Vietnam: Re-Aligning the American Perspective
When I announced that I was quitting my job at Airbnb and moving to Vietnam - I was met with a few insincere How great!'s and even more Are you sure?'s.
As these conversations progressed, I uncovered this generalized American perception of Vietnam being a place filled with savages pining to steal your goods. This was confirmed when a Nordstrom's clerk said, "Vietnam? Don't they like steal everything and eat dog there?
I was speechless. But, at least she basically said what I knew most everyone else was getting at: "WTF are you doing going to live in a backwards, communist country? You're an American."
Here is the deal...
Yes - things can get stolen in Vietnam. Especially, if you are one of the thousands of elephant-pant wearing backpackers that gets wasted most nights. Those backpacker-boozing streets are primed for local creeps. But let's be real - stuff gets stolen in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Paris, London etc, all the time - usually in similar situations.
Yes - some people in Vietnam do eat dog. I actually saw some roasting on a BBQ in Hanoi. Yes, some people wildly mistreat dogs. I have seen this. It is heartbreaking and there is a special place in hell for them.
Dear Nordstrom's Clerk,
Thinking of Vietnam as a place filled with thieves calls into question the values and moral compass of the Vietnamese people. Did you know many countries think all Americans own guns and run around trying to shoot each other?
Vietnamese people are admirably family oriented. They have strong family bonds and support each quite a bit. A few of my Vietnamese friends work very hard just to send large chunk of their small paychecks to their siblings who are away at college. This is common. Meanwhile, I won't sending my brother paychecks anytime soon - will you?
Vietnamese people are usually very welcoming to foreigners. They see me walking down the street and stare in shock, but the second I smile - they wholeheartedly smile back. I wander down random alleyways in areas being bombed by America just a few decades ago, and they welcome me into their homes for cold water and conversation. My Vietnamese friends, who I have only known for a few weeks, invite me to travel to their hometown with them to meet their family and try their mother's home cooking.
Question: When was the last time I welcomed a foreign stranger walking down a street into my home for cold water - or - invited a foreigner I just met to stay at my parent's house, just so my mom could cook them an authentic hamburger?
Short Answer: Never.
When was the last time you have, Nordstrom's Clerk?
This aspect of the noted comment bothers me because it shines light on the common American perspective that the Vietnamese are backwards. Asian culture is very different than western culture. But, lets look at ourselves, Americans: we love meat. We eat cow like crazy and mistreat them like crazy. In India, where many worship cows, we are the crazy ones. We also eat pigs like crazy and mistreat them like crazy. Pigs are incredibly smart and trainable - just like dogs. Are you a Vegan, Nordstrom's Clerk?
The Vietnamese utilize pretty much every part of the animal and find a way to eat or use the creatures that frequent their environment. American's should admire this. Clearly, way better than our average wasteful American lifestyle. There was a time when I couldn't eat chicken on the bone because I didn't want to associate it with a real animal. How hypocritical am I? Here I am eating flesh from a chicken, but I cannot even admit to myself it's a chicken.
In Vietnam, you want to eat some goat? Great. You walk yourself to the goat meat restaurant. You see the roasted goat hung up in its glass cage. You observe what parts of this roasted goat are still available to you. You point to the exact piece on that goat's body you want to eat. You eat that exact piece of the goat. That is the reality of eating meat - Vietnamese people just aren't disillusioned with what they are eating, like most Americans.
So what is America's problem with Vietnam, again?
Vietnam makes Americans uncomfortable and Americans culturally fear feeling uncomfortable. We have a rich history here, and the Vietnamese government openly discredits and dislikes us because of what we did (And tbh, it was next level messed up. People are still suffering generational defects from agent orange and a lot of farming soil is still impacted by it. Research here).
However, most Vietnamese people still do not think poorly of Americans. They can differentiate people from politics. And a lot of Vietnamese people have friends and family happily living in America.
Americans also do not understand Vietnam. And people usually feel uncomfortable with what they don't understand. We don't understand Vietnamese food. We don't understand Vietnamese social etiquette. We definitely don't understand (still) how we managed to lose the Vietnam war. Even to me, the Vietnamese way of driving is borderline psychotic. Every second, I am sure there is going to be an accident. But there isn't. They speak a different 'driving' language and it works just fine for them. So, why should I trip on it?
Vietnam is a beautiful place, with beautiful people. Set aside your history classes, assumptions that your manicurists have been talking shit about you for the last 2 years, inability to pronounce 'Pho' correctly - and get curious.
All Americans need to engage with Vietnamese people more. We need to come to terms with the tragedies that both of our governments contributed to, which people on all sides still live in the daily reality of. We need to have context for the fear, paranoia, and violence that all Vietnam war vets were subjected to and still deal with every day in the USA and in Vietnam.
We are all very similar when it comes down to it. We value community. We have national pride. We are hospitable. We appreciate a great deal! Our cultures are rooted in religious rituals. And Lord knows, we all love coffee.
We all lost people close to us decades ago. We all hated what happened. We all picked up the crumbled pieces of our lives that our governments destroyed and attempted to move on. We still love. We still live. We still hope. We still persevere.
Visit Vietnam. Don't just tour it or study it. Be here. Talk to people. Learn, share, and smile, when conversation isn't an option. Consider another way of life. Live in it. Make friends. Re-align your perspective based on personal experience.
I encourage all of us to talk to strangers, in this case - talk to Vietnamese strangers. Look them in the eyes. Listen and learn. Then you realize, there is nothing to fear.
Just, please, don't be a chump and get hammered in public.