Monday, December 5, 2016

Oprah, Shania Twain, Taylor Swift... and me

What do we all have in common? We were all born in the Year of the Snake, and according to Vietnamese belief, we\'re all likely to be unlucky.
Starting a family is no small feat, but I didn’t know just how tricky it could be until I moved to Vietnam.
One morning soon after my arrival, I was having breakfast with my friend Phuong and our conversation turned to children. Phuong confessed that she wanted to have a baby soon, but she was conflicted because the Vietnamese zodiac was about to spin around to the Year of the Snake. She raised her eyebrows and looked at me pointedly, inviting me to share in the significance of this revelation...but I simply returned her gaze with a smile.
“I’m the Year of the Snake,” I said playfully, “so what’s wrong with me?”
Horrified at the thought of offending me, she tried to backtrack, but I pressed her to explain.
According to Phuong, women born in the Year of the Snake can be successful and cunning (so far so good) but are inevitably unlucky in love. Phuong admitted she didn’t want to risk exposing her unborn daughter to a life of heartbreak, and I slithered uncomfortably in my seat.
For curiosity’s sake, I performed a quick internet search and found Virginia Woolf topping the list of famous female Snakes...OK, not the most promising start, but let’s keep looking. Unmarried media empress Oprah Winfrey also made an appearance, as did country singer Shania Twain, whose first husband had an affair with her best friend. The evidence was mounting. So who’s going to tell romance-obsessed Taylor Swift, born in 1989 like me, that her pop ballads may amount to nothing because she’s singing with a forked tongue?
I happen to think Oprah’s doing alright for herself, and that there’s still hope for me, Taylor, and the rest of our serpentine sisters. Since I’m not a stargazer (or a believer of any kind really), I’ve been consistently surprised by the way that superstition influences the decisions of my Vietnamese acquaintances--from their everyday choices to long-term plans, like when and how to raise a family.
Another example: last month I asked my colleague Giang if she’d like to accompany me to see an exhibit of ancient Vietnamese jade at the Hanoi National History Museum. She declined politely, saying she would love to go but couldn’t because she’s pregnant “and it’s not good for the baby to be around a lot of wandering souls.” Again, this required some explanation for me, so she continued: “Antiques have a lot of power and you have to be quite strong to deal with them.” I didn’t quite know what to say in response, so I just nodded.
Now, I don’t know how widespread this particular idea is among Vietnamese people, but my impression is that spirituality of all sorts continues to structure life here--in the form of astrology, mythology, and of course established religion.
Phuong and Giang are both rational, modern women, and it’s hard to know whether they are actively endorsing these conventions or whether they are following them unconsciously, out of habit...just in case. This distinction--the line between enduring belief and fading tradition--will perhaps become clearer in the near future. As next year’s snake babies grow up in this new globalized society, they will be faced with more and more choices about what to believe and how to live.
I, for one, am eager to see what they decide.
*** Rachel Poser is a native of Brooklyn, New York, and has been working as an editor in Hanoi since June 2011.


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