By Van Ngan

Saigon: To a Western husband, the thought of teaching his wife brings forth visions of terror, for to him "teaching" means enabling his wife to drive the family car, or possibly improving her tennis or golf game. In most cases he probably hires a professional instructor to do the job for him. In Viet-Nam, the concept of "teaching your wife" means something entirely different, for here the bridegroom has the task of leading his bride from the ways of her parents' home -- the way of life she grew up with -- to that of his own home. Her successful transition is the husband's traditional responsibility. In Asian society this is one of the most fundamental duties of every husband. He who helps his bride to successfully adept herself to the ways of his family can count on a long and happy marriage. He must help her to abandon her former habits and adopt the practices of her new home. He must show her his family customs and traditions so that she may gain the acceptance of his family and her responsibilities are now to his home and his ancestral household.

While she may have enjoyed the traditional afternoon siesta in her own home, she may be required to stay up and work about the house all day if her new mother-in-law does not partake of the siesta habit. The husband must teach his bride to share in the family housework. She must take care of the children, help prepare the meals and perform the myriad other daily household tasks of a new wife, while her husband goes to work to earn a living. If the husband has his own business, she must be familiar with his work and she is expected to help him if necessary.

But, the most delicate task of the husband is to guide his bride in dealing with members of his own family. He must be aware of the possibilities of conflict between his wife and his mother and try to prevent any problems. For, if such a conflict should occur, he is faced with the possible choice of siding with his new and sensitive bride or with his mother -- a fearsome choice for any man to make. It is partly due to these problems that conservative parents carefully choose future wives for their sons. A girl's behavior and skills are more important to her prospective mother-in-law than her physical beauty, even though the son may think otherwise.

Just as other aspects of society have changed with the times, the philosophy of teaching wives has modified in concept and value. Until the end of the last century, the Vietnamese women were allowed to play only a minor part in family life and were instructed to obey their husbands completely. Young girls were rarely admitted to public schools and, when they got married, they had to depend entirely on their husband's guidance. A man's duty of teaching his wife was regarded as sacred. With the influence of Western culture introduced by the French, many women gained an education and then rebelled against their inferior status. Vietnamese wives began a quiet struggle to gain equality with men and some measure of independence for a smaller family, their own family, within the framework of the husband's ancestral household. During this transition period many conflicts arose between tradition- bound mothers-in-law and the modernized brides and often the poor husbands were caught in-between. Since 1945, women have gained most of the rights and privileges of men. But, in practice, wives still prefer to follow the guidance of their husbands and let them make the decisions. Women are still content with their traditional duties as mothers and wives and do not attempt to compete with their men, as so often happens in the West. However, with changing trends and increased westernization of Viet-Nam, this relationship, too, is slowly changing. Public education is now mandatory by law for all Vietnamese, including girls. And, with this increased education is the new "mod" society introduced by Western cinema, magazines and thousands of Westerners flooding the country in recent years. If these trends continue, the Vietnamese husband may some day find himself faced with the terrifying prospect of teaching his own wife to drive the family car, just as Western husbands do -- most reluctantly.