Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Never The Twain

One thing that half a year in a country will do is to strip away some of the layers of fantasy and orientalism that are unconscious to many of us in the West. During my first encounter with this country three years ago as a tourist I vacillated between thinking I could understood the place and a feeling of profound incomprehension. Both reactions are off the mark but inevitable. Over time the experience of the exotic has been replaced by an understanding of the Vietnamese world as lived, and gradually I can begin to see how the horizons of East and West overlap and on occasion even fuse.

Of course six months is not a long time all things considered, and there are still many cultural differences that truly baffle me. These are phenomenon whose inner logic escapes me. Now that my days here are seriously numbered all can do is describe some of them and surrender for now my attempts at true understanding.

No Thank You
The constant need to say thank you is deeply ingrained in the Western brain (maybe especially in Canadian ones). There are casual thank yous and then there are heartfelt ones. I completely understand how absurd the casual thank you can appear to the Vietnamese. When we are at a restaurant we say thank you when the waiter brings the bill. But why would we do this? This is all part of the waiter's expected role, not some kind of personal mitzvah. Besides, why would you thank someone for asking for money? Ditto with the kind but wimpy way Westerners tend to deal with hawkers pestering them on the street. I've heard tourists proudly use the literal Vietnamese translation of "No, thank you". Thanks for what? Seeing me as a source of income? There is no rational reason to thank people for merely fulfilling roles.

All Action, No Talk
Then there is the heartfelt thank you. I have been on the receiving end of so many generous acts here and I truly want to express a deep sense of gratitude. "Thank you" is fine in this context, but all that's needed is a quick understated "thanks". I have trouble with this because I sometimes experience a surplus of unexpressed gratitude, but if you go too far it's seen as overly formal and even possibly insincere. On one occasion I was even told that my thanks were unnecessary, and that true thanks are expressed by doing something in return - ie. words can be cheap. The opposite could be true for the Western sensibility with this expectation cynically interpreted as some kind of debt that is due - I scratch your back, you scratch mine. So which is more "authentic", saying or doing? And this leads to my next theme.

Direct/Indirect
People here can be very direct with some things. I have been told point blank that I have bad skin, I am too hairy, I am lazy and of course I speak atrocious Vietnamese. If you are fat you will probably be told that to your face on a daily basis. And on a linguistic level the imperative is far more acceptable here than our Western way of couching requests in indirect niceties; the Vietnamese tell you what to do, while we preface requests with things like "would you mind?" or "can you please?"

Other things though are never to be expressed outright. Direct Western style expression is apparently seen as crude and confrontational as compared to the subtle approach used here. If you have a beef with someone, don't tell them - suggest it in a roundabout way to a mutual friend, ask them not to say anything, and watch as it make it's way back anyway. I have had several issues brought to my attention this way. I was once mystified by something that happened with a friend. I tried to ask directly for an explanation, but hit a stone wall. The harder I tried, the less I got. I understood much more later when things came out in a more by-the-way and less forced fashion. Sometimes though this kind of subtlety is completely lost on us foreigners. When a Western colleague began his contract he was fed apparently free lunches for several weeks before he suggested that they should really be asking staff to pay at least something. "We are so glad you finally asked," came the response, "Everyone's talking about your freeloading" ...or words to that effect.

Closed Social Networks
I am going away soon and I was contemplating a farewell house party. What could be more normal than inviting all my friends over for a big bash? In fact it would be like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You can know several "groups", but you shouldn't try mixing them. I have tried. Social networks are closed systems, at least in the gay world. The Vietnamese I know are generally lousy at introductions. You can be talking to a friend, someone else will appear but no word on their name or identity. The introductions I have attempted have fallen flat. All the groups I know hang out at the same places and know each other at least by sight, but there is little talk between groups. People go to clubs to hang out with their groups, rarely to actually meet anyone new (In fact I've almost never seen this happen in my group). I have asked friends why they don't talk to people in other groups (especially since the gay world here is so damn small), and I have consistently been told that they have nothing to say to each other and that conversations would be awkward and boring. Somehow talk is group-specific.

What baffles me even more is how groups form to begin with given these rigid social structures. One thing is certain though, people are only truly admitted to a group if they fit a certain profile and they improve the collective image. Outside the public realm though individuals associate much more freely. If you dig a bit you will find that are wider personal networks that belie the public patterns of group interaction. This tension between personal and group relations that makes for fascinating intrigue. There are people I'm friends with on a one-to-one basis, but who are actually quite distant in public spaces. I now know not to be offended by this.

I don't intend any of this to sound judgmental. These are just some of the things I don't understand. The longer I am here the more complex things become. Sometimes trying to figure it out can be like looking at a night sky in which faint stars recede when you try to stare them down, but reappear when you take in the whole panorama. Certain cultural phenomena appear odd or even absurd in isolation but are strangely intelligible within a larger context. But six months doesn't get me there (does a lifetime?) and still so much escapes me?

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4 Comments:

Anonymous David Cross said...

Dear Mark...try to imagine the depth of misunderstanding I encountered in 1968 while trying to act as an advisor to the Vietnamese. I lived in a district HQ compound in MoDuc and very much wanted to understand and help the fine people I came to know. It became immediately apparent that our goals and methods were worlds apart. I would like to revisit VN but don't believe that true understanding is a realistically achievable goal in less than a lifetime. Good luck Dave

9:16 AM

 
Blogger HanoiMark said...

Yes, I can imagine it would have been even more difficult back then. Despite all this I actually think understanding is achievable in large part without minimizing the real differences. I imagine Vietnam is much more open to the world now than it was. I have been hanging out almost exclusively in Vietnamese circles, and I feel embraced and have been made to feel a part of things. There are so many ways that the horizons of East and West actually do overlap, and our horizons fuse. This is partly because of the incredible goodwill of the Vietnamese people today. So, maybe I went too far in this post in emphasizing the cultural differences, but these should only be seen against the background of the openness and cultural exchange that is possible today.

10:09 AM

 
Anonymous john said...

Coming from a Western culture we relate being fat to being unhealthy. However, if you put yourself in the shoes of someone coming from a third world country where food is not that easy to come by, then you realise that being fat is a privelage. So, when someone *compliments* you on being fat, it's the same as when someone in a Western country says "Gee, you've slimmed down since I saw you last!".

8:51 PM

 
Blogger HanoiMark said...

Re: fat and compliments. Yes and no. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a compliment in Vietnam. It's true that it may have a slightly different meaning, but modern Vietnam is no longer a place where people are starving. It feels much more like a truly developing country than the "Third World". While fat may not be seen as unhealthy as it is in the West, in my experience it is certainly not seen as desirable.

10:29 PM

 

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