Women To Avoid
Yesterday, after giving the second of my Tuesday hour-and-a-half lectures, an Asian student in the third row of the very overcrowded room in which I am teaching the course in conservation made a point to see me, and with the obvious intent of talking
about matters not related to the class. This I generally don’t like to do, especially with a female, since a remark taken the wrong way can cause problems of a sort I’m just not interested in dealing with.
The student’s opening at the campus cafeteria where we met seemed innocent enough—she liked my class and wanted to know where she could get some reading material that complemented a few of my lectures. After I provided a few readings she might look at, she then informed me that the previous day she’d received an engagement ring, and she was very much in love and happy in ways hard to express. Curious, I let her talk, which is exactly what she wanted to do. And the more she talked—with unusual candor about her relationship with her soon-to-be husband Andy and race relationships, the more interested I became. I felt as if I was once again on the road in Southeast Asia, where I either use money, my foreignness, my aggressiveness, or all of them together to corner people and get stories. I collect stories.
Diem is a fifth-year senior with a triple major and a double minor whose ambitions are to join the Peace Corps after graduation, along with Andy, and then after their twenty-seven month stint look for a career in the Foreign Service. She did not speak of her fiancé’s long-term aims. Diem is, from what I could gather, ambitious, strong, and someone who I sensed is not going to have any problem having a family and also a successful career. Whether she’ll have the four children she says she wants (and about which I gave her a bit of bad time in class before 100 students, which she took with great brio and cheerful defiance) is another matter.
Diem is Vietnamese. She has never traveled outside the U.S., and little outside California. Her parents came here shortly after the war. Her father was in the South Vietnamese Army, and however grateful he may once have been for the privilege of getting out of Vietnam and being able to start a new life in the U.S., he is now, and has been for a very long time, deeply embittered by the war. Whatever the nature of this embitterment—Diem didn’t elaborate—he has channeled it into a hatred of Anglos. And so he wasn’t at all happy a couple of years ago when he learned that Diem’s first, and to date only boyfriend, is an Anglo. His father is of Polish extraction, his mother is part Mexican, and part something else (she didn’t give me the details on this).
Their relationship, now three years in the making, has also not been received well by Andy’s parents. Their unhappiness has nothing to do with Diem being Vietnamese, but with other issues that are “hard to explain,” Andy’s mother has told her more than once. Diem is reasonably certain that her ethnic origins are in fact the issue, and that all other “hard to explain” reasons are beside the point.
As an aside, she opinioned that in the very large Asian community on the university campus, there is a definite hierarchy of how relationships are judged. Asian parents would prefer that if they are Vietnamese their sons and daughters should marry someone Vietnamese. Second best would be another Asian, third on the list are Anglos, fourth Hispanics, and last and far down the ladder, and really not acceptable at all to Asian parents, are African Americans. Just how much of a distance there is between these various groups on an evaluative scale is anyone’s guess, though in Diem’s case her father’s dislike of Anglos, and white Americans in particular because of his participation in the Vietnam War and what he took from it, is probably stronger that the norm (if there is such a measurable norm). Diem did note that when she first told her father about her boyfriend a couple of years ago, he commanded her to immediately break up with him. Which she did, only to later change her mind and openly defy her father. Her father remained opposed, a position that weakened somewhat after he had a heart attack. But his resistance continues, and as we talked it was clear that Diem was quite scared about having to tell her father about the engagement in the next couple of days. She had no idea whether she would just push the ring in his face or try to come at the issue in a more diplomatic way. And yet her problems may be minor compared to her sister’s. She’s a sophomore at the university and is dating an African American. The parents have no knowledge of this—yet.
Diem’s family and Andy’s family are both very conservative, she said. The attitude has greatly affected their dating and other activities. Other than the time they have spent together on campus and in one another’s homes and on dates, their familiarity with one another in genuinely intimate terms is limited. To a single night, I surmised at one point in the discussion. For both Diem and her fiancé, this is their first relationship of any kind.
Diem wanted to talk with me at length because she thought I’d be willing to give her candid thoughts on the problems she’s facing. She said she is seeking as much advice from older people as she can get. The little she has gotten from her parents to date is not what she has wanted to hear. Her mother is also against the marriage, feeling that she is much too young to settle down (she is twenty-two), that marriage is not fundamentally about love, and that the quality of their relationship will quickly turn on economic issues. Although Andy has graduated from the university, he has thus far been able to do no better than get a job in a restaurant waiting on tables.
Diem was eager to reveal a number of details about her fiancé, and it is hard to know how telling they might be. But from what she said, and given the kind of advice I judged she was seeking, I opined that while I understood that living with Andy before marriage would be very hard for either family to accept, it would be of considerable value to do so, even if only for a couple of months. I suggested that one possibility might be to find a way to postpone the wedding and go into the Peace Corps as planned and get postings to the same place. I said that nothing would be quite as valuable as learning about a person in a situation where money would be tight and not everything would go smoothly. She agreed, but insisted that the Buddhist marriage was planned and nothing at this point would derail it.
Diem wanted to know how long I had lived with a woman before marrying her, assuming that I had done so after I gave her my thoughts on her relationship and the need for a trial period together. She was more than a little taken aback when I said five years. In fact she was speechless.
The conversation wandered, and I was struck by Diem’s candor, her intelligence, her enthusiasm for life—and at one point, thinking of my son, Cole, and myself in my twenties, I thought: she’d be a real catch.
But then before our get-together ended, she turned to the issue of faithfulness and noted that Andy often looked at other girls on campus, and sometimes made comments about them. More than once she brought this to his attention and said she didn’t like it. He told her that he only looked, that he would never go any further. She wasn’t so sure about this, and apparently had talked with him about it at great length. What did I think about it?
All men look, I said. And a great many, given the right circumstances, will go further.
That’s what I think too, she said.
This, then, is what she has told Andy, and more than once. That if he married her it was for life; there was no turning back or getting out via an easy divorce. Should he ever cheat on her, she would go to the best lawyer she could find and would try to get as much money as she could from him. Her aim would be to leave him penniless, she said with great confidence. Another point she said she had stressed with Andy is that to insure that he won’t cheat on her she won’t “let him out of her sight.” She will make him account for all of his time.
I told her how I feel about jealousy of this sort, and that I could handle her kind of abridgment of my freedom for all of about one day. I said that I’m of the opinion that in the long run, if not in the short run, her attitude and attempt to keep Andy on a short rope will be destructive to the relationship.
I don’t think Diem knew how to react to what I said, and it was at this point that the conversation began to die. I had told her some things she did not want to hear.
After I left her, I thought of how attractive Diem is—physically, intellectually, and in other ways. But I also thought: If Cole brought home a girl like Diem, and I learned of the noose she intended to put around his neck, and what she would do in the event of a divorce, I would marshal every argument I could to persuade him to get rid of her as soon as possible.
Diem sounds like she wants to build a prison cell for her husband. As nice as she might be, she sounds like an absolute nightmare and the title of this submission is perfect!