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Written by Sonia Chen
This theme is very clearly seen when Hang sees the group of young Japanese people, so carefree, so happy, more beautiful than Hang’s people because of their easier life. Hang sees their outer beauty: their relaxed features, their light skin, their fashionable clothes. However, she also sees their inner beauty: their confidence, their relaxed nature.
By contrast, the Vietnamese are less so. Their gnarled hands, hunched backs, and weather-beaten faces are not quite as flawless as the Japanese’s. They constantly worry about their savings and about surviving. Their lives are full of worry, and the Vietnamese are not only physically, but also spiritually less “beautiful” and flawless as the Japanese.
The strict Vietnamese culture affects everyone’s actions in this novel. Women must always defer to men. Younger Vietnamese must always defer to older Vietnamese. Familial ties must always take precedence over anything else.
Food is a big part of the Vietnamese culture. Preparation of food is an art and the sharing of it can signify love or shame. Aunt Tam always brings food for Hang to signify her love and hopes for Hang. Que orders Hang to buy food for Chinh’s family as gifts.
In addition, ancestor worship often takes the form of gifting food to the deceased by the ancestors’ altar.
Familial ties are the centerpiece of each Vietnamese person’s life.
Que spends her money on her nephews since they are her brother’s sons. Instead of caring for Hang, Que lavishes praise and love on her nephews and even at one point yells at Hang for saying that she is hungry.
By contrast, Aunt Tam cares only for Hang. Although she doesn’t have any other relatives -- they were killed essentially by Chinh -- Aunt Tam still shows how familial ties must take precedence over everything else.
In addition, Uncle Chinh forces Que and Hang to do things at his bidding, because they are women and his family. Hang, though sick herself, has to go travel to Moscow to meet Chinh and help him with his shady importing and exporting business.
In the end, Hang chooses the path that will lead to happiness and doesn’t want to be bound to her familial duty, since she has seen it break her mother and aunt.
Hang ultimately chooses her own path: to be free from obeying traditional customs and to pursue happiness.
In America, our inalienable rights that we all have heard are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By contrast, in Vietnam, people do not have these rights guaranteed. Family should override happiness. Life is not guaranteed. Freedom is trumped by cultural norms.
Hang’s story introduces a type of life that doesn’t have the luxury of freedom; she is bound to a life of obedience and pain if she follows the traditional Vietnamese customs of the time.
In Vietnam, cultural rules create people. The are defined by the rules set by those before them. Their image is painted by those who came before them, and the living must serve the dead with ceremonies and gifts.
Que, for example, becomes consumed with her mission to serve her only living family, her brother Chinh. She nearly kills herself by working so hard to earn enough money to provide more than enough supplies to her brother’s family.
Hang becomes consumed with her job to carry on the Tran family’s name. Aunt Tam places all of her hope in Hang and is consumed by her mission to always provide for Hang.
It seems that many times, one’s identity is defined for them instead of one defining himself. Huong explores this theme by describing Hang’s struggle against following customs and being unhappy and broken and her quest to find happiness no matter what.
Poverty is not an unfortunate occurrence. It is a way of life for most. There are a few wealthier people, such as Ton, Aunt Tam, and Que, at one point. Hang has to become an exported worker because her mother lost one leg and could no longer work at the market.
Poverty is one reason that familial ties are so important. Because family can help one escape the worst of poverty, such ties emphasize the importance of cultural rules in life.
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