Mary VanLeeuwen Johnstun, M.A.
Education: Bachelor of Arts in English and women's studies (May 2000)
Master of Arts in English from Kansas State University
McNair Project: Post-War-Born American and Vietnamese Women's Perceptions of Each Other (1999)
Mentor: Michele Janette, Ph.D.
American and Vietnamese women born after 1975 have grown up without experiencing the media coverage of a period of time that has grouped the two countries together--the Viet Nam war. Without this first-hand experience, the lens through which they have come to imagine the Other has been determined by the culture they live in. Likewise, the rhetoric that both cultures use to describe themselves and each other differs.
In this study, 30 college attending postwar born Americans and Vietnamese women (15 in America, 15 in Viet Nam) were asked to describe their own lives and what they perceived to be the lives of the other group. Each woman filled out a questionnaire asking personal/family history and completed a 20 question interview with the researcher and an interpreter (if needed). Findings show the differences in the rhetoric of the two groups, differences in what they choose to talk about, and how they choose to talk about it. My research focused on three main areas of rhetorical difference that the interviews revealed: how the different cultures' definitions of themselves and the other culture differed, how the two cultures approached gender differently, and how culture difference led to differing definitions of words both groups of woman used.
The majority of American women tended to focus more on individual female experience, discussing in depth their personal experience, the gendered roles placed on them and Vietnamese woman, and their concerns with issues that affect woman specifically. The Vietnamese woman tended to focus more on collective experience when talking about their lives and the lives of American woman. They tended to talk about themselves and American women in general terms such as "Vietnamese people" and "Americans," referring to them as members of a larger society rather than as individuals or as women. The issues they were concerned about were also issues that all of society faces, and not women specifically.
The two groups experienced gender consciousness differently as well, American women speaking of gender often discussing how gender affected them in the areas of education , family, relationships, employment, politics, sports, social settings and through the larger society. Additionally, they discussed these gendered issues with active language- emphasizing their distaste for sexism (as they define it), their desire to change the situation, and with explanations of how they take action. In the Vietnamese interviews, three trends were evident: either the woman didn't speak much of their lives as women, often claimed equality (as they define it) of the sexes, or acknowledged inequality and discussed it in terms of acceptance.
The interviews also showed how the women were influenced by the rhetoric of their culture in their creation of definitions, which they applied to themselves and the other group. While American women disapproved of stereotypes of the woman as emotional and weak, Vietnamese woman embraced them as inherent qualities to all women. Likewise, several Vietnamese also defined female equality and power as being demonstrated through male chivalry.
The study does not address the truth or falsity of the women's perceptions of each other, but rather compares the words which the female participants of America and Viet Nam use to discuss the same question posed, trying to figure out how they create definitions of each other and themselves.
These findings create room for further study in many areas. Additional study needs to be completed on how cultural stereotypes are created, how the rhetoric used in these interviews fits with rhetoric used by Vietnamese and American writers, and how literary authors create characters of a culture group they have never experienced.