Review of Silence and Sacrifice: Family Stories of Care and the Limits of Love in Vietnam By Merav Shohet, Oakland: University of California Press. 2021. pp. 288.

Reviewed Book

Silence and Sacrifice: Family Stories of Care and the Limits of Love in Vietnam By MeravShohet, Oakland: University of California Press. 2021. pp. 288.

Cover of Silence and Sacrifice (2021)

Tu-Anh Hoang

On the first page of Silence and Sacrifice: Family Stories of Care and the Limits of Love in Vietnam, author Merav Shohet states clearly the central question of her book: “How do families hold together when turbulent forces threaten to tear them apart?” (9). Shohet’s main argument is that while practices of sacrifice (hy sinh) and love (tình cảm) keep families together, “any cohesion or continuity that families achieve is precarious: it involves suffering and hard work to sustain and sometimes runs up against the limits of love” (10). Given the country’s history of war and the possible conflicts between ideologies of, for example, Confucianism and communism, Shohet’s decision to study family conflict and separation in Vietnam is apt. As I am a Vietnamese scholar whose research interests focus on silence, sacrifice, and violence among women in Vietnam, the book immediately captured my attention, and scholars of other fields such as history and cultural studies will also find the book’s theoretical framing compelling.

Shohet’s book shines both theoretically and methodologically. In particular, Shohet effectively theorizes sacrifice (hy sinh) and love (tình cảm) using the concept of “asymmetrical reciprocity,” she discusses the wars with delicacy and sensitivity while establishing her theoretical approach in the book, and she offers a beautifully written “thick ethnography” based on the 18 months fieldwork in Vietnam in an extended period of six years (from 2002 to 2008) using cultural, linguistic, and psychological anthropology tools. Her analysis focuses on five extended family units in Da Nang and Quang Nam, the two provinces in southern central Vietnam. Her informants include eight matriarchs, three patriarchs over 60 years old, 36 women and 27 men 20–60 years old who were the elders’ children, and 20 girls and 13 boys under 20 years old who were their grandchildren. Her interviews also included other people in their social networks. Thus, in total, the author visited and interviewed 80 households, all in Vietnamese. Her rich ethnographic materials also included more than 100 hours of video recording on interactions of family members in their routine chores and in big life events.

Asymmetrical reciprocal relation is the key theory of the book, which is both original and profound. This concept is grounded in the author’s ethnographic works in a Vietnamese society organized by the moral rule “Respect those above, yield to those below” (kính trên nhường dưới). Shohet defines asymmetrical reciprocal as “a set of bidirectional but asymmetrical relations that, in emphasizing both respect and yielding, steer family members to struggle to prove their tình cảm (loving sentiments premised on material relations of care) for one another” (11). The concept is learned, internalized, and embodied in the community’s routine and ritual practices. Readers can find vivid examples of these practices in illustrative photos and narratives in part I of the book, such as elderly woman bows at a house-blessing (82) or elderly lineage head bows at the collective ancestor-worship (83). Recording and reflecting on how children learn to show respect to elders, the author provides a clear description on how asymmetrical reciprocal relation is transmitted and learned across generations. As a Vietnamese person, I appreciate Shohet’s deeply engaged analysis. Readers who are interested in language can read more of this analysis of language on “showing respect” in Table 1, “Perform Respect to the Neighbors” (88–89).

The book distinguishes patriotic sacrifice, which is when someone sacrifices their own safety and happiness for the benefit of the country, from domestic sacrifice, which is expected and seen in family relationships. The book’s discussion of silence is noteworthy. Shohet emphasizes that sacrifice “involves suffering in silence for the sake of intimate kin and it binds family together” (10) and “has to be willingly and quietly embraced, without too much fanfare” (129). This reflection implies that sacrifice includes suffering but also recognition and pride. The discussion of sacrifice (hy sinh) in family contexts offers a significant contribution to the fields of gender studies and women studies.

The analysis of love (tình cảm) is another strong contribution of Shohet’s focus on family practice, connection, and continuation. According to Shohet, tình cảm helps us understand sacrifice (hy sinh), and I find her discussion about tình cảm alone to be profound. She analyzes tình cảm as a moral issue. People are judged by others in the family and community as having love/feeling (có tình cảm) or not having love/feeling (không có tình cảm/vô cảm). People không có tình cảm/vô cảm are seen not good and immoral people. People có tình cảm are seen as good and responsible people. Showing enough or not enough tình cảm is the basis for getting the approval and support of other people in the family and community; it influences how people think, act, and even die. The author also emphasizes that having tình cảm is equally important as showing enough tình cảm (thể hiện tình cảm đủ). People who do not have tình cảm or do not show tình cảm can be misunderstood as not good. Family members can show tình cảm by different means such as eating, drinking together, and showing enthusiasm in working together.

Alongside love (tình cảm), Shohet analyzes care as acts and means to show love and sacrifice. I am especially impressed with the story of family giving care to an elderly woman in chapter 4, and of a woman giving care to her son in chapter 5. In chapter 4, Shohet reflects on care not just as taking care of someone but being with someone at specific important moments; even waiting to get an update on news of a sick person or waiting to care are also care. The case in chapter 5 is a challenge to the “social evils” discourse in Vietnam that condemns prostitution, drug use, and HIV infection. This case is about a woman who is a sex worker. Her son had a substance use disorder and had recently passed away from AIDS. In this case, both the woman and her son became the target of a “social evils” campaign. However, community members talk about her as a noble woman because of her unconditional love of and care for her son. She does the work to be able to provide care for her son. She cares about her son even though he did not care about her. He gambled, struggled with drugs, and died of AIDS. When he died, she tried to borrow money to make him a decent funeral. Again, silence is considered important as a qualification of care.

Throughout the book, Shohet maintains the importance of gender and kinship in the conceptualization and practice of asymmetrical reciprocal relation, love, and sacrifice. She emphasizes:

“Whereas men attain moral recognition simply by enacting filial piety to their elders and/or the nation, women must additionally display devotion to their children by uncomplainingly taking on hardships themselves. Virtuous personhood for men thus abides less stringent standards. For men, filial piety and sociality with their kin and success in their work appear more important than suffering for their children. Alternatively, for a woman to be considered virtuous, she must be a good provider, a devoted mother, and genial kin: someone who financially supports and provides for her children and extended family, even if it means willingly assuming hardships and indignities herself.”(164)

Shohet also successfully uses war to reflect on the past and comprehend the present for state, family, and individual narratives so that readers gain clear insight into sacrifice, silence, love, and suffering. Additionally, the author’s reflections on her own situation and that of her fiancé add to the thick description of her ethnography.

The book shines as an ethnographic account. A beautifully written book, Silence and Sacrifice is filled with vivid descriptions of the women and men that Shohet interviewed and observed. Shohet’s talent for ethnography and storytelling shines through in the book, as readers can visualize how, for example, a desperate woman mourned her husband’s death in silence, a mother was devoted to her HIV-positive son, and the locations of many conversations and rituals. Overall, this book is highly recommended for a wide range of scholars doing research on family, gender, and women in post-crisis contexts, as well as students and scholars eager to learn more about Vietnamese society, culture, and history. Though Shohet claims that her book is not a Foucauldian one, scholars inspired to use Michel Foucault’s theories will appreciate the book’s treatment of morality, thought, and embodiment, as they illuminate the making and disciplining of the self.