Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong, follows the life of the young narrator Hang as she grows up in communist Vietnam in the 1980s. Through vivid imagery, Huong describes the country’s landscape while also revealing the rich culture of rural Vietnam. As a character, Aunt Tam greatly influences the development of Hang as she grows up, supporting her in ways her poor mother cannot. While significant in Hang’s life, Tam’s display of Vietnamese cultural values in the novel is her primary function as a character. She highlights many crucial aspects of the nation’s culture, including the value of blood relatives, ancestors, and the importance of maintaining the ancestral home. Additionally, her close association with food throughout the novel allows her to show the significance of food in Vietnam and its enrichment as an aspect of Vietnamese culture.
Among other aspects, Aunt Tam conveys the value of blood relatives in Vietnamese culture. During the banquet she organized in Hang’s honor, Tam tells her niece that “a single drop of our own blood, even a hundred times diluted, is worth more than swamp water” (Huong 145). For this reason, Aunt Tam highly values Hang and takes care of her throughout Paradise of the Blind. Tam knows no other living relatives, and so does her best to provide a decent life and education for Hang because she views her as remnant of her lost brother Ton. Aunt Tam’s constant actions to support her niece illustrate a connection to family inherent in Vietnamese culture, especially by the way she emphasizes Hang’s relation to Ton. She places immense importance upon Hang as “a drop of his blood” because she values those related by blood (Huong 72). Tam regards these familial ties very seriously, as illustrated by her tone towards Hang’s mother on page 184. As Que thinks of a lie to cover her selling Hang’s gold rings (the ones Tam gave her), Aunt Tam’s eyes “were like an interrogator’s, razor sharp, icy, as if flooded with black bile” (Huong 184). Already angered by Hang’s near-starved condition, she shows no tolerance for Que’s disregard of her daughter. In her mind, Hang holds the highest priority, and she shows contempt toward Que for devaluing the well-being of one so closely related by blood. Following this event, Tam even begins to provide more for her niece than her own mother. This may seem to contradict the claim that Aunt Tam conveys the importance blood ties in Vietnamese culture because at the same time that Tam supports her niece, she also distances Hang from her closest blood relative: her mother. However, she provides more because she controls much vaster resources than Que to help Hang, and her refusal to offer any aid to Uncle Chinh’s family only gives Que greater obligation to focus support on her nephews –her own blood relatives. Aunt Tam continually gives money, food, and encouragement to Hang, her need to support her niece showing the importance of familial ties in Vietnamese culture.
Aunt Tam also conveys traditional Vietnamese values of revering family ancestors, and reinforces their central place in the nation’s culture. Tam’s home contains an “altar to the ancestors in the center of the room,” surrounded by “brightly polished copper vases,” “porcelain Buddhas,” and candelabras which light the whole altar (Huong 73). This shows Aunt Tam’s clear respect for her ancestors, since she doesn’t organize her home with the alter in a corner or even resting it against the middle of a wall, but directly “in the center of the room” (Huong 73). This, in addition to the extravagance in which Tam reveres her ancestors, including such expensive elements like the “brightly polished copper vases,” shows her efforts to celebrate the importance of her ancestors. Some would argue the significance of such striking additions to the family alter because of Aunt Tam’s naturally extravagant character; all she owns looks magnificent. However, the way she spatially arranges features in the room shows her emphasis on the importance of the family alter. The ornate table which Hang thought “so beautiful that I hesitated to sit down,” sits next to the wall while Tam places the alter to her ancestors in the center as the most prominent feature of the room (Huong 73). This illustrates the deeply engrained value of reverence for family ancestors in Vietnamese culture.
Like the manner in which she reveres her ancestors, Tam also places importance on the ancestral home. In her dying wishes, she tells Hang to “stay here… keep this house” (Huong 248). Aunt Tam rebuilt and renovated the house of her ancestors, once left by Bich and Nan in a state of degeneration, as one of her lifelong missions to lift the home into grandeur, a mission so important that she expresses the willingness to “tear this body of mine apart” to fulfill it (Huong 79). She puts great care in maintaining the opulence of the house, where her honored ancestors once lived and which she wishes her valued niece Hang to inherit. By her final wish to Hang, and by the efforts which Aunt Tam lent to renovate the house into opulence, she shows the importance of maintaining the ancestral home.
Another cultural aspect embedded in Paradise of the Blind is food, which Huong describes in detail throughout the novel. The Translator’s Note explains that “in predominantly rural cultures like Vietnam, food is often a powerful form of human expression,” which may “quantify one’s love, respect, or even hatred for another human being” (McPherson 9). As the story progresses, Aunt Tam becomes increasingly associated with food, beginning with Hang’s first meeting of her. In her house, in the middle of the room with the family alter, “an enormous plate heaped with five kinds of fruit formed a centerpiece. Behind [the altar] were offerings of cakes and wines” (Huong 73). In this passage, Tam illustrates the importance of food by associating it with her ancestors and showing it as an expression of reverence to them. This instance supports the description in the Translator’s Note of food used in Vietnam to quantify love and respect.
Tam uses food on several other occasions as an expression of love for her niece. At her initial meeting with Hang, she serves “a feast worthy of a Tet banquet: steamed chicken, fried chicken, pork pâté, cinnamon pâté,” and several other Vietnamese dishes (Huong 73). Throughout the novel the reader soon becomes familiar with rich descriptions of greater varieties of food provided by Aunt Tam. She brings two full hampers for Hang before Tet, throws an incredible feast, and purchases all the food for another Tet banquet for Hang later in the novel. By showing the sheer variety of food in Vietnamese society, Aunt Tam emphasizes the importance of it in the nation’s culture. However, she also utilizes food as an expression of her deep affection towards Hang by purchasing so much for her. The great array of dishes which Aunt Tam serves in the novel conveys depth in this aspect of Vietnamese culture, as well as its value in Aunt Tam’s expression as a character. By bringing so much food to Hang, Tam helps the reader build a more thorough understanding of food as an integral cultural aspect in Vietnam.
Aunt Tam conveys Vietnamese cultural values in a variety of ways. She highlights the importance of ancestors and the ancestral house, as well as showing the value of living blood relatives by her feelings of obligation to provide for Hang. In addition, Aunt Tam brings attention to food as an integral aspect of Vietnamese culture by portraying its variety and by illustrating its role as an expression. Duong Thu Huong writes Paradise of the Blind, a story of Hang’s personal development, with elements of Vietnamese culture intertwined throughout the text, using Aunt Tam’s character as the vehicle for expressing the cultural values of Vietnam.
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