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

Friday, March 10, 2006

Both Sides Now

A few days before my departure I was invited to a house party hosted by two Americans. The party was split down the middle, expat and Vietnamese, so it seemed an appropriate anticipation of my transition back to the West.

I've written a lot about the way Vietnamese socialize in groups. The differences with Western modes of socializing were in stark contrast at this party. Predictably all the expats gravitated towards the kitchen. The Vietnamese meanwhile camped out in the living room. But the way they were relating was the most interesting thing.

I didn't know any of the expats, but all I had to do was stand around a few minutes in the kitchen before a few people introduced themselves. Although these introductions were generally stiff and awkward ("Hi, my name is Barbara. How long have you been in Hanoi?"), I was still struck by the peculiarity of this sort of cocktail conversation in which strangers introduce themselves and search for intersecting interests. There should be nothing unusual about this except that I could see it fresh after being away from it all for so long. Here was a room full of mostly unrelated individuals chatting in small clusters, mixing and regrouping throughout the evening. All the sudden I could see the fluidity of the Western kind of socializing. There was a kind of randomness and serendipity, like atoms bouncing off each other.

In the living room there was no mixing and mingling whatsoever. Instead the Vietnamese group all knew each other and hung together like a big family. They were essentially draped over each other on the couch and the floor. If you didn't know them already there would be little way to break in. But in contrast to the random fluidity in the kitchen was warmth and casual intimacy. Once I'd had my fill of finger food I opted for the living room where I curled up the couch with the rest of them.

Now I am back in Toronto and this contrast is even starker. In Hanoi I would sometimes complain about the cliquey-ness (sp?) and the fact that people wouldn't talk to others outside their group. Now I can see the good and the bad of each pattern. We Westerners may be better at introductions, and mixing and mingling, our social networks may be more open and less defined, but intimacy between friends doesn't seem to come as easy for us.

I don't know if the patterns I saw were specific to the gay community, or reflective of wider society. I also don't know if they are specific to Vietnam or other Asian culture, but when I shared my observations with a Singaporian friend here, he recognized it all immediately. When he moved to Canada two years ago, he felt isolated. Sure you can meet people, but social plans have to be arranged a week in advance. You do not have to break your way into a clique and to this extent it might seem less complicated, but people only have so much time for you because they are busy balancing their other social commitments.

Despite the closed nature of the groups I experienced in Hanoi, they afforded a family-like intimacy. No need to make plans days in advance because it was taken for granted that the group would hang out. One phone call and half an hour later the group might be meeting for coffee or bia hoi.

I may have a large social network here, but my mobile phone rings only occasionally. I miss that intense interconnectedness, and the way I was always receiving new text messages. I miss the spontaneity and the feeling of being embraced by a close-knit family of friends.

Travel may be a outward exploration but it is also about the discovery of self. It's about the return as well as the voyage. There are moments when you suddenly discover the peculiarity of who you are and where you come from, and this party off Nguyen Thai Hoc was one of those moments.

In the end I succeeded in breaking down some of the barriers between two groups in Hanoi. (I will have to save that for another post.) Now the challenge is to bring more of that warmth and spontaneity into my Canadian social world.

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Blogger Preya said...

Hi Mark--I also miss that closeness. I've never thought of it terms of cultural difference, but I suppose that makes a lot of sense. I think a lot about the ways life is less compartmentalized (at least it seemed so for me) in Vietnam/India. I think I might piggyback on what you have here and write my own post. Thanks for sharing!

2:40 AM


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