Interview by Annemarie Samuels
Annemarie Samuels: When you first started considering doing ethnographic research in Vietnam, what did you want to focus on and how did this focus change during fieldwork?
Merav Shohet: I’ll be honest, I didn’t come to the study of “silence and sacrifice” directly. I first wanted to study trauma and memory, thinking that Vietnam’s civil and anticolonial war would take center stage for people. I also considered studying Vietnam’s high rates of abortion in light of its two-child family planning policy. But the more I studied Vietnamese, including the literature, memoirs, and films that came with studying language, the more the term “sacrifice” (hy sinh) caught my attention. I was always hearing or reading about it, and so became curious what hy sinh signified for people and why it was so often brought up. At the same time, I remained curious about silences surrounding memories of war, bereavement, Vietnam’s economic transitions, and sacrifice itself in the everyday, since the latter is such a familiar (often guilt-tripping) trope in the Jewish homes I was familiar with.
I found myself drawn to Đà Nẵng because of its history: this was where American troops first landed, and where so many families were split even earlier, some going north to join the Communist Revolution while others remained in place. Many emigres were deployed in Quảng Nam to liberate the South from American occupation, leaving civilian loved ones in Hanoi also exposed to American raids. They returned victorious after the wars, rejoining kin in coastal central Vietnam. I was intrigued by these reunifications, and wondered whether, how, and why they were sustained, and what role tình cảm, which I constantly heard invoked, played here.
The questions that guided my research revolved around how kinship, sacrifice, and tình cảm figure in people’s lives. Who belongs as family? If unity was even desirable, how was it achieved across so many rifts? I was especially puzzled by how people who had so recently been at war—against foreign occupation and invasion, but also against one another—seemed to have buried the past and “moved on” with the simple statement, xông rồi (it’s done). How did it come about that in so many families where brothers, sisters, and cousins had fought on opposing sides, they now appeared happy to eat and celebrate and work together? What accounted for this seemingly facile unity when I was used to rancor toward foes? How did they possibly narrate, and seem to truly believe in linear continuity with the past, given Vietnam’s many ruptures, including colonial occupation, revolution, and now the precipitous transition from communism to late socialist capitalism? What helped bind people together, and where were the fissures?
Also, I think because I’ve always been interested in language and food and emotion, I wanted to understand their roles in producing seeming continuity and tamping down conflict. That’s why I studied the micro dynamics of everyday eating, speaking, and affective norms, rather than focus on so-called big issues like religion, formal education, or politics and state ideology. I did this by combining the methods of linguistic and psychological anthropology, adopting the lens of language socialization to learn how children are raised and become subjectified, along with adults, to sacrifice and display tình cảm. Every 4-6 weeks, I filmed households in their everyday and ritual activities, in addition to engaging in constant participant observation (where I found that ritual pervades the everyday, in the Goffmanian as well as Geertzian senses). To further contextualize my observations and understand more about people’s psychic lives—which I saw as intersubjective rather than strictly internal—I also interviewed multiple family members repeatedly throughout the year, learning of their ongoing concerns as they unfolded over time, contextualized by their relatives’ remarks and interactions. These all brought me to the focus on silence and everyday sacrifice.
Annemarie Samuels: In your book you offer a novel understanding of the concept of sacrifice by showing how it is situated in the everyday. How did you come to understand everyday sacrifice in Vietnam? And what role does silence play in the act of sacrifice?
Merav Shohet: It’s funny, because when I first learned hy sinh translates to sacrifice, I thought of it as parallel to the terms and usages in English and other Indo-European and Semitic languages, where sacrifice is associated with bloodshed, real or symbolic, on the religious altar, as a ritual act of slaughter and offering, or in battle. This is how sacrifice has been theorized in anthropology. When I’ve presented about sacrifice in the everyday and as an ordinary practice of moral care, I’ve sometimes gotten pushback, that this is not the real meaning of sacrifice, or that hy sinh isn’t really sacrifice. I want to push back against such critiques, because in Vietnam, hy sinh does not signify ritual slaughter, but it certainly is equated with patriotic death in war; and despite state efforts to cement the connection between the term and patriotic death, people also continually talk about their parents’—and especially mothers’—sacrifices for them. In many popular representations, and in everyday speech, daughters and sons, poets, novelists, and journalists extoll (their) mothers as virtuous for giving them life (sinh) and continually suffering on loved ones’ behalf.
