A Room of her Own

I sat in my Vietnamese teacher’s bedroom, on the outskirts of Hanoi, full of the Tet holiday delicacies her mother had spent weeks preparing. I held in my hands a copy of the book that had turned me into a reader. The small, concrete house where Nhung and her family lived was unheated and held the cold. My breath formed fleeting half-clouds and disappeared.

“Little sister,” I said, “Have you read this book?”
Nhung looked out from her synthetic-pink, fur-lined hood.
“I tried,” she said, “But I only made it through half. It was too hard for me to understand.”
I opened to the first page.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it if you want to know the truth. In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told you anything pretty personal about them… They’re nice and all — I’m not saying that — but they are also touchy as hell. Besides I am not going to tell you my whole goddamn autobiography or anything.

Sure, those opening lines of The Catcher in the Rye were full of obscure phrases and slang that Nhung would be hard-pressed to translate even if she found them on the Internet. But there was something else there, the essential problem that drives the remaining two hundred pages, the fact that Holden has discovered himself, a solitary being navigating a painfully fallen world.

“Was growing up for you,” I paused, wondering how to best phrase my question, “partly about separating yourself from your family?”
Nhung looked at me.
“No,” she said. “I don’t understand.”
I tried again. “I mean, when you were a teenager, didn’t you suddenly start thinking about your individuality? And didn’t you feel scared at the idea of being alone in the world?”
“No,” she said again, this time more quietly.

Holden’s suffering was not the universal malaise I’d presumed. It meant nothing to Nhung. I placed the book back on her pressed-board shelves and asked something more concrete.

“How long have you had your own bedroom?”
“About five years. Only since we moved here to Sai Dong.”
“And before that?”
“I slept with my mother and father in one room.”
“And your mother? Did she have her own room growing up?”
‘Your father?”
“No. You know, Vietnam is not a rich country. Until very recently we did not have so much. Most families all slept together in one room.”
“Do your girlfriends have their own rooms?” I asked.
“Some do, some don’t. It depends on if their family has the money.”

I thought of Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of One’s Own.” Woolf suggests that a woman needs wealth, and the privacy wealth affords, to develop her own thoughts. Vietnam was no pre-war London with its dilatants, writing circles, and ivory towers. Still I wondered if argument for privacy and female empowerment might translate into post-communist circumstances, into a country undergoing the tidal wave of international development.

Here, some hundred years after the initial publication of “A Room of One’s Own,” young women are, for the first time, being given private space. Nhung is a college-educated English teacher with aspirations. She wants to work in a bank, or in human resources. Nhung’s mother is upset that Nhung does not have a family, or, at the very least, a serious boyfriend. And even though Nhung knows that she will eventually satisfy her mother’s expectations, she is also adamant that she become a modern woman first.

As we sat together beneath Nhung’s polyester comforter, I sensed change, breathing in the space between us. She held in her hands the twin chalices of independence and isolation — cups from which I expect Nhung or her daughters will eventually drink. How long before a young Vietnamese woman can empathize with a desperate, self-obsessed sixteen-year-old boy wandering around New York City? Fifty years? One hundred? I imagine that it might be even sooner than I expect.

Over the following weeks, I photographed nine young Vietnamese women’s bedrooms. Each woman was excited and proud to have me document her bookshelves, stuffed animals, laptops, pillows, and quilts. Which is to say perhaps that their private bedrooms have yet to been defined and defended as such. There were no locks on those doors, no physical mechanisms to divide them from the homes in which they lay. Nhung certainly had yet to value her privacy fiercely enough to feel cast out, alone with nothing but her delicate self for comfort. But given enough time the past will dissolve into the present. And the present is something we share in our obsessively interconnected world. I wondered if Nhung sees in me some aspect of her own future. I know, in her presence, I sometimes want that which I will never regain.

Perhaps Nhung’s bedroom embodies the modernization process restructuring Vietnam’s ancient Confucian society. Only since Doi Moi (the series of reforms that liberalized the state-run economic sector, leading to privatization and the rapid influx of foreign investment,) has personal space become affordable for the ever-growing middle class.
Over the past twenty years, the policies surrounding property ownership and Land Use Rights have shifted dramatically. Although the state still owns the land collectively, increasingly individuals have been given the right to lease, mortgage, and transfer their Land Use Rights. This has led to a rise in informal renovation projects, which typically increase the size of a dwelling, and also to the informal sale of Land Use Rights, generating income and leading families to invest in larger spaces on the city’s periphery. To the best of my knowledge, little intimate documentation of this phenomenon exists.

When I ask women of my generation if their mother’s had rooms of their own the answer is the same every time: no. After I finished my initial work on this project, the requests kept pouring in. It seems young Vietnamese women want to have their personal space memorialized.

When I return to Vietnam, and it won’t be long now, I will continue my work archiving, in this small way, the arrival at privacy; the fall-outs and quiet dignity it offers.

Our homes make requests. They alter us; they force us to consider our fragile selfhood differently. A Room of Her Own is a testament to the young women navigating social change in Hanoi at the beginning of the twenty-first century. May it serve as a reminder that shifts in human consciousness come as much from the spaces we inhabit as they do from the ideas and people who fill them.

Living Stone
My Caine Prize Year