In this extract from the novel, Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong, the author explores the importance of culture and tradition within the text. The extract is set in the slums of Hanoi, Vietnam during the war and outlines the lifestyle of main character Hang, her mother and relatives at this time. Through first person narration, Huong details the personalities of and relationships between Hang and her relatives – in particular, Uncle Chinh, mother Que and Aunt Tam, illustrating the struggles and hardships experienced by the Vietnamese to display the importance of family within Vietnamese culture. Using symbolism of material wealth and food as a means to show the expression of love that Que has for Uncle Chinh and Aunt Tam for Hang, Huong effectively portrays the customs and beliefs of Vietnam at the time of the book.
The setting of the text is clearly established through numerous amounts of cultural motifs presented within the extract in order to accentuate the importance of tradition. The existence of a communist government alongside the celebration of “Tet” – Vietnamese New Year, is highly significant in emphasising the placement of this text in Vietnam. “The house, the clothes, the food. These people are incapable of tolerating even the slightest difference. So you see, a little bit more money, a nicer bowl … it’s dramatic for them.” (125) This remark made by peasant Neighbour Vi about communist Uncle Chinh’s family displays the oppressive lifestyle and beliefs of the Vietnamese officials living under the corruption of the Communist Party.
The unwritten laws that exist within their community, determining equal standards of living and conformity to group normalities are used by Huong to portray the suffocating attitude of the government party at the time. The inclusion of such suffocating traditions is contrasted with the beliefs of other characters in the book, displaying the differing values between the social classes in Vietnam. This divergence in beliefs is further implied through the separation of Uncle Chinh’s family home in Commune Residence K from the residences of regular peasants such as Neighbour Vi, Hang and her mother. “Listen to my advice. Wear the same clothes as your sister-in-law. Then see if she doesn’t change her attitude.” (125) Evident throughout the text, Uncle Chinh and his family do not welcome Que’s visits to his house, as a result of the conformist community he lives in. Despite being family, Que must change the way she appears in order to be accepted by her own brother, emphasising her brother’s strong beliefs in the tradition of his communist community. Uncle Chinh and his family’s prioritising of their shallow communist customs over their own blood relatives illustrate the meaning of tradition in the text, henceforth presenting the social setting of Vietnam.
In addition to this, the significance of family in Vietnamese tradition is presented by Huong to lead the reader to see the importance of culture. Que makes a considerable effort to keep in contact and interact with her brother Chinh’s family as it is her only other family. Similarly, Aunt Tam obsesses over her niece Hang, as she is the only family that she has left. “She gathered me in her arms, stroking my hair. “The older you get, the more you look like your father. Really, to each plant its own little slug. No doubt about it.”” (126) Aunt Tam’s actions of embracing and interacting with Hang within this extract are representative of the great amount of love she has for her, due to her being the only family that she has. To Aunt Tam, family is a number one priority and since the loss of her beloved brother; she constantly dotes on his daughter who reminds her of him. Her comparison of Hang and her father to a slug and a plant is a metaphor used by the author to further emphasise the blood ties between Hang and her father, and consequently also Aunt Tam.
The majority of interaction in the extract between Hang and Aunt Tam in the extract is contrasted to the amount of interaction between Hang and her mother in order to show the close relationship that Hang and her aunt share. As a result of Hang being well cared for by Aunt Tam, Que similarly makes it her duty to help her brother live with the basic necessities of life because he is her only other blood relation, showing the importance of family in the text. “But a few days later she sewed herself exactly the same suit her sister-in-law wore. She put it on every time she visited Commune Residence K. When she returned, she seemed more cheerful, more relaxed.” (125) Que’s sewing of a new outfit for her frequent visits to the commune residence where Chinh stays displays the amount of effort and consideration she gives in order to be accepted by his family. The distance between her home and her brother’s are symbolic of the distant relationship they share, while her travelling and hard work to visit her brother is figurative of her efforts in closing the gap between the siblings. As shown through her happy mood after these visits in this new suit, her family and their approval are also extremely important to her, displaying the value of culture and tradition in the text.
Throughout the extract, symbolism of food is used to portray the relationships between characters during the rituals of Tet, showing the value of culture in the text. Que does not feel that she is needed by Hang due to Aunt Tam’s obsessive concern for Hang’s well-being and so in order to feel a sense of purpose in life; she directs her love towards her brother, who she feels needs her more. Que cares for and constantly seeks acceptance from her older brother and his family as shown through her sacrifice of her own savings and Tet preparations in order to supply food for her brother’s Tet dinner. “My mother had exhausted her savings for Uncle Chin’s Tet dinner. At home, all we had were a few New Year’s cakes and a pound of pork pate.” (125) From this extract, it is clear that Hang’s mother is struggling to make ends meet as the emotive language “exhausted” highlights, hence displaying her personality as selfless.
Here, the contribution of food is used as a symbol to represent care, as while Que gives a great amount of food to Uncle Chinh, she gives little to her own daughter, Hang. She is portrayed as a suffering woman who endeavours as a single mother, to provide for her brother’s family despite her own poor living conditions and little wealth as she believes that she must take responsibility for his family due to blood ties. The unconditional love given by Que is unreturned by her brother’s family, showing the insignificance of blood family to them through their lack of care for Que and Hang, portraying them as inconsiderate characters in the book. Moreover, Que’s small provision of food for her own daughter’s Tet is used by the author to represent her distant relationship with Hang while she relies on Aunt Tam to supply Hang’s Tet banquet.
Aunt Tam’s love for Hang is similarly represented through her provision of a great Tet banquet for Hang. She cares extensively only for Hang, looking after her health and spoiling her, allowing her to live a better standard of living than her mother. “As for the young hens, these are for you, Hang. You’ll have to steam them. Now that you’re a teenager, you must eat right, round out a bit.” (126) The symbol of food is once again used to represent Aunt Tam’s care for Hang, however no food is presented to Que, showing that Aunt Tam and Hang’s mother do not share a close relationship. Aunt Tam addresses Hang as the receiver of her gifts and through this symbol of food during Tet, the author leads the reader to see Aunt Tam’s affection for Hang showing the importance of culture and family in the text.
Within this extract from the novel Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong the author portrays the importance of culture and tradition. Through representations of relationships between Uncle Chinh’s family, Hang and her mother, emphasis is placed on the significance of customs and beliefs. Using first person narration, the author positions the reader to see the relationships between characters Hang and her family in the text through the symbolism of food and material wealth, successfully emphasising Vietnamese tradition in the text.