Vietnam has a complicated relationship with queer (more generally LGBT, etc) expression and (counter) culture. Generally speaking, modes of gender stratification are pervasive throughout Vietnamese culture and society. More specifically, what might be called “traditional gender norms” (based on a binary notion of gender and sex) are explicitly and implicitly enforced and internalized in the very real practical lives of Vietnamese people on a day to day basis. Women are expected to perform domestic duties that translate into emotional stability for their families; men are expected to develop careers that translate into financial stability for their families.
Any form of queer expression interests me because they reveal how notions of “normal behavior” function inasmuch as how such notions breakdown. Slang best reveals the cracks and dynamism of language, which itself is that which shapes and reflects the social world in which we are always immersed. I asked four different people about certain slang that I had learned about. They are Tuoi (28, F), Thao (41, F), Minh (26, M), and Phat (49, M).
- “Banh beo” is a famous Vietnamese dish which features flat gelatinous rice cakes topped with green onions and ground roasted pork and shrimp. Historically, it is is slang word used as a pejorative against women. It typically highlights “femme” characteristics of a person, but in a negative light. More recently, “banh beo” has been reclaimed by gay Vietnamese men to describe gay “femme” men.
Question: What do you think about the word “banh beo” as slang?
Tuoi: (laughs) It is basically used to say someone is dumb or simple. The person is not really interesting. It is used as an insult to someone else. I don’t use the word.
Thao: That is a funny word. It means the person is not smart even though maybe she is pretty. I would not call another man “banh beo”.
Minh: (laughs) It is used quite a lot to describe women. I have never heard it used for a guy, but I don’t have any gay friends.
Phat: It is a generic word used for all women. Sometimes it has a negative meaning but it depends on how you use it.
2. “Choi o moi” literally means “to play at being gay”. It is used to describe two queer people who are more than “just friends”.
Tuoi: I have heard this only rarely. It is quite common for this phrase to describe same sex relationships.
Thao: I do not know what this means. “O moi” is a name of a tree.
Minh: It is sometimes used to describe gay people. Maybe it is only used by the younger generation.
Phat: I don’t know what this means.