The removal surgery of a brain cancer tumour in the early months of 2020 transformed my mother from a working woman to a disabled person, limited in speech and expression and in physical activity. These events also placed me in the position of a part-time carer for my mother, and placed the wider context of my life in Vietnam – which remains a strongly patriarchal society – and in Germany in perspective, and unlocked many personal and collective memories.
These events are also intimately connected with the coronavirus pandemic, and the concurrent events of the pandemic and my mother’s illness were central in the thoughts underlying the photo series. At the moment this documentary was conducted (16/06) Vietnam had 381 cases with no fatality recorded, while Germany recorded 188.382 cases with 8910 fatalities. Each country would undertake very different measures to control the virus according to their sociopolitical context, and ambiguity of how effective these measures will be exists as long as the pandemic lasts. However, these differences strongly affected my recent months because i was unable to leave Vietnam due to travel restrictions, and also had some trepidation in returning to Germany. Vietnam – with its communist government and continuing memories of wartime mobilization – took a very strong, and until recently effective, approach to the virus, while Germany – with its enduring memories of totalitarianism – took a more liberal approach; each country’s past was directly affecting my present.
My extra months in Vietnam gave me more precious time with my mother, but also to reflect on the role of women in Vietnam and the nature of normality. I began to ask myself many questions. Will my mother be able to talk with me again? Will we be ever able to experience normality again? And indeed does the normality that we seek exist? How can I communicate without verbal communication? How much do I really know her as a family member? To what extent can I work on such an intimate topic, as an observer/ photographer and at the same time, as her daughter? Following my observation of the gender role division which ensued from my mother’s illness, with women expected to act as carers while men were on the sidelines, I also hope to critically address the standpoint of contemporary feminism in my country Vietnam.
The absence and the presence of my mother in our everyday life raised questions the expectations of a woman in a patriarchal society. Who benefits from this common social belief? This series is also my attempt to reflect the family’s attempt to function under the pressure of society. Why is hiring a professional caregiver considered a taboo, while it is still widely acceptable for a woman to take on the role of caregiver, cook, cleaner and yet, if possible, maintain a career? Forced to remain in Vietnam by the pandemic, I found myself channelled into socially ordained feminine roles, with the professional artistic career I have built in Germany considered socially worthless. This has in turn made me consider, how, and how far, will feminist achievements survive the pandemic globally?