I should note that in what we think of as the West, too, sacrifice has this everyday connotation, even if it’s muted in our theories. This is part of why I set out to study sacrifice in the everyday among families, to expand how we think about sacrifice in relation to ethics and sociality. Still, despite several pilot research trips prior to the long-term dissertation project, I had not realized that outside of interviews, sacrifice is relatively silent. People typically do not call attention to their own sacrifices for others. They strive to suffer in silence for the benefit of others, and for an act to count as a sacrifice—whether it’s skipping a meal, disciplining one’s feelings/body, foregoing education, love, health, or even life for the sake of someone dear—there need to be others to notice and talk about it. As in the classic anthropological sense, sacrifice is always a multi-party, intersubjective moral affair.
The silence of sacrifice is not only about who is authorized to speak about or make a spectacle of it (that is, not the person sacrificing). It’s also about the moral weight attributed to suffering or taking on hardship in silence, and retrospectively keeping silent about one’s acts of sacrifice, while cultivating a disposition to embrace silent sacrifice in the first place. In daily life, the term sacrifice is not used much, but the ethical orientation associated with it is developed through communicative and other practices. These instill the sense that mutual, but unequal social obligations between kin and other intimates are natural, ethical, expected, and necessary: discipline and small or large acts of suffering for the benefit of others are to be embraced in silence and with a smile, without resentment. This begins already in toddlerhood, with routine modes of attending to those around you, for example by greeting them according to their (fictive kin) relationship to you, using the correct body posture and reference and address terms. And this disposition to sacrifice continues to be cultivated throughout life. It’s accomplished not by proclaiming something like, “I am teaching you to sacrifice” or “you are learning to sacrifice” or “you should sacrifice more,” but by enacting sacrifice through showing tình cảm, displaying respect to those above oneself and yielding to those below. It includes tending to the ancestors regularly, by maintaining their altar and celebrating their death anniversary and other occasions, which often take quite a bit of material resources and efforts that bind the generations in long-term, ideally loving, debt relations.
I should note that sacrifice and the silences involved in it are gendered and engendering. In Vietnam’s hetero- and cis-normative social milieu, men’s public recognition and praise of women’s sacrifices interpellate and pressure them into the silent sacrifice role deemed to embody feminine virtue. There are also far greater expectations of women than of men to discipline their bodies and desires and forgo benefits and pleasures for the sake of others, especially their children, husband, and elders. Women often participate in these acts of disciplining one another, in part by censuring each other for lacking “tình cảm” if there is any hint of them being less than enthusiastic about giving generously and taking on responsibilities willingly, while praising men more for doing much less. In effect, it is people’s, and especially women’s continual striving to display tình cảm and undertake suffering silently for intimates, without complaint or dissent, that helps bind families together by preserving and narrating as virtuous and mutually beneficial the hierarchies of kinship, gender, and class.
Annemarie Samuels: Despite tremendous yet subtle everyday efforts to keep families together, you show how sometimes people encounter the limits of love. One of the themes in your book is the friction that the demands of sacrifice may bring. Could you say a bit about the limits of tình cảm (love, care) and how people navigate these limits?
Merav Shohet: Yes, so in the previous question I may have made it sound like there is a closed system of hierarchy and reciprocity that guarantees harmonious relations, as though the different orders of hierarchy neither intersect nor conflict. The expectation/idealization is that intimates, especially those considered kin, will always feel and display tình cảm toward one another, by wanting to help and generously give when others are in need, as well as anticipate each other’s desires and provide for them through acts of care motivated by love. It could be easy enough to posit this structuralist framework and stop there, but this would be ethnographically dishonest. Relations do get messy, and not just when ethical principles come into conflict. Sacrifice and tình cảm are dynamic, not static, and people’s positionalities shift in relation to who they are interacting with and in what contexts. This means that what may look like love from some vantage points may be judged inadequate and even hurtful from another perspective.
In this respect, my ethnography is not unique to Vietnam. It points to systemic gender, class, and age inequities that we see across many contexts. In Vietnam, but likely elsewhere as well, the idealization of asymmetrical reciprocity through the valorization of (silent) sacrifice, together with the ways in which it unfolds in practice, helps explain how a status quo of inequality is often maintained, not just through relations of power and exploitation, but also through the collusion of those who love/care. One of the major ways that people navigate the troubled waters of tình cảm and the ways that women, especially, are burdened with the mandate to show tình cảm is through narrative. In telling and enacting stories in interactions with one another, people make moral claims on each other. Attending to the ways in which these stories unfold helps illuminate the ways that love and care are not so innocent and can hurt as well as help those involved. In the monograph, I recount participants’ stories of care and the conflicts embedded within them, to show how kin grapple with the limits of love or tình cảm through narrative as well as ritual acts and occasions, where people and principles come in contact, and often friction, with one another.
