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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A life of worry : the cultural politics and phenomenology of anxiety in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

  • Author(s): Tran, Allen L.
  • Tran, Allen L.
  • et al.

Based on two years of ethnographic research on the transformation of people's emotional lives in clinical and non-clinical settings, this dissertation examines the emerging sources, forms, and subjects of anxiety in post- reform Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Since Vietnam's neoliberal reforms were initiated in 1986, many Ho Chi Minh City residents have benefited from a vastly increased standard of living yet reported worrying more now than ever before. This stands in marked contrast to a past when, according to many, extreme suffering stunted people's spirits as much as their bodies. Anxiety has become emblematic of neoliberalism's opportunities and risks in people's public and private lives, yet to worry is a key means through which individuals enact forms of personhood based on care, compassion, and filial obligation. Against claims that increased rates of anxiety and anxiety disorders are the products of modernization and the subsequent erosion of social institutions, I conceptualize worry as a cultural practice through which people can both transform themselves into neoliberal subjects and define themselves in terms of sentiment and emotional relatedness that are considered to be traditionally Vietnamese. I analyze how anxiety is articulated by cultural discourses, and vice versa, across a wide range of domains associated with the neoliberal era, including biomedical psychiatry, romance, and leisure. Recent scholarship on neoliberal modes of modernity has called attention to affective practices and relationships of sentiment as a medium linking structural transformations and subject formation. However, such studies rarely examine how the experience of these practices and relationships come to be understood as specifically emotional themselves, a process that is crucial to subject formation in Vietnam's transition to a market-oriented economy. Bringing together phenomenological and political theories of anxiety that frame it alternatively as an existential condition of humankind or the inevitable fallout of modernity's freedoms and choices, I examine the meanings and experiences of normative and pathological anxiety and the cultural forms that are marshaled to deal with potential threats--threats that may be more pressing than what has already transpired--in a society increasingly suffused with market imperatives

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