Transnational Gender Vertigo


Kimberly Kay Hoang in Contexts:

I first met Tram in 2006 in a tiny bar on Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in a neighborhood frequented by backpackers from abroad.

Tram and other sex workers in the bar, disguised as bartenders, catered to Western budget travelers seeking brief encounters or longer relationships-for-hire. They were the bar’s key attraction, but the women received no wages from the owner; they were independent entrepreneurs in a niche of the sex trade.

Tram, 27 years old and adorned with bracelet, rings, and a diamond necklace, was a model of success and economic mobility. She lived in a brand-new luxury condo with two servants, a full-time housecleaner and a cook who prepared Western foods for her new American husband. Tram had come from a poor village, she told me, where the only jobs were in the rice fields. In Ho Chi Minh City, she worked first as a maid and then in a clothing factory. But after two years of earning no more than the equivalent of US$70 a month, Tram had saved no money, could barely cover food and rent, and saw no hope for improvement. “Life in the city is so expensive,’’ she said. She saw sex work as her best route out of poverty.

Tram met William, 70, as a client, and quickly began to develop a more intimate relationship with him, hoping that her emotional labor might lead to ongoing economic support—in a remittance relationship, or marriage. Many Western men come to Vietnam seeking wives, or they become attached to women they hired once there, sympathizing with their plight, and wanting to take them out of the sex trade and care for them. Six months after they met, William asked Tram to marry him and move to North America. They were married in 2007.

In 2009, I reconnected with Tram, along with William and their three children at an airport outside of Montreal, Canada. As we drove the three hours to their home, passing lumber farms, acres of undeveloped land, and pastures sprinkled with sheep, I commented on its beauty and tranquility. But Tram expressed no such sentiments. She had never intended to escape small town Vietnam, she said, only to end up in another small town in rural Canada. She had hoped to move to the United States, and had dreamed of living in Los Angeles or New York, “a big city, like the movies.”

Instead, she found herself isolated, in a cold climate and working long hours.