Annemarie Samuels: These moments of friction may be recognized through what you call “sideshadowing narratives”, right?
Merav Shohet: Yes, so sideshadowing is a somewhat obscure term, and yet quite generative, I think, for describing those experiences when people consider multiple perspectives and possibilities, rather than stick to just one unitary and consistent way of understanding their lifeworlds. We witness how ethics unfold in ordinary life by attending to both the content and the structure and grammar of stories, as these clue us in to people’s entanglements, shifting or consistent affective and moral stances, and thus their evaluations of their own and others’ actions, thoughts, and feelings. In the face of war, reconciliation, and political-economic transformations, life was full of contradictions, moral ambiguities, and personal ambivalences.
People’s narratives, which constitute (rather than merely reflect) their experiences, likewise were not always linear and hermetic structures with a clear beginning, middle, and end, a clear resolution of events, and a clear moral stance about those involved. People did often formulate foreshadowing and backshadowing narratives, which rely on hindsight to see events in the past as foretelling and determining what is yet to come, and judging protagonists accordingly. They did so to minimize confusion, ambivalence, or uncertainty, positing the present and future as direct outcomes of the past. But other times, people left the future more open-ended, and regarded the past and present as also laden with alternate possibilities. Their sideshadowing narrations juxtaposed incommensurate realities, considered paths not taken, and contemplated what might have been or still could be, had acts and circumstances been (interpreted and) responded to in different ways. A bit more encompassing than “subjunctive narratives,” which leave events and possibilities open-ended, sideshadowing narrations rendered not just the future, but also the past open to alternative ways of unfolding, allowing me to hear silences embedded in characters’ oftentimes not fully articulated conflictual relations and frictions surrounding love and sacrifice.
Annemarie Samuels: You use the method of family-centered ethnography. What does this method add to person-centered ethnography? And how may this method help us to find out how people think of family in the first place?
Merav Shohet: This is another great question, thank you. As I noted earlier, the research drew on multiple methods. Language-centered methodologies allowed me to gain insight about the ways in which people’s affects, desires, values, actions, and so forth are mediated and constituted through embodied, communicative interactions, as well as their material environments and historical contexts. Person-centered interviews, which involve multiple, open-ended discussions with participants over a period of months, help get a sense of people’s subjective worlds, as these unfold and change over time. A family-centered ethnography extends this lens to consider not just how individuals navigate their internal and external worlds, but how it is through their situatedness within historical and social contexts, including the kin group, that ethical lives are constructed in interactions (real or imagined) with intimates and other relatives, and in relation to a past that stretches beyond individuals’ personal lives.
Quite a bit of ink has been spilled on kinship and relatedness, and I would never claim that I have an authoritative approach to the study of families. With the advent of reproductive technologies, anthropologists have moved away from thinking of families simply in terms of ‘blood’ and ‘marriage,’ or as bastions of social solidarity and harmony. More recently, anthropologists have theorized families both as the locus of care absent in institutional settings, and as sources of conflict that, along with structural inequalities under neoliberal capitalism, may be the root of social and moral breakdown. I draw on all these perspectives to denaturalize categories like the family and recognize the ways it sometimes stretches relatedness, while other times its bounds are constricted and made exclusive. In short, what family even means and to whom remains in doubt, along with how belonging is achieved, who counts as a member, of what configuration, in what context, and on what grounds.
As an ethnographer, I was continually confronted with the problem of which set of perspectives and ethical aspirations to privilege, since often there are disagreements within the group, and even in the way a single character narrates these in different contexts. What counted as moral care in some circumstances or from some perspectives could alternately be seen as a form of discipline, violence, abandonment, or exclusion. Rather than privilege individual or unitary perspectives, I found myself attending to the plurality of voices within families, as well as to the entangled disagreements, inconsistences, contradictions, and ambivalences that people articulated (in what I discussed earlier as sideshadowing narratives). This approach allowed me to highlight members’ ethical reasoning and moral sentiments revealed in the grammar of micro- and macro-narratives, all the while refusing to reduce ethnographic insights to reductive categories of what constitutes kinship. A family-centered ethnography that closely examines social situations from the perspectives of the different stakeholders involved, without assuming their unity or conformity, I think, offers insights about care, morality, and ethics, as well as the ways that gender, class, age, political, and other hierarchies crosscut one another, patterning life in complicated and often messy and contentious ways. It reinforces, finally, the feminist insight that public ethics are to be found in the after-all-not-so-private domain of families’ always political home lives.