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  • My grandfather prided himself on being a liberal. Unlike other Vietnamese fathers, he decided to eschew the custom of arranged marriages. He intended to follow the French way, allowing them the privilege of choosing their own mate.

    But there was one caveat: my grandfather would still have the right of final approval.

    My uncle once brought home a beautiful young woman whom he intended to marry. My grandfather greeted her with warm hospitality, his jovial laughter echoed through the house. Escorting her to the dining room, he offered her a cigarette, while the servants brought tea and candied ginger, the two of them chatted, puffing clouds of smoke. While his son sat nervously in the chair, my grandfather inquired about her family background. He even shared about his own humble beginning, the poverty of his childhood, the years in which he was homeless.

    When the woman departed, my uncle relaxed and asked him permission to become engage to his girlfriend.

    My grandfather shook his head. No.

    Why not? My uncle asked. Crestfallen.

    Because. First. A proper woman does not smoke. Second. Her family is too poor. You’ll never be certain if she wants to marry you, or my money.

    My mother was in love with another man before she met my father. His family was wealthy, even wealthier than my grandfather, they owned clothing factories throughout the country. Before embarking to study at a university in France, the man proposed marriage to my mother.

    When my mother asked my grandfather for permission to become engage to this man.

    My grandfather sighed. I’m sorry but the answer is no.

    Why not? My mother asked. Shocked.

    I don’t like Northerners. You know how those people are. A bunch of phonies. I can’t have my girl married to that lot.

    My aunt, the youngest of eight children, learned from her siblings’ mistakes.

    When she asked if she could marry the man whom she was desperately in love with, she made sure that her candidate was: (1) from a wealthy family and (2) from the South.

    My grandfather told her. Let me think about it.

    A few days later, after not hearing any response from my grandfather, she inquired again about the possibility of marriage.

    My grandfather looked at her and sighing again, he said. Sorry, he’s just too tall for you. It just wouldn’t look right.

    POSTSCRIPT: But circumstances change. War is a great leveler. After the Communist victory, after my grandfather passed away, of his five children who married, three would ultimately marry Vietnamese spouses: (1) from poor families and (2) from the North. By then, region, class, no longer matter, everyone was (literally) in the same boat. Just poor. Just Vietnamese.
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