Aging Series: Vietnamese Grandparents Keep Multigenerational Living Alive | WAMC

Aging Series: Vietnamese Grandparents Keep Multigenerational Living Alive

Dec 15, 2020

In many parts of the United States, multi-generational households are a thing of the past. As young professionals move out and move away, parents and grandparents are often left behind. In part seven of our special series on aging, WAMC’s Jackie Orchard learns about the importance of grandparents in one culture.

In 2017, my sister married a Vietnamese immigrant in Anaheim, California: Nguyễn Bình Trọng Tường. He goes by Trong.

Once my sister married into Trong’s family, I noticed something strange about the Vietnamese family culture: They liked each other.

My sister, Trong, Trong’s brother Tín, Trong’s dad, Nguyễn Văn Canh Thâu, or Thau for short, and Trong’s mom, Nguyễn Thị Hoàng Hải, or Hai for short, all lived together with two cats and a new puppy. Happily. And when I visited it was a sort of intoxicating chaos of laughter, bickering, delicious curry smells, late night fires, and… love. There’s no other way to say it. It was love. And it was different from what I had observed in the white, American household I grew up in. And I wanted to know why.

From Vietnam To America

Trong’s father Thau moved his family from Saigon to the United States 20 years ago. Now 62, he says this feeling of love in the home comes from a situation many Americans would cringe at. Before he married in Vietnam, Thau lived with him mom, grandfather, four sisters, and brother -- all in one room.

“We don’t have [our] own room,” Thau said. “We just have some bathroom and some beds and we live like that.”

Thau says that’s how it was in Vietnam in the 70s. Most families lived this way.

Trong’s dad says you don’t miss privacy if you’ve never had it. He says he didn’t know what privacy was until they came to the U.S. and bought a house with lots of big rooms.

Trong’s mom, Hai, grew up in a similar situation. She lived with her parents, grandmother, brother and sister in one room. They didn’t have beds; they slept on straw mats on the floor. Hai says when you grow up with little money, you learn to share and be patient with each other, something many American children don’t have to learn right away. She says she’s noticed that kids who grow up with their own rooms and all their own things tend to be a little more selfish and less aware of the people around them.

The Role Of Grandparents

Hai and Thau agree that one of the biggest differences between Vietnam and the U.S. is the role of grandparents. Hai has fond memories of her grandmother growing up, saying she would take the blame for mischief in the house, with a wink to the guilty child.

“Sometimes we do something misstep my mom ask my grandma, ‘Who did it,’ my grandma said, ‘I did It. I did it.’  See I’m the culprit -- I misstep,” Hai said. “And that’s why we love my grandma so much.”

Thau got into one of the best schools in Saigon, which was an honor for the family, but it was about three miles away. His grandfather walked him to school every day and then saved his money and gave it to Thau so he could take a rickshaw to school instead of walking. Their son Trong, my brother in law, is on the Zoom call with me, interpreting.

“The money came from the fact that a lot of his aunts and uncle gave my dad’s grandpa money to live,” Trong said. “And whatever money that he got he gave it to my dad so he could go to school and not have to walk five kilometers away.”

Hai and Thau both miss the craziness of a packed house. Their son Trong and my sister Alex moved out of their house, and the state, to start med school two years ago -- and they say ever since the house is too quiet.

“Yeah, sometimes we feel alone because it’s just – I miss them a lot,” Thau said.

Hai says being around kids keeps you young.

“When we get older we would like to hear about the smiles of the children,” Hai said. “Like – I’m always on the phone [looking at a] clip or video that Trong sends to me about Fynn. He smiles, he talk something, he do something. It makes me happy. And we wish we could live like our family in Vietnam.”  

The Rugged Individual

Hai and Thau say what people don’t understand is that in Vietnam, families stay together because it just makes sense financially. Even after kids graduate and look for jobs, they tend to work close to home so that rent is free.

“They don’t care they just go to work to make money only,” Hai says. “When they come home everything is ready for them. So that’s why they don’t want to move out.”

In America, you might get offered your dream job across the country and you just go.

Sociologist Richard Lachmann, who specializes in popular culture and U.S. decline at the University at Albany, says this concept is called “rugged individualism.”

“Rugged individualism is the idea that each of us is able to succeed as long as we’re able to work hard so that our background, what our parents can give us or not give us, don’t really matter,” Lachmann said. “It’s entirely up to us.”

Lachmann says this idea came about because America wanted to be different from Europe.

“Where you had a hereditary aristocracy and people didn’t have the opportunity to move up or down,” Lachmann said. “And also there was the idea that the U.S. had this frontier so if you were in one place and you didn’t see opportunity you could just get up and move west and make your own opportunity.”

Lachmann says America was founded by immigrants, most of whom came from countries where multigenerational households are the norm. But he says at the start of the 20th century many American incomes went up and it became possible for young couples to stop depending on their parents, create their own home, and be independent.

“Another big part was the creation of Social Security that then gave old people incomes of their own and they didn’t have to depend on their adult children,” Lachmann said. “So in these two directions it made it economically possible for each generation to live on their own.”

But maybe this idea is fragmenting family structure – making us more independent and a little lonelier at the same time.

Thau says when you live with multiple generations together, respect and hierarchy become very important. In Viet, there are respectful ways to address someone and in a family household you always tell people where you are going. Older people eat first and you don’t just eat the things you like.

Thau says in those customs of respect, you show love.

Kids Need Grandparents

Hai says kids need grandparents. She says grandparents have a lot of experiences to share, wisdom to pass on. She says they can provide support by teaching or providing child care while the parents are at work.

“And another point that my mom made was that you sort of… can’t have enough love,” Trong said. “And that love provided by the grandparents can help kids be more kind, they learn better than having to sort of figure life out on their own if they didn’t have parents or grandparents to show them part of the way.”

The Return of the Multigenerational Household

Lachmann says after generations of growing apart, the multi-generational household trend is reversing.

“Census data shows that the percentage of multigenerational families is increasing,” Lachmann said. “Children when they become adults don’t earn enough to live on their own so they move back in with their parents. And sometimes middle aged parents they increasingly suffer financial setbacks.”

The Nguyen family is fine with reverting to what they knew in Vietnam. With Trong and my sister both in medical school, starting their residencies soon, Trong’s parents are hoping to retire as soon as possible and move to wherever their grandson Fynn is – to help out while Alex and Trong work.

The Altar

Nguyễn Văn Canh Thâu and Nguyễn Thị Hoàng Hải in front of the family altar in Anaheim, California.
Credit Tin Nguyen

At the Nguyen family home in Anaheim, there’s an altar with photos of past generations where they leave fruit and other foods, burn incense, and leave gifts. They then gather together and eat on the death anniversary of each ancestor.

“As you grow older people move away a lot and sometimes there’s not a lot of events or opportunities for people to come back and meet each other and this is one of them,” Trong said. “To celebrate a family member’s death.”

Trong and my sister plan to keep this tradition going. But Thau says even if their kids don’t have an altar, that’s fine. He just asks that his children use the anniversary of his death as an excuse to get together.

“The point of it, they say, was that – use it as an opportunity for us all to meet, even if we live far away from each other,” Trong said.

Fynn’s middle name, by the way, is Thau – after his grandpa.