Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Different World

Cultural differences?” I grandly asked myself as I boarded the plane three months ago, “what a load of baloney! People are people the world over! There’s nothing different about us, that’s all just colonial-era claptrap!”

We can learn from this internal exchange that I (thankfully) speak very differently to myself than I do to others. This is lucky because I’m not sure if my grandparents’ generation even uses words like “baloney” and “claptrap.”

More revealing, however, is the level of naivete I displayed. I was a Man of the World when I boarded that plane! I’d lived in the US, New Zealand, and Canada; I’d spent a week in Fiji and three in Scandinavia! I’d even spent five days in Hong Kong. If anyone was qualified to make such grand observations, it was me.

Incorrect. Vietnam is so foreign from anything I’m used to that at times I feel like I may as well be on a different planet. Minh, a guy who, had he been in an American or Kiwi alleyway, would be, aside from the occasional bit of spare change or bag of canned goods, completely ignored, is just the beginning.

I’m not going to wax on about how Vietnamese culture is so superior to ours, either. There’s a real tendency for people (usually college girls), to go on and on about how terrible their home country is and how perfect foreign - particularly third world - countries are.. That’s always kind of annoyed me, because it seems to me that someone pregnant with their fifth kid when the first four are malnourished or dead probably wouldn’t mind a little materialism if itt came with a a life expectancy past 55.

But I digress.

Rather than being superior or inferior, it’s just astoundingly different. For one, it’s not at all uncommon for people to live with their parents, grandparents, or other extended family until an advanced age. My most loyal readers will recall my man Quy , who lives with his parents at 31.

Not that this is uncommon in New Zealand. I’m a bit of a boomerang kid myself, using my parents’ attic as a sort of halfway house between one lifestage and another, a place to sleep and eat for free while I put together the funds to do whatever I’ve decided to do that year.

It's not just common here, though. It's expected. I asked a 26-year old reporter I met once whether he’d ever think about moving out of his parents’ house, and he turned ashen, turning to me and saying “they would be so angry.”

That’s the biggest difference, though. The ex-colonial countries I’ve spent time in are fixated on the individual; it’s every man (or woman) for his (or her) self out there. Not so in Vietnam, where the collective and the family are of paramount importance. Generations live under the same roof, with grandparents, aunts, and uncles everywhere.

It’s not just families, either. It’s groups in general. I went away for a weekend with four local women once, and on the odd occasion that I was not right next to them, I would hear my name screamed three times in quick succession in an anxious plea. Once this happened on a ferry, and I rran over, thinking the boat was sinking or I had strayed into a restricted area, or something similar. Luckily this was not the case. They just couldn’t bear for me to not be part of the group.

Needless to say, this can become absolutely infuriating.

Along with the collective mindset comes a very different concept of personal space. Whenever I try to pay for something and struggle (I’m really not used to cash, and with $1US being worth over 17,000 Vietnamese Dong, my wallet is often overflowing with bills, none of them worth more than 5 or 10 cents), the clerk will helpfully reach into my wallet and pull out the money for me. To him, it’s not big deal – he can see the amount of money he needs, and why should I care if he speeds the whole process up? Just like I can’t imagine why anyone would find this acceptable, he can’t imagine why anyone should think it isn’t.

Thanks to these differences, living in Vietnam has taught me an almost zen-like ability to control my emotions and reactions. I fear, however, that once I get back to an ex-colony, this new positive aspect of my character will be completely negated by the fact that my sense of personal space is beginning to adapt to my new country's norms.

We keep to ourselves in the ex-colonies. Striking up a conversation with a stranger, asking personal questions, and touching him or her is almost invariably construed as sleazy or salesman-like; the instant we encounter it, our guard goes up. It’s precisely the opposite here. There is absolutely nothing wrong with touching someone’s arm as you ask them whether they have a girlfriend and how much money they make;
indeed, to do otherwise would be cold and standoffish.

Touching is very much an intramural gender sport, too. In the Ex-colonies, men touch each other on very special occasions. They hug their best friends and shake everyone else’s hand. That’s it. Anything more and you’re in dangerous sexual territory.

Of course, sporting events, drunkenness, and combinations thereof are a completely different story.

Vietnamese men, however, walk around with their arms around each other, jovially jump on one another, and lay all over one another. When I got a haircut not long ago, the barber asked me something in Vietnamese, and then proceeded to massage my whole body with a vibrating machine – and I do mean my whole body. He gave my calves, stomach, shoulders, and back, a good working over.. Nervously, I wondered if I had inadvertently hired someone who offers more than just haircuts, but when he moved onto my inner thighs and simply grabbed my extraneous bits and moved them aside in a businesslike fashion, I relaxed a little.

Everything is close, in your face, packed together. It can be absolutely excruciating at times, such as when my shoes broke and I had to walk a mile in barefeet, a bad situation that was made worse by the fact that literally every local I passed pointed out that I had no shoes on. But so can theWestern tendency to constantly be aloof and too cool for school, to never tell anyone anything about yourself and never talk to someone to whom you haven’t been properly introduced.

That's Vietnam. Better in some ways, worse in others, but one hundred percent, absolutely, entirely different.


  1. Vietnam is also an ex-colony. It was colonised by France.

  2. My understanding is that that family situation is very similar across the rest of Asia, not just VN.

  3. 1) This is true. What I meant - but didn't say, so thank you - was that I come from a country that was so heavily colonised that its people are now the same colour and similar culture as those who colonised it.

    2)Mine too.

  4. Much of what you described is similar in the Polynesian culture as well, so I can relate. I love that your very descriptive in your writing it really brings your world to life.

  5. It sounds to me the vietnamese as well as most of the Asian culture is very focesed on the family unit. To bad the western cultures have grown away from this. Enjoy the experience and try not to re-assemelate to quickly when you return.