanoi, with Hoa agreeing to accompany them.
Stuck in a 12th floor apartment with her daughter-in-law and grandson, Hoa yearned for the afternoon when other women in the building took their grandchildren downstairs to chat and gossip.
“She partly understands what I say, but cannot speak Vietnamese. The silence drives me insane,” Hoa complained.
During that time, the Vietnamese grandmother wished for little else but for the little boy to enter kindergarten so she could return to her hometown in Nghe An.
Dao Hanh, with a foreign son-in-law, shares the same obstacles. In 2018, Thu Ha, her daughter, decided to get hitched with Jonathan J. Springer, an American.
The 70-year-old from Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung District told her dentist daughter to think twice before marrying someone from a different culture.
In time, with Ha at work, Hanh would pick up her grandchild and prepare dinner, with Springer only collecting her after finishing his teaching job. But, when she was busy, she had to resort to her daughter for help since she could speak no English.
When Springer knocked on the door and saw his mother-in-law open, he responded with excitement and hugged her, calling: “Mom, mom!”
In a hurry, Hanh gave him a bowl of rice and pointed at her grandchild’s mouth. Knowing his daughter needed to be fed, the father tried his luck, but with the child unresponsive, simply ate the food himself.
“I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. In Western countries, people are not patient when feeding their kids, plus our girl is lazy when it comes to eating,” Hanh said.
The language barrier has caused many misunderstandings. Once, an angry Hanh, trying to feed the little girl, made Springer believe she was vexed at him.
The “temperature difference” is another barrier.
When visiting her daughter, Hanh has to wear a jacket since Springer, born in a cold climate, always puts the room temperature at 20 degrees Celsius.
Wearing sandals and shoes indoors, he was told to keep the floor clean, but kept forgetting. Once, when the floor was still wet after Hanh had cleaned, Springer slipped and fell on his bare feet.
Hoping to overcome these barriers, he asked his partner to teach him Vietnamese. Ha told him “I love you” is pronounced “anh yeu em” in Vietnamese (with “anh” a pronoun for older males and “em” used for a younger person.)
Once, at the wedding party of Ha’s younger sister, in front of everyone, Springer hugged and kissed his Vietnamese mother-in-law and told her “anh yeu em“. Everyone burst out laughing, with the American clueless as to the reason.
Deep inside, Hanh now considers her son-in-law a member of the family.
“Above all, Jonathan loves my daughter, so I love him,” she maintained.
Hoa, in central Nghe An Province, similarily loves her American daughter-in-law.
When Jenny experienced her first Lunar New Year in Vietnam, she said “Chuc mung nam moi” (Happy new year) to everyone she met, building bonds every step of the way.
Once opposing the idea of raising children in a Western style, Hoa now realizes her grandson seldom falls sick, compared to other kids his age. Plus, she never has to push him to eat like other grandparents in the neighborhood.
In July, when coming down with a cold, Jenny and her partner treated Hoa with a herbal steam bath to help her recuperate.
“You teach me about the American lifestyle and then treat me with a traditional Vietnamese herbal steam bath,” Hoa laughed.